Journey to Peking – An Airman’s Odyssey

Posted October 2, 2003

(First published in the March 13, 1972 issue of Skyliner)

By Bill Dixon

On February 1, 1972, a TWA 707 became the first U.S. commercial airliner into mainland China in 23 years. The plane carried technicians and equipment for television coverage of President Nixon’s historic visit to the People’s Republic of China. Captain Marvin C. Horstman, general manager-flying, JFK, was in command of the flight. His co-captain was Captain William A. Dixon, general manager-flying, SFO. Dixon a former editor of early Skyliners, penned a first-hand account of the trip, written in the form of a diary, which starts in Los Angeles.

January 28 – Los Angeles: Horstman, Hackett (flight engineer James E. Hackett) and I met in late evening and reviewed the entire plan of flight. Horstman had been briefed in Washington and we would wear civilian clothes from Guam on. Almost every takeoff and landing inbound would be at maximum allowable gross weight. Pay load approximately 84,000 lbs. of cargo and passengers. A more detailed route and airport briefing would be given in GUM. All flight information and clearances in China would be in kilometers, meters and millimeters instead of miles and feet. Altimeter settings would be given in millimeters and winds in meters per second. We have metric conversion charts with us. Special takeoff and landing gross weight charts for Shanghai and Peking (now Beijing) have been prepared in TWA format by our operational engineering staff at Kansas City. Each airport has one north/south 10,499 ft. concrete runway. No matter what the wind, we would land either north or south. Runway lengths are adequate.

January 29 – Los Angeles: Departed Los Angeles at 1540 PST. Takeoff weight 334,000 lbs. Arrived Guam at 0153 local time January 31 (lost one day at international date line) after stops At Honolulu and Wake. Long jaunt! Stan Moore, TWA Paris maintenance, is accompanying us to handle any maintenance problems. We had none, but Stan later performed yeoman service checking fueling and unloading at Peking in 15 F temperature. Cabin crew for China trip joined us at Honolulu: Carlyle Smith, Virginia Munson, Marge Anderson, Bobbie Silver … great group.

January 31 – Guam: Briefing set up 2115 by White House contingent that arrived an hour earlier on TWA Flight 745. Timothy Elbourn, Assistant White House Press Secretary; Ron Walker, White House staff, and several others made extremely interesting talks. Stressed that Chinese are very patient, meticulous and principle is everything to them. We are to be their guests and they are furnishing all food and lodging. They are very honest and very courteous.

When Chinese government holds formal dinner for President’s party, all the Americans will be invited. Same for the President’s dinner in honor of the People’s Republic of China. When people are applauded, custom is to applaud back. Mr. Elbourn said we would find it a rare experience that we would treasure. So true! Chinese built in two months an excellent radio/TV transmission facility at the Peking airport to house the equipment off our flight.

Bob Siegenthaler, ABC executive in charge of technicians on our flight, told the group that they will be observed closely by the Chinese, and it will help them to form an opinion as to whether they want to establish better communications and relations with us. Each technician will have a Chinese counterpart. Americans will be center of interest everywhere as Chinese are not accustomed to seeing many Westerners. Dress as you would at home. Chinese dress very much alike. Will find hosts friendly but reserved and proud. Do not touch Chinese men or women, such as pat on shoulder, as is not their custom and consider offensive. The do shake hands with Westerners since this is our custom.

February 1 – Guam: 00545 wakeup for the historic flight. Enjoyed excellent accommodations at new Guam Hilton with dramatic view of ocean and lagoon. Hotel in spectacular setting on Cliffside among coral and tropical trees. Good time of year for Guam. Rain showers vie with sun. Temperature mid 70s to low 80s. Cockpit crew left hotel at 0645 for Andersen Air Force Base to prepare for 0915 takeoff.

0730 – Andersen AFB: Met by USAF Col. Craig Lytle who briefed us on route, radio frequencies to be used, airport facilities, etc. VHF frequency 118.1 MH will be for all contacts with within China with high frequency 8931 KH as back-up. Given copies of runway and approach charts for Shanghai and Peking. Similar format to ours but in meters, etc. We convert all figures to feet and miles. Lytle confirmed we will pick up Chinese navigator and radio operator at Shanghai but getting into Shanghai will be our baby!

Route to Shanghai will be direct to Okinawa (Kadena AFB) thence to Remora, which is 260 mi NW of OKA and last position point within U.S. control area. From there we proceed W-NW 171 NM to Shehshan, which is the first position reporting point in Shanghai’s control area. We will use Doppler navigation to Remora and Shehshan, then will track on westerly course via non-directional beacons. Chinese have jet fuel available at both Shanghai and Peking. Contact Shanghai radio not less than 85 km (52 mi) prior to Shehshan for clearance into Chinese air space.

