What was, at the time, the world’s most exciting undertaking – flying

The maiden flight of CNAC’s first DC-2 over the Shanghai Bund, 1935 (Edward P. Howard collection)

Out in New Jersey the next day, Shirley Wilke Mosley, ever beautiful and gracious, made me tea. In her living room, we perused two black & white photo albums her father took in China between 1929 and 1940 while she talked about what it had been like to be a part of what was, at the time, the world’s most exciting undertaking – flying – in the world’s most exciting city – Shanghai.

Shirley was a little girl at the time, and I grew increasingly fascinated as she reminisced about the characters, personalities, and adventures that populated the CNAC universe in the years before Pearl Harbor. The Shanghai social whirl was delightful for a young girl taught to make cocktails for the pilots and their wives at parties hosted by her parents (manhattans, old fashioneds, whisky sours, and gin martinis, very dry, thank you very much), and she remembered attending a company-sponsored gala at Lunghwa Airport, five or six miles south of Shanghai’s foreign settlements, to celebrate the arrival of the airline’s first DC-2, where, wearing her prettiest dress to welcome the new plane, she marveled that she could stand upright under the wing of an airplane so enormous.

CNAC’s hangar at Lunghwa Airport, on the banks of the Whangpoo River with the big buildings of Shanghai’s International Settlement just visible in the distance. 2 S-43s, 2 DC-2s, and a Ford Tri-motor on the hardstand facing a Stinson Detroiter and a Loening Air Yacht. (Shirley Wilke Mosley collection)

Apart from photos of so many of the people I’d be writing about, O.C. Wilke’s albums were full of airplanes: the S-38 and S-43 amphibians, the Loening Air Yacht, Consolidated Commodore, and Martin M-130, all flying boats, and landplanes like the Stinson Detroiter, the Ford tri-motor (the “Tin Goose”), the Douglas DC-2, and the Douglas DC-3, the greatest airplane of all time. The romance of those beautiful airplanes flying against the backdrop of 1930s China set a hook in my heart. Shirley’s stories and her father’s photos cracked open the world of expatriate China, and Shanghai, in the decade before Pearl Harbor.

I longed to write about it, but to write convincingly, a non-fiction guy is utterly dependent on the quality of the sources he’s able to locate. Before committing myself, I’d have to investigate the primary sources. Seduced by Shanghai (shanghaied by Shanghai?), it was time to read some books about the city and its history, see what quantity of period documents and letters I could collect – and judge their usefulness – and spend some time with the only man alive who’d flown for the airline before the Japanese invaded China – Moon Fun Chin.

Three company porters (in white) and the crew of CNAC’s first DC-2: Hewitt Mitchell and Moon Fun Chin, 1935 (Edward P. Howard collection)

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