Home » Aviation » Pentagon: ‘Improper Airmanship’ by Chinese Fighter Pilot Led to Unsafe Intercept of Air Force Recon Plane


Pentagon: ‘Improper Airmanship’ by Chinese Fighter Pilot Led to Unsafe Intercept of Air Force Recon Plane

RC-135. US Air Force Photo

RC-135. US Air Force Photo

A Tuesday intercept of a U.S. Air Force reconnaissance plane by a Chinese fighter the Pentagon deemed unsafe was likely due to “improper airmanship,” a defense official told USNI News on Wednesday.

A pair of People’s Liberation Army Air Force Chengdu J-10 Firebird fighters intercepted a U.S. Air Force Boeing RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft over the East China Sea on Tuesday that was deemed unsafe by U.S. officials.

However, poor airmanship rather than intentionally aggressive flying was to blame for the safety concerns, according to an assessment from U.S. Pacific Command.

“One of the intercepting Chinese jets had an unsafe excessive rate of closure on the RC-135 aircraft,” read a statement provided to USNI News on Wednesday morning.
“Initial assessment is that this seems to be a case of improper airmanship, as no other provocative or unsafe maneuvers occurred.”

In response to the Pentagon, Chinese officials again called for U.S. surveillance planes to stop patrolling so close to the Chinese coast.

Chinese Chengdu J-10 Firebird fighter in 2009 via Wikipedia

Chinese Chengdu J-10 Firebird fighter in 2009 via Wikipedia

“I want to point out that pilots of the Chinese military take responsible and professional moves in accordance with laws and regulations,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei on Wednesday.
“Everything starts with the US military aircraft’s frequent reconnaissance against China’s coastal areas which severely threatens China’s safety at sea and in the air. China has the right to take defensive moves in response. We urge the US to stop such kind of reconnaissance activities and prevent similar incident from happening again.”

The Tuesday incident with the Rivet Joint follows one in May over the South China Sea when two Shenyang J-11 fighters came close to a U.S. Navy EP-3E Aries II signals intelligence aircraft near the People’s Liberation Army enclave on Hainan Island.

In September, two Xian JH-7 fighters conducted a less dramatic intercept of a U.S. Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint with one fighter crossing about 500 feet in front of the nose of the surveillance aircraft in which some reports called a “near collision” over the Yellow Sea.

At the time, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said, “there’s no indication this was a near collision but the report that came back was that the plane operated in an unsafe fashion.”

An artist's depiction of a Chinese J-11 intercepting a US Navy P-8A Poseidon in 2014. Image via Weibo

An artist’s depiction of a Chinese J-11 intercepting a US Navy P-8A Poseidon in 2014. Image via Weibo

Aside from the recent incidents, U.S. officials have characterized the interaction between Chinese and U.S. surveillance flights as mostly professional since a 2014 incident where a fully armed J-11 performed a threatening barrel roll in front of a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon to show the aircrew it was carrying a full weapons load-out.

The following is the June 8, 2016 statement from the Pentagon on the intercept.

U.S. Pacific Command has reviewed the details of an intercept of a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft (US Air Force RC-135) on a routine patrol by two Chinese jets (J-10s) that occurred on June 7 (local time), in international airspace, over the East China Sea. One of the intercepting Chinese jets had an unsafe excessive rate of closure on the RC-135 aircraft. Initial assessment is that this seems to be a case of improper airmanship, as no other provocative or unsafe maneuvers occurred. The Department of Defense is addressing the issue with China in appropriate diplomatic and military channels.

  • Curtis Conway

    “Everything starts with the US military aircraft’s frequent reconnaissance against China’s coastal areas which severely threatens China’s safety at sea and in the air.”

    The US aircraft was in ‘International Airspace’, and I bet you there wasn’t another aircraft around for miles. The unsafe aspects of flight are ‘created’ by the Chinese pilots who are either UNABLE, or UNWILLING to behave in an acceptable manner as called for and agreed to by both countries. Perhaps their aircraft are just not that controllable, or this illustrates just how much Chinese agreements are worth, which I would wager will be demonstrated some more in the future.