Weather briefing and enroute winds information turned out to be quite accurate. Shanghai forecast to have 300-500’ ceiling and 1-2 mile visibility. Canton is our alternate. Peking to be good. ILS available at Shanghai but only ADF beacon approach installed at Peking.

Shanghai had been advised by Andersen AFB, on special HF frequency established for this purpose, that TWA F794 (from this point into China and back to GUM our flight number was based on our tailnumber, which is a military procedure) planned takeoff approximately 0915 GUM time. Proceeded to aircraft and passengers and crew took a number of pictures – each other, aircraft, everything. Lifted off GUM at 0908 (0708 China time). Were cleared to Shanghai airport to cruise at 35,000’. Our flight plan was 4 hours. 10 min. Next stop – mainland of China!

February 1 – 0158 GMT: Overheaded Okinawa and turned toward China. Here we are, heading directly for buffer zone bordering china, which we always previously had avoided so cautiously. Funny feeling!

1025 China Time: Okinawa radio cleared us to Shanghai radio, to make contact on 118.1 as soon as possible after passing Remora. Approaching Remora, we picked up the shanghai coast line on our radar and requested clearance to cross Remora at 28,000’ since the Air Corridor chart supplied by the Chinese Civil Aviation Department showed 3000 meters ( 9843’) as the altitude to cross Shehshan and we wanted to have plenty of time to make the descent. Shehshan is only 52 miles from the Shanghai airport, 171 miles from Remora.

Capt. Horstman was handling the radio as I was flying the Guam-Shanghai leg. We had been trading seats on every other leg. We had difficulty in contacting Shanghai at first as the transmissions were breaking up, apparently because of distance. We finally established fair communication and were cleared to descend to 3,000 meters. The next check point in the 10 km wide corridor from Shehshan to Shanghai was Hengsha, 21 nautical miles distance on a course of 260. It is located on an island in the mouth of the Yangtse River, according to our chart. Hengsha had a homing beacon on 364 KC with "HC" as identification. It had a good strong signal and we were able to pick it up some 20 miles out.

We were further cleared by Shanghai radio to cross Hengsha at 1500 meters (4921’). The controller spoke fair to good English, except some words were a little difficult to understand and required some repeats. After passing Hengsha we slowed to 250 knots as we were only 56 km (30 miles) from Shanghai airport. The actual name of the airport in Chinese is Hungchiao, but we referred to it as Shanghai airport in our conversations with both the en-route and tower controllers.

Passed over Lunghwa, the next checkpoint, utilizing Doppler to fix its position, as we had no luck receiving the beacon – and so advised Shanghai radio. We were then cleared direct to the Shanghai outer marker to conduct a rectangular 180 approach for a north landing. We tuned in the shanghai ILS on 110.3 and it came in loud and clear. Great! The approach pattern was more the type used in the U.S. some years ago, and is more time consuming that the radar vectored straight-in initial approach we are used to.

We obviously were being monitored on radar as a voice advised us "you are over the airport," just as we were starting the prescribed turn from north back to south. We crossed the outer marker at 400 meters. In the meantime, we had been given the latest airport weather and altimeter setting in millimeters. The approach was just as routine as if we had been making it in San Francisco, and was manually flown, utilizing our flight director system. As we broke out of the overcast, Captain Horstman called out, "Runway in sight," as our crew coordinating procedures spell out, and I noted we were passing through 320’. Airport elevation is 14’. Visibility was approximately one mile.

We touched down smoothly at 1125 Shanghai time. Our passengers broke into cheers, whistles and applause, according to our cabin attendants. Tower cleared us to make a 180 turn on the runwayand directed us to our parking spot in front of the terminal. The only other airplane we saw on the field was a USAF C-141 jet cargo transport, which arrived about one hour ahead of us. Stationed on each side of the runway about 2500’ apart and 150’ from the runway were Chinese soldiers.

We were directed into position by a signalman using what appeared to be ping pong paddles. We parked, cut the engines and shook hands with each other. We couldn’t think of anything monumental to say except, "We made it!" But we were proud to have brought a TWA 707 into China to mark the first time a commercial aircraft from the U.S. had landed in the "People’s Republic of China" in more than 20 years.

