Cover: Overview of People's Liberation Army Air Force "Elite Pilots"

Overview of People's Liberation Army Air Force "Elite Pilots"

Published Aug 24, 2016

by Michael S. Chase, Kenneth W. Allen, Benjamin Purser


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Research Questions

  1. What can Chinese primary sources tell us about how the PLAAF selects and trains what it regards as its elite fighter pilots?
  2. What makes elite fighter pilots different than other pilots in the PLAAF?
  3. How does the PLAAF use domestic competitions (such as the Golden Helmet and Golden Dart) and international competition (such as the Aviadarts in Russia) to showcase the PLAAF's desire to project a more open and confident image at home and abroad?

This report uses Chinese primary sources to provide an overview of how the Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) selects and trains what it calls its elite fighter pilots. The PLAAF identifies three groups of pilots as elite pilots. The first comprises 33 pilots who have won the annual Golden Helmet competition at the Dingxin Test and Training Base in Gansu province since 2011; the Golden Helmet is "the supreme contest among Chinese fighter pilots." The second group comprises pilots who belong to the PLAAF's Bayi Aerobatics Team, created in 1962. The third comprises six Su-30 attack pilots, including one Golden Helmet winner, who competed in Russia's Aviadarts 2014 competition for the first time. While each of the three groups competes using existing flight procedures, the lessons learned are reviewed extensively for ways to change existing tactics and combat methods. For example, one of the most important lessons learned has been the PLAAF's desire to move toward less scripted training, which Chinese sources typically refer to as "unrestricted air combat" or "free air combat" training. Official Chinese media reports on the PLAAF's Golden Helmet competition, its participation in the Russian Aviadarts competition, and the Bayi Aerobatics Team's participation in air shows in Russia in 2013 and Malaysia in 2015 appear to reflect a desire on the part of the PLAAF to project a more open and confident image at home and abroad. In 2014, the PLAAF implemented a Golden Dart competition to identify elite ground attack and bomber crews.

Key Findings

Elite Pilots Consist of Three Groups of Pilots in the PLAAF

  • The first group comprises winners of the annual Golden Helmet competition, which began in 2011.
  • The second group comprises pilots who participated in the Aviadarts international military aviation competition in 2014.
  • The third group comprises pilots who are members of the PLAAF's Bayi Aerobatics Team.
  • The PLAAF's emphasis on the development of fighter "tactics" and "combat methods" and its approach to developing these three groups of elite pilots signifies its determination to pursue further professionalization and enhance the competence of its pilots.
  • This professionalization and enhancement of competence is no less important to the PLAAF than the modernization of its aircraft, weapons, and equipment.


  • Future research should continue to trace the PLAAF's refinement of its "tactics" and "combat methods" and how China plans to continue to cultivate its elite pilots.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was prepared for the United States Air Force and conducted by RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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