PLA Officer Cadet Recruitment: Part 2

Publication: China Brief Volume: 23 Issue: 22

Air Force Y-20 aircraft sends newly-enrolled pilot cadets to universities. (Source: Chinamil)

Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a two-part series on People’s Liberation Army (PLA; 人民解放军) officer cadet recruitment since the PLA reduced the number of officer academic institutions (院校) in 2017 to 34, as part of the 11th Force Reduction that began in 2016. There had previously existed 63 such institutions since 1998. This article examines recruitment of aviation cadets for the PLA Air Force (PLAAF), Naval Aviation, and Army Aviation, with a focus on 2023 and 2024. The article does not discuss education or training once they assume their cadet billets. For Part 1, click here.

The recruitment process for PLAAF Aviation Branch, Naval Aviation, and Army Aviation cadets is different than that for non-aviation cadets. While there is some overlap for recruitment for each of the aviation branches, there are also distinct differences. This article discusses the recruitment process for each aviation branch in turn. For example, in July 2023, the number of PLAAF pilot cadets reached the highest number ever (MND, July 19; MND, November 3), and after Naval Aviation turned over its land-based combat aircraft units to the PLAAF in 2023, it began recruiting master’s degree students as new pilot cadets for carrier-based aircraft.

Aviation Branches: A Brief History

There are three main aviation branches in the PLA: the Air Force Aviation Branch (空军航空兵), Naval Aviation Branch (海军航空兵), and Army Aviation Branch (陆军航空兵). Each have their own aviation cadet academic institutions (Jamestown Foundation, April 8, 2016). [1] Each of the three services also contains an Aviation Bureau (航空兵局) under the Staff Department (参谋部) that serves as the de facto Aviation Headquarters, as none has an official Aviation Headquarters. [2]

Air Force Aviation Branch

The Aviation Branch was created alongside the PLAAF in November 1949. [3] The PLAAF began with over 15 flight preparatory schools (航空预备学校) and aviation schools (航空学校), which provided one to three years of training before the pilots were assigned to their operational unit. [4] The schools were upgraded to four-year academies in 1985 and the number of institutions reduced to seven in the 1990s. In May 2004, the PLAAF created the Air Force Aviation University (AUAF; 空军航空大学) in Changchun, Jilin Province. All aviation cadets took a four-year training course here, before moving to one of the seven flight academies, which became responsible for two additional years of training upon graduation (Xinhua, August 30, 2018). In 2011, the seven flight academies were merged into three. These are still responsible for one to two years of pilot training, depending on which airframe the students will fly once they are assigned to an operational unit.

Naval Aviation Branch

In 1952, the PLA Navy (PLAN) Headquarters established Naval Aviation as one of its five branches and created the Naval Aviation Department (海军航空部) that served as the de facto Naval Aviation Headquarters. [5] It was located at Liangxiang airfield near Beijing. [6] Over the next five decades, the Aviation Department was abolished (1969), reestablished (1978), and abolished again (2003). Today, there is a Naval Aviation Bureau under the PLAN Staff Department, but there is no Naval Aviation Headquarters.

The Naval Aviation University (海军航空大学), whose main campus is located in Yantai, Shandong Province, was created in July 2017 by merging the former Naval Flight College (海军航空兵学院) and the Naval Aeronautical and Astronautical College (海军航空工程学院), which is also identified as the Navy Aviation Engineering Academy (The Paper, May 28, 2017). [7]

Army Aviation Branch

In October 1986, the Central Military Commission (CMC; 中央军事委员会) created an Army Aviation Bureau (陆军航空兵局) as a second-level department under the General Staff Department (GSD), which served as the PLA Army (PLAA) Headquarters. It also created a separate Army Aviation Branch under the GSD and the Army Aviation Bureau served as the de facto Army Aviation Headquarters. [8] At that time, most of the PLAAF’s helicopters were turned over to Army Aviation. The Army Aviation Academy (陆军航空兵学院) was approved for construction in 2001 and was opened in Beijing’s Tongzhou District in November 2003. [9]

Aviation Cadet Recruitment

The recruitment process for Air Force Aviation, Naval Aviation, and Army Aviation cadets differs significantly from that of non-aviation cadets. Aviation recruits sign up through separate websites to non-aviation recruits. The PLAAF is responsible for the recruitment of both Air Force Aviation and Army Aviation cadets, while Naval Aviation has its own system. For example, the MND website (MND, accessed November 7) and the Naval Aviation website (HJZF, accessed November 7) are the main resources for aviation cadet recruitment.

