As domestic and international travel to Yunnan increases, the province has been rapidly expanding its aviation infrastructure. What few know is that the foundation of the province's airport network was laid more than 70 years ago by Americans and Chinese working for an often-misunderstood Chinese/American-owned commercial airline known as China National Aviation Corporation, or CNAC.
Founded in 1929 by aircraft manufacturer Curtiss-Wright, CNAC – originally known as China Airways – ran into difficulties dealing with Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government and was sold to Pan American Airways in 1933.
CNAC fared better in China under Pan Am management and began to service routes linking the US, Pan American's Pacific network, and China's major urban centers, first flying into Kunming in 1935. It was one of two commercial airlines operating in China in the 30s, the other being Lufthansa's JV with the Nationalists, Eurasia Airlines. Runways were hard to come by in China at the time, and CNAC had a competitive advantage with its several river planes, which often made water landings on the Yangtze and other waterways.
War was to quickly alter the fates of both Eurasia and CNAC. After the invasion of China by Nazi Germany's ally Japan, the Chinese military absorbed all the assets of Eurasia Airlines. By the end of 1941, CNAC was making evacuation flights as well as the dangerous supply runs between India and Kunming for which it became famous.
When the American Volunteer Group (AVG), aka the Flying Tigers, a group of volunteer fighter pilots flying for China, disbanded in July of 1942, the majority of its pilots joined CNAC rather than return to the US military. This blurred the lines between CNAC and the Flying Tigers as the 'original' Tigers were now seen in CNAC civilian uniforms.
American Diego Kusak, whose father Steve Kusak was a CNAC pilot, grew up on the Spanish island of Mallorca listening to stories about CNAC – and 1940s Kunming – told by many of the CNAC and original AVG pilots themselves. Kusak is bringing the CNAC story to Chinese museums for the first time in an exhibit featuring articles belonging to his father as well as local collector Gong Kangyi (龚康毅). 'CNAC over the Hump' is currently the featured exhibit at the Kunming Municipal Museum.
"This exhibit isn't about war, it's about the love of aviation that was behind the founding of CNAC," Kusak told GoKunming.
A major challenge for Kusak's exhibit is to clearly separate the histories of CNAC and the Flying Tigers, a name which was given to them by Kunmingers during the war, and the American military units that later came to fight and to transport over China. Most Chinese and Westerners are still unaware of the key differences between the commercial airline CNAC and the Flying Tigers, who flew missions against Japanese bombers and fighters from December 1941 to July 1942.
As Japanese forces gained ground in southern China and Burma (now Myanmar), Yunnan became a critical launching pad for both CNAC supply missions over the Himalayas - a route which became known as 'the Hump' – and AVG engagement with Japanese planes in south China and Burma. By 1942, when Allied forces came to join China in the war, Kunming became one of the major military air hubs of that time.
Kusak's exhibition is as much about the roots of aviation in Yunnan as it is about the turbulent history and politics of China and Asia in the 20th Century. Even while the Allies and the US military began to take control of most of the air routes over war torn China, CNAC managed to survive as a Chinese-owned, commercial and profitable airline. On one hand CNAC was flying under contract for the Allies, transporting weapons, soldiers, war materiel and medicines over the Hump.
On the other hand, CNAC was the only commercial airline taking passengers from Kunming into India and vice versa via the Hump route. At the time, no safer route existed out of China.
'CNAC Over The Hump' features dozens of photos plus film of China, Yunnan and Kunming in the 1930s and 40s. It will run at the Kunming Municipal Museum through the end of March. The museum is open daily from 9:30 am to 5 pm.
Plane images: CNAC Association
Steve Kusak image: Diego Kusak© Copyright 2005-2023 GoKunming.com all rights reserved. This material may not be republished, rewritten or redistributed without permission.