Ceiling 500 feet, intermittent drizzle


In 2004, I approached Moon Chin with great trepidation. My experiences at the CNAC reunion made it obvious that he had incredible standing and “face” among the company’s veterans, and I suspected I wouldn’t be able to write the story without the Aegis of his wholehearted cooperation and approval. I also had an inkling of the colossal amount of his time I’d require if I were to do a proper job, and I was mortally afraid of becoming a bother. Happily, I’d stumbled across CNAC at a fortuitous moment – the airline’s people wanted their story told – and I was able to get myself invited, time and time again, to Moon Chin’s quietly spectacular house, built around a swimming pool high in the hills of Burlingame, above the San Francisco Airport, which he has decorated in “Chinese-American aviator-chic” style, with dozens of airplane models displayed throughout. I’d set up my voice recorder at his circular dining table, and we’d talk for several morning hours. Our sessions invariably ended with Moon inviting me to stay for lunch, which was always delicious and artfully presented by his housekeeper, and I’d leave exhausted, with two or three hours of interviews to transcribe and process.

But despite the warmth of Moon Chin’s reception and his unswerving cooperation, my initial interviews with him weren’t  satisfying. It took me quite a few sessions to recognize that interviewing a pilot with Chinese sensibilities is vastly different from interviewing one of his Caucasian counterparts because the Chinese pilot’s natural cultural reticence stops him from embellishing. Being Chinese, he’s far less flamboyant than your typical Caucasian flyer, and utterly immune to “a-factual embellishment” – for which this writer would become exceptionally grateful in the long run. In the short run, it made Moon an awkward interview.

For example, one of the great chapters in CNAC’s history revolves around the Japanese capture of Hankow in late October, 1938. Moon Chin piloted the last flight out of the doomed city.  If I’d have asked one of CNAC’s Caucasian pilots what the weather was like during that last flight, the answer would have run to something like, “Well, damn, the clouds were hanging low and it was raining like hell and I came roaring in from the west under the cloud layer and it looked like the whole damned city was on fire, smoke gushing up, and I could see Jap artillery banging away beyond the outskirts and I came in close over the Henyang arsenal and laid my flying boat onto the Yangtze just beyond the anchored gunboats… etc., etc., and etc.”

Posed that exact question, Moon Chin’s answered, “Ceiling 500 feet, intermittent drizzle.”

Hard to fault the man’s accuracy, as famed New York Times correspondent F. Tilden Durdin was in Hankow at the time and his dispatches describe “light rain falling from low clouds”, but it was neigh impossible to construct a dramatic account from Moon Chin’s precision recollections. In fact, I couldn’t really build stories from Moon Chin’s recollections until I had thoroughly educated myself about each of the major anecdotes –prime examples being the chaos of August 1937, when an immense battle between Japan and China in Shanghai drove CNAC from its base at Lunghwa Airport, the aforementioned evacuation of Hankow, and the airline’s last flights from Hong Kong on 8 and 9 December, 1941. However, as my understanding of events grew due to gradual digestion of contemporary articles, letters, and operational records, my interviews with Moon Chin became incredibly useful because I could put his memories in exact context with total confidence in their accuracy. I could ask Moon Chin extremely precise, focused questions, and his equally precise, focused answers provided me with a final, detailed understanding of what happened, exactly, and that proved to be the full-color cloth from which I could cut a compelling story.

China’s Wings

Why interviewing Moon Chin was like interviewing a Jazz riff

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6 Responses to Ceiling 500 feet, intermittent drizzle

  1. Theresa Ho says:

    Hahaha! I love that answer!

    Keep the stories coming. I’m hanging on every word.

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