A transport helicopter was spotted ascending from and then landing on China’s first home-made aircraft carrier last weekend, although the yet-to-be-christened seagoing airbase was still moored at a pier in the Dalian Shipyard in the northeastern province of Liaoning, defying speculations of an imminent sea trial.
Chinese state media including the Global Times have confirmed that a Changhe Z-18 helicopter – modeled on the French SA 321 Super Frelon – that entered service with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) just recently had taken off from the carrier and then returned for a landing a number of times on Saturday. There have also been reports about similar takeoff-landing training sessions conducted on Sunday and Monday.
Photographs of the chopper in action have been circulating on Chinese social media since then.
Guidance systems on board the carrier as well as the helicopter functioned well, as was the transport of crew and materiel from onshore to the carrier and vice versa, Global Times noted in a brief report.
The paper cited Beijing-based military expert Li Jie as saying that the brand-new Z-18 helicopters could be deployed if an emergency occurred during future sea trials.
Z-18 helicopters have a payload of 4,000 kilograms plus 27 passengers.
Meanwhile, a no-entry ban gazetted by the Liaoning provincial maritime authority to cordon off the Bohai Strait and an area north of the Yellow Sea remains in effect until Friday.
Local media in Dalian also reported that avid military buffs and foreign journalists and photographers continued to camp on hills close to the shipyard to witness the historic sailing of the first made-in-China aircraft carrier, more than two weeks after the news of its pending sea trial started to swirl.
However, Li urged caution, saying the initial sea trials “may encounter problems, as there are some 700 million to 800 million parts on a carrier.”
Whether the carrier will return to the shipyard after its first sea trial for follow-up checks and maintenance and the time lag between further trials could be a gauge of its quality and operation-readiness for foreign observers.
The relatively large chunks of the Bohai and Yellow Seas covered by the week-long navigation ban are also an indication of the PLA’s circumspection.
Rumors also began to spread Tuesday afternoon that Chinese President Xi Jinping, who also heads the party’s Central Military Commission, could have already arrived in the city of Dalian to officiate at the sea trial ceremony of the Chinese carrier on Wednesday or Thursday, according to the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post. There has been no official report about Xi’s visit to Dalian so far.
Chinese news portal Sina also revealed that the homemade carrier conducted an inclining test on April 23, when several crane locomotives appeared on different parts of the flight deck.
In other photos, the aircraft carrier is seen belching some light curls of black fumes, believed to be testing its propulsion system, which is composed of furnace-oil-fired steam boilers.
That contrasts with the sight of the Russian Navy’s aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov – of the Kuznetsov class that PLA’s Liaoning and the new carrier also belong to – being blanketed in filthy smoke when it starts its antiquated engine, sometimes a source of mockery from military fans. Analysts believe Chinese engineers have made improvements to the design of the steam boilers inherited from their Russian counterparts.
Sina reported in a separate article that the second home-made carrier, rumored to be built at Shanghai’s Jiangnan Shipyard, would be propelled by gas-turbine engines and the third one would be nuclear-powered.
The current carrier is expected to be delivered after the PLA Navy is satisfied with its reliability, which will be put to the test in multiple sea trials scheduled for at least the rest of the year.