As the educated son of a wealthy Chinese merchant family, 92-year-old Cai Yanwei could easily have become a victim of Mao Zedong’s decade-long Cultural Revolution. But thanks to his skill as an airman, by the time those dark days dawned in 1966, Cai had established himself as the trusted head of a team of transport pilots tasked with keeping China’s most powerful leaders safe in the air.
And in his five years in the job, he learned more about Mao and other members of the ruling class, including Premier Zhou Enlai and Commander-in-chief of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Zhu De, than most people ever would.
In an interview at his home in a retirement community in Beijing, where he lives with his wife, 13 years his junior, Cai said of Mao that for all his power and influence he was just “an ordinary person, a peasant” at heart.
“There was a bed with a soft mattress on the private jet, and all the leaders loved it, except Mao. He loved sleeping on a wooden bed, so we made one for him from five-layered plywood,” he said.
“When Mao was on board, the crew would move the mattress under the bed and put the plywood on top.”
Achieving such a trusted position was not always a given for Cai. Born into a Thai-Chinese family in south China’s Guangdong province in April 1926, he had a turbulent childhood. At the age of five, he moved with his parents to Bangkok where they ran a hospital and pharmacy business, but was sent back to China to study when he was 13.
Although the Sino-Japanese war was raging in 1939 – the start of the second world war was only months away – Cai was enrolled at a prestigious school in one of Shanghai’s foreign concessions and so was initially out of harm’s way.
That all changed in 1942 when Japanese forces overran the city and Cai, now 16, found himself homeless, isolated from his family and fighting for survival on the street.
It was later that year that he first came into contact with the Communist Party, which at the time was operating in the shadows as the civil war it was fighting against the ruling Nationalist Party was still going on but had been put on hold because of the Japanese invasion. Approached by agents who turned out to be former schoolmates offering not only food and shelter but the chance to continue his education, Cai agreed to join their ranks, albeit it on an unofficial basis.
In 1945, he headed west from Shanghai to Anhui province where he joined the New Fourth Army – nominally a cooperative force of Communist and Nationalist fighters, but very much under the control of the former.
With his strong educational background – he was encouraged to further his studies at colleges run by the Communist Party – Cai soon developed a role as tutor to his less erudite comrades, including his superiors.
“During the day I took part in military training and at night I was a teacher to the commanders, many of whom were illiterate,” he said. “When they learned how to write their names they were so excited.”
But Cai had no real interest in teaching. What he really wanted to do was join the air force so he could take his revenge on his sworn enemy, the Japanese.
“I wanted to become a fighter pilot because I hated the Japanese who had bombed my country and killed hundreds of thousands of my countrymen,” he said.
He got his chance to achieve that goal in 1946 when he was invited to join an aviation training school in northeast China’s Jilin province, the first of its kind to be set up by the Communist Party.
But for all his ambition, a shortage of aircraft meant Cai was not selected for fighter pilot training and was instead assigned to learn aircraft mechanics, ironically from Japanese prisoners of war.
Despite his initial hatred of the Japanese, Cai said he and his fellow trainees got on well with their unlikely mentors, and after three years’ training he qualified as a mechanic in 1948, the same year he formally became a member of the Communist Party.
In 1949, after declaring victory in the civil war and founding the People’s Republic of China, the new Communist government was keen to boost its air force and so established six aviation schools. And three years after missing out, Cai was overjoyed to finally land a place on a pilot training course.
“This time, my instructors were Russians,” he said. “And because of my knowledge of mechanics I learned fast.”
By the time he qualified, the Korean war had started and he was dispatched to the China-North Korea border where he flew transport planes. His skill behind the controls was noted by his superiors, and in 1956 when Liu Yalou – the first commander of the PLA Air Force – was putting together a team of pilots to work as airborne chauffeurs for the party’s top leaders, he asked Cai to sign up.
Not everyone was so keen. Many of the country’s new Communist leaders found Cai’s privileged upbringing objectionable and did not want him in the team. Thankfully for Cai, the boss pulled rank.
“Liu insisted on using me. He said my expertise and performance were more important than concerns about my family background,” Cai said.
