Saturday, February 25, 2012

Born to fly

Clockwise from top:

Sunset brings out the dramatic lines of the J-10 jet fighter's design. General Deng Changyou (right) greets returning pilot Cao Zhen. Pilots monitor flight simulation exercises on the training field. Having wowed the crowd, this pilot's day is done. This tandem performance is as graceful as a pas de deux. Yan Feng is back on the ground after a roll and a spin. On-ground flight simulation exercises on the training field help pilots prepare for flight.

Wang Jing and Shen Jinke follow the fabled August 1 Aerobatics Team of the People's Liberation Army Air Force with their cameras as the pilots get ready to strut their stuff.

In an airport in northern China, six pilots sit confidently in the sun, each in the cockpit of a gleaming J-10 jet fighter.

In a few minutes the fighter planes will take off in formation - three, then two, then one - in a demonstration of the planes' dexterity for the assembled press on the ground.

A few moments after the announcer's signal, the pilots are turning their flying steeds into a five-column formation.

Sitting inside the cockpit show model of the J-10, Yan Feng, an air-force flight instructor, waits for his turn to join the group in the sky. When the announcer's voice comes through the headset, Yan puts down his helmet visor and starts his engines.

A roar of flame comes out of the plane, and Yan heads down the runway. After about 300 meters, his plane is airborne, tucking in the landing gear as the pilot aims the nose of the plane up in a 70- degree angle toward the formation of five other planes.

One hundred meters above the ground, Yan does a series of tricks, including a roll and a spin, all despite the 8 G's of pressure he is feeling because of the speed of his plane. Suddenly the plane accelerates until it reaches 862 meters above ground. The audience is flabbergasted as Yan's plane rockets skyward and seamlessly joins the formation.

The new formation is beautiful, like a giant sapphire in the sky. It's just part of a performance by the August 1 Aerobatics Team of the PLA Air Force.

The 50-year-old squad has performed a total of 406 times for delegations from 147 countries and regions. All of the performances have been successful, including three appearances as part of the National Day parade and four in the Zhuhai International Air Show.

The team has been described by many as the country's "Honor Guard in the Sky" and the "image ambassador" of the Chinese Air Force.

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