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The China National Aviation Corporation (Chinese: 中國航空公司) was a Chinese airline which was nationalized after the Chinese Communist Party took control in 1949, and merged into the People's Aviation Company of China (中國人民航空公司) in 1952. It was a major airline under the Nationalist government of China.

China National Aviation Corporation
TypeState-owned enterprise
FoundedAugust 1, 1930 (1930-08-01)
DefunctMay 1952 (1952-05)
  • Nationalized by the communist government
  • Some assets were relocated to Taiwan by nationalist government

It was headquartered in Shanghai as of 1938.[2]


On 5 April 1929 the Executive Yuan of the Nationalist government of China based in Nanking established the Chinese National Aviation Corporation, a state owned company with an authorized capital of ten million yuan. Sun Fo, Minister of Railways and son of Sun Yat Sen served as its first chairman although the real power lay with the Minister of Communications, Wang Boqun.[3]

Two weeks later on 17 April, the Nationalists entered into a service contract with an American firm, Aviation Exploration Inc which was to establish air routes between a few of the major treaty ports and manage all operations. Aviation Exploration Inc was a personal holding company of the U.S. aviation magnate Clement Melville Keys who at the same time was the president of Curtiss-Wright and a few other aviation firms.[4] In June 1929, Keys set up China Airways Federal to manage the new airmail routes between Canton, Shanghai and Hankow.[5]

This new Sino-American venture faced acute resistance from military factions in South China: warlords had their own small air forces which had ambitions to earn income from airmail service between the treaty ports. Even more ominous was the opposition from Wang Po-chun the Minister of Communications; in July 1929, he went ahead and set up an airmail service, Shanghai-Chengtu Airways, owned entirely by his ministry. Wang imported Stinson planes and competed with China Airways Federal on the Shanghai-Hankow route.[5] He became in effect the father of China's civil aviation.

Despite all the odds, on 21 October 1929, China Airways Federal launched the airmail and passenger service with an inaugural flight from Shanghai to Hankow. It continued to face overwhelming political and financial difficulties, not least from the Ministry of Communications which not only collected airmail revenue from its own service but from that of China Airways Federal.

By the start of 1930 China Airways Federal was at the point of bankruptcy and threatened to stop operations altogether unless the Ministry of Communications released its revenue. An old China hand named Max Polin managed to broker a new deal between China Airways Federal and the Ministry of Communication. On 8 July, the two rival airmail operators merged into a reconfigured China National Aviation Corporation, which thereafter was better known by its acronym, CNAC. The Chinese government had a 55 percent share and Keys' interests had a 45 percent share in CNAC. The Keys share in CNAC wound up in Intercontinent Aviation, another holding company that he had established in 1929 to handle foreign airline investments; by that stage Intercontinent itself had become part of North American Aviation, another firm founded by Keys in 1928.[6] From 1931 until 1948 William Langhorne Bond was operations manager and vice-president of China National Aviation Corporation

By 1933, Keys had retired under a cloud of scandal and near bankruptcy. Thomas Morgan was his successor as the head of Curtiss-Wright which through cross holdings ultimately controlled both North American and Intercontinent. After a series of disastrous accidents and disagreements with Chinese leaders, Morgan decided to sell the 45 percent stake held by Intercontinent in CNAC to Pan American Airways: on 1 April 1933. Morgan concluded the sale with PanAm president Juan Trippe. Trippe almost immediately put PanAm vice-president Harold Bixby in charge of the airline's new far east operation: Bixby was well known in banking and aviation circles as the man who had put up the money for the trans-Atlantic flight of Charles Lindbergh in the Spirit of St Louis.

