Watch This Chinese Z-8 Naval Helicopter Fly Just Feet Off The Ground Along A Highway

Here at The War Zone, we’ve spent a fair amount of time examining scarcely believable videos of helicopters in action, doing spectacular things either remarkable, unfortunate, or, in some cases, just plain dangerous. While a surprising low-level flyby is, by now, something of a staple of military chopper videos, this might be the first example we’ve seen that emanates from the People’s Republic of China.

At least two versions of the video, one slightly longer than the other, have been doing the rounds on social media, apparently first being posted to the Chinese micro-blogging website Weibo. Filmed from a car, the footage begins with a People’s Liberation Army Naval Air Force (PLANAF) Changhe Z-8 helicopter flying alongside a highway, heading in the opposite direction. The video then resumes with the helicopter having descended much lower, swooping just over the heads of the occupants in the car, before continuing to follow the road ahead flying so low its wheels nearly touch the surface.

The first view of the Z-8, seen through the driver’s side window., via Twitter

When and where the video was shot is not clear, but the real question is exactly what was going on here? While the road seems free of traffic, other than the car from which the clip was filmed, it’s a highly risky maneuver to pull off without some thorough prior planning and safety measures. With that in mind, it remains possible that this was a prearranged stunt of some kind.

In the first part of one of the videos, with the Z-8 flying alongside the car at what looks like a much safer level, the highway has three lanes, while the portion with the helicopter hurtling over the roof of the car and then carrying on up the road features a two-lane road.

The Z-8 involved is a pretty big helicopter. Its maximum takeoff weight is said to be close to 29,000 pounds, compared to around 22,000 pounds for a U.S. Army UH-60M Black Hawk, and is powered by three engines. The Z-8 was based on the French-designed SA321 Super Frelon, which China acquired in small numbers in the late 1970s.

Land-based and maritime versions of the Z-8 have been fielded by various branches of the People’s Liberation Army for many years, with versions including the Z-8J transport, Z-8S for search and rescue, and Z-8JH for medical evacuation. However, the helicopter in the video seems to be the Z-8C, the latest maritime derivative that’s used for search and rescue, utility, and training. 

The C-model features a nose-mounted weather radar, a forward-looking infrared sensor, searchlights, and a reconfigured, box-like engine compartment atop the fuselage. It is also fitted with a crash position indicator, a kind of detachable radio beacon that helps mark the helicopter’s position if it goes down, which is seen below the tail boom, clearly visible as the orange-colored turret in the video.

Andreas Rupprecht, an expert on Chinese military aerospace and friend of The War Zone who tweets as @RupprechtDeino, has suggested that the helicopter’s lack of markings could point to its use by the PLA Navy Marine Corps, which has only relatively begun to receive any kind of rotorcraft. The Marine Corps Z-8Cs are expected to go to sea aboard China’s big new amphibious assault ships, like the Type 075 that you can read more about here

Ultimately, the Z-8 is expected to be replaced by the Z-18, a considerably updated development, with more modern avionics and a redesigned fuselage, first flown in prototype form in 2010. Naval versions of the Z-18 include the Z-18F for anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare and the Z-18J airborne early warning (AEW) variant with a multi-mode active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. The Z-18J AEW helicopter has been seen in the past operating from the deck of the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning.

For now, we simply don’t know whether this highway helicopter stunt was a pre-planned maneuver or some kind of dramatic break from protocol, but we will post any significant updates if and when we receive them.

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