No startling details of military strategy were revealed, nor were wraps taken off a secret weapon. But the Chinese defense ministry at least took a small step toward greater transparency last week by opening an army aviation base to journalists, including foreigners, for the first time.

The habitually secretive military allowed close inspection and photography of Z-9WZ armed reconnaissance helicopters carrying a variety of weapons. It also laid out the range of armament available for the type. Even the cockpits of Z-9WZs were revealed, along with helmets fitted with what looked like low-light goggles.

However, the new Z-10 attack helicopter did not appear at the open day, held at the base of the 4th Helicopter Regiment at Tongzhou, near Beijing.

Foreign countries, including the U.S., urge China to be more open about its defense capabilities. Although officers here say they are trying to increase transparency, activities such as allowing journalists to poke their heads into combat helicopters do not come at all naturally to the People's Liberation Army.

The other step forward at Tongzhou was that Chinese officers were willing to answer outsiders' questions, at least to a limited extent, notes Richard Fisher, an analyst with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.

The 4th Helicopter Regiment has 12 Z-9WZs among a total of 30 aircraft, one officer says. The others are Mil Mi-17 and Mi-171 transport helicopters imported from Russia and Y-7 and Y-8 transport airplanes—locally built Antonov An-24s and An-12s, respectively. Among 1,000 people in the regiment, half are qualified as pilots.

Journalists had not previously been allowed on the base, officers say.

“Our simulator training has advanced greatly,” regiment commander Col. Zhang Zhilin tells Aviation Week. “We previously used actual [flight] training but now we train mainly with simulators. Doing so cuts costs, and the scenarios are realistic.”

Asked to name an aspect of the regiment's performance with which he is dissatisfied, he says there is none. “Of course that sounds like self-praise, but it is true.” And he adds: “We're very good at flying in bad weather.”

As to the arrival of the Z-10 at the regiment, Zhang dodges the question, only saying that new equipment is a matter for his superiors.

The regiment's missions have included recovery of Shenzhou manned space capsules, and it participated in rescue operations after an enormous earthquake struck Sichuan in 2008.

The Z-9WZ is “the first kind of armed reconnaissance helicopter” to equip the Chinese army, the regiment says, although this seems to overlook earlier armed versions of the Z-9 series.

Reflecting the attack role and the weight of sensors and weapons, the passenger cabins of the helicopters displayed at Tongzhou were largely bare, with only two seats, facing forward, and a hefty rack of electronic black boxes.

Weapons on display at Tongzhou included PL-90 air-to-air missiles, Type 23-2 cannon of 23-mm caliber, one kind of air-to-ground rocket of 70-mm caliber and another designated Type 57-1 of 57-mm caliber. Launcher pods of the rockets were also shown. But more-advanced weapons, including the HJ-10 anti-tank guided missile, were absent.

Along with mechanical gauges, the Z-9WZ's cockpit featured a small central flat display, possibly for a moving map, and two large displays, one in front of each crewmember. The buttons on the displays lacked labels, indicating multiple functionality, but there was no indication of the degree of integration of the sensors and weapons.

The Z-9, based on the Eurocopter Dauphin, has been built since 1981 at the Harbin plant that is now part of Avicopter. The correct designations for various armed versions of the Z-9 series have not been clear, so one helpful point of the Tongzhou open day was confirmation of the name Z-9WZ for the configuration of the aircraft on display. It seems to represent the most recent development of the type and was displayed at the Zhuhai air show in 2010, but without such close access.

Photographs show at least four versions since China began working on armed Z-9s in the 1980s. Differences are apparent in the sensor fit, pylon shape and door arrangements.

What seems to have been the earliest version retained the original three doors on each side of the body and had simple weapons pylons. An improved version sported an optical sight on the roof above the cockpit. These two versions may have been subvariants of the Z-9W. About 80 units were reportedly built from 1987.

Later an electro-optical ball turret under the nose replaced the roof-top sight—producing a version that has been identified as the Z-9WA—and finally the body was redesigned, with an arrangement of two doors on each side and beefier pylons. That was the version identified as the Z-9WZ at Tongzhou. “WZ” presumably stands for wuzhuang, meaning “armed.”