A group of about 20 to 30 persons were waiting for us. An electric aircraft power cart was plugged in almost immediately, and steps rolled up to both the front and rear doors. As we stepped out onto the loading steps under the gray sky we were greeted by smiling Chinese who were dressed almost alike in Mao jackets, pants and caps. The temperature was 40F, and some of them had on short coats and caps with earmuffs. Others had on the typical peaked cap.  Colors of the clothing varied somewhat, but were mostly a blue-gray. The material appeared to be cotton.

After discussing the fuel we would need (55,000 lbs.) we were taken into the terminal. It was a short walk to the large terminal and it appeared to be almost empty of any passengers except ours. We were served hot tea, offered cigarettes, and while we enjoyed this hospitality, were briefed on the Shanghai-Peking route. Our passports were also picked up at this time and returned just before we departed, with a small piece of paper inserted, which had Chinese notations on it. About the only thing we could read was the date. We had been briefed at Guam that no stamp would be placed in our passport to indicate we had been in China and that the piece of paper inserted in Shanghai would be removed when we returned through Shanghai. As it turned out, the paper was left in all of our passports and serves as a good solid memento that we actually were in the country!

During the briefing, we were introduced to the Chinese radio operator and navigator who would be accompanying us on the round-trip to Peking. The weather briefing was thorough and professional and the meteorologist spoke good English. He reviewed the weather map with us, but when we asked if we might keep it, he politely said "no" because he would need it to brief additional crews. He did give us a weather folder containing the Peking forecast, en-route winds and temperatures, all handwritten in easy-to-read English. Peking was still forecast to be clear, with a temperature of 23F on our arrival. No flight plan as such was filed with China.

1215 – February 1, Shanghai: The passengers and cabin crew were taken to the restaurant, and the cockpit crew was taken to a separate (VIP?) room to eat. The four of us (including Stan Moore) were seated at a big, round lazy Susan-type table with four Chinese, three of whom spoke good English. The other gentleman, I believe, was head of the airport, and like the others, quite jovial with a good sense of humor. There must have been 8-10 courses in the meal, all of them delicious. Included was hors d’oeuvres consisting of cold sliced portions of beef, ham and fowl. Various hot vegetables and meats plus soup and cookies. There was no salad as such, but a plate of sliced tomatoes and peeled cucumbers, sliced lengthwise completed the feast. Our plates were about one half the size of American dinner plates in very handsome china. Beside the plate was a spoon on the left and fork and chop sticks on the right. We used our chopsticks, to the great amusement of our hosts, who were quick to help us with instructions. There was a menu in Chinese and when we asked if we might have a copy, each was presented one with an English insert.

We indulged in small talk and no politics of any kind was mentioned by anyone. Acceptable coffee ended the meal and cream and lump sugar were available if desired. Our biggest problem during the meal was to keep from over-eating, as our hosts were constantly adding tidbits to our plates. Orange soda, plus wine, including their famous Mai Tai cocktail made up the beverages. We unfortunately had to stick to the orange pop-like drinks which were constantly kept full by white-jacketed waiters. Tangerines and small bananas were also on the table and I found both of them sweet and flavorful.

On the way out, we strolled through the shopping area, which covered an area of about 125 x 50’. We didn’t have much time to shop at Shanghai but the cabin attendants did buy a few items and all of us bought a few more during the stop on the way home. We proceeded to the airplane and as we boarded, about 20 persons, including half a dozen women, stood in line at the foot of the steps to shake hands with us and smile a cheery good-by. We started engines with Stan Moore standing in the door and relaying clearance to us from the ground to turn each engine.

1305 Shanghai Time: Received clearance to taxi for takeoff on 36. Tower asked if we wanted to cruise at 9,000 or 11,000 meters and we chose 9,000 (29,500’). No route was specified but, of course, we only had one to use that we knew about. It was almost direct, with five checkpoints: Wusih, Pihsien, Tsinan, Potow and Tawangchuang. Total distance 617 nautical miles. There was a VOR station at Wusih such as we have in the U.S., except no DME, and homing beacons marked the other radio fixes. The navigator gave us headings to maintain the prescribed track.

We pointed out the direct reading drift and ground speed readout on our Doppler to our Chinese crew and, by mostly hand language, conveyed its meaning. Neither the navigator nor radio operator spoke very much English. The radio operator made the enroute checks on our HF radio, with which he appeared familiar. He also got us the latest Peking weather and wind at about the half-way point and secured our initial clearance to descend to 4500 meters after passing the beacon at Tsinan. We could have made it satisfactorily without them, but they were helpful.

