The Chinese Air Force plane drifted past a city and seemed to float, like a leaf, before exploding onto a mudflat where the Shandong peninsula juts out into the Yellow Sea.
"It was floating, floating, floating then BANG, suddenly hit the ground," says a witness, according to video footage of the smoking wreckage on March 31 that was anonymously uploaded on the Chinese version of YouTube.
The huge plume of black smoke, still billowing from the wreckage 20 minutes after it exploded, suggests the tanks were full and the accident occurred not long after takeoff, probably from Jinan, the provincial capital.
Perhaps there had been a fuel blockage on one of the external wing tanks, 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 just meters from the wreck suggests the two airmen died unnecessarily, because they failed to eject until it was too late. Whatever the case, the names of Yu Liang, 33, and Wu Yongming, 36, will be added to the 1,747 inscribed on the Heroes-and-Martyrs Wall at Beijing's Chinese Aviation Museum.
Crashes happen, even to the United States. But for professional military watchers, the more they see inside one of the world's most secretive air forces, it seems, the less they are impressed with the Chinese military's aerial wing.
Pilots are neither trusted nor properly trained. Drills are regimented, centrally controlled, and divorced from realistic combat conditions. The People's Liberation Army (PLA) has nearly 2,000 thousand planes, compared with a little over 3,000 for the U.S. Armed Forces, 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 small sign that the PLA Air Force might be beginning to take the risks required to develop human "software" to match its expensive hardware and compete with their American, Taiwanese, or Japanese counterparts.