CNAC veterans Fletcher “Christy” Hanks and Gifford Bull scrambled up the ladder into the plane and made a bee-line for the cockpit. I clambered up after them and stood behind the pilots’ seats. Neither of them had been in the cockpit of a C-46 since the Nineteen Forties, but the two old dudes instantly made sense of the dozens and dozens of levers and pedals, dials and gauges. Bull ran through the litany of controls and levers, reaching out with old, practiced hands to touch each one in succession: cowl flaps, mixtures, flaps, the high and low blower here. “Oh, oh, I remember. This is the carburetor heat down here.”
Within seconds, the pair was laughing about the quirks of the C-46 that had irritated them sixty years ago.
“I didn’t like the shape of the cockpit,” complained Hanks, leaning forward and reaching out a lanky arm. His hand was still eighteen inches short of the Plexiglas. “It was too far from the pilot’s seat to the front window. If the defroster didn’t work you couldn’t reach up and wipe it off.”
Bull agreed and put his hand onto one of the engine levers, “Yeah, and the detent on the carburetor heat was so poor they put a better one in the later models.”
I asked Bull if he thought he could still fly it. He swiveled and looked up at me, his blue Irish eyes alight and a huge grin sending crow’s feet tracking across his face. “I have no doubt I could start it up and fly her out of here.”
And I was equally certain there was nothing in the world he would rather have done.
The reunion room thundered with band of brothers camaraderie, packed with overjoyed old dudes slapping backs and bellowing into each other’s hearing aids, faces flushing red as they roared greetings and good-natured abuse. Hard-earned exuberance: not a man among them had less than a thousand hours of combat flight time. During the 1930s and ‘40s, these daredevil pilots flew for the China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC), and they pioneered and prosecuted the most dangerous airlift in history, braving high mountains, horrible weather, and Japanese fighter planes to fly supplies over “The Hump” – the 18,000 to 23,000 foot mountains of the Eastern Himalayas that stood between Kunming, China, and the Allied supply bases in Assam, India. Fully loaded, their twin-engine transports couldn’t fly over the mountains, they had to thread around the highest peaks, hoping they wouldn’t be trapped by foul weather or box canyons. Trusting everything to their skill, primitive, albeit sturdy airframes, crude instruments, and rudimentary navigational aids, they flew the Hump day in and day out for more than three years.
In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese captured Burma and cut the Burma Road, isolating free China in the Asian interior behind the Eastern Himalayas. (Even today, in a world seemingly crazed by mountain adventure, many, even most, of these mountains remain unclimbed.) China’s only hope of maintaining ties with the outside world was the untried aerial supply route over the Hump. The U.S. Army Air Corps didn’t think it could be done, and said so in Washington. CNAC’s example proved otherwise, and President Roosevelt pointedly asked the Army: If they can do it, why can’t you?
Of course, the Army Air Corps hated CNAC The airline’s pilots could earn $2,000 a month, ten times what the typical Air Corps pilot made for similar work, and CNAC existed beyond the reach of “chickenshit” military discipline. What an airline man did off-duty was his own business. But the U.S. Army mostly flew in daylight, mostly in decent weather, and considered a tour complete and sent a man home when he had done a hundred Hump missions. CNAC flew day and night, in all weathers, and many CNAC pilots made more than five hundred trips over the Hump. Flying unarmed transports over the Himalayas may sound boring and routine, and to a certain extent it was, but make no mistake, flying the Hump was a high stakes game. 32 CNAC pilots were killed during the war. The Army Air Corps, flying routes the airline had pioneered, lost a plane every two days. By the end of the war, two thousand fliers had been lost on the Hump.
A hodgepodge of Chinese and Western pilots straggled into the CNAC ranks from odd corners of the aviation world, maverick aerial flotsam of a world at war. Among them were ex-military, ex-Flying Tigers who signed on with CNAC when the AVG disbanded (American Volunteer Group): Californian ace Dick Rossi, credited with gunning down six Japanese planes, Scandinavian golden boy Einar “Mickey” Michelson who once finagled a date with Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, and iron-willed Joe Rosbert, who crashed in the high Himalayas and made an epic 47-day trek to safety through blizzards, glaciers, and stone-aged headhunting tribes – on a broken leg – that ranks with the great survival stories of all time. Chinese and Chinese-American pilots like Moon Chin and Harold Chinn had been with the airline since the 1930s. Jim Fox, Ridge Hammell, and big, barrel-chested Pete Goutiere joined CNAC when they were stranded in Asia by the collapse of Pan Am Air Ferries. Others, like Donald McBride and Bill Maher, were frustrated flight instructors refused admission into the Air Corps or naval aviation who abandoned their cush stateside jobs for the spice of combat. Outcasts in a forgotten theater of the world war, they happened to be the very best at what they did, and I soon realized their collective memory holds one of aviation’s great untold stories.