Air Force Aviation Cadet Recruitment

New cadets who attend the AUAF for four years come from two primary sources: high school graduates and the Teenagers Aviation School of the Air Force (TASAF; 空军青少年航空学校). [10] The latter is also known as the “Little Eagle” (雏鹰) program. [11] A third program, known as the dual-enrollment program (DEP; 双学籍), was created in 2011 at three civilian universities in Beijing (Tsinghua University, Peking University, and Beijing Aeronautics and Astronautics University). Around 90 students spend their first three years at these universities before spending their fourth year at AUAF. Altogether, the PLAAF has had 12 groups of female pilot cadets. The 13th group began in 2021 and will graduate from AUAF in 2025.

The TASAF program began In 2011, and in 2015 the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Public Security, and former PLA General Political Department jointly approved the establishment of 16 such schools (Sina, September 17, 2015; China Military, July 24, 2015). Out of the 96 graduates in 2014, 39 were selected to join AUAF. In 2015, the first five schools recruited a total of 405 students. In August 2018, 178 of the students (44 percent) were selected to attend AUAF (The Paper, August 2, 2018). In 2022, over 400 graduates from TASAF schools were selected out of over 1,000 new cadets—the highest to date (China Military, August 3, 2022). The PLAAF has indicated that its goal is to increase the number of TASAF graduates who are selected and to make this program the primary source for future cadets.

Table 1 below shows the number of new male pilot cadets selected for education and training at the Aviation University for each year since 2015. It also includes the number of new female cadets in groups 11–13, as well as the number of students who completed their first three years in the DEP (nczsks, September 9, 2021; ishengxue, September 20, 2022).

In 2018, more than 123,000 high school graduates participated in the recruitment examination. No data was found for subsequent years, but it is reasonable to assume that the numbers have been similar since (Ministry of Defense, July 18, 2018). After primary and secondary examinations, 5,100 graduates attended final physical, psychological, and political assessments. In the end, the PLAAF recruited 1,480 out of the 2,452 qualified graduates.

The number of recruits in 2023 is the highest on record. This is most likely because Naval Aviation turned over its land-based fighters (3 brigades) and bombers (2 regiments) to the PLAAF in early 2023, increasing the PLAAF’s demand for pilots. [12]

Table 1: New Male and Female Pilot Cadets

YearNew Male CadetsComments
20151,300 [a]High school graduates and dual-enrollment students
2016Unknown
20171,075 [b]High school graduates; plus 35 women (11th group); dual-enrollment students [c]
20181,480 [d] High school graduates and dual-enrollment students
20191,519 [e]High school graduates; plus 40 women (12th group) [f]; dual-enrollment students
2020- 2021Unknown35 women (13th group) in 2021 [g]
20221,000+ [h]400+ graduates from the TASAF program; 60 students selected to begin the dual-enrollment program
2023(1,500+?) [i]Highest number ever

(Sources: [a] CCTV, November 14, 2014; [b] The Paper, August 2, 2017; [c] Xinhua, June 7, 2017; [d] Ministry of Defense, July 18, 2018; [e] Zhihu, October 12, 2019; [f] Ministry of Defense, June 17, 2019; [g] China News Guizhou, July 21, 2021; [h] China Military, August 3, 2022; [i] Xinhua, July 19.)

