PLA Air Force Male Aviation Cadet Recruitment, Education and Training

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 5

Qinghua Students Being Tested for Their Aptitude as Pilots

China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is still searching for the best way to recruit, educate and train its male aviation cadets (feixing xueyuan). After graduation, they serve as aviators (feixing renyuan), which includes fighter, attack, helicopter, bomber and transport pilots (feixingyuan), as well as bomber and transport navigation officers (Air Force Dictionary, 1996, p. 168–168; PLAAF Officer Handbook, 2006, p. 338). Historically, the PLAAF recruited high school graduates and enlisted members, but it has gradually increased the recruitment of college students and graduates. For education reasons, recruiting targets Han Chinese from specific provinces and municipalities. The PLAAF also separates male and female aviators during training and, with only a few exceptions, at their operational units. In addition, the PLAAF retains some of the best graduates as instructors for their entire career.


During late 2011, the PLAAF reportedly consolidated its seven flight colleges and at least six of its seven post-graduation transition training bases into three corps deputy leader-grade training units (Harbin, Xi’an and Shijiazhuang) in an effort to help streamline its pilot and navigator basic flight training curriculum (Wen Wei Po, January 21; December 31, 2011). It is not yet clear exactly how this consolidation will be carried out or if it will be successful.


This article, which complements “Chinese Air Force Officer Recruitment, Education and Training” (China Brief, November 30, 2011), is organized into the following five sections.


1.     Cadet recruitment

2.     Cadet education and training

3.     Flight training curriculum

4.     Post-graduation

5.     Conclusions


Cadet Recruitment


The PLAAF Headquarters Department’s Aviator Recruiting Bureau (Kongjun Zhaofei Ju), which has a regional selection center and multiple selection sites subordinate to each of the seven Military Region Air Forces (MRAFs), is responsible for all aviation cadet recruiting activities (Xinhua, June 4, 2006). The bureau also has its own website ( The PLAAF Headquarters Department’s Training Department manages the overall program. Each MRAF Headquarters manages the flight colleges and transition training base in its area of responsibility [1].


Traditionally, the PLAAF recruited most of its cadets from the pool of graduating high school students and enlisted members (China Air Force Encyclopedia) [2]. For example, from 1987 to 2007, the PLAAF selected a total of 25,000 high school graduates and only 800 college graduates as aviation cadets (China Air Force, 2007-5). In terms of academic degrees, the PLAAF did not begin granting bachelor’s degrees to non-aviation cadets until 1982 and to aviation cadets in 1987 [3].


Historically, the PLAAF has selectively recruited aviation cadets from specific provinces and municipalities. For example, in 1989, cadets were chosen from only 14 provinces and municipalities (China Air Force, 1989-3). In 2006, the recruiting notice was issued to 29 of China’s 32 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities, but cadets were chosen from only 16 (China Air Force, 2006-5). In recent years, the PLAAF has expanded its recruiting of non-Han Chinese by including a small number of cadets from minorities in Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Yunnan and Qinghai, but it still does not recruit from Tibet and Hainan (China Air Force, 2006-5; PLAAF Officer Handbook). Minority cadets, who probably receive even greater scrutiny for political reliability, are most likely relegated to flying small transports and helicopters in remote areas.


In the early 2000s, the PLAAF progressively introduced new programs to recruit graduates from PLA colleges and students and graduates from civilian colleges with a science and engineering background. The programs are shown below (People’s Liberation Army Air Force 2010):


·        2000 (4+2+1 program): PLA college graduates with a 3-year senior technical or 4-year bachelor’s degree in missiles or telecommunications receive a second (2-year) Bachelor’s in Military Science plus 1 year of transition training.

·        2003 (4+2+1 program): Civilian college graduates with a 3-year senior technical or 4-year bachelor’s degree in science or engineering.

·        2006 (2+2+1 program): Civilian college students in their second or third year with a major in science or engineering receive 2 years of basic aviation theory along with basic and advanced flight training, after which they receive a Bachelor’s in Military Science followed by 1 year of transition training.

