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China's modern history is told through its aviation museum

Kennedy By Bruce Kennedy
CNN Interactive
Entryway: Anti-aircraft guns, a Chinese F-12 fighter mounted skyward and surface-to-air missiles mark the entrance to the Aviation museum's hangar  

BEIJING (CNN) -- The entrance to the China Aviation Museum is so unpretentious that my taxi driver had to stop and ask for directions. A small sign on a monument points you a down a road between two cornfields -- a road that ends with an unexpectedly harmonious mix of nature and technology.

Looming before me is Datangshan, a mountain from Chinese folklore. Steep and symmetrical, it is covered in bright green and punctuated by a red national flag near the summit. A wide concrete plaza, which looks and feels like an aircraft taxiway, funnels the visitor into the base of the mountain.

September 20, 1999

  • China's new spirituality
  • Returning to a Beijing transformed
  • September 21, 1999

  • A visit to the Ming Tombs
  • September 22, 1999

  • Tiananmen Square preps up for the big day
  • September 23, 1999

  • Is China's health care system heading for a crisis?
  • September 24, 1999

  • A virtual tour of China's Aviation Museum
  • A contemplation of the so-called Americanization of China
  • September 27, 1999

  • Surfing in Beijing
  • September 28, 1999

  • Railway journeys: On the Red-Eye to Shanghai
  • September 29, 1999

  • Sunday in the Park with Lu Xun
  • September 30, 1999

  • A visit to the Jade Buddha Temple
  • October 1, 1999

  • Watching China's celebrations...from the sidelines
  • October 4, 1999

  • Window-Shopping on Nanjing Donglu
  • October 5, 1999

  • Royal Real Estate
  • Stepping from a bright and warm late summer day into the museum's darkness took some adjustment for my eyes. This part of the museum is a massive hangar about a half-mile long built through the bottom of Datangshan. It houses something I never guessed -- China's proud aviation history.

    Out of the hangar's relative darkness appeared a virtual timeline of Chinese aircraft. The first exhibit is a replica of the aircraft flown by Feng Ru, China's first aviator. Feng Ru made history in a plane he built himself, taking off on September 21, 1909, less than six years after the Wright Brothers' flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The flight took place in the United States; the museum does not say where.

    Feng Ru built another aircraft and took both planes home to China. That was about all he had time for. In August 1912, soon after his return, he died after his plane crashed during an exhibition in Guangzhou. In death, he became a national hero. Sun Yat-sen ordered the words "Chinese Aviation Pioneer" engraved on a monument in his honor.

    First flyer
    First flyer: A replica of the plane flown by Feng Ru, China's first aviator. Click for large version.  

    China's modern history is told in the story of the aircraft you pass as you step deeper into the hangar. There is a replica of the first plane manufactured in China -- a biplane called "Rosamonde," the English name of Madame Soong Ching-ling, Sun Yat-sen's wife. Nearby is another replica, one of the Red Army's first planes, appropriately called "Lenin."

    Flying Tigers and MiGs

    For the World War II years, there are models of the planes whose names many of us outsiders (of a certain age) grew up with.

    Here's something.

    There is a U.S. P-40 Tomahawk, sporting the famous markings of the Flying Tigers -- nickname of the American Volunteer Group that flew for the Nationalist government against the Japanese for about six months just after America entered the war in December 1941.

    A reproduction of another plane donated to the Chinese war effort, a Soviet I-16 fighter wearing the white and blue emblem of the Nationalists, stands across from a Japanese Zero.

    A few steps farther along are the Korean War years and an authentic memento.

    The Korean War was in many ways the People's Republic's first challenge as a nation. China's entrance in late 1950 saved the North Korean forces. It also placed China on the front lines of the world's first conflict that saw jet aircraft in head-to-head combat.

    The Chinese Aviation Museum

    This panoramic image of the Chinese Aviation Museum outside of Beijing was shot under the wing of a Tu-4 bomber. The Soviet-made bomber was also used, with different equipment, as an early warning and electronic countermeasure aircraft.

