China and its potentially huge business aviation market continue to be a conundrum for the largely Western industry. Signs of optimism bubble to the surface, most recently government support for building new airports; liberalization of the tight airspace restrictions; and inroads into expanding the role of airborne humanitarian services, such as medevac and emergency relief operations. But in the past few years, the global economic hiccup and a stern government crackdown on corruption—real or perceived—have combined to hamstring the growth of business aviation in China. While no one wants to miss out on the potential of the market, it can be frustrating to take one stroke forward, only to be forced to tread water for apparently arbitrary reasons.
I recently returned from the Asian Business Aviation Conference and Exhibition (ABACE) in Shanghai where all these issues were front and center. Before, during and after the trip, my thoughts occasionally drifted to America’s business—and military—relationship with China at the start of World War II, and whether there is any connection now, eight decades later.
Brutal hostilities between China and Japan started in 1937, almost five years before Pearl Harbor. And long before America’s official entry to the war, we were already involved in defending China against the Japanese invasion. The U.S. motivation was not entirely altruistic, as President Roosevelt envisioned war with Japan, even then. Curbing the island nation’s expansion by taking China’s side in the conflict was seen as being in America’s best interests, even if few Americans realized at the time. Had she secured access to all of China’s raw materials and resources, Japan would have been a far more formidable enemy.
Thick in the mix of America’s relationship with China was William Pawley, the Curtiss-Wright sales agent there and an adventurous entrepreneur in his own right. Pawley first came to China in 1933 to run an airline between Hong Kong and Shanghai, later selling it to Pan Am. He then established the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (Camco), a joint venture with the Chinese government, to assemble military aircraft for the Chinese air force. Many of those came through the U.S. lend-lease program as part of our “proxy war” with Japan. Pawley experienced the wrath of Japan first-hand, as troops overran Camco factories in Hangzou and Wuhan before production finally retreated to near the Burmese border.
Pawley took action to help secure the defense of not only China, but also his business interests. In early 1941, still months before the Japanese attack on U.S. forces in Hawaii, Pawley and his brothers Edward and Eugene helped organize and support the 1st American Volunteer Group, a cadre of U.S. Army, Navy and Marine pilots “on leave” from their respective branch of service to fly in combat for the Chinese government. Officially known as the AVG, their American-built Curtiss P-40 fighters (assembled by Camco) sported glaring tigersharks’ teeth painted on their noses, leading to the group’s much better known nickname, the Flying Tigers. Though they began training months before Pearl Harbor, their first combat mission did not launch until Dec. 20, 1941, two weeks after the Japanese attack in Hawaii.
Led by retired Army Air Force Colonel Claire Chennault of Louisiana, the three Flying Tiger squadrons (about 30 P-40s each) surprised Japanese bombers and escorting Zero fighters that had previously attacked Chinese troops and cities at will. The Americans were well paid by Camco for their work, including bonuses for each Japanese aircraft destroyed. Under the political leadership of Chiang Kai Shek, who worked closely with Chennault, China resisted Japanese expansion. The American pilots were credited with destroying 296 Japanese aircraft, while losing only 14 of their own pilots in combat.
I’m privileged to have met several of the Flying Tigers over the years: “Tex” Hill, R.T. Smith, and even Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, who cut his combat teeth with the Tigers and later earned fame as the leader of Marine Corsair squadron VMF-214, the “Black Sheep” in the South Pacific. Smith kept a compelling diary, and years later reproduced it as the book Tale of a Tiger including images of the handwritten pages with notes.
Needless to say, the China-U.S. relationship did not go well after the Japanese surrender in 1945. Perhaps because they fought on behalf of the Nationalist Chinese forces, the role of the Flying Tigers is not widely known in China today, though the group is a large part of American aviation’s folklore. As we continue to struggle with helping boost business aviation in China, it might be worth noting that there was a time when the Chinese were immensely grateful for U.S. intervention on their behalf.