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A visit to Datangshan

By Adam Hunt

 

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The May meeting of COPA Flight 8 afforded a rare chance to see one of the world's largest aviation museums – The China Aviation Museum at Datangshan Mountain.

We didn't manage to take all the flight members to China to see the museum, but we were able to get the next best thing – Mike Shaw's slide show. Flight 8 Captain, Mike Shaw, spent most of April in China and Japan.

To say that Mike is enjoying retirement would be an understatement. Aside from his volunteer work with Flight 8 and the Short Wing Piper Club, Mike also gets to occasionally accompany his wife, Gail, on her business trips. This trip took Gail to the Far East.

Since Gail was there working, this left Mike with time to enjoy the Chinese food, breathe the polluted air of Beijing, climb the Great Wall and tour some museums as well. In Japan it was sushi and a visit to the A-bombing memorial in Hiroshima.

Of course the chance to make the trip 40 km north of Beijing to the China Aviation Museum was the aviation highlight of the trip. The museum was first opened on Nov. 11, 1989 to mark the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Peoples Liberation Army Air Force.

At that time the outside world was astonished at the huge collection of aircraft that had been preserved at the former Shahe Air Base. The collection includes more than 200 aircraft and rivals some of the biggest museums in the world.

Its collection is unique, with a high number of indigenous Chinese and Soviet military aircraft, including some types not seen anywhere else.

Many of the larger aircraft are parked outdoors, where the acid rain and other environmental conditions obviously take a toll on them. Most of the smaller aircraft have indoor display space inside the underground bunker tunnelled into the rock of Datangshan Mountain.

The bunker or tunnel itself is a marvel. It measures 586 metres (1,905 ft) long by 11 metres (36 ft) high and 40 metres (130 ft) wide. It was cut into the mountain's rock to provide bomb-proof hangar space when the Shahe Air Base was the heart of the Chinese Cold War effort.

The China Aviation Museum covers the history of civil and military aviation in the country, with special emphasis on the Korean War and the Cold War. It starts with a display on the Wright Brothers and even features a replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer.

Civil types are represented by several airliners in the outside storage area and a few smaller types indoors including the Nanjing Aviation College AD200 canard ultralight two-seater student project sport aircraft and a small blue gyroplane that bore no placard.

Mike Shaw says the museum is not heavily supervised and visitors are free to roam anywhere they like without escort. Very few aircraft are roped off and there are no prohibitions of climbing on or sitting in the aircraft in the outdoor displays.

Most of the aircraft have identifying placards, but many are in Chinese only. When Shaw was there just a few visitors wandered the huge site, with even fewer staff around.

Of course the main focus of the museum is military aviation. In many ways the museum still looks like an operational air base, with lines of MiGs parked under the watchful gaze of Type 59 100mm anti-aircraft guns.

Unlike many museums, this one does not seem to have traded duplicate examples of aircraft with other museums to provide a wider assortment on display. There are many aircraft of the same type or variants of the same type there.

Many versions of the Shenyang J-6 (called the F-6 for export) are on display, including the J-6-IV flown by Xu Kaitong when he shot down a US reconnaissance drone on Nov. 15, 1964. The J-6 was based on the Russian MiG-19.

Some of the highlights of Shaw's slide show included:

 

  • A cut-away display of a MiG-17 Fresco fighter
  • The 1930 Lenin biplane
  • Tachikawa 99 trainer
  • A de Havilland Mosquito bomber
  • Several aircraft that were flown over Tiananmen Square during the celebrations of the 1949 communist victory, including a Fairchild PT-19 trainer and a North American P-51 Mustang
  • Yak 11 trainer
  • The Tuplolev TU-2 bomber that shot down a US F-86 Sabre
  • Yak-17 UTI trainer
  • Nanchang CJ-5 and CJ-6 trainers
  • Lavochkin LA-11 piston fighter
  • MiG-9 fighter
  • Licence built MiG-17s (Shenyang F-5) that shot down US F-84s, F-86 Sabres, F-4B Phantoms and even an RB-57 Canberra recce bomber
  • The Nanchang A-5 attack bomber that dropped an A-bomb during a test bombing
  • The F-7 supersonic fighter that shot down 4 US recce drones
  • Many helicopters including Alouette III, Mil-8 Hip, Mil-24 Hind, Mil-4 Hound and even a Bell UH-1H Huey
  • Several airliners, such as the Tupolev TU-124, a Vickers Viscount, a Hawker Siddeley Trident and the DC-8 once used by Orbis for eye surgery which the organization used as a flying teaching hospital to train 25,000 doctors
  • Many bombs, guns and radar systems

There was even a familiar Canadian aircraft - a de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver, resplendent in PLA Air Force markings.

One of the highlight displays is the Ilyushin Il-18V four-engine turbo-prop transport that was Mao Zedong's personal VIP aircraft. The aircraft is beautifully preserved, right down to the lavender curtains and the on-board bed in which Mao slept.

The museum even has a back-lot of old vehicles, including army command and control trucks and even some old Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik attack aircraft, their steel skins rusting in the sunshine.

Overall Shaw says the China Aviation Museum is well worth the visit for anyone who has a day to spare while in Beijing.

In conclusion, Shaw said he found both China and Japan to be great destinations for visits. In both cases the people are friendly, the food great and the sights too many to see in one trip.