PLAAF Pilot Recruitment Process

The PLAAF Staff Department’s Pilot Recruitment Bureau (空军招飞局) was created in 1987 and is responsible for all PLAAF aviation cadet recruiting activities (China Education Online, September 13, 2013). It includes seven regional selection centers (选拔中心) (Shenyang, Beijing, Lanzhou, Jinan, Nanjing, Guangzhou, and Chengdu), which are based on the seven former Military Region Air Force Headquarters, as well as multiple subordinate selection sites under each center (Yangguang Gaokao, September 7; Ministry of Defense, June 16, 2022). Since 2007, the PLAAF Pilot Recruitment Bureau has had its own pilot recruitment website (Figure 1). [13]

Fig. 1: PLAAFF Pilot Recruitment Bureau website banner.

In September each year, high school seniors who want to become pilots submit an application form to the relevant recruiting center (Gk114, September 5, 2022): The form has changed over the years, but retains the same basic information (Gaokao Information, September 19, 2019). Figure 2 below shows the application form for 2023, which students filled out in late 2022. The form asks for personal identification and physical information, contact information, high school location and grades, and family background. Both applicants and their parents have to sign the form to confirm their consent.

Figure 2: 2023 Pilot Recruitment Form

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The basic requirements for the 2024 class for males are as follows (Gaokao Information, September 7):

  • Age: Graduating seniors born between August 31, 2004 and August 31, 2007;
  • Political reliability;
  • Physical requirements: height between 164–185cm (64–73in); weight above 52 kilograms (115lbs) (for those under 18 years old, above 50 kilograms (110lbs)); Naked-eye visual acuity in both eyes above 0.8, with no history or visual surgery or visual disability [PLAAF pilots are not allowed to wear glasses.]; no tattoos or scars that affect function or military appearance;
  • Strong psychological fitness;
  • Applicants must have official student status at their school, take the National Unified Entrance Examination for General Colleges and Universities (foreign languages are limited to English and Russian), and are expected to have college entrance examination scores above the “first line (一本线),” i.e., the minimum scores for first-batch universities, or above the slightly lower “special admissions control line for those students with talent in the arts or sport. Air Force recruitment is an early batch admission, so applying for the Air Force will not affect your application for other colleges and majors [See Part 1].

The Air Force generally recruits pilot cadets through three rounds of selection (steps 2–4 below). A comprehensive selection process is as follows (Gaokao Information, September 7):

  1. Students who meet the basic requirements for flight recruitment can scan the QR code on the form shown in Figure 2 or search for the Flight Recruitment Intelligence” (招飞智询) mini-app on WeChat to register online and contact the relevant recruiting office.
  2. From October to November 2023, the relevant Selection Center works with the education departments at all levels in all provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities to set up test centers in each recruitment city to organize basic physical condition screening. Registered students must bring their ID card (household registration book) and “Preliminary Examination Form” (初选检测表) to the nearest location for examination. All preliminary arrangements are announced on the official WeChat account once confirmed.
  3. In January 2024, the relevant Selection Center selects candidates who are expected to reach the minimum score for first batch universities based on their high school academic performance and school evaluation. It also organizes selection based on medical, psychological, and political assessments.
  4. In the first half of 2024, the Air Force Pilot Recruitment Bureau organizes two stages of medical selection and psychological selection for candidates who meet the recommended, held before and after the college entrance examination. Candidates meet the required college entrance examination scores are admitted, as long as they have also met the physical and psychological selection levels.
  5. Once high school graduate pilot cadets are recruited into AUAF, they commence a three-month probationary period. Those who pass the test will obtain full student status and military status.
  6. Starting in 2022, the PLAAF sent Y-20 transport aircraft on July 31 and August 1 to Shijiazhuang, Jinan, Nanjing, Changsha, and Chengdu to transport newly-admitted pilot cadets to AUAF for registration for the first time (China Military, August 3, 2022).

Naval Aviation Cadet Recruitment

Historically, prior to 2006, Naval Aviation recruits came from only four provinces—Liaoning, Hebei, Shandong, and Henan. For the 2014 cycle, Naval Aviation also began recruiting from Anhui and Hubei, as well as from Beijing (Guancha, January 11, 2013; Gaokao Information, September 26, 2013). In 2019, recruiting was extended to 22 provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities (China Military, July 26, 2019). In 2021, recruiting took place in over 20 provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities (Hjzf, October 15, 2021).

