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Showcasing China's history of flight
( 2003-09-16 11:38) (China Daily)

Museums are history's memory banks. In the case of China's aviation history, much can been told through its museum.

The first generation of 14 Chinese women air force pilots pose for a photo in 1952, three years after the founding of New China. [China Daily]

Driving to the China Aviation Museum, which is based in Beijing's northern suburb of Changping, was somewhat difficult and I had to stop and ask for directions.

After about a 40-minute drive, I reached the museum following a road between two cornfields - a road that ends with an unexpectedly harmonious mix of nature and technology.

The museum was founded on part of an airbase; the runways are a mile away and are connected to the museum by a long driveway, which is also used as access for the traffic. Next to the museum, the driveway continues up the hill, coming to a large U-shaped tunnel. When this part of the airbase was operational, the tunnel undoubtedly sheltered numerous aircraft.

Near to the driveway there are some aprons and a hangar, so there is room for many planes, mostly of the military variety but also some civil ones.

Stepping from the bright and warm open air 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 would never have guessed - China's proud aviation history.

At present, the aviation museum has collected more than 200 airplanes of over 100 models, as well as weapons and equipment such as ground-to-air missiles, cannon, radar, airborne explosives and aviation cameras. Among which, many are precious Chinese cultural relics as well as being valued treasures of the aviation world.

The first exhibit is a replica of the aircraft flown by Feng Ru, China's first aviator.

Zhou Yingzhi (middle), head of the first generation of women pilots, signs her autograph in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, for the representatives of the next four generations of pilots on the eve of this year's celebration of People's Liberation Army Day, which fell on August 1st. [China Daily]

The "Feng Ru No 2" Airplane is one of the airplane exhibitions that has been elaborately staged by the aviation museum. Feng Ru was China's first airplane designer, producer and aviator, and was also the first Chinese citizen to win the Aeroplanist Certificated issued by International Aviation Association.

Feng Ru succeeded in flying his self-made airplane in 1909. The height and distance it travelled far exceeds that of the Wright brothers' flight.

Feng Ru went on to build another aircraft as well. But in August 1912, he died after his plane crashed during an exhibition in Guangzhou. In death, he became a national hero. Dr Sun Yat-sen ordered the words "Chinese Aviation Pioneer" to be engraved on a monument in his honour.

As I wandered deeper into the museum, I found 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.

For the post World War II years, there are models of planes whose names many of us are familiar with, such as the F-86 Sabre, the Mi-24 Hind helicopter and the MiG-15 Red Star.

There is a US P-40 Tomahawk, sporting the famous markings of the Flying Tigers - the nickname of the US Volunteer Group that flew for China against the Japanese for about six months, just after the United States entered the war in December 1941.

After the Second World War, the Chinese air force mainly operated Russian-built aircraft such as the MIG-15, MIG-17, and Tupolev TU-4 models. Very soon thereafter, China restarted its own aviation industry and manufactured these Russian aircraft under its own licences, with many types being radically improved.

A few steps farther along are the Korean War years, and an authentic memento. The war placed China on the front lines of the world's first conflict that saw jet aircraft used in head-to-head combat. 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.

Zhou Yingzhi, 72, was head of China's first generation of women pilots and told me a vivid story about her peers.

"On February 10, 1952, 16 bombers escorted by 18 F-86 fighters headed to Pyongyang. The Air Force fighters of the Chinese Volunteer Army took off and fought against the enemy aircraft," she said. "In a dogfight, co-operating 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 US Air Force, with more than 3,000 flying hours. Zhang Jihui only had dozens of flying hours at that time.

"It was a heavy loss to the US Air Force in the Far East."

Not far from the MiGs and other Korean War-vintage jets is a US F-86 Sabre jet, donated by the Pakistani Air Force.

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

On the plain at the mountain's base stand the aircrafts 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.

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