J-15 Pilot Makes Emergency Landing On China’s Shandong Aircraft Carrier; Rewarded ‘First-Class Merit’ In 2022

On March 3, China state-affiliated media outlet, CCTV, said that a J-15 pilot was granted first-class merit in 2022 for successfully landing his fighter plane on the Shandong aircraft carrier despite experiencing technical difficulties.

In 2020, Fighter pilot Zheng Ziqian was conducting a routine operation when the aircraft’s screen abruptly flashed an abnormal instrument failure as he was about to touch down on the Shandong aircraft carrier, a Sohu report explained.  

Shandong aircraft carrier that was launched on 26 April 2017 for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy). It is the country’s first domestically built aircraft carrier and the second in the PLA Navy’s service after the Liaoning.

To execute the landing successfully, the pilot must maneuver the fighter jet using his senses and coordinate with the landing signal officer or landing safety officer (LSO).

At the time, the ship’s crew was highly concerned and had already planned for the worst-case scenario. Eventually, Zheng Ziqian successfully touched down the fighter on the aircraft carrier using his own flight experience while operating under the direction of the safety commander of the aircraft carrier. 

The Chinese media lauded the fighter pilot for his ability to make prompt decisions in critical circumstances. The report noted that Ziqian’s parents were also honored by the local authorities in their hometown.

After being accepted into the Air Force Aviation University in 2009, Zheng Ziqian—a naval carrier-based aircraft pilot in the Southern Theater—became a first-class pilot. After that, he was certified to operate the aircraft during the day and at night. 

In 2016, Ziqian transitioned from flying land-based fighter aircraft, where he had started his career, to carrier-based fighter aircraft.

Since 2016, the pilot has noticed the Chinese navy’s expanding presence in the South China Sea region. He has also had the opportunity to personally witness key developments in aircraft carrier combat effectiveness.

China’s Expanding Aircraft-Carrier Operations 

Although China’s fleet of aircraft carriers has grown in the last few years, it still needs pilots to conduct carrier-based operations. 

The buildup of China’s aircraft carrier fleet, which has increased from just one outdated ex-Soviet carrier a decade ago to three carriers—two of which were constructed in Chinese shipyards—has recently drawn attention from around the world. 

Several experts predict that China may eventually construct five or more carriers, threatening the US Navy, particularly in the South China Sea and other nearby regions.

Creating a successful carrier fleet, though, requires more than just ships. The US Navy has a vast pool of pilots and an effective training program, overshadowing all other countries in naval aviation.

The US Navy still has roughly 7,000 pilots, although the US Air Force and Navy are experiencing a pilot shortage. 

A Chinese J-15 is moved on the flight deck of a People’s Liberation Army Navy aircraft carrier. (Chinese Defense Ministry)

China is beginning with a blank slate, so it must build the training network to keep a regular stream of new pilots and bulking up to an adequate number of carrier-qualified pilots.

One approach is to appeal to China’s female population, even though China has one of the lowest numbers of female pilots worldwide.

It was recently reported that the People’s Liberation Army Navy, also known as the PLAN, is now hiring women and recent college graduates to work as pilots in its new carrier aviation division.

Besides that, the Chinese navy also requires an advanced carrier-based fighter jet. Since the 1920s, the US Navy has created carrier-based aircraft, including cutting-edge jets like the F-14, F/A-18, and the current F-35.

While China has a sizable and developed aviation sector, its navy lacks the breadth of knowledge and skill that other, more developed navies possess. For instance, the Chinese military replicated a Soviet carrier jet without a license.

Shenyang J-15 Flying Shark (via Twitter)

China frequently deploys its aircraft carrier in the South China Sea region. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy’s Shandong aircraft carrier group recently conducted a series of combat exercises in the South China Sea.

According to the PLA Navy, the Shandong aircraft carrier group, comprised of various vessels and dozens of jets, engaged in actual combat-oriented aggressive training in the South China Sea.

During the exercises, J-15 fighter jets took off from Shandong and practiced interception maneuvers to mimic attacks by hostile aircraft.

Nonetheless, the frequent actions taken by the Chinese navy demonstrate its aspirations to transition from a regional power to one of the world’s top naval powers in the coming years.