The burning wreckage of an aircraft on a mudflat in Shandong

Progress?: The burning wreckage of the aircraft on a mudflat in Shandong. Photo: Supplied

The People's Liberation Army Air Force plane drifted past a city and seemed to float, like a leaf, before exploding on a mudflat where the Shandong Peninsular juts out into the Yellow Sea.

"It was floating, floating, floating, then bang! It suddenly hit the ground," says a witness on video footage of the smoking wreckage taken on March 31 that was anonymously uploaded on to the Chinese version of YouTube.

The plume of black smoke still billowing from the wreckage 20 minutes after the crash suggests the tanks were full and the accident occurred not long after take-off, probably from Jinan.

Wu Yongming Luoyang

No Top Gun: Pilot Wu Yongming, a victim of the PLA's organisational weaknesses. Photo: Supplied

Perhaps there had been a fuel blockage on a wing tank, leading to a weight imbalance that contributed to the Soviet-made Su-27 20 entering a "flat spin" before descending like a kite to earth, according to retired and serving air force officers.

The presence of what appear to be ejector seats metres from the wreck suggests the two airmen died because they ejected too late.

The names of Yu Liang, 33, and Wu Yongming, 36, will be added to the 1747 inscribed on the Heroes and Martyrs Wall at Beijing's Chinese Aviation Museum.

Yu Liang Pengzhou

Another victim: Pilot Yu Liang. Photo: Supplied

For military watchers, the more they see inside one of the world's most secretive air forces, it seems, the less they are impressed.

Pilots are neither trusted nor properly trained. Drills are regimented, centrally controlled and divorced from realistic combat conditions.

The PLA has nearly as many aircraft as the US but only a fraction of the peace-time accident rate, suggesting pilots are not spending sufficient time in the air or training under pressure.

While Chinese military enthusiasts saw the Shandong crash as an embarrassing setback, professionals saw it as a sign the PLA Air Force might be starting to take the risks required to develop human ''software'' that can match its expensive hardware to compete with the force's American, Taiwanese or Japanese counterparts.

"They've got to take risks," says Robert Rubel, a graduate of the US Navy's Top Gun Academy and now dean of the centre for naval warfare studies at the US Naval War College. "I've lost control of every airplane I've ever tried to fly."

In the Chinese version of Top Gun, the equivalent of "Maverick" is a hot shot, risk-taking wing commander who arrives to drag the PLA Air Force into the 21st century. The characters in the 2010 film Skyfighters wear sunglasses and chase female instructors on motorbikes along airstrips. The main difference from the US original is that the red team are the good guys, shooting at the blue.

The moral of the film is that in the PLA's new "scientific" environment, pilots will be rewarded for showing initiative, flying under combat-like pressure and taking risks, even if they scratch the paintwork.

The hero, Commander Yue, has the Tom Cruise character's appetite for high-octane adventure but is otherwise free of his preternatural ego. His ''scientific outlook'' is benchmarked against international best practice and juxtaposed against his vanquished deputy, who prefers to quote aphorisms about controlling remote armies from a tent like Mao did before 1949 at the Red Army base camp of Xibaipo.

Skyfighters aims to challenge deep conventions in China's risk-averse system, where decisions are avoided or made high up in the hierarchy.

But this film about the PLA breaking from dysfunctional, committee-driven micro-management is littered with signs that suggest it may not be possible. The opening scene, in which a pilot escapes being court-martialled after his Su-27 hits a bird, seems to underscore why ambitious Chinese pilots may be better off sticking to the ground.

Commander Yue cannot wield full authority because he has to defer to a political commissar, who has no professional knowledge, and he is constantly second-guessed by a deputy playing on his bureaucratic home turf.

When Commander Yue's J-10 spins out of control attempting Maverick's "cobra" move - "I'll hit the brakes and he'll fly right by" - ancient habits of centralised, hierarchical control seem inescapable. "Check the oil", "watch your altitude", instructs his deputy commander from the control tower, as if that would help a pilot who would be clenching his entire body to push blood to his brain and avoid passing out.

US and Australian commanders are required to delegate responsibility as far down the chain as possible and pilots are trained to make their own decisions, veterans say.

They work through endless emergency procedure simulators to internalise key parameters and make instant decisions. Nothing is hammered into a pilot's head more deeply than the decision to eject at a set altitude when out of control.

But in the film, Commander Yue obeys myriad petty orders and ignores the only one that counts. "I believe the plane has a soul," he tells the military tribunal, explaining why he ignored an order to eject. He receives a standing ovation.

Many of the PLA's organisational weaknesses depicted in Skyfighters resonate with what professionals observe. The PLA's most high-profile challenge is to operate newly revamped Ukrainian aircraft carrier the Liaoning - with indigenously produced planes fitted with reverse-engineered Soviet technology - and project military power offshore.

Last week Liaoning captain Zhang Zheng and Rear Admiral Song Xue briefed defence attaches in Beijing and confirmed an ambition to build bigger carriers.

They also admitted to having only 12 trained pilots for the J-15 fighters they plan to deploy, according to sources who were present, suggesting it may be decades before Chinese carriers operate effectively at sea.

"They've got to learn to operate on cloudy no-moon nights, where there is no horizon, and to land on a deck that's pitching 10, 12 feet," says Professor Rubel. Even more crucial, he says, is developing the systems and culture to learn from mistakes.

The US Navy lost 13,000 aircraft and 9000 air crew in four decades after World War II, mostly due to accidents not enemy fire, as its pilots adjusted to the lethal combination of jet engines and aircraft carriers.

The challenge of operating battle groups and jet-powered air wings at sea is multiplied in a Chinese system where politics trumps professionalism and there is no transparency or independent institutions to monitor and regulate the game.

Chinese officers admit they have a long way to go but say the risk tolerance is increasing under new commander-in-chief Xi Jinping.

"Accidents are the price that must be paid to improve combat capability," said Air Force Senior Colonel Dai Xu. "This is the price for scientific progress."