As the educated son of a wealthy Chinese merchant family, 92-year-old Cai Yanwei could easily have become a victim of Mao Zedong’s decade-long Cultural Revolution. But thanks to his skill as an airman, by the time those dark days dawned in 1966, Cai had established himself as the trusted head of a team of transport pilots tasked with keeping China’s most powerful leaders safe in the air. And in his five years in the job, he learned more about Mao and other members of the ruling class, including Premier Zhou Enlai and Commander-in-chief of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Zhu De, than most people ever would.
In an interview at his home in a retirement community in Beijing, where he lives with his wife, 13 years his junior, Cai said of Mao that for all his power and influence he was just “an ordinary person, a peasant” at heart. “There was a bed with a soft mattress on the private jet, and all the leaders loved it, except Mao. He loved sleeping on a wooden bed, so we made one for him from five-layered plywood,” he said.