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China Daily Website

Witnessing moments of top secret

XU BAILING ( China Daily )

Friendly talk: Zhou Enlai meets Henry Kissinger during his secret visit to Beijing in July 1971. [ China Daily ]

AT dusk on June 27,1971, I arrived with Zhang Rui'ai, director of the Beijing Aviation Administration, at the Great Hall of the People for a meeting hosted by the late Premier Zhou Enlai. During the meeting, Zhou told us that US President Richard Nixon would send his special envoy — National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger — on a secret visit to China.

Kissinger would fly into Beijing from Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, by a special plane from Pakistan International Airlines (PIA).

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs would organize a work team of diplomats to Islamabad to meet Kissinger, and the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) would send pilots to Pakistan to help navigate the special plane.

To keep the contact between China and the United States secret, Pakistan President Yahya Khan suggested to Zhou that CAAC use a special plane to send the Chinese pilots to Islamabad directly.

After a short discussion, Kuang Rennong, CAAC director, and Zhang decided that I, the command pilot of Zhou's special plane, would lead a team of three navigators to Pakistan.

As a result, I was fortunate to become one of the participants in the dramatic historical event.

I still remember Zhou's words to me: "This mission is very important. You must become familiar with the air route and ensure the safety of the flight."

The mission needed the co-operation of the Air Force of the People's Liberation Army.

Under Zhou's arrangement, our plane would use navigation platforms and airports of the Air Force en route to Pakistan.

And Kissinger's special plane would also use the Nanyuan Airport of the Air Force in Beijing.

At 8 am on July 2, navigator Liu Zhiyi, wireless operator Wang Jinliang and I went aboard a CAAC Yak-18 airplane piloted by Yun Ganting. It took off immediately.

After take-off, the three of us replaced our green Air Force uniforms without collar badges and insignia on the caps with blue suits and black ties.

Becoming "passengers" of a special plane for the first time, we all felt a little uneasy but very excited.

Our jet flew from Beijing to Hotan in the southern Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region for refueling before flying directly to Islamabad.

But a sandstorm over Hotan forced us to return to Urumqi for one night.

Early July 3, while the sky was still dark, our Yak-18 left Urumqi and landed on a parking apron for military use at the Rawalpindi International Airport of Islamabad at 7:11 am local time.

We got off the plane and drove to the Chinese Embassy in Pakistan. We were accompanied by the Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan Zhang Tong and had diplomatic clearance. The Yak-18 returned to China the same day.

On July 4, we explained the air route to Capt. Taimur Baig and his crew on the special Boeing 707 of the PIA.

Baig later recalled that he didn't know who his distinguished passenger was until the plane was almost halfway to its destination.

"We were told to be ready for take-off on short notice and that it was a hush-hush operation," Baig said. "Even with the whole US press corps present in Rawalpindi, we completed our mission with no one the wiser."

First we conducted a test flight.

A Boeing 707 left the Rawalpindi International Airport for Beijing on July 6. The jet passed Hotan and Jiuquan and arrived at Nanyuan Airport at noon that day without stopping.

Under Zhou's arrangement, a team of four Chinese diplomats waited for the plane at the airport. After the plane was refueled, they went aboard. The plane returned to Islamabad with all of us the same day.

During the evening of July 7, Pakistan's president hosted a banquet in his splendid residence in honour of us.

Kissinger arrived in Islamabad on July 8. In the early morning of July 9, our team of navigators and Chinese diplomats boarded the special Boeing 707 and waited silently for our guests, who were our enemies not long ago.

I thought about what I would say while shaking Kissinger's hand.

At 3:30 am local time, Kissinger and his three private assistants boarded.

They were greeted politely by us.

After being parties of hostility for more than 20 years, I could feel that people on both sides were reserved and withdrawn.

After exchanging some simple greetings with Kissinger, we entered the pilots' compartment. Soon the Boeing 707 took off from Rawalpindi International Airport for Beijing.

Immediately, our wireless operator reported the take-off time and the direction of the jet to Beijing.

At 12:15 am Beijing time, the PIA plane made a smooth landing at Nanyuan Airport.

That same afternoon, Kissinger met Zhou.

When Kissinger and his group left Nanyuan Airport for downtown Beijing, the PIA crew and our navigation team boarded a sedan with darkened windows and arrived at a guest house in the western suburbs.

Although the guest house management entertained us with a lot of movies and good food, we still found the three days' confinement boring.

But it was worth it, considering I had helped complete a secret flight that shocked the world.

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