The People’s Liberation Army Air Force

The earliest history of Chinese aviation actually began in the United States.

Fuselage of Chinese Shenyang J8-II fighter on display at the Combat Air Museum in Kansas

When Feng Ru arrived in the United States he was, like most Chinese immigrants, penniless but filled with dreams. The United States had just passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which restricted the number of people who would be allowed into the country, and Feng was lucky to do odd jobs for the Chinese Mission in San Francisco.

It turned out that Feng had a natural affinity for mechanics, and, self-taught, he was soon busy fixing various gadgets for local businessmen. He became known as “Fung Joe Guey”. Realizing that America’s strength as a nation lay in its mighty industrial economy, Feng decided that he would try to bring that knowledge back to his native China, and left California to tour the industrial cities of the East, where he learned as much as he could about machinery and mechanization.

During his travels, he heard about the Wright Brothers and their flight at Kitty Hawk, and “aviation” became an obsession. An eager reader, he now snapped up as many books as he could find about the Wrights, Glenn Curtiss, and French designer Henri Farman, and translated them into Chinese.

By 1906, he had learned enough to go back to San Francisco and establish an aircraft company of his own. Unfortunately San Francisco was ravaged by an earthquake shortly after Feng arrived, and he relocated to Oakland instead. In 1907, in a tiny wooden workshop, he established the Guangdong Air Vehicle Company. Here, he built his own airframes and designed his own engines, having the metal parts cast at an iron foundry. While test-flying his first aeroplane, Feng lost control and cashed into his own workshop, burning it to the ground. He then relocated to a hayfield not far away.

His first successful flight came in September 1909, when, in front of a crowd of witnesses, he circled the field for 20 minutes in his biplane, staying about ten feet off the ground. The flight ended when one of the bolts holding on the propeller broke, necessitating a quick landing.

But the feat was reported by the newspapers, and the news, along with stories of subsequent fights, traveled all the way to China, where it was read by President Sun Yat-sen, who had led the revolution that had overthrown the Imperial Qing Dynasty and established the Republic of China. Sun invited Feng to come back to China and help the young nation with its economic development, and Feng returned to his homeland in 1911, bringing another airplane with him. He was given the rank of Major in the Nationalist army, later a Major General.

Unfortunately, Feng was killed in a crash in August 1912, during an air show at the Tantang Airfield in Guangzhou, when his engine apparently stalled at an altitude of 120 feet. He was buried as a national hero, with President Sun himself insisting that the gravestone be inscribed “Pioneer of Chinese Aviation”.

In the time after Feng’s death, the Chinese Republic collapsed into chaos, as China fell under General Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang Party, who ruled ruthlessly and harshly. In 1937 Japan, taking advantage of the situation, invaded and seized large portions of China, turning it into the puppet state of Manchukuo.

Chiang now found himself facing an opponent who outmatched him, and it was only China’s vast distances and immense manpower resources which prevented the Japanese from overrunning the whole country. In addition, the Nationalist China Government also found itself facing a growing Communist Party insurgency led by Mao Zedong.

By this time, US President Franklin Roosevelt knew that the United States would sooner or later be fighting the Japanese, and since China was tying up over a million Japanese soldiers, it was vital to keep her in the war. So the Americans began shipping supplies and ammunition to China under the Lend-Lease program. The Russians were also shipping weapons to Chiang, particularly fighter planes and bombers. For most of the war, the Nationalist Chinese were flying Soviet-built Polikarpov I-15 and I-16 fighters and American P-40 Warhawks. Some of these P-40s were flown by the American Volunteer Group, better known as the Flying Tigers.

There were some attempts to produce Chinese-designed airplanes. In the early 1930s, as the threat from Japan loomed, the Chinese Naval Air Establishment had produced prototypes for two seaplanes to be used for reconnaissance, the two-seat Chiang Hung and Chiang Hau. Neither were successful.

In 1941, the Chinese Air Force Aircraft Manufacturing Factory made plans for two of its own fighter planes. The first, known as XP-0, was a modified version of the American Curtiss Hawk 75, an all-metal mono-wing fighter. The Chinese changed this into a steel tube frame covered with specially-laminated plywood, fitted with a 1200 horsepower Pratt and Whitney Twin Wasp Engine. It was reportedly to be armed with .50-caliber machine guns, perhaps with additional 20mm cannons to bring down Japanese bombers. But technical issues delayed the XP-0 until 1943, by which time its design was hopelessly outdated. After the prototype crashed during a landing, the Chinese made seven more test aircraft, but never put any of them into production.

The Chinese Air Force’s other serious project was the XP-1, introduced in 1944. This design, produced for the Chinese by Russian-American émigré Constantine Zakhartchenko, was loosely based on the American F4U Corsair. Like the American fighter, the XP-1 had bent inverted-gull wings, which allowed for a larger propeller and more powerful engine, but the wings were also swept forward to theoretically give better maneuverability and a speed of over 350mph. It was intended to use the Wright Cyclone engine, but since none were available for testing they fitted the prototype with an engine salvaged from a crashed C-47 cargo plane. During the XP-1’s first test flight in January 1945 the aircraft proved to be unstable, and during the aborted landing approach the engine failed and the plane crashed. The project was then abandoned.