    • gunnerv1

      Just like the CCCP during the “Cold War”.

      • Steve Skubinna

        We had treaties with the Soviets during the Cold War governing encounters between military ships and aircraft which, for the most part, they respected. It helped that the USSR respected us as a potentially dangerous adversary.

        • gunnerv1

          Is this Commander Skubinna, XO, USS Finch (DER-328)?

          • Steve Skubinna

            Actually it is his son, LCDR (USN) and Second Officer (MSC) Skubinna. I was just a kid back then on Guam in ’66/7.

            The avatar pic is me as 3/O and Assistant Cargo Officer aboard USNS Kiska a bunch of years ago.

          • gunnerv1

            I served under him as a “Screamin Fleet Seaman” (E-2, E-3) I can see the resemblance to your Father in your Avatar
            Anyway…As an E-7, I observed aggressive Ship Maneuvering/Handling/Seamanship while stationed in The Uss Sampson in the Black Sea (we stayed at Condition III with all DC Lockers Manned.) “Protocol be Damned”

          • Steve Skubinna

            Yeah, we had a Krivak zip by too close in the Med while I was aboard USS Butte (AE-27). For the most part, however, the Russkies kept their distance then.

            Certainly in comparison with their behavior these days, as well as the PRC. Golly, it’s almost as though they have no respect at all for us. Whatever could account for that, I wonder?

    • publius_maximus_III

      Perhaps we should send a fighter escort along with our reconnaissance aircraft while patrolling in “International Airspace”? We’ll see how rapidly your Chinese interceptors approach then, Mr. Hong.

      • Tim Dolan

        Unfortunately that would not necessarily be considered innocent passage then. The reconnaissance crews know what they are in for. The specifically do not fly armed with anything more than sensors and some defensive counter measures specifically so there is no aggressive intent. I have always respected reconnaissance crews more than armed fighter pilots because of that. With the possible exception of the folks that didn’t destroy their gear fast enough when they had to land somewhere they had not planned on.

        • publius_maximus_III

          Ah-so, thanks for the information. Sounds like a job for someone with nerves of steel.

          • sferrin

            He is incorrect.

          • Tim Dolan

            No I just happened to use a term for something generic that I forgot had a legal definition different than what I intended to convey.

        • sferrin

          “Unfortunately that would not necessarily be considered innocent passage then.”

          Except we are NOT demonstrating “innocent passage”. Innocent Passage is reserved for transiting a country’s sovereign water which this most certainly is NOT. In fact, calling it “innocent passage” plays right into Chinese hands by treating the areas of international land/sea/air claimed by China as Chinese territory.

          • Tim Dolan

            Okay so the technical term is “Freedom of Navigation” you still do not send an escort fighter if you can avoid it because that is far more provocative and threatening. The passage of the reconnaissance aircraft is all that is needed to serve the point without causing undue provocations. Unless you are actually expecting them to shoot it down on that mission.

          • sferrin

            If you can avoid it sure. You don’t want to make your servicemen martyrs though so you have a responsibility to protect them. If that means escorts so be it.

        • El Kabong

          “Unfortunately that would not necessarily be considered innocent passage then.”?

          Where does it say aircraft have to be unarmed?

          The Russian Tu-160’s transited around Europe to launch missiles in Syria…

      • Curtis Conway

        I always thought that some of our ISR platforms should have a hose & drogue capability to facilitate a fighter escort if required.

  • draeger24

    Hillary hit the “reset button” all right, except now, we have two “Cold War” adversaries….plus chaos in the Middle East…

    • sferrin

      “The 80s called, they want their Cold War back hurrrr, durrr, hurrrr. . .” – Barack Obama.

  • Ed L

    Don’t Chinese and Russian recce aircraft have tail guns?

    • El Kabong

      Su-24MR’s don’t. Neither do IL-20’s.