China’s new aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, is getting the high-powered publicity treatment by the navy and state-controlled media. This has included some bold moves. The navy, for example, allowed 19 year old quadruplet brothers, who entered the navy together two years ago, to join the Liaoning crew, and pictures of the four Sun brothers (Changyu, Changfeng, Changling and Changtao) are all over the media. Any stories about the new carrier are popular in China and personal interest ones even more so.
Some Chinese are concerned about the wisdom of putting the Sun brothers on the new ship. For one thing, “four” is an unlucky number for Chinese (because it sounds similar to “death” when spoken) and then there is the American experience with the five Sullivan brothers during World War II. While not quadruplets, the Sullivan brothers all joined the navy and ended up serving together on the cruiser Juneau. During a fierce night battle off Guadalcanal Island in November 1942, the Juneau sank, and only 25 of the 698 man crew survived. All five Sullivan brothers were lost. Shortly after the loss of the Juneau, the Navy separated other siblings who had been serving together and forbade stationing siblings serving on warships together.
In reality, the Chinese Navy leadership is neither superstitious nor inclined to take risks. The Liaoning is one of two Kuznetsov class Russian carriers built near the end of the Cold War. While the original Kuznetsov is in Russian service, the second ship, the Varyag, was launched but not completed and work stopped in 1992. The Chinese bought the unfinished carrier in 1998, towed it to China and spent over a decade completing it as the Liaoning. This conversion was very deliberate, and so is the process of developing fighter pilots able to take off and land on a carrier. This is a tricky business but Chinese pilots have already spent several years practicing on an airfield in Central China built to the same specifications of the Liaoning flight deck. Not only have pilots trained on this land-based “carrier” but so have the deck crews that will have to carry out the quick and complex procedures needed to assist aircraft landing and taking off. China knows that the Liaoning has to carry out landings and takeoffs at sea, where anyone can witness and photograph any accidents. So their policy is to minimize the risk of embarrassing accidents as much as possible.
The Liaoning is not only the newest Chinese warship but also the largest and first aircraft carrier. Losing this ship to an accident to weather would be a great catastrophe, and the fact that the four Sun brothers were aboard would be a very small part of that. For now the Chinese are accentuating the positive and energetically striving to reduce the many risks they know they will encounter as they create an aircraft carrier capability.