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In the eyes of his comrades, Senior Colonel Hao Jingwen, the commander of a People"s Liberation Army Air Force brigade, is "the first person to eat the crab"－a Chinese metaphor for someone adventurous enough to try risky new things.
It"s a fitting description for Hao, who led Chinese warplanes on a trailblazing classified mission in 2017. In a warfare exercise in 2014 he achieved another first for the Air Force, successfully penetrating defenses for the first time at a very low altitude during nighttime. And in 2016 he practiced air-to-air refueling at a record altitude for the Air Force.
Since starting out as an entry-level pilot in 1998, Hao has never stopped exploring new tactics or pushing weaponry to the limit. He was awarded the title of "role model of our time" on Friday for his commitment to safeguarding the nation"s sovereignty.
Lieutenant Colonel Cao Bin, the brigade"s deputy commander, said nighttime defense penetration at low altitude had seemed nearly impossible during the aerial drill in 2014 that took place in a desert deep in northwestern China.
"The night-vision equipment was not sophisticated enough to support night attacks at normal altitudes," he said.
After carefully analyzing the two sides, including weapons performance parameters and the battlefield conditions, Hao boldly proposed arranging his fighter jets in a compressed formation and flying at a very low altitude to break through the opponent"s defenses.
The tactic increased the risk of planes colliding or hitting the ground. Without insufficient night vision devices, Hao, in the lead aircraft, relied on his expertise and meticulous topographical studies to make the mission a success, Cao said. "As long as he believes a tactic will improve combat capabilities, he will bear the risk, however big it might be," he added.
During an exercise in 2015, the sky was obscured by dense clouds. Occasional thunderstorms posed great risks to aircraft. The ground command center suggested canceling the attack plan three times for safety reasons, but Hao was determined to continue.
"He made one simple order: Follow me," said Lieutenant Colonel Wang Li, one of the brigade"s deputy chiefs of staff. In his usual lead position, Hao steered his fighter nimbly through the fissures of the dark clouds and rejoined the attack formation as soon as the planes broke free. They hit all their targets.
Though such practice runs may sound dangerous, Hao views them as opportunities rather than risks, believing that one of the keys to developing better skills is to step out of one"s comfort zone.
"These practices mean opportunities for us in our tireless pursuit of stronger combat capabilities," Hao said. "For my brigade, as long as it can help beef up our combat capabilities, even though the risks are high and many uncertainties exist, we still must do it and we will do it well."
Hao"s colleagues and comrades described him as a bold and tough man who is always determined to win, even on a basketball court. Years of challenging missions confronting foreign air forces at sea have forged his composure and honed his flying technique to a fine edge.
"He has become one with his fighter jet," said Lieutenant Colonel Shen Xing, a brigade officer. Once when he was on a mission, Hao felt that a screw might have dropped from his plane. When he checked the jet"s body after landing, a screw had indeed gone missing, Shen said.
Hao was one of the first pilots to win the Gold Helmet award, one of China"s top air combat honors. He has overcome numerous operational difficulties in the use of new weaponry and formulated many different systems to manage and plan military exercises.
"He is a man born for war," said Lieutenant Colonel Wang Dengdong, another brigade deputy chief of staff. "Although living in peacetime, he never lets go of that worry of war and continuously summarizes, reviews and learns from all the past training and exercises."