Regulations vary worldwide
The Chinese government’s efforts have long been recognized by other Western states. The British Ministry of Defence announced in October that up to 30 former fighter pilots had trained Chinese pilots in the past – and that they had received an annual salary of around €275,000 for this work.
At the time, no law banned the practice, but it made the authorities nervous. James Heappey, Minister of State for the Armed Forces, who said that China was a “competitor that is threatening the UK interest," announced a change to the law. Days later, at the urging of the U.S. government, Australian police arrested a former U.S. fighter pilot who was also accused of training Chinese soldiers.
Both cases involved a South African flying school that is believed to have functioned as a gateway that provided access to Western expertise and staff. The Test Flying Academy of South Africa (TFASA), which was founded in 2003, appears to have set its sights on Chinese customers from the outset.
Welt am Sonntag found a company presentation which explains that the company’s U.S.-based predecessor was forced to shut down due to American regulations that prohibited working with China.
UK media reported that Beijing was less interested in training its pilots to fly Western aircraft than in receiving tactical training from experienced Western pilots. In a public statement, the TFASA flying school emphasize that it had never broken the law, and that it had never “actively recruited tutors who had served in the military of a NATO state." But two documents from the flying school show that TFASA emphasized the value of its flight instructors’ NATO experience.
These documents note that all TFASA pilots are “ex-military pilots with extensive operational experience," that their staff include fighter pilots with military training and that the training TFASA offers meets “NATO training standards." The trainers have experiencing piloting, among others, the German Eurofighter aircraft, British BAE Systems Hawk jets and Boeing Apache helicopters.
Former German air force officer trained Chinese pilots
Die Welt was able to identify one former German air force pilot who had previously worked for TFASA, training Chinese helicopter pilots. He said he worked for around 20 years as a flight instructor in the German air force and was first sent to South Africa in 2003. He described the experience in 2021 in an article for a pilot magazine.
It is common for fighter pilots to take up related jobs after retiring.
At TFASA, he said he gave theoretical and practical training to four Chinese pilots. The Chinese pilots were given, among other things, “an introduction to helicopter stunt flying." The pilot did not respond to requests from Welt am Sonntag to speak about his work.
This case was around 12 years ago, but it shows that there is a lack of awareness about this issue in Germany. There is one problem: according to the law, government employees who formerly worked in sectors relating to security are only required to report their potential new employment in the private sector to the authorities if the job they are applying for is relevant to their government work over the past five years.
If an employee has left their post a long time ago, this obligation no longer applies. But it is common for fighter pilots to take up related jobs after retiring: for many years, jet pilots retired at 41; now, it is common to retire at 50.
A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Defense said that it was “unacceptable” for civil servants or soldiers to pass on expertise related to security to third party states after they finish working for the Ministry or the armed forces. “We will therefore check whether the relevant laws and regulations that are designed to prevent such behaviour are sufficient or whether we need to tighten up our laws,” according to the Ministry.
The spokeswoman went on to say that it was “in our interest that, for example, the incredibly well-trained soldiers of the German air force, who often stop working in their early 40s, find a related job in the army or on the private job market.” Therefore, the Ministry will explore whether it can better support them to do so in the future.