When I was growing up in Japan, China was known as Red China, a forbidden land. My family and I occasionally sailed out of Yokohama on an American President Line cruise ship to Hong Kong. We sailed through the Straits of Formosa, followed by dolphins numbering in the thousands, and I was fascinated to see, like a mirage, the mysterious China mainland and small Chinese fishing boats precariously crossing our path. I asked the crew if the boats ever got run over by the ships in the passage, and the answer was “sometimes.” Why was China forbidden? Were there really so many people? Why were the communists so xenophobic? Those were the questions I asked.
So recently, when the invitation came to fly an airshow in China’s Autonomous Region of Inner Mongolia near Alxa (pronounced Alashan) in the Gobi Desert, how could I resist? My host, the owner of Aviad, Wayne Mansfield, a businessman who also sky writes and has towed banners all across China, worked out the details with our Chinese organizers, while top UK display pilot Mark Jefferies offered his Extra 300L for me to fly. I had a few weeks to get my visa and prepare for the trip. I did some research, but other than what is found in novels about desert explorers, there seems to be a dearth of information available on the region. My favorite words of advice found in an online Chinese guidebook were: “Visitors should also pay attention that not to shelter from the wind behind the lee slope of a dune. The correct action is to stand in front of the dune behind camels.”
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My favorite journeys usually involve work and having a purpose. They can involve long flights and big time changes in places like Kenya, Russia, Central America and Iceland. I like working hard for the privilege of experiencing somewhere from the unique perspective of a small airplane and sharing a toast at the end of a day with the locals. A little chill time is also welcome, especially when there is warm water involved, but since this was the Gobi Desert, where temperatures in October could be warm and pleasant during the day and below freezing at night, or sleeting and snowing all day, I didn’t really know what to expect.
The journey to Inner Mongolia was one of the longest I’ve ever experienced; two days, two nights, two commercial flights, several long drives and a 12-hour time change. Dig for gold and keep digging, and you might find China. After I landed in smog-clogged Beijing, Wayne met me and over dinner shared WeChat pictures of the crew already onsite assembling airplanes in temporary hangars with desert sand as their floor. By the time we arrived at the site, an artificial grass-type carpet had been laid out in sheets.
From Beijing, we flew to Yinchuan, then drove two hours to Alxa, over the Yellow River and rounding a bend to the other side of the Helan Mountains. From this remote part of China, if you were to keep going west, depending on which road you chose, you’d either get to the Tibetan Kush or Kazakhstan, and either way you will be on the Silk Road, the ancient network of trade routes that connected East and West, Rome and China. The Silk Road was long and dangerous, with sandstorms, the risk of starvation and thirst, and the threat of raiding parties after silk, gold and precious stones from China. After the discovery of a sea route from Europe to Asia in the 15th century, which made trade cheaper and safer, the Silk Road trade routes began to wane. No one then or now in this remote part of the world speaks English and, like a lot of things in China, the streets, the buildings, the people were ancient and mysterious, and it was hard to tell where history ended and the new China began.
The second night was spent at our quite nice and modern hotel in Alxa. In the morning, we boarded a bus and drove south to our airshow site, the “Alxa Dream Festival.” Passing religious pyramids, an enormous concrete blimp hangar sitting alone and empty (would they let me fly through it, I wondered?), and herds of camels, the brush turned into Gobi dunes. After several stops where police boarded our bus wearing 360-degree cameras (there are cameras everywhere in China), we arrived at the 7000-foot paved airstrip on the north end of the Dream Festival site.
Mike Wood, our airboss from the UK, briefed us on the layout. Mark Jefferies and Tom Cassells would be flying Extras and their day and night pyro two-ship act; I would be flying the solo routine. Mark, who flies an aggressive and dynamic display, has basically pioneered airshows in China, and his team, the Global Stars, fly one of the best night pyro shows in the world. In between international airshows, his Extras live in big shipping containers, and at the time I am writing this, Mark is flying an airshow in Bahrain, then crating and shipping his airplanes to a show in India.
The Pioneer Team from Italy, led by Corrado Rusalen, flies Rusalen’s own design, the beautiful and nimble Pioneer 330. The Pioneer Team flies four to five airshows in China each year. Its night pyro show is a beautiful example of formation flying and one of the nicest I’ve seen. Another team from the UK, the “AeroSuperBatics,” the world’s only formation wing walking aerobatics team, flown by David Barrell and Martyn Carrington, also flew both day and night pyro shows. Mansfield’s Husky was towing banners and skywriting. Keith Wilson from the UK was on hand to take fantastic air-to-air photographs, plus our group was graced with other assorted crew members from France, Lithuania and the U.K.
At most airshows, as happens on movie sets, the performers and crew quickly form a little family, and familiar patterns began to emerge. Because the dust was so intense and pervasive, when we were outside the hangars, almost everyone wore a kaffiyeh or face scarf to cover their nose and mouth, especially if they wanted to be able to avoid sinus problems. Lawrence of Arabia wasn’t just accentuating his baby blues…he wore his hijab for a reason. I quickly bought a couple especially designed for desert functionality and suddenly had fashion decisions to make: “What is my look today? Do I go with something feminine like flowers, or go more “badass” and wear camo?” Of course, it didn’t really matter because the very act of covering your face gives the wearer a bit of anonymity. When greeting someone you didn’t know, how could you know who it was you were saying hello to? Was it the tilt of the head that gave their identity away? Their hands? Their fancy kaffiyeh with a zipper that gave them away as locals? If someone said, “Is it Patty?” I would answer, “No, it’s Sandy Dunes! Remember me?”
Airshow pilots, as a rule, don’t generally care where the crowd comes from as long as there is a crowd (and as long as we get paid), but since we were in the middle of nowhere, we asked ourselves, “Who will come?” Perhaps it was a classic cargo cult scenario: If we build it, they will come? I don’t know where they came from, but over the next few days, hundreds of dune buggies arrived on trailers towed by expensive 4 WD trucks and Winnebago motorhomes, and the site became something of a cross between an Oshkosh and a Burning Man for motorheads. When we weren’t waiting to fly, we explored. The site was astonishing and included miles of newly paved roads, hundreds of yurts for camping, motocross tracks and even an enormous Godzilla spewing gaudy American muscle cars out of its mouth. That juxtaposition is obviously hard to describe…you had to be there.
Show center was over the desert, of course. From the air, the dunes were beautiful, distracting. They constantly changed color as the light played upon them. We had a nice shallow alkaline lakebed and a long boardwalk as our show-center reference. The altitude was a sporting 4500’ MSL, but density altitude didn’t affect us as much as we thought it would because the air was so dry. Add some heat and humidity to the mix and the airplanes would not have performed as well. Diving into the show box between the mountains of sand, I saw hundreds of cars with little flags attached to their antennas, driving around like little bugs. A ranch with Mongolian horses was situated next to the Park and I saw expert horsemen galloping across the desert.
Cleared into the box, I dove in, turned on my smoke and pulled to the vertical rolling all the way up and I thought – it doesn’t matter where I am when I’m flying an airshow. I could be anywhere. I’m only focusing on the flying – my altitude, which way the wind is blowing, how the maneuvers will look for the spectators and keeping my flight within the show box and energy management for my next maneuver. I flew between the dunes hoping that people were watching and wondering what they thought, then I called last pass and as I turned a close in base for landing to the west, I reentered the world of the Gobi and the dunes turned orange with the afternoon sun.
Patty Wagstaff is a three-time U.S. National Aerobatic champion, inductee of the National Aviation Hall of Fame and one of the world’s top airshow pilots. Visit pattywagstaff.com/school.html or reach Patty via email through [email protected].
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