The PLA Navy just completed a recruitment drive for carrier jet fighter pilots, as the nation will soon boast several new aircraft carriers. Credit: CBS News.

The main fear of US fighter pilots in Vietnam, was not being shot down by SAM missiles.

It wasn’t even the unreliability of Sidewinder missiles, which often failed after going from the cold confines of 30,000+ feet, down to the steamy jungles of Southeast Asia.

It was landing back on the carrier they took off from — the fear never left their minds. They knew, they had to land on that rocking deck.

There was nowhere else to go, but Davy Jones locker.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy recently completed a pilot recruitment drive, looking for a few good men to do exactly that — fly an aircraft carrier-based fighter jet in the coming years, the Global Times reported.

Sources say about 16,000 people signed up in the annual pilot recruitment drive, and among those who have passed the tests to become pilot cadets, nearly half will be trained to fly aircraft in the coming years.

“In the past, most Navy Aviation Force pilot cadets were trained to fly ground-based fighter jets and bombers,” Li Jie, a Beijing-based naval expert, told the Global Times.

But more pilots are needed to meet China’s ambitions in aircraft carrier development, as the country could operate three or more aircraft carriers in the near future.

Chu Hanqiang, director of the PLA Navy Pilot Recruitment Office, was quoted as saying in the report that 49% of the enrolled candidates will become aircraft carrier-based fighter jet pilot cadets, and this should satisfy the development of aircraft carriers.

A wildly optimistic claim — not everybody is cut out to be a carrier pilot, or even a jet fighter pilot. Those that fail, fail badly.

For example, the US Naval Academy Class of 2019 had 16,101 applicants and admitted 1,191.  If history proves accurate 1,100 will graduate in three years.

Of those, 240 will select Navy pilot and 80 will enter jet training. By the time the Class of 2019 reaches the fleet, maybe 50 will be fighter pilots.

That’s right … 50.

And of that 50, maybe one might make it to the Navy’s Top Gun school. Maybe.

Keep in mind, no air force in the world will give a multimillion-dollar fighter jet to somebody who can’t handle it, let alone a carrier pilot.

F-14 Tomcat pilot and author Carey Lohrenz, describes what it’s like to land on a carrier, at night:

It’s one of the most incredible things you can experience, yet it’s also one of the most terrifying. Coming aboard the carrier at night makes even the most experienced, seasoned fighter pilot’s knees rattle like crazy and boots beat like a drum on the rudder pedals.

Unlike pilots in other military services or pilots of commercial aircraft, aircraft carrier pilots don’t have the luxury of landing on 6,000-10,000 feet. Because we are trying to land on a postage stamp in the middle of blackness.

It’s dark, the deck pitches and heaves-sometimes up to 30 feet at a time and it requires every bit of skill, focus and attention a pilot can muster to get on board safely.

A carrier landing is similar to a controlled crash. The touch down is enough to destroy most other airplanes. As the arresting hook snags a wire, your body is slammed forward with such force at times it feels as though your legs and arms are going to separate from your body.

That’s what going from 155 knots to a complete stop in 1.2 seconds does to you.

You can do it well, but never perfectly.

Forbes magazine reported in July that China’s third aircraft carrier is being assembled in a dry dock in Shanghai’s Jiangnan Shipyard.

Military observers expect the new aircraft carrier to be much larger and carry more aircraft than China’s previous two, the Liaoning and the Shandong.

According to the website of the Navy’s pilot recruitment program, cadets will study for four years and potentially continue to train on advanced trainer aircraft.

Li said that in addition to aircraft carrier-based fighter jets, the PLA Navy also needs more pilots for vessel-based helicopter pilots, as China recently launched two Type 075 amphibious assault ships and each has the potential to carry about 30 helicopters.

Sources say a third Type 075 assault ship is being built and may sail in the fall.