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China’s navy is looking to junior high schools as it scrambles to find pilots for its growing aircraft carrier fleet

Chinese aircraft carrierChinese J-15 fighter jets on the Liaoning aircraft carrier during a drill in the South China Sea in January 2017.


  • The Chinese Navy’s youth aviation schools have recruited about 4,500 boys aged 15 to 16 this month.
  • Those who qualify will join the fighter jet cadet program, with the top students enrolling in a Beijing university.
  • China’s navy needs pilots for its fleet of aircraft carriers, which grew to three ships in June.

China’s navy is recruiting junior high school graduates as candidates for its fighter jet cadet programme as it tries to find more aircraft carrier pilots for its expanding fleet, according to state media.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy has recruited about 4,500 junior high school graduates from Shandong and Henan provinces and the city of Chongqing this month, official news agency Xinhua reported on Saturday.

The students — boys aged 15 to 16 — will attend the PLA Navy’s youth aviation schools which were set up in 2015 in cooperation with some of the best high schools in the country. The navy draws on talent from the 14 schools for its aircraft carrier cadet pilot programme.

They will undergo three years of training in the aviation schools and those who qualify will go on to the PLA Naval Aviation University for pilot training. The top students will undertake double degrees within the aviation programmes at one of three prestigious Beijing universities — Peking, Tsinghua and Beihang, according to Xinhua.

China Liaoning aircraft carrier J-15 fighter jetJ-15 fighter jets on the Liaoning aircraft carrier during a drill in the East China Sea in April 2018.

AFP via Getty Images

It is unclear if this is the first year that students so young will attend the aviation schools. An earlier report from state broadcaster CCTV said the navy had been selecting high school graduates aged between 16 and 19 for the schools since 2020. The average age of the newest crop of cadet pilots is 20, much younger than in previous years.

Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said the approach aimed to find promising students with strong academic and physical abilities as the navy tries to meet the demands of its aircraft carrier projects.

“[This will] not only help the navy select potential cadet pilots for specific training as early as possible, but also reinforce young students’ aviation knowledge and related academic studies,” he said, referring to the double degrees.

“It also suggests that the PLA now demands better academic qualifications of its shipborne fighter jet pilots — like their Western peers, the US pilots who at the least have aviation-related degrees.”

China’s fleet of aircraft carriers is growing, and it needs pilots. The third of the warships, the Fujian, was launched last June, with state media reporting that it will start sea trials this year.

The PLA Navy has started training its own pilots, rather than recruiting them from the air force, at the Naval Aviation University in Yantai, Shandong, which opened in 2017.

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