Sun Tianqin (孙天勤) was a People's Liberation Army Air Force pilot who defected to Taiwan in 1983, by first flying to South Korea. As a group commander, Sun was the Chinese defector to Taiwan with the highest rank, and his aircraft was the most advanced flown by any defectors. Sun also held the record high reward: 7,000 taels (approximately 350 kg) of gold, a record that remains unbroken today.
Sun Tianqin was born in 1937 in Fengxiang (鳳翔) County, Shaanxi, and graduated from the elementary school in 1950 and graduated from the Fengxiang (鳳翔) County Middle School in 1953. He graduated from Xi'an Normal College in 1956 and in August of that year, he was recruited by the People's Liberation Army Air Force for pilot training. He was among the first group of pilot trainees recruited from universities instead of military academies. Another Chinese defector to Taiwan, Gao Youzong (高佑宗) was also among this first group, although the two did not know each other until they finally met in Taiwan after their defections. Sun completed his basic training at the 2nd Aviation School, his intermediate training at the 6th Aviation School, and his advanced training at the 11th Aviation School. At the time of his defection, he had logged around 1,200 hours of flying.
During the Cultural Revolution, Sun was persecuted due to his father's family background and was sent to labor camp, working at the 22nd Factory of PLAAF and this was the major cause for his defection. In 1975, Sun was allowed to return to fly after his release from the labor camp by being assigned to the People's Liberation Army Naval Air Force, and after the end of the Cultural Revolution, he was steadily promoted. Due to his excellent performance, he was reassigned to the People's Liberation Army Air Force as a test pilot several months before his defection.
Sun began to seriously plan his defection in May 1983. On August 7, 1983, he flew a J-7II experimental jet numbered 045 with what was the most advanced avionics in China at the time: the British GEC-Marconi Type 226 HUDAWAC (Head-Up Display And Weapon Aimming Computer) and Skyranger airborne radar as a test pilot for the second time. Sun had planned to defect two days before, on August 5, 1983, but had to abandon his plan when he realized that he did not have enough fuel. Two days later, he had enough fuel and carried out his plan by flying from Dalian to South Korean K16 air base in Seoul.
During the test flight at 1:30 PM (Chinese time) on August 7, 1983, Sun told the control tower that the aircraft was malfunctioning and dived rapidly from 8,000 metres to 500 metres. While the ground was busy trying to handle the fake emergency he created, Sun continuously pressed down the button for communication set to prevent his wingman from talking to the ground, because both jets used the same communication channel. After losing his wingman during the dive, Sun told the control tower that there was smoke in the cockpit to further confuse the ground control. By this time, Sun had reached an altitude that was safely out of radar detection range, and Sun made his last communication to the control tower claiming that the aircraft was losing control and he had to bail out, and then cut the communication, creating the impression that he had bailed out. Sun remained at low altitude to fly toward South Korea at high subsonic speed for 15 minutes, and later Sun climbed back to higher altitude at 6,000 metres to conserve fuel. South Korea discovered the intruder at 2:13 PM (Chinese time) and was on alert. Fighters were sent out to intercept Sun and eventually guided him down on the runways of K16 air base in Seoul at 2:30 PM Chinese time, 3:30 PM Korean time, and the alert was off.
When Sun was flown to Taiwan, the entire island was on alert and fighter patrols increased to protect the transport aircraft of Sun for possible interception. All vacations and breaks were temporarily suspended and aerial patrols were increased along the Korea - Taiwan routes. When the passenger jet of China Airlines carrying Sun took off from Seoul at 11:25 AM on August 24, 1983, a total of 8 F-5E's were sent to escort it as it neared Taiwan and a further 8 were on the ground in full alert, ready to take off within 3 minutes. Meanwhile, 4 F-104 Starfighters took off to meet the passenger jet to escort to its landing, which was completed safely at 12:42 PM at Ching Chuan Kang Air Base.
Sun wrote a 20,000-character denunciation of communism titled The announcement to the entire party and left it on the desk in his dormitory before his defection. He left behind his mother, Mrs. Liu, his 18-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter in China. Sun's mother was so proud of her son that she displayed a large picture of Sun in uniform at their home, she died at 93. Sun remarried in January 1985 to a musician, Li Tianhui (李天慧), who was also a Chinese defector. The pair eventually immigrated to Canada after Sun's honorable discharge from the Republic of China Air Force as a colonel.