The DC-2 comes to China, part 2

Bringing the center section ashore (Edward P. Howard collection)

Two more classic old photos of CNAC’s first DC-2 coming ashore, and one of it finally assembled, ready to fly.

Airport coolies towing the center section into the hangar (Edward P. Howard collection)
Assembled and ready to fly, CNAC’s first DC-2 in front of the hangar at Lunghwa (Edward P. Howard collection)

The DC-2 comes to China

A Whangpoo lighter brings the center section of CNAC’s first DC-2 upriver to Lunghwa Airport, spring, 1935 (Edward P. Howard collection)

The DC-2 had none of the criss-cross mishmash of struts and spars that had knit together previous generations of aircraft, not a single one. Something about the sleek lines of the all-metal, low-winged monoplane inspired confidence. It looked like an airplane was supposed to look, and the airline used the DC-2’s arrival to launch a marketing campaign spotlighting the prestige a person won using airmail and traveling by plane, a very successful selling point in face-conscious China. Within 90 days, passenger traffic had increased three-hundred percent.

The DC-2’s center section comes ashore (Edward P. Howard collection)

It’s worth noting that the DC-2 had to be brought from the Douglas factory in Santa Monica on a ship. At the time, the Pacific was only flown as one-off stunts by pioneering pilots. The ocean wouldn’t be crossed commercially, on a schedule, until Pan Am started doing it in November of 1935 using massive M-130 flying boats to span a string of mid-Pacific islands, one leg per day (San Francisco to Hawaii, Hawaii to Midway, Midway to Wake, Wake to Guam, Guam to Manila).

The plane pictured above, which is CNAC’s DC-2 No. 24, the Nanking, became my favorite airplane in the CNAC fleet while I was writing China’s Wings. It was destroyed by the Japanese on December 8, 1941, during their initial surprise attack on Hong Kong. Here’s the story of its demise (The photo of the burned out DC-2 at the bottom might actually be No. 24.)


The Douglas Dolphin, Moon Chin’s favorite airplane

Another five chapters of the China’s Wings manuscript came back from the lovely Tracy Devine at Bantam Dell today, ripe with excellent suggestions — she obviously worked her tail off this past weekend. With those hundred-odd pages fresh on my desk, I’ll be keeping my posts brief this week as I dive into the work, but here’re a few photos of the Douglas Dolphin amphibian to keep my post-a-day pace clicking along.

The Douglas Dolphin is Moon Chin’s favorite airplane: “The only overpowered seaplane I ever flew,” he said.

Unpacking the Dolphin fuselages at Lunghwa Airport, October 1934 (Edward P. Howard collection)
Preparing the Dolphin’s wings for mounting in the Lunghwa hangar under the curious gaze of a Chinese soldier, October 1934. (Edward P. Howard collection)
The first Dolphin, assembled and ready to fly (Edward P. Howard collection)

The Loening Air Yacht, early 1930s

The Loening Air Yacht, the height of airline technology in use in China in 1931 (

Aloft, it cruised at about one hundred miles per hour, and the pilots said it had had a built-in headwind, but despite its lethargy, the Loening Air Yacht was rugged and durable and economical to operate, crucial characteristics for an airline to consider if it hoped to operate successfully, and for a profit, in China. It was the most useful commercial airplane in the Middle Kingdom when William Bond arrived in China on St. Patrick’s Day, 1931, the opening scene of my book, China’s Wings.

Here’s a photo gallery of the Loening in China in the 1930s.

My “Loening Air Yacht” tag will help you find my other posts related to that airplane, including some good photos.

I make posts relevant to the book in my Posts Related to…China’s Wings menu tab.

Another view of the Loening, which could carry six passengers the cabin framed between the fuselage and hull (

Flying the Yangtze Gorges

the Yangtze Gorges looking over the tail of one of CNAC’s Loening Air Yachts, early 1930s (

Today’s a revising day (new chapters back from New York), and since I’m working on the part about the Yangtze Gorges, here’s a picture of flying up them in the early 1930s, shortly after the airline opened service from Hankow to Chungking.


What was CNAC?


The airline that is the milieu of my book China’s Wings is the China National Aviation Corporation, CNAC, a civilian airline that flew and fought in China from 1929-1949, and for most of its history, the company was a partnership between Pan American Airways and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Chinese Government.

Founded in 1929 to develop China’s domestic aviation, the airline made significant progress until the summer of 1937, when Japan invaded China. That August, a colossal battle erupted in Shanghai, the airline’s hub. It was a desperate, horrible affair in which hundreds of thousands died, and it very nearly destroyed the airline – and the partnership. The United States’ “legislated neutrality” and Pan Am’s desire to run a commercial airline free of political and military entanglements caused most of the airline’s American personnel to leave China. The Chinese, who’d spent eight years developing CNAC into one of their most valued strategic assets, felt deserted at their hour of greatest need. Only the superhuman efforts of airline executive William Langhorne Bond, walking a tightrope between the suddenly at-odds interests of China and Pan Am, managed to rescue Pan Am’s financial investment from the brink of extinction, lure some of the American personnel back to China, salvage the partnership, and save the airline. (Bond served Pan Am, and China, for 19 years,  1931-1949, and he’s China’s Wings main character.)

Ejected from its peacetime hub by the Shanghai fighting, which ended as a catastrophic Chinese defeat, the airline retreated up the Yangtze River to Hankow, and then further inland to Chungking, 1,400 miles from the East China Sea, and from the ashes of its near-destruction, CNAC again rose to become one of China’s most vital assets. Between 1938 and December, 1941, its air route between Chungking and Hongkong was “Free China’s” most efficient line of communications to the outside world, the speedy link that allowed the Nationalist Government to function on the world stage – and made CNAC’s airplane’s hunted targets of the Japanese invaders.

The “chung” painted on the fuselages of CNAC airplanes (J.L. Johnson collection)

After four dramatic nights of evacuation flights from Hong Kong when the Japanese invaded the colony on 8 December 1941, the airline’s finest hours came in 1942 and early 1943, when its veteran fliers supplied Claire Chennault’s American Volunteer Group (the AVG, popularly known as “The Flying Tigers”) and pioneered the Hump Airlift between India and China and proved to the United States Army Air Corps that the airlift could be prosecuted despite high mountains, horrible weather, and marauding Japanese fighters. Alongside the Air Corps, CNAC flew the Hump until the war’s end, always setting the standards for efficiency, safety, and performance.

After the Japanese surrender, dreams of peace continued to elude the airline – it was soon embroiled in the Chinese civil war. Its fortunes waned along with those of the Nationalist Chinese, and after Mao’s Communists forced the Nationalists to abandon Mainland China for Taiwan, the airline finally winked out of existence on the last day of 1949.

It had been one of the greatest commercial adventures of the 20th Century, and it was, beyond question, the most successful Sino-American partnership of all time.

2011 05 17 cover mock up v2