Finally, in 1944, Lin Tonghua of the Haikong Aircraft Plant developed a two-engine transport plane called the Zhongyun. Plans to convert it into a bomber in 1945 were stymied by lack of funding.

With the defeat of the Japanese and the end of World War Two, the Chinese Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists under Mao Zedong turned their attention to each other. This civil war would last for a further four years before the Communists were able to drive the Nationalists off the mainland and force them to take refuge on the island of Formosa (later renamed Taiwan).

The People’s Liberation Army Air Force can trace its beginnings back to 1921, when 18 Chinese pilots—nine from the Nationalists and nine from the Communists—were sent to Moscow for two years of combat training. Two of the students—Wang Bi and Chang Qiankun—remained in the USSR until1938, when they returned to China to train new pilots. At this time, Russia was providing I-15 biplane and I-16 mono-wing fighters to China’s Nationalist Government as an aid to fighting against Japan. The Chinese Communists, despite having no air forces to speak of, established a training center anyway, opening a flight school under Wang and Chang. They eventually flew a motley collection of around 100 captured Nationalist aircraft which included American-made P-51 Mustangs and British De Havilland Mosquitoes.

In 1949, with the Communist victory and the declaration of the People’s Republic of China, Beijing became a Soviet Cold War ally. Meanwhile, the Nationalist forces on Taiwan under Chiang Kai-shek continued to attack the Chinese mainland with air strikes, and Mao asked for 435 aircraft from Moscow to serve as an air defense, mostly piston-engined WW2-era Yakovlev Yak-9 fighters and Ilyushin Il-10 bombers. This made up the early core of the Chinese air force.

In February 1950, the Soviet Union’s 50th Fighter Aviation Division was sent to China to begin training PLAAF pilots on the MiG-15, the USSR’s frontline jet fighter. When the Korean War broke out later that year, the USSR saw it as an opportunity to test their newest equipment (and their pilots) under combat conditions. Soviet pilots had already been flying combat patrols against Nationalist air raids, and now the Russians began sending selected pilots (mostly those with extensive World War Two experience) to secretly fly the MiG in combat missions over Korea. Moscow, not wanting to risk an open nuclear conflict with the Americans, went to great lengths to conceal this—the Soviet pilots wore unmarked uniforms, flew aircraft with Chinese or North Korean markings, were forbidden to speak Russian over the radio, and were banned from flying over UN-occupied territory.

The MiG-15 proved to be an excellent fighter, and it quickly established dominance over all of the older piston-engined airplanes and the early-model F-80 and F-84 American jet fighters. It wasn’t until the F-86 Sabre arrived on the scene that the MiG-15 met its match and the US-led UN forces established air superiority. Had the war not ended in 1953, it is likely that the Russians would have introduced the newest MiG-17 into the fray, and likely have regained air superiority.

The USSR sent almost a thousand aviation engineers and contractors to China in a bid to help its ally establish an indigenous air industry. The factory at Shenyang, begun in October 1951, manufactured spare parts for the Russian-built MiG-15s, giving them the name “J-2”. Shenyang never produced any of its own single-seat combat fighters during the war, but did manufacture the MiG-15U, the two-seat trainer version, dubbed “JJ-2”. It allowed the Chinese to train its own core of aircraft designers and workers, and gave them practical experience. By the end of the war, the PLAAF had about 3,000 active aircraft.

After the Korean War ended, the Chinese were granted a license by the USSR to manufacture their own copies of the MiG-15 fighter, designated as Shenyang J-2. For the next several years, the Chinese began licensing production rights every time a new Soviet MiG fighter appeared, as well as for copies of the Russian Ilyushin-28 and Tupolev-16 bombers.

By the 1960s, however, the People’s Republic of China was entering turbulent times. Internally, the failures of the Great Leap Forward had cracked the Chinese economy, and the country soon fell into the chaotic muddle of the Cultural Revolution. Externally, political and ideological differences with the USSR, combined with a contest for control of the international “socialist fraternity”, led to the Sino-Soviet split and the end of Russian-Chinese military cooperation. China found itself on its own.

The first indigenous Chinese fighter design, the Shenyang J-8, was first laid out in the early 1960s and the prototype flew in 1969, but the disruptions inside China delayed its deployment until 1980. In an effort to recover from these delays, the Air Force reorganized itself to become slimmer and less bureaucratic, while investing heavily in new aircraft designs and in pilot training. This was greatly aided by the West, who now viewed China as a counterweight and potential ally in the Cold War conflict with the USSR, and who provided Beijing with economic and technical support.

By 1990, the Soviet Union had collapsed, while China was one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. With China’s superpower economic status came the need for military might to protect it. The PLA’s military forces, until now focused entirely on defense of the national borders, began to project outwards as Beijing sought the capacity to defend its economic and geo-political interests in Asia and Africa. The result was a ballooning military budget and a rapid expansion of military capability, including the development of an extensive air-to-air refueling ability and stealth bomber technology, the beginnings of military deployments outside of China’s borders, the growth of the Chinese Navy into a powerful regional force with, perhaps, global intentions, and increasingly insistent territorial claims, including against Taiwan.

China is now a world power, and is beginning to act like one.


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