The Naval Aviation Cadet Recruitment Office (海军招收飞行学员工作办公室/海军招飞办) in PLAN Headquarters oversees all Naval Aviation pilot recruitment (Hjzf, September 13). The Recruitment Office has its own website at http://www.hjzf.mil.cn (Hjzf, September 13). Unlike the PLAAF’s Pilot Recruitment Bureau, which has subordinate offices in seven cities, the Naval Aviation Cadet Recruitment Office does not appear to have subordinate offices in any of the three Theater Command Navy Headquarters or in any of China’s regions.

New cadets attend the Naval Aviation University located in Yantai, Shandong Province (The Paper, May 28, 2017). [14] New cadets come from four primary sources. The first source is male high school graduates. The second source is from the Teenagers Aviation School of the Navy (TASN; 海军青少年航校) program, which was created in nine schools beginning in 2015 to cultivate future carrier aircraft pilots. This program expanded into five additional schools in 2018 (Xinhua, March 25; China Military, July 26, 2019). As of March 2023, about 4,500 TASN students had passed the preliminary examination to become a cadet. The third source is the Naval Aviation’s dual-enrollment program (DEP; 双学籍). This operates in the same three civilian universities in Beijing as its counterpart in the PLAAF, described above. The fourth source is a program, commenced in 2023, to recruit civilian college graduates (地方大学毕业生). The requirements for these are the same as for high school graduates except the age limit is 24 (Hjzf, March 26). These students receive three to four years of education at the Naval Aviation University. Of note, Naval Aviation began recruiting its first class of female pilot cadets in early 2023 (USNI News, February 21; PLAN Wechat, February 19).

In early November 2023, the Navy launched its comprehensive recruitment and selection process for 2024, selecting carrier-based aircraft pilot students from among high school graduates and recent undergraduate and master’s graduates in science and engineering (Xinhua, November 3). This was the first time the Navy has selected pilot cadets from students with master’s degrees. There are no plans to recruit female pilot cadets into the 2024 class. Admitted pilot cadets are mainly trained at the Naval Aviation University. However, the training models for high school graduates and recent college or university graduates are different. Admitted high school graduates will undergo undergraduate basic education for the first three years, before taking three to four years of aviation theory study and flight training. College and university graduates need only participate in two months of enlistment training and soldier training before starting the three to four years of aviation theory study and flight training. All personnel who wish to apply to become a naval aviator, including high school, undergraduate, and master’s graduates, can log onto the Chinese Navy Recruitment Network (www.hjzf.mil.cn) to view the details for 2024 registration.

Army Aviation Recruitment

Army Aviation does not have its own recruitment organization. Responsibility falls to the PLAAF Pilot Recruitment Bureau (Ministry of Defense, June 16, 2022).

All new Army Aviation helicopter pilot cadets must attend AUAF for two years of basic training (The Paper, January 31, 2021). It is not clear if they wear Army uniforms at AUAF. They then transfer to the Army Aviation Academy for one year of intensive aeronautical theory education and simulated flight training and one year of trainer aircraft training in one of the Academy’s Flight Training Bases. Upon graduation, they are assigned to their operational unit. Besides helicopters, Army Aviation also has a small contingent of Y-7, Y-8, and Y-9 transport aircraft, though it is not clear where they train after AUAF (kknews, December 25, 2016).

The first group of ten female helicopter cadets graduated from the Army Aviation Academy in 2021 (Sina, October 25, 2021). Unfortunately, no additional information was found concerning the number of cadets who have been recruited.

Conclusion

As shown in Parts 1 and 2, the process for recruiting aviation cadets is different than for non-aviation cadets. While the PLAAF still focuses primarily on recruiting high school graduates, Naval Aviation is now focusing on recruiting civilian college/university graduates with a bachelor’s or master’s degree. In addition, each of the services have recruited female pilots.

Notes

[1] Services are junzhong (军种) and branches, which are also called arms, are bingzhong (兵种).

[2] United States Department of Defense, Defense Intelligence Agency, Directory of PRC Military Personalities October 2022, Washington DC, 2022.