·        2011: New enlisted members who already have a college degree began basic flight training in a CJ-6 (China Air Force, 2011-4). No further information is available about this program.


In 2011, the PLAAF’s Political Department launched a new aviation cadet program in the PLAAF’s Defense Student (Guofangsheng) Program at Tsinghua University, whereby 32 students will receive three years of education at Tsinghua followed by one year of education at the Air Force Aviation University in Changchun (China Air Force, 2011-10). No information is available about their flight training schedule.


In early 2010, the PLAAF dispatched about 400 recruiters to 170 locations in 30 of the provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities. In the end, the new class consisted of 1,100 cadets, including 836 high school graduates, 200 college students/graduates and 64 enlisted members already enrolled in PLAAF officer colleges (Xianfeng Jiaoyu Wang, August 30, 2010; China Air Force, April 2010).


Each province apparently has a quota for high school graduates but not for college students and graduates. For example, Henan Province has a quota of 55 high school graduates for the 2012 class but no quota for college students and graduates (Phoenix Online, September 29, 2011).


To meet its goals of recruiting better educated members as aviation cadets, the PLAAF has had to adjust the maximum age for recruits. The maximum age for being accepted as an aviation cadet is 20 for high school graduates, 22 for second-year college students and 24 for military or civilian college graduates (PLAAF Officer Handbook).


Cadet Education and Training


The PLAAF has different education and training programs for high school graduates, college students and college graduates. New cadets are divided into two levels (benke yipi, benke erpi) and receive a one-time bonus of 3,000 or 5,000 yuan ($476 or $794), respectively (Xinhua, November 17, 2006).

High School Graduate Cadets


In May 2004, the PLAAF created the Air Force Aviation University in Changchun, Jilin Province, which has a subordinate Flight Basic Training Base and a Flight Training Base. Cadets who come from high school graduates receive 30 months of basic education and aviation theory at the Air Force Aviation University’s Flight Basic Training Base. Some cadets also receive six months of follow-on training in a basic trainer at the University’s Flight Training Base (PLAAF Officer Handbook). During this period, they also parachute out of a Y-5 transport and conduct survival training. While most cadets become pilots, some become transport and bomber navigation and communications officers.


Upon completing their basic education at the university, cadets transfer to one of the PLAAF’s seven Flight Colleges, where they complete their undergraduate aviation training and receive a Bachelor’s in Military Science. Each college is organized like an operational air division with subordinate regiments, flight groups and flight squadrons. Each college averages about 100 students per year, which are divided into several basic and advanced trainer regiments. (Air Force News, August 23, 2003 and February 16, 2006).


Whereas graduates from the 1st and 2nd Flight Colleges (transports and bombers) are assigned to their operational unit to transition into that unit’s aircraft, graduates from the remaining five flight colleges (fighter and attack) are assigned to one of the PLAAF’s seven transition training bases (one in each MRAF) for one year of transition training in yet another advanced trainer (JJ-6 or JJ-7). After that, they are assigned to their operational base, where they finally transition into that unit’s aircraft. The seven flight colleges are discussed below (PLAAF Officer Handbook).

·        1st Flight College (Harbin, Heilongjiang) trains transport and bomber (tanker) pilots and navigation and communications officers, which includes six months of basic trainer and one year of advanced trainer training.

·        2nd Flight College (Huxian, Shaanxi and Jiajiang, Sichuan) trains bomber (tanker) and transport (early warning) pilots, navigation officers and other officer and enlisted crew members. Pilot cadets receive six months of training in a basic trainer and one year in an advanced trainer. Navigators receive ten months of navigation theory training followed by one year of transport or bomber training. In 2010, the 2nd Flight College’s 2nd Regiment took over flight training from the Army for all new PLAAF helicopter pilots (PLA Daily, March 16, 2010).

·        3rd Flight College (Jinzhou, Liaoning) and 5th Flight College (Wuwei, Gansu) train fighter pilots, which includes one year of advanced trainer training. The cadets receive their basic trainer training at the Aviation University’s Flight Training Base.

