Fatal crash highlights Chinese air force’s flaws, with drill and equipment problems implicated in deaths of three, including pilot who flew in National Day military parade

Engine flaws and a lack of training have been identified as the likely causes of two accidents that hit the Chinese air force in the space of little over a week – one of which claimed the lives of three airmen.

Deaths from the crashes, which happened within a span of 10 days, included a helicopter pilot who took part in the National Day grand parade at the start of the month.

A number of military sources said that as the air force stepped up its exercises – part of President Xi Jinping’s call to strengthen the “combat readiness” of the military – more accidents would happen as increased drills exposed technical problems and inadequate training.

“[If these problems are not resolved], it is foreseeable that more accidents will happen because the top brass is pushing for more drills and exercises across the military,” said one source close to the air force.

The fatal accident happened about three weeks ago in central Henan province, when a transport helicopter crashed, killing all three people on board.

Gong Dachuan, 33, was one of the airmen killed in the crash. Photo: Handout
Gong Dachuan, 33, was one of the airmen killed in the crash. Photo: Handout

Local television reports named pilot Gong Dachuan, 33, and 37-year-old engineer Wen Weibin, as two of this killed in the crash. The third victim was later named as Luo Wei, from Luzhou in Sichuan, by an online mourning website.

A memorial for Gong was held by the local government in Xinye County last Tuesday.

“The three people were conducting some tests on the helicopter,” said a local source who declined to disclose where the crash happened and the nature of the test.

Xinye county government in Henan province held a memorial to honour the dead pilot. Photo: Handout
Xinye county government in Henan province held a memorial to honour the dead pilot. Photo: Handout

Media reports said that Gong had flown in this year’s National Day parade in Beijing, while Wen had been decorated for his participation in the 2015 parade in Beijing to mark the 70th anniversary of victory over Japan in World War II.

The three dead airmen have been designated as martyrs, the reports added.

The second accident happened eight days later on the Tibetan Plateau where a J-10 fighter jet on a low-altitude flying drill crashed into the mountain.

“Fortunately, the pilot ejected safely in time, but the J-10 crashed into the mountain,” said an informed source, who requested anonymity since no official announcement about the accident has been made.

“Preliminary investigations indicated that the accident had something to with the Russian-made AL-31 engine on board the J-10,” the source said.

Military analysts said the air force needs to improve the durability of its aircraft and training for pilots.

Hong Kong-based military expert Song Zhongping suggested that problems with engines and flight control systems were also key reasons behind some of the fatal crashes.

Wen Weibin, 37, also died in the crash. Photo: Handout
Wen Weibin, 37, also died in the crash. Photo: Handout

Two J-15 fighter jets crashed in April 2016, resulting in one death and one serious injury. Investigations into the two crashes pointed to problems with the flight control system.

A source from the Chinese air force said that, unlike their American counterparts, PLA pilots generally lack training in avionics engineering and had little flying experience before enlistment.

“PLA pilots may be strong and courageous, and they are motivated to make sacrifices,” the air force source said. “But they don’t have as much experience as American pilots – many of [whom] have a lot of experience in flying civilian aircraft before they join the air force.”

Additional reporting by William Zheng

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