China’s air force turns 70 with tales of its dare-to-die Korean war pilots

Minnie Chan

As China’s air force prepares to celebrate its 70th anniversary on Monday, an article by an official military newspaper appears to confirm the existence of kamikaze-like Chinese pilots during the Korean war (1950-53).

Despite Beijing’s reluctance to declassify documents relating to its involvement in the conflict – estimates on the number of Chinese soldiers killed in it range from 149,000 to 400,000 – a report by PLA Daily published on Saturday leaves little doubt as to what was expected of the fliers of the nation’s nascent air force.

The article quotes several sections taken from the memoirs of Li Han, a Chinese pilot with the People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) who was just 27 at the start of the war.

The PVA was the name given to the Chinese expatriate troops who “volunteered” to fight alongside the North Koreans, so as to distinguish them from the PLA and prevent China from fighting an official war with the United States, which supported South Korea.

While he was aware of the greater experience of the enemy pilots – most were veterans of the second world war and had been described by China’s then leader Mao Zedong as being “armed to the teeth” – Li said he and his fellow fliers from the PLA Air Force, which had been established just a year earlier, had no shortage of courage or a sense of duty.

“We had a strong spirit even though our fighting experience was weak,” he said.

“We tried to engage them in combat but we knew that if we couldn’t keep fighting, then we should just crash into them.”

The publication of Li’s statement provides the first official recognition by Beijing of the existence of a so-called Dare to Die flying corps.

Most of China’s pilots flew old-style MiG-15 fighters in the Korean war. Photo: AP

Though not mentioned in the newspaper article, according to the memoirs of General Wang Hai – a former air force commander who also led a PVA squadron during the Korean war – when the conflict broke out, the average Chinese pilot had fewer than 57 flying hours under his belt.

A retired communications operator with the PVA air force, who lives in the south China city of Guangzhou but asked not to be named, said in an interview that some of the Chinese pilots were given only a few hours of training before being sent into battle.

“Almost all of the Chinese pilots in the Korean war were ‘dare to die’,” he said. “And their spirits were so strong they were ready to die”.

Hua Longyi was decorated for shooting down at least six enemy aircraft. Photo: Handout

Li, however, did not die and during the war managed to shoot down two enemy fighter jets and damage a third. A fellow pilot, Hua Longyi, shot down at least six enemy aircraft, the PLA Daily report said.

While the two men were later decorated for their bravery, their do-or-die attitude is not something that is encouraged these days, according to a serving PLA Air Force officer who also asked not to be named.

“Spirit is important, but life is priceless,” he said. “Times have changed, and the idea of self-sacrifice is for propaganda, not to be put into practice.”

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However, it seems that some modern-day Chinese pilots still hold on to the idea of not losing a plane in vain.

In 2016, PLA pilot Cao Xianjian was seriously injured while trying to land his J-15 fighter jet after its flight control system failed.

“When your aircraft has a technical problem, the first response is to figure out how to fly it back safely,” he told state broadcaster China Central Television in an interview in 2017, after almost a year recovering from his injuries.

“I didn’t want to abandon the plane,” he said. “Pilots shouldn’t give up their aircraft.”

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