The biennial Zhuhai Airshow held in southern China always presents an opportunity for Chinese military watchers to observe some of the latest aerospace and military technology intended for export to gauge domestic People’s Liberation Army (PLA) systems. Zhuhai also allows observers to closely observe PLA aircraft and systems placed on static display and sometimes new flight routines as well.
The recently concluded Zhuhai Airshow of 2018, however, ranks as the most impressive event in recent memory by a significant margin, featuring an impressive performance by J-20 stealth fighters, the first ever demonstration of a Chinese thrust vector control (TVC) equipped fighter, as well as a large number of new flying wing drones, new radar systems, and more. This piece will examine some of the most interesting and consequential displays and products.
J-10B Flexes With TVC
In late 2017, J-10B prototype serial 1034 made its first flight with a TVC nozzle equipped variant of the domestic WS-10 engine. Slightly less than one year later, on day one of Zhuhai 2018, serial 1034 was among the first aircraft performances of the morning. The aircraft demonstrated a spectacular selection of high alpha and post stall maneuvers that were previously only the domain of certain U.S. and Russian aircraft, such as Pugachev’s cobra, the J-turn, and falling leaf.
While the J-10B is hardly the first aircraft to perform such displays at a public airshow, it is arguably the first ever TVC equipped, non-Russian and non-U.S. aircraft (either in service or demonstrator) to perform publicly in that manner. The PLA’s willingness to display TVC technology in such a confident and public manner, aboard an indigenous engine, is likely indicative not only of greater openness on behalf of the PLA itself, but also a reflection of the stage domestic TVC development has reached and the PLA’s faith in the maturity of the technology. Indeed, a number of placards and videos showcasing relevant past and ongoing TVC research and development were also identified elsewhere at the airshow’s grounds.
J-20 Receives a Proper Showcase
A pair of J-20s overflew Zhuhai Airshow 2016 in a brief 60 second debut; however, they did not demonstrate anything close to what the platform was capable of achieving, even when compared to amateur footage of J-20 test flights taken in Chengdu. But during Zhuhai 2018, multiple active service J- 20s conducted more comprehensive displays lasting multiple minutes, on multiple days. The J-20 demonstrations started with a three or four ship formation overflight, leading into a series of tight turns and impressive climbs, showcasing arguably the most brisk maneuvers that have ever been observed from the J-20. Videos and photos taken at the scene show some of the best J-20 photos ever taken to date, with impressive vortex and condensation generation effects atop the aircraft in a manner never captured before.