Between 1937 and December 1941, CNAC flew many internal routes with Douglas Dolphin amphibians (Route No. 3, from Shanghai – Canton, via Wenchow, Foo-chow, Amoy & Swatow), and Douglas DC-2s and DC-3s. In addition, three examples of the Vultee V-1A single-engine transport that "missed the boat" to Republican Spain ended up in China. Initially, the Nationalists maintained contact with the outside world through the port of Hanoi in French Indo-China, but the Japanese put pressure on the new pro-Vichy regime there to cut off relations with them in 1940–41. Flying in mainland China during the war with Japan was dangerous. A CNAC aircraft was the first passenger aircraft in history to be destroyed by enemy forces, in the Kweilin Incident in August 1938.[citation needed]

By fall 1940, CNAC operated service from Chungking (via Kunming and Lashio) to Rangoon, Chengdu, Kiating (via Luchow and Suifu) and Hong Kong (via Kweilin).[7]

As the Japanese blockade of materials, fuel and various supplies severely strangulated China's already-deprived war effort, particularly with the continued Battles of Chengdu-Chongqing, Lanzhou, Changsha, Kumming, the looming Japanese invasion of Burma, Major General Mao Bangchu of the Nationalist Air Force of China was tasked with leading the exploration of suitable air-routes over the dangerous Himalayas in 1941;[8] as a result, CNAC pilot Xia Pu recorded the first flight between Dinjan, Burma, to Kunming, China in what was to become the route now known as "The Hump" in November of that year.[9]

On 8, 9 and 10 December 1941, eight American pilots of the China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC) and their crews made a total of 16 trips between Kai Tak Airport in the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong, then under attack from Japanese forces, and Chungking, the wartime capital of the Republic of China.[10] Together they made 16 sorties and evacuated 275 persons including Soong Ching-ling (the widow of Sun Yat-sen), and the Chinese Finance Minister H.H. Kung.

During World War II, CNAC was headquartered in India, and flew supplies from Assam, India, into Yunnan, southwestern China through the Hump Route over the Himalayas, after the Japanese blocked the Burma Road. Despite the large casualties inflicted by the Japanese and more significantly, the ever-changing weather over the Himalayas, the logistics flights operated daily, year round, from April 1942 until the end of the war. The CNAC was a smaller part of the overall re-supply operations which included the USAAF's India-China Division of Air Transport Command.

CNAC pilots with a captured Shōwa L2D3 or L2D3-L, c. 1945
CNAC pilots with a captured Shōwa L2D3 or L2D3-L, c. 1945

After World War II, in 1946, CNAC moved from India to Shanghai, specifically Longhua Airport, located on the western shore of the Huangpu River, 10 km from the center of Shanghai. The company was a huge organization, with departments for transportation, mechanics, medicine, food, finance, etc. The employees who numbered in the thousands were housed in dormitories located in the Shanghai French Concession. Every morning, the company took the employees by a car convoy from the dormitories to the airport.[11]

CNAC eventually operated routes from Shanghai to Beiping (now Beijing), Chungking and Guangzhou (Canton), using Douglas DC-2 and DC-3 aircraft. Apart from purchasing war surplus planes, CNAC had also acquired brand new Douglas DC-4s, to serve the route between Shanghai and San Francisco.

The former Central Air Transport Convair 240 on display at the Beijing Aviation Museum.
The former Central Air Transport Convair 240 on display at the Beijing Aviation Museum.

The downfall of CNAC's operations came on 9 November 1949, when managing director of CNAC, Colonel CY Liu, and general manager of CATC (Central Air Transport Corporation [zh]), Colonel CL Chen with a skeleton crew defected with 12 aircraft in unauthorized take-offs from Hong Kong Kai Tak Airport to Communist-controlled China. The lead aircraft (Convair 240) was welcomed with pomp and ceremony in Beijing, while the other 11 landed safely in Tianjin. The aircraft were pursued by Nationalist fighter planes but were shielded by heavy cloud cover. The remaining airline staff with their families (a total of 3,400) snuck into China by land or sea later. The ideology behind the defection was nationalism as they believed that the Communist Party would best lead one, strong China. On 1 August 1950, both companies came back to operate services.[12] Later they were merged to form the People's Aviation Company of China in May 1952, and eventually became part of CAAC Airlines in June 1953. Today the original Convair 240 (with one engine missing) is on display at a Military Aviation Museum in Beijing. Liu left China in 1971 for Australia where he died in May 1973.[13]

The remaining 71 aircraft in Hong Kong were sold by the Nationalists, who had retreated to the island of Taiwan, to the Delaware-registered Civil Air Transport Inc (CAT) in an effort to save the aircraft from the Communists. After a lengthy legal battle (which went on appeal from Hong Kong to Privy Council in UK, as reported in 1951 Appeal Cases) the planes were delivered by the Hong Kong government to CAT in 1952.

