The Boeing 757 is renowned for having some grunt, which is one of the reasons it has gained a second life on transatlantic duties. It also makes it ideal for operating in hot and high destinations where the thin air makes thrust important. The Western regions of China include the foothills of the Himalayas right up to the Tibetan plateau and the 757 proved its worth in these challenging conditions.
The first Boeing 757 arrived in China on September 22, 1987 as a series 21B. By this point she was probably technically with the new, Guangzhou based, China Southern Airlines but the initial 757s all still wore old CAAC colours. At the time CAAC limited the operation of aircraft into the Tibetan capital of Lhasa to aircraft with three or more engines. The only type that fell into this category was the Boeing 707, of which CAAC had been a late customer.
With an eye on further 757 sales, on March 29, 1991, Boeing undertook special tests using a 1989 built 757, B-2806, of China Southern Airlines. The American Ambassador to China was onboard the flights and the Chinese authorities insisted that he stay aboard whilst the 757 demonstrated its ability to take-off and land on only a single engine, despite the altitude and the fact the airfield was located in a box canyon surrounded by peaks nearly 5,000 metres high. Fortunately for everybody involved the aircraft passed the tests with little trouble.
The result was further orders for the 757 and by the end of 1990 13 757s were in service registered B-2801-2812 and 2815. The majority of these were assigned to China Southern, with three at Shanghai Airlines and a single frame at China Southwest. Eventually a total of 59 aircraft would be purchased by Chinese airlines including Air China, China National, China Southern, China Southwest, China Xinjiang, Shanghai Airlines and Xiamen Airlines.
In 1992 China Southern began flights between Chengdu and Lhasa. These flights into the mountains would continue until February 28, 2018 when China Southern retired its last 757 as it returned to Urumqi. Urumqi is of course the homebase of the China Southern Airlines Xinjiang Branch, which was formerly China Xinjiang Airlines.
The Boeing 757 would become the backbone of the modern Xinjiang Airlines fleet, but interestingly initially the carrier wanted to purchase a mix of six A320s and six A321s to replace its four TU-154Ms and three IL-86s. A memorandum of understanding was signed but this was over-ruled by the CAAC in December 1996, and the airline was instead ordered to look at Boeing products. It already operated a trio of 737-300s that had been purchased in 1993.
The 757s in Xinjiang service sat 201 passengers in a two-class configuration and were known as the ‘Air Man’. The first aircraft for Xinjiang Airlines was delivered in December 1997 and was joined by a second aircraft in April and a third in June. The fleet was doubled to six in mid-1999, including a pair of 1992 aircraft acquired from China Southwest. The 757s replaced the TU-154s and enabled expansion of service but did not replace the IL-86s, which continued in service.
The 757 fleet of Xinjiang grew further in 2001 as a last trio of 757s were acquired from Boeing. Even this trio did not replace the IL-86s and the airline was still holding talks in late 2001 about acquiring IL-96s, although these eventually came to nothing.
The CAAC driven consolidation of the Chinese airline industry had a major impact on Xinjiang Airlines as it was taken over by China Southern and became the China Southern Airlines Xinjiang Branch on October 16, 2002. The 757s continued to drive service expansion from Urumqi and were instrumental in the city becoming an important hub city in the West connecting China with neighbouring countries.
As the 757’s time came to an end the Xinjiang branch was the last within China Southern to continue using the type and when February 28 came the final flight was marked with an onboard flight and ceremonies. The type has been replaced in service by the new Airbus A321neo, which although more fuel efficient cannot match the power and beauty of the Boeing. Fortunately most of China’s 757s have a long life ahead of them as package freighters and B-2853, which operated the final China Southern flight, has herself been converted into a freighter and now serves with YTO Cargo Airlines.
1991, March. Boeing 757 makes test flight in China. UPI Archives
1996, December. CAAC refusal on Airbus forces Xinjiang to turn to Boeing fleet. Flight International
2018, February. China Southern 757 experience retirement. Bzdww.com
Xinjiang Airlines fleet. RZJets.net
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: