China honors engineer in aircraft carrier program who died of heart attack

China's government gave hero's praise Monday to a senior engineer on its aircraft carrier program who died of a heart attack after witnessing the first landing of a plane on the ship, underscoring the project's huge national prestige.

State broadcaster CCTV ran news of Luo Yuan's death as its first item on the noon news broadcast, an unusual honor for a scientist who was previously unknown outside of the carrier program. Luo, 51, oversaw the development of the J-15 fighter-bomber planes designated for the ship, which is called Liaoning after the province where it is based.

The coverage illustrates the priority Beijing has placed on the program, seen as representing China's rise from poverty to economic and political might over the past three decades. The carrier was built in the former Soviet Union and is seen as a test platform for future Chinese-built vessels.

Few details were available about Luo, who died Sunday. A man who answered the phone at his employer, the Shenyang Aircraft Corp., confirmed his death but declined to give details. The company produces the bulk of China's modern military jets -- many of them, like the J-15, derived from Russian models.

Chinese academics assigned to signature government projects such as the carrier are often under enormous pressure, and stress is considered among the biggest killers of the country's intellectuals. China overcame major technical hurdles to make the carrier seaworthy after buying the half-completed hulk from the Ukraine and towing it to China, minus its engines, weaponry and navigation systems.

Most of that work was carried out in the northeastern port of Dalian, to which the carrier returned on Sunday following its latest round of sea trials.

Despite the breakthrough in air operations, the ship is still years away from being battle-worthy. China's navy still needs to show it can operate large numbers of planes at the same time and organize a carrier battle group that includes submarines and support ships.

"The first landing may be a milestone, but it's just the beginning," said Toshi Yoshihara, professor of Asia-Pacific studies at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island. "How the Chinese will handle aircraft losses, which are inevitable, is a better indicator of Beijing's determination to become a carrier."