China’s New Carrier-Based Stealth Fighter Makes First Flight

The first images of the carrier-borne FC-31 variant have emerged online on the Chinese Internet on Oct. 29, 2021. (Image credit: Weibo via @Rupprecht_A)

China has flown the carrier variant of its FC-31 stealth fighter, possibly dubbed J-35 (and bearing some resemblance to the F-35C).

On Oct. 27, 2021, we reported about the first clear images of the J-20B (or J-20S – the exact designation is still unclear), the twin-seat variant of the Chengdu J-20, China’s first 5th generation aircraft, spotted while performing taxi tests in primer paint at Chengdu Aerospace Corporation plant, in China. The sighting was remarkable especially because the J-20B is going to be the world’s first ever two-seat stealth fighter jet.

While you can read our take on the new J-20B here, something else extremely interested has happened: the J-35 (be careful, this designation is once again unconfirmed), a stealth fighter jet destined to operate from PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) carrier force, has flown.

This means, that along with being the first ever to operate a two-seater stealth fighter, China will also be the first nation outside of the U.S. to develop a fully domestic carrier capable stealth fighter. In fact, images have started to circulate online on Oct. 29, 2021, showing the “navalized” stealth fighter in green primer during what may well be the type’s first flight. And, we should not also forget that earlier this year, China also unveiled the carrier-borne Xian KJ-600 AEW (Airborne Early Warning) aircraft, Beijing’s Hawkeye.

Both the J-35 and the KJ-600 will operate from the new Type-003 aircraft carrier of the PLAN which will have a catapult launch system as opposed to the first two carriers, the Liaoning and Shandong, that are both equipped with the ski-jump.

“The PLAAF and PLAN Aviation continue to field greater numbers of fourth-generation aircraft (now more than 800 of 1,500 total operational fighters, not including trainers) and probably will become a majority fourth-generation force within the next several years” the 2020 China Military Power Report to Congress says. “For fifth-generation fighters, the PLAAF operationally fielded limited numbers of its new J-20, while development continues on the smaller FC-31/J-31 for export or as a future naval fighter for the PLAN’s next class of aircraft carriers. During the PRC’s 70th anniversary parade in October 2019, the PLAAF conducted high-profile flyovers of its J-20, and J-16 and J-10C advanced fourth-generation fighters armed with the latest air-to-air missiles (AAMs). In addition, the PRC has received delivery of all 24 Su-35 advanced fourth-generation fighters it purchased from Russia in 2016. Finally, the PLAAF is preparing upgrades for the J-20, which may include increasing the number of AAMs the fighter can carry in its low-observable configuration, installing thrust-vectoring engine nozzles, and adding super cruise capability by installing higher-thrust indigenous WS-15 engines.”

Back to the J-35, it is the carrier version of the Shenyang FC-31 also known as J-31 Falcon Eagle or Gyrfalcon, China’s second stealth fighter jet that performed its maiden flight on Oct 31, 2012, and made a public appearance on Nov. 12, 2014 at Zhuhai Airshow. As already you can read in mode detail in this previous article the FC-31 can be considered China’s multirole, (claimed) low-observable tactical aircraft roughly analogous, in mission if not in capability, to the American F-35. Since its first appearance it was speculated the type had been intended for export to partner nations and slated to be built in a naval/aircraft carrier (although not STOVL).

The vertical stabilizer configuration was completely reworked from early versions that seemed to mimic the twin tails of an F-22. The J-31 has since been seen in its newest version with a swept-back twin tail.

The latest [second] version of the J-31 was seen last year on December 26, 2016, during its first flight: it was significantly re-worked, heavier (three tons more) and at least 20-inches longer than the early prototypes according to most sources.

The latest [the second] J-31 variant appears to be a more completely developed tactical aircraft with an Infra-red search and track ball passive sensor (IRST ball).

The wings have been re-worked into a claimed lower radar cross-section shape and new engines have been installed that provide greater thrust to compensate for the additional weight. The new engines are also smokeless, a significant tactical necessity. There are also claimed improvements to its search and targeting radar. Chinese officials and media have hinted at some sensor-fusion capability to hand-off targets to other aircraft and perhaps weapons assets, as with the F-35s capability to direct weapons. Perhaps the most significant claimed future capability project for 2019 is re-engining the J-31 with indigenous WS-19 turbofan engines, providing supercruise capability without afterburner. The U.S. F-22 has supercruise but the F-35 does not.

Finally, the J-31 Gyrfalcon is a twin-engine aircraft to the F-35s single engine.

Indeed, based on the images surfaced so far, the resemblance with the FC-31 and the overall inspiration to the design concepts embedded in the F-35 is pretty evident.

In particular, the J-35 has some features peculiar to the F-35C, the carrier variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter: the dual-wheel nose landing gear with a catapult launch bar and the wing-fold mechanism that are used to reduce the footprint of the jet aboard an aircraft carrier’s flight deck. The new Chinese stealth fighter variant has also a chin sensor turret quite similar to the EOTS (Electro-Optical Targeting System) of the Lightning II.

A file photo of an F-35C from VFA-101 “Grim Reapers” on the USS George Washington (CVN-73).
About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.