Chinese Fighter Jet Crash: Incompatible Russian Engine or Industrial Deficiency?

By Leo Timm
Leo Timm
Leo Timm
Leo Timm is a freelance contributor to The Epoch Times. He covers Chinese politics, culture, and current affairs.
October 13, 2015 Updated: October 17, 2015

When a Chinese-designed jet fighter crashed, local media found fault with the imported Russian engine while praising the injured pilot for his “outstanding soldier’s conviction” during the incident.  

According to a report by the Beijing-based Sina Military Network, the Russian-built engine used in the J-10 is prone to malfunction, having caused multiple crashes in recent years.

On Sept. 19. a J-10 fighter jet from northeastern China’s Shenyang Military Region crashed during a nighttime patrol mission, state-run China Central Television (CCTV) reported. The Russian-built engine had lost power at over 11,000 feet, said pilot Li Tong, who ejected at 1,000 feet following an abortive 198-second attempt to glide the aircraft to a local airfield.

Li survived with neck and spine injuries. Because he had avoided lit, populated areas when maneuvering his damaged plane, CCTV lauded him as a hero, saying that he had made no less than five “weighty decisions” to “avoid the loss of property and life among the masses.”

A distinguished military pilot, Li Tong told CCTV that his first priority was to save the jet, which at the time of engine failure was carrying 200 rounds of aircraft ordnance and 2.5 tons of fuel. As Li struggled to restart the engine, the plane fell to about 5,000 feet.

Why a Russian Engine?

The J-10 is a single-engine light fighter aircraft that was developed by the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation in the 1990s and put into service starting 2005. It is built around the powerful Russian AL-31 engine, which was originally intended for the two-engined Su-27 family of Soviet-designed fighter aircraft.

With its Western-inspired and locally-designed single-engine configuration, however, the J-10 suffers from severe compatibility issues in using the AL-31. At the same time, the Chinese-designed WS-10 aircraft engines have proven even less reliable than the Russian equipment.

Despite claims made in 2014 by a spokesman for the Chinese research institute tasked with the WS-10’s development that the engine was “fully operational and matured” for use in an upgraded J-10, a Sina report this August revealed that the Chinese aviation industry had yet to reduce the Taihang’s failure rate to within acceptable boundaries. The Chinese air force and in particular the J-10 jets will continue to run Russian engines.

According to Chinese naval publications cited by Sina, consultations with Russian providers to find a solution for the AL-31 compatibility issues have been delayed for want of funding.

“Measures to address failures from the perspective of design theory cannot be given,” the Sina report thus said.  

Netizens found issue with the Chinese media reports and analysis of the September crash, saying that CCTV’s triumphant depiction of the pilot’s emergency actions drew attention away from the technical failings common to modern Chinese fighters.

A user in Guangdong Province contradicted the Sina analysis for its implication that the engine can simply be re-engineered, if only the Russians would help. “The engine is not like a graphics card that can be changed at will,” the post reads. “It is integrated with the entire airframe.”

“What if the aircraft was severely damaged, or if the pilot had no time to process the malfunction? Never make a trifle of human life,” a netizen from Shanghai said, criticizing the CCTV report for its rosy depiction of Li Tong’s flight and crash that “avoided residential areas.”

Jenny Li contributed research

Leo Timm
Leo Timm is a freelance contributor to The Epoch Times. He covers Chinese politics, culture, and current affairs.