The lights have finally gone off along the runway at Nanyuan, Beijing’s lesser-known airport that was the oldest of its kind in China, after a long-haul journey of 109 years that started during the Qing dynasty.
Nanyuan received its final flight last Wednesday when a China United Airlines plane from Guangzhou touched down on a runway that started life as a jerry-built airstrip in 1907 when Aisin Gioro Puyi was still the Emperor of China.
Nanyuan, about 13 kilometers south of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, was the launching pad for Chinese civil aviation when a Sommer 1910 biplane was bought from France by the Qing government to kickstart the industry, despite the tumultuous times.
The pusher configuration biplane soared into the skies in August 1910 and crisscrossed the capital city, merely one year after the first modern airport was opened in the United States, in Maryland.
After the Qing dynasty’s fall, China’s then-President Yuan Shikai ordered China’s first aviation college to be set up at Nanyuan. Under the auspices of the French government, it groomed the first batch of Chinese pilots using 10 French training aircraft. Nanyuan was already a hive of activity when the nation’s first Beijing-Shanghai route was launched in May 1920.
Japanese troops occupied Nanyuan and expanded it into a major airbase during the Sino-Japanese War, and the airport continued to serve as Beijing’s aviation gateway after Chiang Kai-shek reclaimed the capital city following the war.
Nanyuan was subsequently taken over by Mao Zedong’s Red Army in 1948 when the force swept into Beijing, and the People’s Liberation Army’s small squadron of warplanes took off from Nanyuan and buzzed Tiananmen Square during the proclamation ceremony of the Communist republic on October 1 a year later.
In 1957, a Soviet Tu-104 airliner roared off from Nanyuan, marking Beijing’s first international route, to Moscow. In 1971, then-US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger flew into Nanyuan in secret to arrange Richard Nixon’s historic visit, among other pivotal moments the airport witnessed.
But Nanyuan’s predominance in China’s military and civil aviation was eclipsed when the bigger Capital International Airport opened in 1958. Nanyuan’s days were further numbered when a regiment of bulldozers and cranes started work further south in the Beijing suburbs in 2014, creating a cobweb of runways and erecting a high-tech, imposing starfish-shaped terminal for a new aviation center as Capital Airport had been bursting at the seams for many years.
Beijing’s 80-billion-yuan (US$11.5 billion), 68-square-kilometer, four-runway Daxing Airport was opened amid much fanfare on September 25, the same day the last flight landed at Nanyuan on the other side of the city, as China’s newest infrastructure and engineering feat relieved the oldest airport.
Daxing aims to have 70 million flyers pass through the sprawling complex in three years, versus Nanyuan’s record throughput of 1.35 million in 2008, when many flights were diverted from Capital Airport during the Olympic Games.
Chinese papers say part of Nanyuan would be preserved and revitalized as an aviation museum soon after the closure, with aviation aficionados still flocking to its rundown terminal and runway and snapping nostalgic photos.