    This particular plane carries under its wing a drone, a pilotless aircraft launched from the Tu-4 and used for reconnaissance, aerial photography and even as an anti-tank weapon.

    Click here

    The museum's collection for this era has depth and scope. Chinese pilots in Soviet-made planes apparently did quite well against their rivals in the skies over Korea. In front of a MiG-15 fighter, its red cowling bearing the number 08, is the following description:

    "On Feburary 10, 1952, 16 bombers covered by 18 F-86 fighters headed to Pyongyang. The Air Force fighters of Chinese Volunteer Army took off and fought against the enemy aircraft. In a dogfight, cooperating with the pilot of wingman Shan Zhiyu, Zhang Jihui shot down two enemy aircraft in one minute. After the air battle, from the wreckage of the aircraft, the ground troops found a badge engraved 'George A. Davis Major Squadron Leader of the 344th Squadron, 4th Wing.' Davis was a hero of the U.S. Air Force, with more than 3000 flying hours. Zhang Jihui only had dozens of flying hours at that time. It was a heavy loss to the U.S. Air Force in the Far East."

    I must admit my ambivalence looking at these jets, the same feeling I had when I saw a German Stuka dive-bomber on display. But the museum understands the appeal of seeing both sides. Not far from the MiGs and other Korean War-vintage jets is a U.S. F-86 Sabre jet, donated by the Pakistani Air Force.

    Moving down the hangar into more recent times, I encountered an A-5A fighter, used in the successful test of China's first hydrogen bomb in 1972.

    I was startled to see a U.S. Apache attack helicopter standing rotor-to-rotor with a Soviet Mi-24 Hind. Then I read that the Apache, realistic markings and all, is an inspired replica built by aviation enthusiast Meng Yifeng, who gave his magnum opus to the museum.

    At the ready
    At the ready: Transportable missiles on display at the Aviation museum. Click for large version.  

    Emerging from the other side of the hangar, I encountered the only other visitors I saw that day -- three men and a father with his young son. I was surveying a collection of engines when I heard the low "Don't touch that" growl all parents are familiar with (and know how to make). Looking over, I saw Dad approach his son, who was apparently trying to start a little Czech trainer by vigorously spinning its propeller.

    Two special planes

    On the plain at the mountain's base stand the aircraft too large for the hangar. Chinese and Soviet-made bombers of all makes are parked in rows. Commercial passenger jets and surface-to-air missile batteries gave off heat waves in the sun. I walked by a large shed where several workers were stitching and painting canvas on what looked like the wings of an old biplane.

    Last flight
    Last flight: This Y-5 transport was used to scatter the ashes of Premier Chou En-lai in January 1976. Click for large version.  

    I then found the two planes I most wanted to see. One is an Y-5 Transport. Copied after the Soviet An-2, it was China's first all-purpose utility aircraft.

    This one was special. Early on January 15, 1976, the plane before me was used to scatter the ashes of the late Chinese Premier Chou En-lai over Miyun reservoir, Tianjin (the city of Chou's youth) and the Yellow River.

    Just yards away is one of the planes Mao Tse-tung used in the 1960s during his inspection tours. I walked up the gangway inside.

    The plane is small by modern standards. The only unusual feature about its interior is a small bed in a varnished wood frame near the kitchen galley. I presume the chairman used it on long flights.

    I have found that museum-piece passenger planes, much like their train counterparts, give off a kind of longing. Empty of people, they are deprived of their purpose and seem melancholy.

    Who rode in these blue cloth-covered seats? What were their hopes and expectations for themselves and for China? With no answers, I deplaned and headed for the museum's main gate.

    Bruce Kennedy was a Chinese history major at Bowdoin College in Maine. He worked for Visnews, the international television news agency, for five years before joining CNN in 1988. After a stint at CNN International, he began work at CNN Interactive. Kennedy has extensive experience in East Asian affairs, having studied and worked in the region.

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