I acknowledged our clearance on 118.1 to descend to 1500 meters. Since we were now in the clear, Capt. Horstman asked me to see if we were cleared to land straight-in. After several tries, we understood it was okay, and shortly after saw the runway dead ahead about 15 miles.

Snow covered the ground, and scattered here and there were what appeared to be little villages, with the buildings all the same brown color. Passing over one just prior to landing, the appearance resembled a barracks-like arrangement. They may have been communes. We did not see the city of Peking from the air because of the haze. The airport, we were told later, was about an hour’s drive from the city, and the terrain that we did see was open and flat except for the small communities mentioned above.

1445 – Peking: We landed Peking within minutes of our pre-planned schedule. It is approximately the same north latitude as Salt Lake City. As at Shanghai, we were cleared to make a 180 turn on the runway and were directed to turn left at the second taxi strip. We taxied about mile to the terminal, following the directions of the controller. We parked behind the C-141 that had left Shanghai ahead of us. We were facing the Peking terminal, a large building, dominated by a huge picture of Mao Tse Tung above the main entrance.

There were about a half dozen airplanes parked several hundred yards from us which appeared to be civilian jets of Russian make. Two of them were comparable in size to our 707. The others were smaller. During the time we were on the ground in Peking and in the terminal building I recall I recall only two or three small propeller-type airplanes coming into the terminal parking area. We did see a few passengers, other than our own group, buying gifts in the Peking airport shop. For the size of the terminal, it was quite inactive while we were there.

We stepped out into 23F temperature, which must have gone down to at least 15F after dark, and were again greeted by a number of airport functionaries, including the director of the Peking airport.

We arranged for fuel before going into the terminal, and they didn’t blink an eye at our request for 88,000 lbs. It soon became evident that their ground equipment wouldn’t match our palletized freight, so a group of our passengers, together with additional workers brought in by the Chinese, started to unload the pallets one piece at a time. The had a high-lift truck available, but it would not support a complete pallet.

I asked one of the men who apparently was an official if he knew what "TWA" stood for. He smiled and replied, "Yes, Trans World Airlines!" So we are known in mainland China.

We were escorted to the terminal and again offered tea and cigarettes. We immediately started taking pictures, after receiving approval from the first Chinese we met at the head of the steps (for some reason we couldn’t take pictures at Shanghai).I noted in both Shanghai and Peking that although people wore pretty much the same clothing, some had what appeared to be leather shoes, others wore what we would call tennis shoes, and still others wore a third type which was a corduroy-like material on the upper part of the shoe with white rubber soles. Everyone wore a red Mao button. As was the case in Shanghai, we were treated with great hospitality.

The terminal building was not very warm, although there was some heat coming out of the steam radiators in the waiting room where we were taken. There was little, if any, heat in the post office room where we were able to buy stamps and mail post cards. The bank where we exchanged our money was just inside the main street-side entrance to the terminal, and on which there were no cars or activity in sight except for half a dozen men shoveling snow off the sidewalk. A huge, white statue of Chairman Mao Tse Tung dominated the terminal entry room.

There were a few cars waiting at another door, but the overall look of bustle that we associate with an airport terminal was lacking. The interpreters, of which there were always quite a few available, were very friendly and escorted us everywhere, and even waited outside the lavatory for us. Many immense signs in Chinese which I learned from interpreters read " long live unity of Chinese people" and similar slogans.

With the aircraft unloading going slowly, it was obvious at dusk that we were going to be here for quite a few hours instead of the approximately three hours originally planned. I walked out to the aircraft and turned on the tail logo light, and that big red "TWA" stood out very proudly and impressively. Parked on either side of our aircraft was a USAF C-141. The three aircraft made up a strange and inspiring sight, and one that I’m sure none of us ever expected to see in China.

Inside the terminal, as well as in the control tower which we visited later for our return weather briefing, were pictures of Chairman Mao and other picture groupings which included Marx, Lenin, Stalin and another communist hero. We were taken in to eat about 1900 hours and it was another grand meal with probably eight courses, and similar to the lunch we had at Shanghai, but with some different varieties, including a particularly delectable dish of small tender pieces of beef in a tomato and vegetable sauce.

As at Shanghai, we were offered beverages with the meal. They kept heaping up our plates. Fantastic hosts! Just prior to the end of the meal, one of the officials stood up and announced that they were going to give each of us a can of tea to take home as a souvenir, and he told us that all we had to do was put a teaspoon of the tea in a cup and pour hot water in with it. It was a green tea, which smelled of incense and apparently is highly flavored by the Chinese. I liked their black tea better. Again, coffee topped off the meal, and hot towels to wipe our hands and mouth was the final item. An interpreter seated by me inquired as to where I lived, children, etc. He said he understood there were many Chinese restaurants in the U.S. He was 30 years old, married, his job was an interpreter and he learned English in school. He lives in Peking and his wife works in a hospital. They have no children.

