China Pilot

China Pilot

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China Pilot: Flying for Chennault During the Cold War by Felix Smith. Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000. 336 pp, b&w photos, $17.95 list price (softbound).

Claire Chennault's legend just keeps on growing. Here is a feast for readers who can't get enough of the man who led the Flying Tigers, the 14th Air Force, and the cargo line that became Air America.

Felix Smith isn't a historian. He's a pilot--a good one, since he survived 23 years with Civil Air Transport, organized to carry relief supplies around postwar China, only to become a paramilitary arm of Chiang Kai-shek's campaign against communism.

To our great good fortune, Smith also turns out to be a gifted reporter. Better than anyone else, he evokes the sights, smells, and sounds of China in 1945, along with an economy so weak that U.S. dollars were precious enough to be washed and ironed after use, and a government so depraved that it's a wonder it lasted until 1949. Fume with the CAT pilots stuck in the clouds, hostage to a Chinese Air Force officer who shut down their radio beacon until he got all the cash in the airline's safe.

Smith also evokes the beauty of Asia, and of flight. Here we go to Lanzhou: "Our shadow, circled by a rainbow, ran along with us until the clouds broke up over mountains, and we saw a valley of the Yellow River and Sian. Another two hours put us within sight of giant waterwheels near a city of wide streets and rows of poplar trees and an encircling wall that was twenty feet thick and bristled with parapets and watch towers." I haven't enjoyed a trip so much since I was a fifth-grader, reading Richard Halliburton instead of my geography.

Exiled to Taiwan after Chiang was defeated, CAT became a subcontractor to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Among other covert operations, its pilots helped supply French garrisons in Vietnam. Smith flew in those desperate airlifts, along with the likes of James McGovern--Earthquake Magoon--an oversized and joyful man, killed the day before the French surrendered Dien Bien Phu and lost their Vietnam war.

China Pilot is a a wonderful book. It belongs on the shelf of every admirer of Chennault and his unorthodox air forces.