In 1981, I was at the CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia working on another project when I mentioned I would be making a return trip to China with a factory demonstrator and would be again operating out of the Sha He Air Force Base just outside Beijing. Their antennas perked up and I was soon ushered to another area of that huge facility and introduced to a new group of specialists.

Geographically, the Sha He region was an interesting place. Most of the terrain was on a flat plain. But two or three miles from the runway was a mountain and this was the focus of interest for my new found friends. They had been watching the mountain with satellites, and there was a lot of construction going on. Huge dump trucks were hauling material out of the mountain. They wanted views from lower angles, could I arrange some photos.

Nobody said why they were interested but I assumed they believed the mountain was being hollowed out for the storage of nuclear weapons. Unlike the U.S. whose weapons are dispersed all over the world, fragile governments tend to keep their military power close to home so that they do not have to worry about a rogue general attempting a coup while orbiting the capital in a DC-3 with a nuclear weapon on board.

When Charlie Gates bought Lear Jet, his close friend Harry Combs became president. Harry knew I had been promoting a mapping airplane to the Chinese for several years, so he told me in confidence that he wanted to see the Great Wall of China before he died. I promised him that I would get him to China.

Late in 1981, there was a good chance we could wrap up a five year effort to sell the Chinese a SLAR (side looking airborne radar) equipped Model 35 that the Chinese would use for mapping through the ever present clouds. I took the airlines to Beijing in mid-November. We fine tuned the contract and I arranged clearance for Mr. Combs and his wife, Jim Bir and his wife, my wife and a demo aircraft. They arrived December 9.

For the next two weeks, Mr. Combs and the gals visited the Great Wall and toured Northern China. Jim Bir and I flew demo's out of Sha He and continued negotiations with China Machinery Import and Export. Contract negotiations did not go so well.

The Chinese figured out I was not going to give them the discount they had been demanding which was based on their experience with the French and Japanese who would always cave for 15% at the last minute to make the deal. The contract signing would wait until the Chinese could get more funding the following year.

Harry and Ginny Combs headed home on the airlines for Christmas. Now it was Jim and I, a new Learjet 35, our wives, a stack of credit cards, we were 7,000 miles from home but I had one more assignment.

During the demos, I had observed the construction at the mountain near Sha He. There was a road that ran dead straight from the mountain to the end of the runway and there were a lot of trucks hauling dirt. It looked suspicious to me.

I purposely did not take photos during the demos. The Chinese were sensitive about taking photos of even a military truck on the highway. If my camera were stolen or the film lost, I did not want to have to explain the photos of the mountain. And I don't think I would do well with bamboo slivers jammed under my finger nails.

We were finally headed home. Jim had filed a flight plan to Hong Kong and we were taxiing out. I told Jim our friends in Washington were interested in the construction inside the mountain and wanted some photographs. I told him I would request a right turn out and wanted him to stay low for the pictures.

The standard departure pattern is for a left turn, any deviation would require approval from the tower. At the end of the runway, I called Sha He tower and requested takeoff clearance, it was granted and I then asked for a right turn out. The voice came back rather sternly "standard left turn!" OK, left turn, no pictures, a failed spy mission.

The incident was forgotten for several years until early in 1990 I read in Aviation Week that the Chinese Aviation Museum had opened in a hollowed out mountain adjacent to Sha He Air Force Base.