Since it was now getting late, it was arranged for us to go over to the guest house, which was about two blocks away, to get some sleep. Since it was cold, big overcoats were brought in for us to wear. It was about 2000 and Capt. Horstman arranged for them to awaken us at 0030, providing the unloading was completed by then. Capt. Horstman, as the pilot in command, was given a comfortable suite which consisted of a living room and bedroom plus bath with tub. Protocol obviously plays its role in China, too. The rest of us were put two-to-a-room. It was adequate in size and included two comfortable twin beds, was well-lighted, with its own bathroom, but no tub or shower facilities.

There was a closet for our coats and a small table, which contained a large thermos of hot water in case we wished to make tea. There was also a selection of chocolate bars, gum and small pieces of wrapped candy. Rather a unique note was presented by the two small pillows on each bed with their colorful embroidered pillowcases. These rooms also were the warmest spots we had found in the whole airport.

We all slept soundly and were awakened promptly at 0030 and were off the ground at 0125. The trip back to Shanghai was just a repeat of the trip up except that the weather had improved at our destination. Both airports had good runway lights and blue taxi-way lights. We arrived in Shanghai at 0306, and during the time we were on the ground, were given a light snack which included hot egg rolls, coffee or tea and fruit, and small sweet cakes. We sat around a table in the lobby, and filled out an ICAO type flight plan with an able assist from the Chinese briefing official.

The Shanghai shop was kept open, apparently just for our convenience, and we did do a little additional shopping. As a group, we bought such things as carved vases, hand painted bamboo hangings, delicately painted eggs, silk for dresses, women’s scarves, and the like. We changed our money at a China Bank desk in each terminal. Exchange rate was 2.2 yuan to the dollar. We selected our purchases, then changed cash for the required yuan. Learned we could have used travelers checks also. The quality of goods seemed to be high and the prices reasonable compared to what you would pay for similar items in Hong Kong.

We bid good-by to our navigator and radio operator in Shanghai and Captain Horstman gave each of them a red TWA flight bag, which we were afraid they might not accept, but they did, and seemed to be quite appreciative.

Although we had landed on runway 36 again at Shanghai, we were cleared for takeoff on 18. The wind was light from the west. This gave us a left turn to on-course, and we were off the ground and on our way home to Guam at 0430. It was a relaxing feeling. We had been cleared to Guam to cruise at 10,000 meters, and report passing Shehshan, the last checkpoint in the Chinese control area. Just prior to reaching it, they cleared us to turn to a 130 heading which puit us on course for Okinawa. We thanked them for their help and cooperation and we were on our way.

We had one more transmission with them and that was to relay a Shanghai estimate for a Saturn Airways crew inbound to Shanghai who were having trouble reaching them. This was the Saturn flight that supposedly was racing us to China! If they were, it was no race. We were outbound as they were coming in. Prior to reaching Remora, we contacted OKA and received clearance to Guam at 33,000’. We landed GUM at 1008 hours, approximately 25 hours to the minute after having left.

Although we invited them into the cockpit, no Chinese except the radio operator and navigator entered the flight deck. None of our possessions were inspected in any manner and the watchword was courtesy and hospitality. We reciprocated to the best of our ability, but weren’t permitted to even pay for our food.

It was a memorable day I know none of us shall ever forget.

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On March 2 aircraft No.794 made its second journey to Peking, to return to the U.S. the television crews and equipment that covered President Nixon’s visit. Author Bill Dixon, co-captain of the first flight, was captain-in-command. Rounding out the SFO-based cockpit crew were Captain Charles W. Thompson as co-pilot and Gail A. Howell as flight engineer. Carlyle Smith was again purser, joined on the second trip by LAX-based hostesses Shirley Conner, Edna Gladstone and Jettie Quinlan. They flew from Guam to Peking on March 2 and returned the following day to Honolulu where and "R&R" of 30 hours was scheduled before continuing to San Francisco and New York. Brady Williamson, who masterminded the loading of 67,000 pounds of television equipment on the initial trip, was on hand in Peking to supervise repacking for the return flight.

Bill Dixon (1936-1978 ) started as a Ticket Agent and served in the News Bureau and Flight Operations.

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