·        4th Flight College (Shijiazhuang, Hebei), 6th Flight College (Zhuozhou, Hebei) and 13th Flight College (Bengbu, Anhui) train fighter pilots, which includes six months of basic trainer and one year of advanced trainer training.

 The PLAAF uses the CJ-6 as its basic trainer for all aircraft. It uses the Y-7 as an advanced trainer for bomber and transport pilots and the K-8 and JJ-5 as an advanced trainer for fighter and attack pilots.


The PLAAF did not begin specialized training for weapon systems officers (WSOs) in two-seat multirole aircraft (JH-7) at operational units until early 2011 (Kongjun Bao, March 2, 2011). Previously, pilots merely switched between the front and rear seats.

College Student and Graduate Cadets


There is a lack of information about just how the PLAAF manages programs for PLA college graduates and civilian college students and graduates. However, it appears they receive 24 to 28 months of basic aviation theory as well as basic and advanced trainer training at one of the flight colleges. Upon graduation, they receive a Bachelor’s in Military Science followed by one year of transition training before being assigned to their permanent unit. About half of the cadets to date have elected to become a Communist Party member by concurrently receiving two years of preparatory education and training (PLAAF Officer Handbook). It does not appear the cadets who already have a bachelor’s degree are mixed with the high school graduate and civilian college student aviation cadets during their training.


Flight Training Curriculum


Flight training is guided by the latest version (2009) of the Outline of Military Training and Evaluation (Junshi xunlian yu kaohe dagang) (PLA Daily, July 25, 2008). During six months of CJ-6 training—much of which occurs on sod runways—cadets conduct cockpit familiarization and simulator training as well as takeoffs, landings, navigation, aerobatics and instrument flying before and after they fly their first solo. Once they move to an advanced trainer regiment, fighter and attack cadets conduct the same type of skills training as in the CJ-6. After they conduct their first solo, they fly two-ship formations, barrel rolls, diving, loops, Immelmans and high- and low-altitude flights plus flying at night and in inclement weather. Even after they fly their first solo, instructors continue to fly with them. Fighter and attack cadets only recently have began conducting any type of tactics training in the K-8, such as 4-ship formations and dropping bombs and firing guns at ground targets. Bomber cadets conduct training in night optical bombing, radar bombing and deploying to other airfields at night (Air Force News, November 2, 2004; People’s Liberation Army Air Force 2010).


During the 18 months of flight training, cadets fly approximately 200 to 220 hours (about 80 hours in a basic trainer and 120 to 140 in an advanced trainer). Cadets can fly multiple sorties per day for a maximum of five hours. Inclement weather often affects how often the cadets can fly (Air Force News, April 3, 2004). One PLAAF article provided information about the same training for several countries—Italy (300 hours), Japan (360-390 hours), England (310 hours) and France (275 hours)—and assessed that the PLAAF’s hours were inadequate [4]. Even so, the PLAAF’s goal is to reduce the total number of hours to 110 and to include the L-15 advanced trainer for fighter and attack cadets [5].


Upon graduation, cadets at the 1st and 2nd Flight Colleges are assigned directly to their operational unit, where they transition into that unit’s aircraft. Cadets from the five fighter and attack colleges are assigned to a transition training base, where they receive about 12 months of training in a JJ-6 or JJ-7. During this period, they continue their skills’ training, which includes flying over water plus night training under visual flight rules (VFR) and instrument flight rules (IFR). They are then assigned to their permanent operational unit, where they transition to that unit’s aircraft for skills and tactics training (PLAAF Officer Handbook).




The PLAAF does not publish information about the wash out rate for aviation cadets; however, the flight colleges do everything possible to have cadets graduate. Those who do not graduate are sent to another PLAAF college to finish their education and training in a different specialty. Upon graduation in June, all aviation cadets receive the grade of company deputy leader and the rank of first lieutenant. Outstanding graduates can immediately receive the grade of company leader (PLAAF Officer Handbook).


