GSE Diplomacy

In researching last month's cover story on GSE history and this month's China feature, we learned of an interesting story told by James Fallows in his 2012 book, "China Airborne."

Fallows, a journalist and instrument-rated pilot, chronicles China’s soaring aviation ambitions in the book, and shares a story told to him by a man who served in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force before immigrating to the United States in the 1980s.

“Nixon goes to China” serves now as both a description of the actual trip President Richard Nixon made in 1972 and a useful metaphor for describing how only someone with the unassailable reputation of a hard-line, anti-Communist like Nixon could bridge a chasm and make peaceful overtures to such a traditional enemy like Red China.

Before Nixon’s trip, however, Henry Kissinger made a secret trip to Beijing to thaw out the cold war relationship between the two countries and set the stage for Nixon’s arrival. Kissinger, then Nixon’s national security advisor, would go undercover as just another passenger aboard a Boeing 707 operated by Pakistan International Airlines, which had operated scheduled service to China since the 1960s.

The 707, generally credited as ushering in the Jet Age, was one of the most recognizable planes in the world at the time. In fact, Nixon’s Air Force One was none other than a 707.

But the Chinese authorities had one big problem. The 707 didn’t normally fly to Beijing . The country relied on its own commercial and military fleet for the destination, which meant flying aboard mainly Soviet-model aircraft.

And the movable air stairs the Beijing authorities had on hand didn’t reach high enough for the 707.

“Would it have the right equipment to handle and service the plane?” Fallows writes. “At an even more basic and potentially embarrassing level, how was Kissinger supposed to get from the airplane onto the ground?”

The authorities couldn’t buy or borrow air stairs from a Western supplier since this would reveal how out-of-date the country’s airports were.

“Instead, they built their own in a rush,” Fallows concludes, “using pictures and published specs of the 707.”

When Kissinger’s plane arrived, the new air stairs were rolled out just like at any other international airport ready to provide ground support for any type of aircraft.

So there you have it. One piece of GSE paved the way for one of the hallmarks of the Nixon Administration.

Plus, it underscores many of the points raised by Francis Chao in our feature on China’s aviation plans. Right now, China needs outside vendors to ramp up its insatiable pursuit of all things modern. But only up to a certain point. Meanwhile, the country diligently plans to be a builder selling to the global aviation market rather than just another consumer with renminbi to spend.

And all because of one custom-made air stair.