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Legends of Aviation: #8 The Flying Tigers

“Flying Tigers” was the nickname of the First American Volunteer Group (AVG) of the Chinese Air Force in 1941–1942. It was comprised of pilots from the US Air Corps, Navy and Marines and commanded by General Claire Lee Chennault. The group consisted of three fighter squadrons of around 30 aircraft each. It trained in Burma before the American entry into World War II with the mission of defending China against Japanese forces. The group of volunteers were officially members of the Chinese Air Force, motivated by the belief in the cause they were fighting for and salaries around three times what they had been making in the U.S. forces.

The Tigers were based in Kunming, China and first saw combat on 20 December 1941, 12 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. From then until they were disbanded in July 1942, they were credited with destroying 296 enemy aircraft with just 14 of their own pilots lost in combat. Their successes came at a stage of the war in the Far East where the morale of the allied forces was low following many defeats, and the fame of the AVG was exploited in the 1942 propaganda film “Flying Tigers”, starring John Wayne.

After the war, one of the Flying Tiger pilots, Captain Robert William Prescott, created the first scheduled cargo airline in the United States. Originally called The National Skyway Freight Corporation, with a motto “We'll Fly Anything, Anywhere, Anytime", he employed nine of his former Flying Tiger comrades as pilots, and in 1947 the company became “The Flying Tiger Line” and later just “Flying Tigers”. The company grew rapidly and by 1980 was the largest cargo airline in the world, operating military contract services as well as its regular cargo operation, with more than 40 heavy jets – 727s, 747s and DC-8s. However, the 1980s were to see increased competition in the market and following some poor financial results, Flying Tigers was sold to Federal Express in December 1988 and subsequently merged into its operations.

Before the merger, Flying Tigers played an important part in the history of Brookfield Aviation, being one of the first airline clients of our company’s predecessor in Los Angeles. The airline, along with its famous name has since been consigned to history, and the city of Kunming, the wartime base of the Tigers is now the home of one of Brookfield’s present clients, Lucky Air. The 21st century phenomenon of expatriate pilots going to China to earn salaries several times more than they get at home is not a new one, it started with the Flying Tiger pilots in 1941, but lucrative opportunities for pilots in China are still in abundance through Brookfield.

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