J-20s Fly at Zhuhai

China flew a pair of its Chengdu J-20 “Mighty Dragon” fighters at the Zhuhai air show Tuesday, marking the first public display of the fighter since images of it surfaced on the Internet in 2010. Two J-20s made a single pass over the airshow, after which one remained in the demonstration area for less than a minute, executing gentle turns and one vertical climb. Attendees noted that the jet was extremely loud. It did not open its weapon bays or fly at low level. In recent weeks, new images of the J-20 have emerged, showing an aircraft looking far more “operational” than the previous test models, each of which have shown evolution of the design. New serrated panels, faceted fairings and landing gear doors have shown up in each prototype iteration, along with a faceted under-nose pod almost identical in shape to the electro-optical targeting system (EOTS) on the US F-35. The latest J-20s also feature polygonal gold apertures very similar to the Distributed Aperture System on the F-35. Recent photos show a different-color gray on leading edges, similar to those seen on the F-22, as well as a subtle gray-on-gray “splinter” camouflage reminiscent of more dramatic patterns seen on the Russian Su-35 and T-50, although it wasn’t clear if that pattern was applied to the ones that flew at Zhuhai.

The jets that performed sport a first-ever “low visibility” gray version of the Chinese roundel, and a small object under the fuselage that may have been a radar cross section enhancer—similar to equipment employed on the F-22 and F-35—to prevent attendees from measuring the jet’s RCS. At certain angles, the J-20 also reflected an apparent silver underlayer of paint; again, similar to that on the F-22. While it is unusual for China to publicly demonstrate aircraft not yet in service, it flew its other prototype “stealth” fighter, the Shenyang J-31, at the 2014 show. China has said that it intends the J-20 to be operational in 2018. Also noteworthy at the show was the new large AG600 flying boat, assessed by experts as intended to resupply China’s newly-built reef-island airfields, although China insists the aircraft is meant for search and rescue and firefighting. (Watch a BBC video of the aircraft flying at the airshow.)