[3] Yao Wei, ed., [China Air Force Encyclopedia] [中国空军百科全书], Beijing: Aviation Industry Press, November 2005, Volume 1, 223-233.

[4] Kenneth W. Allen and Christina L. Garafola, 70 Years of the PLA Air Force, (Montgomery, AL: Air University China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI), 21 April 2021). Accessed at https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/CASI/Display/Article/2564684/70-years-of-the-peoples-liberation-army-air-force/.

[5] Yuan Hongchao, “Department of Naval Aviation” in Zhang Fujiang and Zhang Hui , eds., China Navy Encyclopedia (中国海军百科全书), Beijing: Haichao Publishing House, December 1998, p. 431. “China’s People’s Liberation Army Naval Aviation” (中国人民解放军海军航空兵), accessed at http://baike.baidu.com/link?url=q8xjTnF7wBdKS-z31jrZn8h3xcTQmT6x08r1hk5uZR_-d71M47lYZkYMPBhHsfpFfD2VwKTcfkDHnYlMvZLVNK.

[6] Yao Jun, editor, A History of China’s Aviation Zhongguo Hangkong Shi (中国航空史), Zhengzhou, China, Dajia Publishers, September 1998, 183-189. The five other first level departments (yijibu) included the headquarters department, political department, logistics department, equipment and technical department, and equipment repair department. Each of these departments has numerous subordinate departments, bureaus, divisions, and offices.

[7] The PLA has not been consistent concerning its official English names for its academic institutions. For official English names of the Naval Flight College and Navy Aeronautical and Astronautical College, see Dong Huiyu and Mou Xianming, eds., “The Third Military Medical University” [第三军医大学], in Dictionary of Modern Military Education [现代军校教育辞典], Second Edition (Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2011), 476-478. For the official name of Navy Flight Academy, see Zhao et al., PLA Military History [中国人民解放军军史], Volume 3 (Beijing: Encyclopedia of China Publishing House, December 2007), 745-746. For the official name Navy Aviation Engineering Academy, see Zhao et al., PLA Military History, 740.

[8] “Army Aviation” (陆军航空兵) in Hu Guangzheng, ed., Military Organization (军制) volume in China Military Encyclopedia Second Edition (中国军事百科全书第二版), Beijing: Encyclopedia of China Publishing House, 2007, p. 201-203. “Army Aviation” (陆军航空兵) accessed at http://baike.baidu.com/link?url=gzlocRXmSB4HJWaPK0323qMYqK14dbwHRBn22lUSowrzPP8L109aOF_p9-KTPY9m4sKSHBYjJwqRlyMqDQFmhq

[9] Kenneth W. Allen and Mingzhi Chen, The People’s Liberation Army’s 37 Academic Institutions; Montgomery, AL: China Aerospace Studies Institute, 2020. https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/CASI/Display/Article/2216778/the-peoples-liberation-armys-academic-institutions/

[10] See [4]

[11] Marcus Clay, China’s Little Eagles: People’s Liberation Army Developing Its Next-Generation Pilots, (Montgomery, AL: China Aerospace Studies Institute, 2019).

[12] Rod Lee, “PLA Naval Aviation Reorganization 2023,” (Montgomery, AL: China Aerospace Studies Institute, 2023), https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/Portals/10/CASI/documents/Research/PLAN_Aviation/2023-07-31%20PLAN%20Aviation%20Reorg%202023%20Clean.pdf

[13] Note: The website has two separate URLs: http://www.kjzfw.net/ and http://www.kjzfw.mil.cn/.

[14] The PLA has not been consistent concerning its official English names for its academic institutions. For official English names of the Naval Flight College and Navy Aeronautical and Astronautical College, see Dong Huiyu and Mou Xianming, eds., “The Third Military Medical University” [第三军医大学], in Dictionary of Modern Military Education [现代军校教育辞典], Second Edition (Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2011), 476-478. For the official name of Navy Flight Academy, see Zhao et al., PLA Military History [中国人民解放军军史], Volume 3 (Beijing: Encyclopedia of China Publishing House, December 2007), 745-746. For the official name Navy Aviation Engineering Academy, see Zhao et al., PLA Military History, 740.