Li Hao (third from left) introduces a military unmanned aerial vehicle to new recruits at a PLA Air Force base in Gobi Desert. Photos by Yang Jun / For China Daily
Former air force pilot now flies military drones, helps train recruits
Li Hao has been a pilot all his adult life. The 54-year-old began his career in the PLA Air Force, but in February 2011, after more than 30 years and with 3,000 flying hours under his belt, he had reached the mandatory retirement age for Chinese military aviators.
He didn't want to stop being a pilot, however. "If I didn't fly planes, I really don't know what I would do," he said.
So Li decided to become a drone pilot instead and for the last six years, has worked from a hut in the Gobi Desert.
The walls are peeling, the beds are hard and everyone shares a common bathroom, but according to Hu Bin, one of Li's friends and comrades, the former chief pilot never complains.
But switching from flying manned aircraft to unmanned drones wasn't easy.
A different way of thinking is required when flying a military drone in coordination with a crew, as opposed to piloting an aircraft on your own, Li said.
Unlike civilian drones, military unmanned aerial vehicles require a number of pilots to operate due to their size and complexity. These pilots must also have a wide breadth of knowledge in a number of different fields.
In order to keep up to date, Li is always studying and has piles of textbooks covered in notes and scrawls.
"I am old and sleep less than I once did," he said. "If I find myself awake at night, I often pass the time by studying."
One of the most difficult aspects of flying military drones is the huge amount of data that needs to be handled as part of the process.
Li and his fellow pilots operate from a control room filled with numerous displays that contain all sorts of information they must monitor and react to during a flight.
To ensure a mission is successful, all the numbers and readouts have to be followed very carefully.
Although Li's new role as drone operator is quite different from flying combat jets, he still thinks of himself as a pilot.
"I like flying and being a pilot is my job," he said. "I just want to be able to make a contribution to the military drone industry with my career."
He said he dreamed of being a pilot since he was a child and remembers that the only toy he had while growing up was a small wooden aircraft.
He started training to be a pilot at age 18 and in recent years has started to teach new recruits.
One of his students, Xiao Yuming, said Li is a dedicated tutor who helped them revise for their navigation tests everyday, even staying up until midnight on occasion.
"I feel like Li would like to teach us all he knows," said Ying Xia, another of his students.
Li's wife, Zhang Sujuan, has supported him through thick and thin, allowing her husband to focus on his career.
Citing a traditional Chinese poem, she said their relationship was like that between the blossoms and branches of a tree - always together, in both life and death.