July 17, 2014:
China is developing a carrier pilot recruiting and training program based on what they have used for astronauts. This includes searching for candidates among high school students, so that suitable candidates found there can begin their lengthy (over six years) training program as soon as they graduate from high school. China has long used this screening approach to find and quickly develop exceptional athletes or scientists. When found these teenagers (or younger for some types of athletes) are put into an intensive training program carried out by experienced instructors.
In the case of carrier pilots China does not have any experienced instructors. This was also the case when they began selecting and training astronauts over a decade ago. The astronaut program worked quite well, largely because it had the pick of the best people in terms of trainees and training staff. Since carrier flight deck accidents can be very expensive, China decided to take the high road when it came to selecting and training its first generation of carrier pilots.
It’s unknown if the Chinese are also following the pre-World War II Japanese Navy approach to carrier pilot selection in training. The Japanese entered World War II using a system similar to what China is using now. In 1941, a Japanese pilot trainee needed 700 hours of flight time to qualify as a full-fledged pilot in the Imperial Navy, while his American counterpart needed only 305 hours to serve on U.S. carriers. About half of the active duty pilots in the U.S. Navy in late 1941 had between 300 and 600 hours flying experience, a quarter between 600 and 1000 hours, and the balance more than 1000 hours. Most of these flight hours had been acquired in the late 1930s. Thus at the beginning of the war nearly 75 percent of the U.S. Navy's pilots had fewer flying hours than did the least qualified of the Japanese Navy's pilots.
On the down side, the Japanese pilot training effort was so rigorous that only about 100 men a year were being graduated from a program that required 4-5 years. In 1940 it was proposed that the pilot training program be made shorter, less rigorous, and more productive, in order to build up the pool of available pilots to about 15,000. This was rejected. Japan believed it could not win a long war and needed the best pilots possible in order to win a short one.
Naturally, once the war began the Imperial Navy started losing pilots faster than they could be replaced. For example, the 29 pilots lost at Pearl Harbor represented more than a quarter of the annual crop. The battles of the next year led to the loss of hundreds of superb pilots. This finally forced the Japanese to reform their pilot training programs. Time to train a pilot, and hours in the air spiraled downward. By 1945 trainee pilots were being certified fit for combat duty with less than four months training. In contrast, the U.S. Navy was actually increasing its flight time, while keeping pilot training programs to about 18 months. In 1943, the U.S. Navy increased flight hours for trainees to 500, while Japan cut its hours to 500. In 1944, the U.S. hours went up to 525, while Japan cut it to 275 hour. In 1945, a shortage of fuel had Japanese trainee pilots flying on 90 hours before entering combat. In the air, this produced lopsided American victories, with ten or more Japanese aircraft being lost for each U.S. one.
This experience was remembered after World War II, and reinforced when, in campaign after campaign, the side with the fewer training hours per pilot suffered the greatest losses. Now, unable to afford fuel for training, flight simulators are being used more frequently. These devices are becoming cheaper and more realistic, but research (mostly from training exercises, not actual combat) shows that each hour of simulator time is worth only about half or two-thirds of an hour in the air.
China is doing the smart thing here. Its first generation carrier pilots will be working with new carriers and carrier crews that have little experience operating a carrier. So having the best possible pilots makes it safer and easier on the ship and flight deck crews. The navy also appears to be selecting the best officers, chiefs and sailors for duty on the first carrier. All this minimizes risk, maximizes success and is more likely to provide first generation carrier personnel who know what they are doing and able to pass that on to subsequent generations.