Based on the author’s analysis of PLAAF aviation cadet activity, there appears to be about one instructor for every one to three cadets. According to one article, flight instructors assigned to the flight colleges reportedly comprise more than one-third of all PLAAF pilots. Furthermore, the majority of the flight instructors are selected from among the best graduating cadets where they will continue to serve throughout their career. Under recent reforms, the PLAAF has begun to reassign small numbers of operational pilots to instruct at the flight colleges and sent career flight instructors to observe operational unit training [6].


All aviators are considered military-track officers and move up the promotion ladder in this career field. As a result, they attend their intermediate (battalion/major and regiment/colonel) and advanced (division/senior colonel) professional military education (PME) for one year at the Air Force Command College in Beijing, where they receive a certificate. More pilots however are also starting to receive a master’s degree within and outside military colleges. For example, several J-10 test pilots reportedly received their master’s degree at Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xi’an (Xinzhong Chuanchang Blog, October 19, 2009).




It is too early to assess if the PLAAF’s new programs to recruit college students and graduates have produced better pilots and unit leaders. If the PLAAF determines it is successful, it will most likely gradually decrease the number of high school graduates recruited in the future. The number of high school graduates, however, actually increased from 2010 to 2011. One problem is the PLAAF does not mix high school graduates with college students and graduates or with female aviation cadets during their training, so it has had to create new training models and organizational structures to deal with this—the recent consolidation and reorganization of some of the training institutes could signal such a shift is under way (Wen Wei Po, January 21; December 31, 2011).


Although the PLAAF continues to recognize the shortcoming of retaining some of its best graduates as instructors for the rest of their career and of not bringing in instructors from operational units, it has yet to change the system to any degree. Furthermore, there are no indications this will change over the next several years.

Whereas the PLAAF’s logistics, equipment and technical support officers receive graduate degrees, the PLAAF only recently provided the opportunity for its command track officers and pilots to receive graduate degrees. This is an important move as the PLAAF tries to foster a more educated senior officer corps dominated by pilots who are capable of conducting combined-arms and joint operations.




  1. Shen Xiaoqing and Yan Gonghe, “Kongjun Siling Bu Gongzuo [Work of Air Force Staff Command],” in Yao Wei, ed., Zhongguo Kongjun Baike Quanshu [China Air Force Encyclopedia], Beijing: Aviation Industry Press, November 2005, Vol 1, p. 173-174. See also Tan Guolin and Jiang Yi, “Zhong Wai Junshi Feixing Jiaoyu Tizhi Bijiao yu Qishi [China and Foreign Military Aviation Education System Comparison and Enlightenment],” in Xin Shiji Xin Jieduan Kongjun Yuanxiao Zhuanxing Jianshe Yu Rencai Peiyang Yanjiu [Research on New Century New Period Air Force Academic Institution Transformation Building and Personnel Education and Culture], Beijing: Blue Sky Press, July 2009, p. 117–124.
  2. Liu Yazhou and Yao Jun, eds, The History of China’s Aviation (Second Edition), Changsha: Hunan Science and Technology Press, August 2007, p. 602.
  3. Chen Daojin and Liu Yuan, “Feixing Yuanxiao Kuayueshi Fazhan de Zhanlue Dingwei yu Gao Suzhi Feixing Xueyuan Peiyang [Flight Academic Institutions Leap Ahead in Developing the Strategic Position and High Quality of Educating and Training Aviation Cadets],” in Research on New Century New Period Air Force Academic Institution Transformation Building and Personnel Education and Culture, p. 55–66. As a benchmark, USAF undergraduate pilot training is accomplished in 12 months with approximately 85 hours in the T-6 primary trainer and 95 hours in the advanced T-38 trainer. Fighter pilots subsequently receive 20 T-38 hours in fighter fundamentals prior to attending a fighter transition course that runs four to seven months long with 40-60 flight hours.
  4. Wang Zhansheng, “Gaige Feixing Yuanxiao Xunlian Tizhi Bianzhi De Shijian Tansuo [Exploring the Reform of the Training System for Flight Academic Institutions],” in Research on New Century New Period Air Force Academic Institution Transformation Building and Personnel Education and Culture, p. 310–314.
  5. Ibid, p. 310–314.