Such was Liu’s belief in the young flier that he made him team leader in charge of 12 aircraft.
“I was really moved by Liu’s trust in me and it helped build my loyalty to the party,” Cai said.
“I’m convinced that it was because of my loyalty that I did not really suffer during the Cultural Revolution as no one questioned my integrity.”
While Cai’s job meant he frequently saw Mao, it was not until July 1957 that the pair were formally introduced. That meeting came after Cai had successfully steered his plane through a storm while flying Mao from Beijing to the eastern city of Xuzhou.
“I’d heard there were going to be thunderstorms about an hour before we were due to take off, so I reported it to Liu,” Cai said.
The commander advised Mao to change his schedule, “but he didn’t listen and insisted on taking the flight”, he said.
“There was heavy rain for the whole trip, and as I was approaching Xuzhou airport visibility on the ground was down to about a kilometre. I just tried to make as soft a landing as I could.”
With the plane safely on the ground, Liu and Cai went to Mao’s cabin to make sure he was all right.
“Mao was happy and sad,” Cai said. “He said the flight was comfortable enough but he was disappointed that he couldn’t see anything out of the window.”
Liu took the opportunity to introduce Cai to the party chief.
“When Mao realised I was a returning Chinese, he said he’d known many others like me who’d gone back to China to join the [Communist] Red Army during the war with the Japanese,” Cai said.
“He told me that overseas Chinese are very patriotic.”
As well as providing him with a proud memory, Cai said the stormy flight also proved once and for all that despite widespread rumours to the contrary, Mao was not afraid of flying.
Cai is not the sort of man who likes to let such claims go unchecked. During the interview he said he wanted to set the record straight on a famous photograph taken of Mao aboard an aircraft in 1957.
According to the caption, written by Communist Party intellectual Guo Moruo: “Mao was working on the Soviet Tupolev Tu-104 Soviet airliner” during a flight to Moscow. He was the “second red sun working at 10,000 metres [33,000 feet] with tireless spirit and rarefied thinking”, it said.
Despite the image being a regular feature of Chinese propaganda from the late 1950s to the 1970s, the caption was totally wrong, Cai said.
“The picture was taken on a Soviet Ilyushin Il-14 while Mao was flying to Xuzhou in Jiangsu,” he said. “And the aircraft was flying at a height of about 2,100 metres. Its maximum flying height is only 7,400 metres. We should explain this.”
Regardless of the altitude, Mao seldom spoke to the crew, Cai said.
“Mao had about 10 secretaries and when he wasn’t working, he mostly spoke to them,” he said.
In contrast, Zhu was “the most friendly passenger”, he said.
“Zhu and his wife were always very nice. They would chat with crew members, ask about our families and lives.”
On one occasion, Zhu “even invited us to go with them to the famous Hot Spring Palace in Xian, [capital of northwest China’s Shaanxi province]”, Cai said, though he was quick to add that the crew were not allowed to enjoy the invigorating waters. They just stood guard, he said.
It was a similar story when Mao and the other senior officials were invited to attend balls and other entertainment events.
“We were told not to mix with the performers or dancers as we didn’t know anything about their backgrounds or whether they were trustworthy in political terms,” he said.
“So I would just sit near the ballroom and keep an eye out for anything suspicious.”
Dances also provided Cai with another insight into Mao.
“Premier Zhou and Marshal Chen Yi were both good dancers, almost professional, but Mao and Zhu were really clumsy.”
Cai’s working relationship with China’s ruling elite ended in 1961, but because of the close contact he had with them he was restricted from talking about and travelling overseas.
After he retired in 1983, Cai started making plans to visit Thailand to see the family he had left behind decades earlier, but he faced one hurdle after another.
It was not until 1997, 21 years after Mao’s death, that he was finally granted an overseas travel permit. But it came too late.
“I spent years trying to get the permit, but when I finally returned home to Bangkok, there was no one there,” he said. “They’d all died.”
This article Mao Zedong’s ex-pilot reveals all about Chinese leader’s two left feet and love of a hard bed first appeared on South China Morning Post
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