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Dreams of flying are forever young

Liu Yi, 76, is China′s oldest serving pilot and has clocked up more than 7,000 hours of flying experience over the past 54 years. Photos :China Daily

China′s oldest serving pilot has had a lifelong obsession with planes, and the septuagenarian still loves soaring into the great, blue yonder. 

Liu Yi has a strong handshake, he leaves your palm smarting from his grip and he sets a quick pace as he bounds up a flight of stairs.

He is of medium height, stocky but not fat. His face is tanned from working outdoors and his eyes are intelligent and bright.

Unless he gives you a clue, it would be difficult to guess his real age. He was born in 1938 and has clocked up more than 7,000 hours of flying experience over the past 54 years. He is China oldest serving pilot.

Liu has made many "firsts" over the course of his career. He was the first Chinese to get a private pilot license and the first general aviation pilot after the cultural revolution (1966-76). Liu has never tired of soaring through blue skies since first entering the cockpit in 1959.

Liu′s given name is Yi, which means wings in Chinese. "I don′t know if my parents had wanted me to be a pilot when they gave the name to me. But I know I′ve had wings in my heart since I was a child," Liu said at Shenyang Faku Aviation Base, which is also the training base for the flying team of Shenyang Aerospace University.

His love for aviation and fearless disregard for his personal safety, has led Liu to pilot trial flights for eight different kinds of planes and he has gathered vital data for the design and modification of aircraft.

Being a test pilot is a risky business. In order to define the limit of safe flight, Liu must exceed the assumed limit during the trial flight. His navigational skills, courage and willingness to take out untested aircraft has earned him the nickname "Caption of the Death squads".

Over more than five decades′ of flying, Liu has narrowly escaped death several times.

He recalls one incident when there were some miscalculations in noting the abilities of an aircraft. If he had reacted to the miscalculation 0.01 second later, he would have crashed the plane.

Worried about his safety, 20 years ago his aunt begged Liu′s bosses to forbid him to fly. But Liu′s persistence and his enthusiasm for flying finally persuaded other family members to let him pursue his passion.

"Pilots have to take a very strict physical exam every year. The older I get the more frightened I become when undergoing the physical check, I am afraid of being forbidden from flying again. But I will stop flying if my physical condition really doesn′t permit me to continue," Liu says.

Liu′s childhood is marked with memories of the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression. He can remember the terror of the Japanese planes and the wild bombings that destroyed villages and schools. "The planes left collapsing walls, burning debris and innocent people crying and covered in blood. Since then I swore to be a pilot to protect the country," Liu says.

Liu′s father was an air force pilot who died in battle. Possibly influenced by his father, Liu showed great interest in planes when he was a child.

Liu sought out all the information he could find about planes when he was in primary and middle school. His obsession with planes eventually prompted his middle school teacher to recommend Liu apply for the pilot exam.

Liu finished the introductory, intermediate and advanced courses and went from being a student to an excellent pilot teacher within two years.

As a glider coach, he began training air force pilots in 1960. "China had a great shortage of pilots in those days, therefore the training was all high intensity. Sometimes I needed to fly some 70 times a day," Liu said.


Liu says China had a great shortage of pilots in the 1960s, therefore the training was all high intensity. Sometimes he needed to fly 70 times a day.

But he thought the hard work was worth it because he cultivated more than 100 pilots for the air force, and all of them played an important role in national defense, economic development and in rescue missions.

In Li Wanfeng′s eyes, deputy team leader of Shenyang Aerospace University flying team, Liu is not only an excellent pilot, coach but also a plane designer.

"To help us grasp the basic flying techniques, teacher Liu is very strict with us. But after class, he is like a grandpa who cares about our study and daily lives," Li says.

Since the 1990s, Liu has been flying to many provinces and autonomous regions to help with forest and agricultural research and disaster rescue.

In 2010, when he heard that a pest had spread quickly in Weifang, Shandong province and threatened the harvest, 72-year-old Liu flew to Weifang and helped spray pesticide with the plane for more than two weeks.

While the majority of Liu′s peers are playing cards, exercising in the park or enjoying Peking opera at home, Liu′s life is still full with work. Besides being invited to perform at various air shows, he is also chief pilot or test pilot for several domestic general aviation companies.

Among all his jobs, he likes training student pilots the most.

"China still has some distance to go compared with many developed countries and even some developing countries such as Brazil in terms of the general aviation industry. And one of the key reasons is a shortage of professional talents," said Liu.

According to Liu, most of the best-known plane designers from around the wor

ld are experienced pilots, but in China the situation is the opposite. The central government has attached more importance to aviation in recent years and opened some related courses in universities, the problem is that theory does not make for a great pilot - students need experience in the sky. The disconnect between classroom and cockpit has greatly hindered the development of China′s aviation industry.

"The flying team that I am coaching now is all university students with an aviation background. Flying experience combined with aviation theory, these students will be the future of China′s aviation industry," Liu says.

Liu Yi doesn′t like people calling him China′s oldest serving pilot, for in his heart his dreams of flying are forever young.


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