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PLA's aerial acrobats specialize in feats of high-flying derring-do

By Meng Zhe | China Daily | Updated: 2019-05-04 07:17
The Bayi Aerobatics Team of the PLA Air Force performs at the 12th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai, Guangdong province, in November.DENG HUA/XINHUA

"Request takeoff."

"Approved."

And with that radio exchange, three J-10 fighter jets accelerated down the runway and left the ground.

This was my first chance to see the Chinese Bayi Aerobatics Team of the People's Liberation Army Air Force, and as first impressions go, the huge sound wave produced by the new domestically developed J-10s is something to remember.

It is hard not to be impressed by the team overall, but I was interested in getting to know individual members, beyond just the badge, and to hear their stories and dreams.

The first person I got to know was Jing Fei, chief of the No 1 Brigade. "You speak very good English," I told him. It's noticeable how they use aviation English in daily training, which isn't common in the Chinese Air Force.

"I have read professional aviation English for many years," he laughed. "Now the Bayi aerobatics team's daily training is bilingual, but aviation English remains important to us because of our many international performances since 2013."

Can we do this interview in English, then? I joked with him.

But one detail I noticed in the pilots' dormitory was interesting and shows how they practice aviation English. On the right side of the door is a small white board where, every day, the pilots write an aviation English sentence, so that as they go in and out they are reminded.

China's Bayi Aerobatics Team is now a well-regarded part of the international aerobatics industry. In 2013, the pilots and aircraft made their first appearance in Russia at the Moscow Air Show, and two years later they participated in the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition in Malaysia.

In 2017, they performed at the Dubai Air Show, before another appearance in Russia a year later. Their most recent international engagement was in Islamabad for Pakistan's National Day parade.

Everyone on the team was excited to share memories of performances abroad and to talk about the maneuvers they performed, but to be honest I was not the greatest audience for highly technical descriptions. What did strike me, however, was when Jing Fei showed me a social media post made during their visit to Dubai. A local Chinese resident posted a picture showing the Chinese national flag in the foreground and planes flying overhead in the background. He said the performance paid off, and the team's breathtaking performance really boosted Chinese peoples' patriotism.

Actually, I do have one question: Why do we need an aerobatics team in the Chinese Air Force at all? The answer was revealed on my second night at the base. At eight o'clock, pilots were preparing for a night flight. Aerobatics performances never take place at night, but they were practicing to maintain their skill as a combat force.

When preparing for their daytime performances, the pilots are easygoing and lighthearted, but for the night flights, the atmosphere had changed a lot. Everybody knows how serious combat flight is. Their job is to oppose enemies and safeguard our skies.

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