The constant danger provoked extreme reactions. Some men clamed up and salted away their outrageous mercenary earnings with near-religious devotion. (After the war, CNAC money gave birth to both Cathay Pacific airways and the Flying Tiger Line.) Others, like wildman Jimmy Scoff, who crashed three planes in less than a year, blew every single penny in the cathouses of Calcutta’s Kariah Road. In those days, the men were flush with the easy immortality of youth. Some would make it, some would not.
I thumbed through a self-published war memoir at the back of the room. I found it hard to concentrate amidst the reunion commotion, so I flipped forward to the first page and squinted at the humpster’s faded 1943 headshot, then looked up transfixed into exactly the same chiseled face: Pete Goutiere.
“Back then,” he said, “I was younger than you are now.”
Us narrative non-fiction guys and gals are pretty dependent on the quality of the stories we discover. A story swallows a massive chunk of your life if you decide to write a book about it: you’d better hope you fall in love with it.
The first glimmer of this story came to me from Charlie Fowler, a climbing partner with whom I ascended Cerro Torre, spent the night on top, and watched the sunrise from the summit. (An event that climaxes “The Cerro Torre Campaign” chapter of my book Enduring Patagonia.) Charlie was an astonishingly experienced climber, and besides Patagonia, his other adventuring obsession was the mountains of Central Asia.
Back stateside from explorations along the Tibet/China frontier, Charlie sent me an email in January 2002: “Greg, I keep hearing stories of these old World War II American plane wrecks in the Eastern Himalaya. You’re a military history guy and a mountaineer; you should spark up a story on that.”
I recognized the kernel of a good idea, and as a lifetime WWII history buff, I surmised those wrecks were probably relics of the airlift from India to China the U.S. prosecuted over “The Hump” during the war (the Hump being the eastern spur of the Himalayas that drops down the Burma/China border), but I was in Oman on a National Geographic assignment at the time. I didn’t get around to researching Charlie’s idea until six months later.
When I did, my initial “flying the Hump” web search quickly stumbled across a website called cnac.org – the unofficial/official repository of all things related to the China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC), a civil airline partnership between Pan American Airways and the Nationalist Chinese government of Chiang Kai-shek that flew and fought in China from 1929-1949.
(cnac.org is run by Tom Moore, nephew of a CNAC pilot named Emil Scott who was killed leaving Kunming, China in early 1942, and it’s an absolute goldmine of information, even if it can be a little hard to find the best pages.)
I perused the website, getting more and more intrigued. I’d consider myself pretty well-versed in World War II aviation history, and I knew many of the tales that seemed to orbit the CNAC story – among them Pan Am’s transpacific flying, the Flying Tigers, and the Hump flying – but I’d never even heard of the airline that seemed to have played such a pivotal role in those significant and well-known events.
Quite by chance, I stumbled through the website’s reunions page and noticed they had an reunion scheduled only three weeks hence, and it was in San Francisco, twenty miles from my home in Walnut Creek. With some trepidations, I called Bill Maher, President of the CNAC Association, introduced myself, and explained that I might be interested in writing a book about his airline. I asked if I could attend the reunion. “Hell yes!” thundered Bill, one the airline’s former Hump pilots. “Come on over. We’ve got great stories.”
I attended, and Bill was right. He and his brethren positively oozed incredible stories and adventures. I was hooked. Driving away from the reunion, I was physically shaking, convinced I’d just discovered an untold, compelling, and significant story – one I was meant to tell.
Sadly, Charlie Fowler won’t ever enjoy the fruit of the seed he planted – he was killed by an avalanche in China in 2006.
I’ve been doing a lot of it these last five or six months, and it’s making me a little crazy.
I’m waiting to hear back from my editor at Bantam Dell, an event which will hopefully get us into some serious line editing as we push my next book toward publication — the one I’ve been working on for six years. She told me this morning that she’s taking the manuscript to the Pennsylvania backwoods this Thanksgiving week and hopes to get the first set of pages to me after the holiday. Dear God, I hope so.
In the meantime, I thought I’d do some writing about the project itself.
Today is also my son’s tenth birthday and the 75th anniversary of the departure from Alameda Island of Pan Am’s first commercial transpacific flight — a very important event in my upcoming book, the one I’m waiting to hear back from Tracy about.