707s for China: A Historic Sale

By Fred Mitchell

July 2015

In May 1972, my boss came to me -- I was a Boeing engineer -- and said, "We have assigned you to a team to negotiate the sale of 707s to China. You can't tell anyone about this assignment or where you are going, including your wife.

In those days very few U.S. citizens were allowed to enter China.

President Nixon had made his famous trip to China the preceding winter. We were told that after he departed the airplane in Peking (now Beijing), the Chinese came on board and asked a lot of questions about the airplane. So we think Air Force One helped sell the 707 to China.

Our team flew to Hong Kong. The only way to get into China was to apply for a visa at a Chinese Travel Service. To do this, you handed over your passport and waited. Each day you went back and asked, "Is my visa ready?" We waited for almost a week before they said yes and handed us our visas.

To cross into China you boarded a train in Hong Kong, which took you to the border. We got off the train with our luggage and walked across a railroad bridge into China where another train was waiting -- but first we had to go through an inspection, as in any country, and then they took us into a room and served us lunch. We then took the train to Canton (now Guangzhou). The next day we bought airline tickets to Peking. In those days the airline didn't like flying in bad weather or at night. If it started to rain, we landed, and if the pilot went in for a bowl of noodles, you knew you could be there awhile. If he started to head out to the plane, everybody would run to get their seat.

It took about two days to get there. We stayed in the same hotel where the correspondents on President Nixon's trip stayed. We were able to move about the city -- take walks, go out to eat -- but since so few people spoke English, you had to plan ahead. There were very few Americans in Beijing, so many people wanted to see us up close. We would always have a small crowd outside our hotel just waiting for us to take a walk.

The negotiations went slowly, as they had never dealt with Boeing and had many procedural questions. Also, our conversations were translated to Chinese and back again. A few of our hosts spoke English, so as time went on and we got to know one another, the negotiations moved along. They asked for many changes to the airplane, which we had to explain why it would be difficult to do. This was summer and the weather was hot. There was no air conditioning, so windows were open, and hot tea was served continually.

Our hosts were very gracious with showing us the historical sites. This first negotiation started a friendship that has carried on for many negotiations.

We had many great adventures, too many to tell here. On our first trip back to Hong Kong, we were fortunate to be on the first in-flight movie on CAAC, China's airline at the time. They gave everyone a slice of watermelon, pinned a white sheet to the forward bulkhead and showed an 8mm film of a popular Chinese opera.

Fred Mitchell in China in 1972.