Voice from China Z: China’s rockstar pilot conquers fears and grueling training, inspires girls to soar into the sky
Published: May 14, 2023 05:08 PM
Editor's Note:

Young Chinese people in the new era are confident, aspirational, and responsible. With a global vision, they stand at the forefront of the times ready to fully commit to a more global outlook. Chinese people accept and quickly respond to the world's trending schools of thought. Some members of China's Generation Z have begun to practice the tenets of "global citizenry" and use their thought processes and actions to influence society.

The Global Times has launched a series of introductory stories to China's Gen Zers - those born after 1995 - who are interested in different global topics, such as environmental protection, equality, and employment issues, and invites them to share their stories, sentiments, and ideas on social media platforms.

In this installment, a young female internet celebrity who is a helicopter pilot, and also the first female pilot in the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Army, shares her story of chasing her dreams in the expansive blue skies.

Xu Fengcan photo: Courtesy of Xu

Xu Fengcan photo: Courtesy of Xu


In a truly smooth move, female pilot Xu Fengcan glides through the cloud-covered sky, effortlessly leveling out the aircraft and accelerating away before executing a gentle landing, leaving onlookers applauding her aerial prowess. 

It is hard for people to believe that the stunning performance was actually the 24-year-old's first outing piloting China's most advanced, domestically developed utility helicopter, the Z-20, in September 2020. 

Xu's recent participation in the latest modified Z-10 training left internet users abuzz with praise after photos of her in action were released online. 

With her display of exquisite skill and daringness, Xu, a bright young female pilot in the Southern Theater Command of the PLA, has become a role model and idol for millions of girls - a cool and dreamy icon.

That is where one's searing passion meets cutting-edge innovation, where willpower meets firepower.

On September 19, 2020, Xu, part of the first batch of female pilots trained by the PLA Army Aviation Force, became the first female pilot to complete an independent flight, thanks to her exceptional aerial prowess and overall outstanding theoretical scores.

In November 2022, at the 14th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai, South China's Guangdong Province, Xu piloted the Z-20 helicopter and served as a commentator. She was praised by millions of people as an exemplar of the new generation of power representing the launch of China's young female pilots.

For a young lady like Xu, the cockpit of a helicopter never seemed to be out of women's reach, but rather an ongoing challenge to keep growing and improving. 

Uncommon pathway

With each step on the flight line, Xu walks a path that few like her have traveled.

"It was a significant challenge for me to have the opportunity to fly an advanced combat aircraft like the Z-20 right after graduation. It was an incredibly proud and honorable mission to complete my first solo flight!" Xu recalled, saying that the Z-20 has a complicated operating system and requires a high level of operational finesse.

"Sitting in the cockpit is completely different from going on a trip by plane. Ordinary people may be attracted to the scenery outside the window when they take off, but as a pilot, my mind is only occupied with operation essentials. I must focus on the instrument panel throughout the flight with laser-like precision," said Xu.

Flying solo means that a pilot will bravely take to the skies without the assistance of an experienced instructor. This rite of passage is what a mature pilot must go through.

Xu asserts that female pilots are as skilled as their male counterparts in aerospace operations, including in the handling of weapons, the use of precision instrument, terrain recognition, and many other areas. The tenacity and bravery of female soldiers come from their unwavering devotion to the cause they are fighting for and their tireless efforts.

"Exercises such as 400-meter running, 1500-meter running, 3000-meter running, single and double bars, spinning ladders, rollers, and so on, are commonly included in a single training day, and I'm often too exhausted to pick up a spoon after training. I can recall that once after a long day of extra training, I could feel my brain going blank; my legs were as heavy as lead, and I could hear the sound of my own heavy panting in my ears. But it never stopped me moving forward," she said.

Xu said she would often hold up the dashboard to repeatedly practice during ground training, forgetting about the physical exertion until she would eventually feel her arms begin to hurt.

Blue dream, the Chinese dream

"Ever since childhood, I have had a special yearning for the sky and I often imagined myself flying an aircraft. I still remember when I was still undecided about which college to apply to after high school graduation. A recruitment message from the PLA Army popped up, and that, in turn, revived my dream - to join the army and become a pilot in the future," Xu told the Global Times.

Xu later recalled that the enlistment message had indeed set her destiny in motion. The post of "army pilot" rippled through the girl's mind like a stone thrown into the stream.

"I reminded myself of the quote by the late Chinese intellectual and revolutionary Li Dazhao - 'one should strive tirelessly to establish a better family, society, and nation while one is in his youth.' I believe that youth is the most priceless stage of life, so we should dedicate ourselves to worthwhile causes that will advance the development of the country. In light of this, I was determined to enlist in the PLA," she said.

Pilots are already few in number, and female pilots are even more uncommon. The selection process isn't a cakewalk because of stringent requirements in height, weight, and vision, all of which should meet the aviation force standards. The college entrance examination scores must be above the local admission scores for first-tier universities.

Pressure is far beyond belief. Acrophobia was once the biggest obstacle in Xu's early stages of training. "I used to feel weak in the legs when I stood at great heights. However, for pilots, acrophobia is a mental flaw that must be overcome; failing to do so could put an end to one's career," she said.

There is no better way to conquer this innate fear than through repetition and countless hours of practice.

This is always how Xu pushes herself to soar up into the sky above challenges.

Xu's perseverance has encouraged many young people at her age to continue striving for their dreams, and Xu has inspired many others to join the army like her to protect the motherland.

"Xu has set an example for me to see how a girl can master the most powerful defense weapons, and how to integrate young lives with national dreams," one netizen wrote, after hearing Xu speak as a deputy to the 14th National People's Congress (NPC) in March to encourage more young people to join the defense cause.

Xu told the Global Times that in the future, she also dreams of becoming a Chinese astronaut, to follow the path of her idol Liu Yang, the first Chinese woman in space, and continue to expand her dream of space.

Yue Mingchunxiao also contributed to this story