A Pilot’s Visit to China

If you’re planning a trip to China you probably have an agenda  but, let me suggest some places you may not know about and as a pilot you might really enjoy and want to consider adding them to you “to-do” list.

I had the opportunity to visit China with a group of pilots. Four of us had family members that flew in China during WW II. For the Chinese that remember or understand the American participation in the war of Japanese aggression, as WW II is known in China, any pilot who assisted the Chinese is considered to be a Flying Tiger, not just the pilots of what we know as the American Volunteer Group (AVG) that flew P-40s with General Claire Chennault. My dad flew P-40s and C-47s in China during WW II after the U.S. entered the war and to the Chinese he is a Flying Tiger. Because of that I was afforded special consideration and recognition in our group of 60 people.

You may not get to western China but, if you do, you will want to visit two museums in the city of Chongqing (we say Chung King). The first is a government run museum that is the house that General Joe Stilwell used as his headquarters for Allied forces in the China-Burma-India (CBI) theater during the war.  The people of Chongqing and western China are very much aware of the support American pilots and the army provided to China during the war and have preserved this building as it was with many interesting artifacts. Photographs are not allowed inside the museum.

Monument to General Joe Stilwell in Chongqing China

Just across the street from the government run memorial to General Stillwell is a private museum that recognizes the Flying Tigers of General Claire Chennault.  Both museums are worth the visit if you are in that part of China.

The gentleman we are talking with,  his English name is Willy, in this picture,  taken at the Flying Tiger museum, was a B-25 pilot in the Chinese air force from Hong Kong that trained at Falcon Field in Mesa, Arizona. After the war ended the Chinese regime of Chairman Mao put him in prison for several reasons: he had British citizenship because he was born in Hong Kong, he spoke English, and he was a pilot. The fact that he fought for the China didn’t carry any weight.

Guilin is a city in south-central China and there was an airfield near there called Yangtang that General Chennault used as a headquarters.  A group of Americans is working to establish a museum at the site of that airfield which is no longer in existence  but the cave in the karst that General Chennault used as a command post is still there and marked. It will be restored to its configuration during the war.


Information on Yangtang Airfield is at


The mayor of Guilin (on the right of this photo)

hosted a private reception for the four family members of pilots who had flown in WW II in China as well as a formal dinner for all of our group.

If you only make it to Beijing there are two squares any pilot needs to fill. The first is the Chinese military museum right in Beijing.

They have army, navy and air force displays. One thing I enjoyed about visiting this museum is that you have to show a photo ID to be able to visit. I used my U.S. military ID to gain entrance. Of particular interest was the area devoted to the Korean War or the American aggression against Korea as it is known in China as well as their version of WW II. The representation here was much more Communist party line than in Chongqing and down played the American contribution.

However, for pilots, the crown jewel of museums is the China Aviation Museum just north of Beijing. This is the Chinese equivalent of the Air Force museum at Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio or the Naval Aviation Museum at NAS Pensacola, Florida. The museum covers several acres and includes a cave that is about half a mile long that was used as an underground hangar for aircraft.

Inside the cave was a spotless and impressive facility.

On display at the museum were many Chinese military aircraft as well as an Italian F-104 and Taiwanese F-5s. Interestingly, many of the explanatory displays came from open source U.S. documents such as this explanation of how turbojet engines work using information from GE and Pratt & Whitney with the F-105 and A-6.

Another example is the description of stealth technology using the F-22 and radar detection ranges of the F-22 and F-16 as seen in this display.

In addition to displays of late model Chinese fighter aircraft as well as multiple CJ-6s  they also had a D-21 drone from the SR-71 time frame that crashed in China probably due to an engine failure rather than being downed by Chinese anti-aircraft defenses. This incident is only obliquely referred to in open U.S. sources.

Bottom line, there is more to see in China than the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and the terracotta soldiers. You would enjoy any of these additional sites if you get to the area in which they are located.


About Rich Martindell

Instrument flight instructor (CFII), rated airline transport pilot (ATP), former military instructor pilot in F-4s and F-15s. Aircraft accident investigator and flight safety consultant. FAA Safety Team Lead Representative.
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