Located in Xie Dao, just a stone’s throw from Beijing’s S12 Airport Expressway and less than 10km south-west of the city’s Capital International Airport is China’s Civil Aviation Museum. Karl Drage visited for GAR.
Originally planned to open in time to accommodate visitors for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China’s Civil Aviation Museum finally opened its doors to the public in November 2011 after more than 130 million yuan (£13m at current exchange rates) had been spent on the project. The museum was, according to Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) minister Li Jiaxiang at the time of the opening, “a window to show mainland China’s civil aviation development achievements, to spread civil aviation culture and to popularise civil aviation knowledge in the country”.
The wider museum site is also the home of the Beijing International Aviation Club, and entry to the museum is free upon production of valid ID documents such as a passport or drivers licence.
Once clear of security, you are faced with a hugely impressive, very modern looking building which houses around half of the museum’s collection of aircraft.
Before you get there, on your right hand side as you approach the building is a Harbin Y-11 (B-3880) in the colours of China Flying Dragon Airlines. The aircraft was designed in 1974 as a twin-engined STOL aircraft capable of performing agricultural and geological survey roles. Around 50 aircraft had been built before Y-11 production was halted in preference of the Y-12.
Continuing down the road to the museum, two Lisunov Li-2s (licence-built Douglas DC-3s) and a Curtiss C-46 Commando come into view on the right, each in quite a severe state of distress. We’ll come back to those a little later on our orbit of the collection.
Entering the substantial main building, the first thing that strikes you is just how much empty space there is compared to almost every other aviation museum you will ever visit. In fact, there is so much space you are left wondering why some of the exhibits currently suffering at the hands of Beijing’s climatic extremes could not be brought inside for a little respite.
Hanging from the ceiling is a SOCATA TB-20 Trinidad (B-8928), with a further example at ground level (B-8903). Each was operated by the Civil Aviation Flight University of China (CAFUC). Also swinging from the rafters are a Nanchang CJ-6 (201237 – with PLAAF markings painted over) and various other large-scale models of current indigenous commercial aviation offerings, such as the COMAC C919 and the Xian MA600 ‘Modern Ark’.
Elevated walkways are always greatly appreciated at aviation museums, and China’s Civil Aviation Museum is no different. The ability to look down on exhibits often provides otherwise unseen perspectives of aircraft designs and can mean the difference between getting a clean, unobstructed picture or not.
Numerous displays and personal artefacts recall the development of China’s civil aviation scene, though with English translations few and far between, you are somewhat reliant upon pictures to help tell the story.
At the other end of the building, four aircraft are parked in rather closer proximity. The first, B-7803, is the only helicopter on display at the museum. The Mil Mi-8 carries the colours of one of its former operators: China General Aviation; it also served previously with the CAAC.
Alongside is Nanchang Y-5 (licence-built Antonov An-2) B-8404, in a striking blue colour scheme and reportedly in the markings of Nanjing University College of Civil Aviation. In comparison with the rest of the collection, it is rather jammed in.
Wedged into another corner and rather obscured is a second Y-11 in the shape of B-3888, this time representing Xinjiang General Aviation and looking rather healthier than in the pictures on the internet when it was located outside and with rather faded paintwork.
The reason the Y-11 is partially obscured is because of the dominance of Ilyushin Il-14P B-4208 in this area. According to some sources, this aircraft had been used to fly the late Chinese leader Chairman Mao Zedong and was presented by Russia’s Stalin in 1956. The aircraft is preserved in CAAC colours, and earlier pictures on the ‘net show it some 750kms away in Zhengzhou.
Back out through the front doors and turning right, the first aircraft you come to is rather battered looking Shijiazhuang Y-5 8207 – another licence-built An-2. Such is the aeroplane’s condition that all of the wing, flap, aileron, elevator and tailplane ribs are exposed. I did wonder if the aircraft was being displayed like this intentionally, but pictures from 2010 show chunks of fabric and skin literally falling off, so it seems this is not the case; such a shame for a lovely bird.
Rather curiously, positioned next to the Y-5 is Chengdu JJ-5 201238. The JJ-5 is a trainer version of the MiG-17 and was built from 1968. Quite why it features at the China Civil Aviation Museum, I would not like to hazard a guess, but it does not carry PLAAF markings, so maybe it did operate in some role in civil hands. Anyone?
Away from the tarmac and positioned on the mud is a pair of Xian Y-7s. The Y-7 was a licence-built version of the Antonov An-24, first flown on Christmas Day 1970. It wasn’t until 1977, however, that production was started, and, due to the effects of the Cultural Revolution, it was February 1984 before the first production aircraft flew.
The China Civil Aviation Museum has B-3456 in China Southern Airlines markings on display as well as B-3471, a Y-7-100 – developed in co-operation with Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Company and featuring winglets and a redesigned cockpit and cabin – in Wuhan Airlines colours. As well as a civilian role, the Y-7 was also used in PLAAF service.
Beyond a path and some trees sit three jet-powered aircraft. Ex-China Eastern Bae146-100 B-2701 was the first example of the ‘146 to arrive in China when delivered to China Northwest Airlines in September 1986. The aircraft sports the cheatlines of its original operator but without the titles or tail logo.
Despite seemingly being in quite reasonable condition ex-CAAC Hawker Siddeley HS-121 Trident 1E B-2207 would definitely benefit from some TLC and a fresh coat of paint. The aircraft was used as a presidential transport in the 1970s. Before arriving at the China Civil Aviation Museum it was on display in downtown Beijing at The Military Museum of Chinese People’s Revolution.
Displayed in the China Eastern Airlines colours of its final operator, Airbus A310-222 B-2301 was the very first Airbus product in China. Delivered to CAAC on 25 June 1985, the aircraft was acquired by China Eastern Airlines in May 1988 before passing on to China Northwest Airlines in June 1992. In March 2003 it returned to China Eastern Airlines with retirement coming on 25 September 2006 with 39,052 hours and 20,968 take-offs and landings accomplished.
Turning right you come to the aforementioned pair of Lisunov Li-2s and single Curtiss C-46 Commando, all of which are sadly rotting away. Clues to their identities, and thus histories, are few and far between.
The Commando, in a white PLAAF colour scheme, is said to be C-46A 36044, a former-China Aviation Museum resident across the city at Datangshan.
Of the Li-2s, one carries an all-over olive drab colour scheme, complete with three yellow stripes around the fuselage and visible PLAAF markings on the port side.
The other is silver in colour with blue cheatlines and a full-colour Chinese flag on the tail. One of the two aircraft is said to be ‘324’, but there seems to be considerable disagreement over which is which.
A final right hand turn completes the orbit, where, at the time of our visit, a glider and some simulator equipment could be found in open storage beneath the exposed wing of the right-hand end of the main building (as viewed from the main gate).
The China Civil Aviation Museum collection might not be the biggest and many of the exhibits are in rather poor condition, but if you find yourself in Beijing with a couple of hours to kill, it’s well worth a visit. The only criticism I have is that some of the unused space indoors could be far better utilised by offering protection to some of the aircraft suffering outside.
The museum opens 0900-1600 Tuesday-Sunday. Admission is free, and a taxi ride from central Beijing will cost around 100 Yuan each way (£10 at the current exchange rate). The address is: 200 Capital Airport Side Rd, Chaoyang, Beijing, and the museum phone number is: +86 10 8432 3666