As of 2022, there are only two known former living pilots still living, Moon Fun Chin and Peter Goutiere.

Accidents and incidents

See also


  1. W.C. McDonald, Jr. "The CHUNG". CNAC Association. Retrieved 29 June 2021.
  2. Flight International. 28 April 1938. p. 416 (Archive). "CHINA NATIONAL AVIATION CORP., 51, Canton Road, Shanghai."
  3. 'The Minister in China (MacMurray) to the Secretary of State' Peking, 17 May 1929 (1929). Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) Volume II. p. 154.
  4. Leary, William (1976). The Dragon's Wings. Athens Georgia: The University of Georgia Press. pp. 8–31. ISBN 0-8203-0366-6.
  5. "CNAC History".
  6. Buchan, Eugenie (2013). The Politics of Airpower in US-China relations 1928-1941. Exeter, Devon: PhD Dissertation Exeter University. pp. 54, 60.
  7. October 1940 timetable
  8. Li, 2003, p. 16 & 19. Hump Air Transport
  9. Plating, 2011, p. 38. The Hump: America's Strategy for Keeping China in World War II. Texas A&M University Press
  10. According to articles in the New York Times and the Chicago Daily of 15 December 1941, the pilot's names were Charles L. Sharp, Hugh L. Woods, Harold A. Sweet, William McDonald, Frank L. Higgs, Robert S. Angle, P.W. Kessler and S.E. Scott.
  11. Rebecca Chan Chung, Deborah Chung and Cecilia Ng Wong, "Piloted to Serve", 2012
  12. ""八一"开航 - 中国民航局60周年档案展". CAAC (in Simplified Chinese). Retrieved 20 February 2021.
  13. "CNAC Managing Director, C.Y. Liu".
  14. Accident description for NC16930 at the Aviation Safety Network
  15. Accident description for 23 at the Aviation Safety Network
  16. Accident description for 40 at the Aviation Safety Network
  17. Accident description for 31 at the Aviation Safety Network
  18. Accident description for 60 at the Aviation Safety Network
  19. Accident description for 53 at the Aviation Safety Network
  20. Accident description for 49 at the Aviation Safety Network
  21. Accident description for 58 at the Aviation Safety Network
  22. Accident description for 48 at the Aviation Safety Network
  23. Criminal description for 72 at the Aviation Safety Network
  24. Accident description for 59 at the Aviation Safety Network
  25. Accident description for 63 at the Aviation Safety Network
  26. Accident description for 83 at the Aviation Safety Network
  27. Accident description for 75 at the Aviation Safety Network
  28. Accident description for 82 at the Aviation Safety Network
  29. Accident description for 85 at the Aviation Safety Network
  30. Accident description for 81 at the Aviation Safety Network
  31. Accident description for NC16930 at the Aviation Safety Network
  32. Accident description at the Aviation Safety Network
  33. Accident description at the Aviation Safety Network
  34. Accident description for 140 at the Aviation Safety Network
  35. Accident description for 115 at the Aviation Safety Network
  36. Accident description for XT-T51/121 at the Aviation Safety Network
  37. Accident description for 138 at the Aviation Safety Network
  38. Accident description at the Aviation Safety Network
  39. Criminal description at the Aviation Safety Network
  40. Accident description at the Aviation Safety Network
  41. Accident description at the Aviation Safety Network
  42. Accident description for XT-104 at the Aviation Safety Network
  43. Accident description at the Aviation Safety Network

Further reading

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