A Brief History of CNAC

Long before the men who came to be known as the Flying Tigers reached Rangoon, a small group of experienced transport pilots were flying a commercial operation in China which had been established several years before the start of World War II with Pan American World Airways holding an operating interest.

Nowhere-to-HideWhen the World War spread to China, CNAC personnel were pressed into service to fly supplies and personnel to areas cut off by the enemy from land routes.Many Tigers and their supplies were flown to Claire Lee Channault’s bases during the days of the American Volunteer Group’s service in 1941-42 as CNAC and its men became the lifeline for the AVG.Early in 1942, CNAC pilots pioneered the world-famous “Hump” route, the last link in the world’s longest military supply line, which extended from India to China.

It was the world’s first major airlift, and it was a pilot’s nightmare.

The 500-mile route traversed some of the most treacherous country in the world. Flying with few or no radio aids over inadequately charted areas, under constant harassment from enemy fighters, CNAC pilots had not even the satisfaction of being able to shoot back. Their C-47s and later C-46s were unarmed.

Loading CNAC airplaneIn addition to its regular commercial operations, CNAC carried military supplies between India and China under a Chinese Government contract arranged in 1942 with the US Army, which supplied Douglas C-47 and C-53 planes and, later, Curtiss C-46 transports. During the war, CNAC and the US Army Air Transport Command carried approximately 10 and 90 percent respectively of the total amount of lend-lease supplies flown across the Hump. From April 1942, when the Burma Road was lost, to April 1945, CNAC made more than 35,000 trips over the Hump. In 1944 if flew almost 9,000 round trips, or 10,000,000 miles over this route, transporting approximately 35,000 tons of lend-lease, and also strategic materials. During the war it also transported to Northwest China considerable amounts of strategic materials destined for Russia. Carrying 38 percent of all strategic air cargoes on world routes in 1944, CNAC ranked second only to the Air Transport Command, which carried 57 percent. CNAC also played an important role in the Burma campaign by dropping food to Chinese expeditionary forces, evacuation besieged Chinese & British troops, and supplying the Ledo Road project with men, equipment, medical supplies, and food. Between October 22, 1944 and January 21, 1945, it made 523 trips, dropping 1,836,970 of rice to road-builders.

To fill their ranks, CNAC added many Tiger pilots to their number when the AVG was disbanded, as well as other commercial pilots recruited in the United States and Canada. Some of the new pilots had never flown anything bigger than a Cub. Most of them never had been at the controls of multi-engine equipment nor were they familiar with instrument flying.

flying-over-mountains-sliderNow they were called upon to fly day and night over the world’s roughest and highest terrain in all kinds of weather 16 to 20 hours daily. A trip and a half a day was not uncommon for the men. Many of the pilots – the ones who came back – returned from the war years with 500 trip records – and some with as many as 700 trips.

As Theodore “Teddy” White put it, “CNAC is one of those peculiar enterprises…whose actual value in the war for the control of Asia can only be weighed by history.” He wrote this in 1943 and now history has demonstrated that he was correct without any doubts. It was a cruel and demanding operation, from which may CNAC crews and their planes never returned.

“ I will tell you one thing, “ one former Tiger remarked, “ those guys had guts, flying unarmed planes across enemy territory”, over some of the roughest country in the world in lousy weather, with none of the modern navigational aids we rely on today.”

“ Without CNAC there would have been no Flying Tigers…… and maybe no China!”


Albert Wedemeyer, Commanding General, American Forces in China, said

“ Flying the Hump was the foremost and by far the most dangerous,
difficult and historic achievement of the entire war”

Peggy Maher, CNAC Pres.  ::  P.O. Box 294449  ::  Kerrville, TX 78029  ::  830-896-5030  ::  or cell  830-370-4633  ::  Email