China’s ‘Ace’: Yang Wei, fighter designer
There are arguably thousands of engineers around the world in the realm of new aircraft design, but ace designers only come along once every few decades. In the 1930s, there was Reginald Mitchell of Spitfire fame, Sydney Camm who designed the Hurricane, Willy Messerschmitt and his line of famous fighters, Claude Dornier and his bombers and seaplanes, Kurt Tank and the FW 190, several Soviet designers including Tupolev, Yakovlev and so many others. In the 1950s, the United States had Kelly Johnson, designer of the Starfighter and SR- 71 Blackbird; the Soviet Union’s Mikoyan and his classic MiGs and more lately Mikhail Simonov of the Sukhoi Su- 27 family. Each of them were highly skilled, but they also owed much of their success to circumstance. They came along when their respective governments invested millions — or billions — of dollars into transforming brainpower into cutting-edge combat aircraft.
This mixture of engineering genius and unrestrained spending appears to have produced a new ace designer – this time in China. Over the last decades, a relatively unknown engineer named Yang Wei has rapidly risen to the leadership of the Chengdu Aircraft Design Institute, China’s major fighter manufacturer and responsible for most of the PLAAF’s present new gen fighters. These are the J-20, China’s first stealth fighter and the more modest, but one which will make very important impact amongst air forces in the third world notably Pakistan, the JF-17 Thunder.
Yang Wei was born in 1963 and enrolled at the Northwestern Polytechnical University in 1978 at the age of just 15. He completed two degrees and became a control systems engineer at Chengdu. At 35, he became the youngest-ever director of such an important military research and development institute. Yang is considered as the main designer behind China’s innovations in electronic ‘ fly- by- wires’ controls in the 1980s, and furthermore, is described as the main architect behind the PLAAF’s introduction of all-digital aircraft simulation tests. As a result, Yang is hailed as the “man who broke the blockade of foreign technology.”
In fact, Yang has been responsible for the Chinese evolutionary approach to designing and building combat aircraft. Instead of designing and building a brand-new aircraft from scratch, he has unabashedly borrowed from other designs, integrated some imported and/or indigenous technology, and produced them at a fraction of the cost.
A prime example is the J- 20, designed with foreign technology in the way of ‘ stealing’ the blueprints for the F-35 Lightning II and the F-22 Raptor. While no numbers are available for what the J-20 is going to cost, another, related Chinese stealth fighter, the J-31 Gyrfalcon will reportedly cost some $ 75 million. How much the F-35 will end up costing is anyone’s guess, but according to Robert Farley, “somewhere around $ 100- 120 million is a possibility”.
The J-20 may not be a complete “gamechanger,” probably not be as effective as the F-35 or certainly the F-22 (not least due to China’s persistent problems with underpowered engines). However, in a little more than a decade, China went from having no stealth fighters to entering the select club of countries in the fifth generation fighter stakes. One can expect, owing to Yang’s design philosophy, that whatever the J-20 becomes, it will not be radically different from what is already flying.
In case of the JF-17 (photo below), Yang’s philosophy shines through in a different way. This aircraft has been massively upgraded by the incorporation of advanced imported and indigenously designed tech and is supposed to be comparable to earlier models of the F-16. Again, not a revolutionary aircraft, and probably in the bottom half of the current fourth generation fighter ranking, but considering the price tag at $25 million, quantity becomes a quality in itself !