Thirty-nine of the 100 junior middle school graduates enrolled in the quasi-military aviation training programme in five key high schools across China four summers ago joined the People's Liberation Army Air Force as flying cadets last year.
They are the first batch of pilots to emerge out of a new air force pilot training programme that focuses on developing the instincts and thinking power of pilots from an early age.
The programme has now been extended to more than 10 high schools and will admit 1,000 students this year, and the air force hopes to select about 400 flying cadets from the dozens of "Little Eagle Classes" when they graduate three years later.
"Although I had visited the Aviation University of the PLA Air Force (in Changchun, Jilin province) several times before, I felt the air was different on that summer night in 2011 when I was enrolled in the 'Little Eagle Class' in the Jilin Provincial Experimental High School," says 18-year-old Zou Yu from Taoxian, Hubei province, who is now a flying cadet of the aviation university.
The high school and the university face each other across a road in Changchun. The university has produced more than 70,000 pilots and about 300 generals for the air force. And almost all of China's astronauts have studied there.
With his classmates from Hubei and Hebei provinces, Zou spent half of the past three years in the high school studying the lessons in the curriculum, and the other half at the university receiving basic training to become a pilot. Zou's father suggested he should apply for the pilot programme, because air force pilots are highly regarded in China.
The students live on the university campus, wear non-designated military uniform, and are trained by captains and political instructors both.
They also attend classes taken by regular teachers at the high school. Zou's school, as one of the first five pilot schools, produced 25 flying cadets for the air force last year. But the air force has enlisted just 40 pilot cadets from Jilin, a province with about 27 million people, in recent years.
In the No. 6 Middle School of Wuhan in Hubei, another pilot school that collaborates with the PLA Air Force Warning College, life for the "little eagles" is comparatively easy. The trainees live in the high school dormitories, wear school as well as military uniform, and are allowed to interact with the other students.
Wang Hao, principal of the school in Jilin, says his school chooses young and capable male teachers as class supervisors. "The boys are in a special period of their life.
The teachers must have rich experience to guide and prepare them for the military ... The teachers have to be careful in designing the curriculum of the 'little eagles', reducing the reading and writing syllabus to ensure their eyesight is not damaged."
At the end of 2013 and before sitting for the college entrance exam, the youths wrote a joint letter to Xu Qiliang, then chief commander of PLA Air Force and the present vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, stating their resolve to be air force pilots. "Study hard, and wish you all fly in the sky as early as possible," Xu replied.
Apart from the 25 flying cadets enrolled by the aviation university, all of the other students from the "Little Eagle Class" of the Jilin high school received offers from universities across the country.
Origins of the project
Although China is home to the largest population in the world, its "aviation population" is comparatively small, because most of the good middle school students' eyesight and physical health are not good enough for the air force. Also, some of them are lured by the other better-paying jobs.
Statistics show China's booming civil aviation industry needs about 60,000 pilots by 2020. Their recruitment criteria are lower and salaries higher than the air force. "The number of young people qualifying as air force pilots is fixed, and they are important strategic human resources of the country. The idea is to select the best flight talents," says Xing Guoping, professor of aviation studies at the aviation university.
Peng Junxia, head of the air force's enrollment department, says: "As the Air Force Chief Commander Ma Xiaotian said, the 'little eagle' project is not to expedite the training and education of pilots but to instill professional awareness and sense of responsibility in people from an early age."
The programme was devised also because it is becoming increasingly difficult for the air force to enroll qualified flying cadets from among high school graduates after the criterion for college entrance exam scores was raised. About 6 million students in China enroll in colleges every year, and only about 900,000 of them get admitted to the top 100 universities.
Confounding the problem is a 2010 national physical fitness survey conducted by 10 ministries, which shows more than 67 per cent junior middle school students aged between 13 and 15 and about 80 per cent high school students aged between 16 and 18 are near-sighted.
"Our programme is also aimed at minimizing the damage caused to their eyesight," says Xiao Dong, vice-head of the air force enrollment department. Early training is a conventional practice in countries with strong air forces.
Many famous air force pilots started receiving professional training from an early age. For example, Ivan Nykytovych Kozhedub of the Soviet Union Red Army Air Force, who shot down 62 German planes, started training at 18, and Erich Alfred Hartmann of Nazi Germany's Luftwaffe, who is credited with shooting down 352 Allied planes, started at 14.
The United States Air Force has about 884 primary reserve officer training corps with 100,000 registered trainees. Russia, France and the UK have had similar arrangements since World War II.
Kang Zhuang, a flight instructor of the aviation university, says: "A good pilot is the result of not only proper training, but also his physical instincts and other traits. Early training can help pilots excel and better adapt to life in the air."
Producing flying cadets
Learning from the Soviet Union, China established dozens of gliding schools in the 1950s that sent 12,000 flying cadets at an average age of 15.6 years to the air force by 1979, except for the period of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) when the schools were closed.
Learning from the Soviet Union's experience that flying cadets with six months' tactical training could take part in real air combats, China began spreading basic aviation knowledge by establishing aviation clubs across the country to prepare reserve pilots for the air force. The targeted trainees were young students and workers.
By the end of 1959, China had 41 such aviation clubs with 49 airstrips and more than 1,500 trainees. From 1960, the flight clubs started admitting junior middle school graduates as trainees, who took the air force's enrollment test together with high school graduates after one to two years of training and middle school education.
Qian Changyan, 70, is a former vice-principal of the No.1 Middle School, affiliated to the Huangzhong Normal University in Wuhan, one of the first flight clubs established in the 1950s, and was the supervisor of his "gliding class". He says there were 28 students in his class, and most of them were from poor peasant families. "They arrived at the school in shabby vests and shorts, without any luggage ... The air force took special care of them, and provided them ewe's milk when there was no milk during the great famine of 1960-62."
The school ran a maximum of six "gliding classes" a year, and about 70 per cent of its graduates were enlisted by the air force as flying cadets. The military was tasked with providingfor their life, the government's sports bureau had the responsibility of improving their physical fitness levels through a special exercise regimen, and the middle school conducted general knowledge classes for them.
All the flight clubs were closed in 1979, and the air force started looking for flying cadets from among high school graduates. The air force selected 44 high schools as the bases to train the flying cadets in the mid-1990s. And these schools sent more than 1,100 flying cadets to the air force from 1996 to 2003.
But owing to lack of proper training and policy support, some schools were struck off the list. The air force reformed the entire flying cadet development process and the enrollment system in 2007, finally giving shape to the "Little Eagles" project.