75 YEARS AGO GERMAN PILOT GRAF ZU CASTELL
PHOTOGRAPHED CHINA FROM ABOVE

Wong How Man
Hong Kong - 14 December 2008

Old city wall of Xian as seen from the airBetween 1933 to 1936, German pilot Graf zu Castell flew for Eurasia, an airline founded in 1930 between the Chinese government and Germany’s Lufthansa Airlines. The purpose of this airline was to provide aerial access and service to remote areas of China. The cooperation was very successful and a route was opened between many cities during its first year, connecting Shanghai, Nanjing, Jinan, Beijing, Linxi and Manzhouli. Later more connections were opened from Shanghai to Nanjing and Loyang, and onward to Xian, Lanzhou, Suzhou (in Gansu), Hami, Urumqi, reaching as far as Chuguchak at the Russian-Mongolian border.

After Castell’s first few flights, he wrote that he was “so overwhelmed by the uniqueness of the Chinese landscape that I decided to capture its special features and characteristics through photography. In doing so, I was interested not only in taking beautiful pictures, but also in selecting examples worthy of documentation – examples which truly show the character of the landscape, geological formations, agricultural features, human settlement, and constructions of historical significance.”

Two weeks after Graf zu Castell’s arrival and on a flight to Xian delivering aircraft parts for relaying onward to Lanzhou, his onboard mechanic assured him that he knew the route well. Refueling and maintenance of an Eurasian AirplaneSoon they were lost and ran out of gas, warranting an emergency crash landing in a valley near Xining. It turned out that the pilot had flown passed their target city by almost 200 kilometers. To get the airplane flying again, a temporary runway had to be constructed.

During a later flight in 1934 from Nanjing to Beijing, Graf zu Castell had the honor of taking as passenger the Panchen Lama on his first flight, together with the now defamed Wang Ching Wei, then President of the puppet Republic installed by the invading Japanese. The pilot recorded in pictures the historic flooding of Huanghe in 1934, which successfully stopped the advances of the Japanese. He also described the burning and depletion of forests by local inhabitants almost everywhere along the Yangtze River, in order to flush out the wild animals, or at times by soldiers driving out enemies among the independent minority tribes. He noted, long ahead of today’s popular theory, that “the lack of forests has very large climatic consequences and should be seen as one of the causes behind the flood catastrophes which occur in China so often”.

He also photographed desert scenes over the Ordos of Inner Mongolia, the ancient city walls of Xian as seen from the sky, and poppy growing throughout the land as far north as Lanzhou. Shanghai from the air taken in 1933Castell recounted that “the peasants are fined for growing opium, but it is still more profitable for them to pay the fine than giving up the practice, since the various governors (warlords) needed the money to pay for retaining the soldiers in order to maintain their power in their provinces.” Air crashes seemed mundane affair as he described landing at a rice field near Chengdu and proceeded to organize a dig-out of his plane, using people and buffalo power.

Most interesting of all, he once saw below him “bandit army” or “Ta Tufe” on the march, with a single file of perhaps 20,000 men stretching 20-30 kilometers. Castell most likely was describing advances of the Red Army during their historic Long March, seen by him first hand from the sky. Should a picture survive in his archival record, it would be a most important historic image. Today these unique images were bequeathed by Castell’s daughter to the Munich Museum in Germany.

All photographs in this collection were made with a Leica camera. The advantage of this small camera was that the slit shutter runs from right to left. Because the pilot seat is located on the left side of the cockpit, the pilot could lean out of the window of the airplane towards the left. During low level flights, a shutter speed of 1/200 second was sufficient despite the high speed of the aircraft at 200km/hour, since the shutter runs against the direction of the landscape moving below.

Eurasia Airline was one of two airlines (the other is China National Aviation Corp
or CNAC) the government of the Republic of China co-owned and operated in
the 1930s. It was later converted into CATC when war broke out in the early
1940s when China joined hands with the Allied Forces.