Beyond Lion Rock: The Story of Cathay Pacific Airways

BOOK: Beyond Lion Rock: The Story of Cathay Pacific Airways



The Story of Cathay Pacific Airways



 and all the others
who made Cathay Pacific what it is


This air business is certainly terrifying and they talk the most fantastic figures. 


Letter from Hong Kong to London
just before buying Cathay Pacific
for £175,000


An aviator’s life may be full of ups and downs, but the only hard thing about it is the ground.


Australian aviation pioneer


The author [brings out] a paradoxical truth of considerable psychological importance: that man’s happiness lies not in freedom but in acceptance of a duty.


Preface to
Night Flight (Vol de Nuit)
by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry


A great hill dominates Hong Kong’s
Kai Tak Airport. The shifting light
seems to give it a life of its own and
the Chinese call it Lion Rock.


When the idea of writing this history was first put to me I had my doubts. I knew next to nothing about aviation, nothing at all about the technology of flying, and I was positively uninterested in the business aspects of the commercial airline world. So I must thank Michael Fiennes, a former director of John Swire & Sons, Cathay Pacific’s parent company, who enabled me to spot what a wonderful
this was. With painstaking thoroughness he had put together, from the mass of paper records of the airline in the capacious cellars of Swires’ offices in London and Hong Kong, a synopsis of Cathay’s history from its beginning in the forties until now. It was a fairly bulky synopsis, but easily handled by any man of moderate strength, and the important thing about it was that it told me that here was a truly Splendid Yarn. Behind the careful, formal words of this or that chairman’s report to directors at this or that Annual General Meeting down the years there were incidents and characters to enthral not only aviation fans but anyone who, like me, finds the blood pumping faster when he hears of tales of the East, pioneers, Biggles, buccaneers, Old China Hands,
escapes, and derring-do in the clouds.

Of course, behind all those magical things there was also a serious story – that of the birth and struggling adolescence of Cathay Pacific Airways; of its expansion from a small airline operating from a tiny pimple of land on the South China Sea, to a much acclaimed international carrier. Today Cathay Pacific is a very serious airline indeed. Yet it started as a freewheeling outfit in an age more swashbuckling than our own, and the tensions, disasters and triumphs that accompanied its transition add up to a wonderful adventure. It was Michael Fiennes, New College scholar, Cathay director and, in retirement, the Company’s archivist, who pointed this out to me.

Many others helped me with this book and most are named in the text. To some I would like to give a special mention. First of all, my friends John and Adrian Swire opened the Cathay Pacific archives to me without reserve, and allowed me to read the private diaries of their remarkable father, Jock. Roy Farrell, the survivor of the two founders of Cathay Pacific, gave me unique insight into those early pioneering days, as did Angela, the widow of Farrell’s co-founder, Sydney de Kantzow, and his sister Eve. Former Chairmen of Cathay, Duncan Bluck and John Browne, provided invaluable and detailed information about the airline’s development. In Hong Kong, David Bell and his indefatigable Public Affairs team – Edwin Shum, Shirley Leung, Maisie Shun Wah and Anne Paylor – were indispensable in ways too numerous to mention. Mike Hardy, the Company’s Director of Operations out at Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport, and Stewart John, its heavyweight Engineering Director – an authentic genius, I call him – gave me all the help I asked for. And I was unfailingly assisted on my way by Swire’s Taipan, Michael Miles, and Cathay’s Deputy Chairman and Managing Director, Peter Sutch, a quicksilver personality who never seems to come to rest. I owe a considerable debt of gratitude to Edward Scott, Swire’s Chairman in Australia and a Cathay Pacific Director, nephew of Jock’s close friend and colleague John Scott, and grandson of the Senior’s partner, James Henry Scott.

For knowledge of the pre-air days of the Swire’s eastern empire, I am grateful for the existence of Charles Drage’s book
. As for Air, I cannot thank ex-Captain ‘Chic’ Eather too warmly for lending me the records of his many years with Cathay, and in his book
Syd’s Pirates
, I found much fascinating information. Former captains Dave Smith and Laurie King lent me their notes and cuttings; and they, with Chic Eather, figure a great deal in the text that follows. Mike McCook Weir and Peter Jerdan gave up much of their precious spare time to put me through the thrilling experience of the 747 simulator. The patient explanations of Richard Stirland make plain much legal and administrative detail that otherwise would have baffled my simple mind.

Of the two other names that deserve mention here, one is that of Jim Macdougall, possibly Sydney’s most attractive citizen and, at about eighty years of age, one of its most sprightly. The other is that of Captain Martin Willing who, out of sheer love of them, has painstakingly assembled the intimate history of every aircraft ever flown by Cathay. I am also deeply indebted to Robert J. Serling’s fascinating book,
The Electra Story

Finally, I want to acknowledge my considerable debt to Charlotte Havilland, who helped me to hack a way through the jungle of company archives. Gill Gibbins and Sheila Colton gave me much excellent advice; my indispensable sea anchor, Gritta Weil, brought things together as usual; and Roddy Bloomfield at Century Hutchinson proved once more to be among the noblest of editors. Despite this support, all the errors in this book, technical or otherwise, are my own.


Cathay Pacific Flight 250, non-stop from London to Hong Kong, somewhere over Asia – but where? I have missed Russia completely. It slithered past in the dark, I suppose, at about the time I was pretending to watch the movie. Later, somewhere between Kabul and the Hindu Kush, well before we reached the Indus south of Peshawar, I lost any desire to stay awake. Until now. A moment ago I lifted the window blind next to my seat and revealed – a miracle. Instead of dark, infinite night it is improbable brilliant day, the sky a shimmering porcelain-blue ocean permeated with gold dust through which the plane steadily plunges, a white, green and silver whale that seems alive as ships at sea are alive. Jonah-like in its belly, I can feel the great, ponderous cylindrical body tremble in the remorseless rush of air.

I am heading towards Hong Kong, idly making mental notes at the start of a new experience. This is an international airline with a difference. It emerged only recently and rather mysteriously out of the political turbulence of the Orient. One moment, one might almost say, it was a feeble little thing, boldly thrashing about with only limited success; the next, it was a dragon flapping great strong wings across the world. It was as dramatic as that. I am not an aviation expert – far from it – but at least I am aware that the Cathay Pacific story, although it covers slightly less than forty-five years, is as full of incident as any yarn in an adventure magazine. Springing from the shared vision of two wartime seat-of-the-pants fliers in the chill immensities of the eastern Himalayas, it leads on to air piracy, a midair bombing, the battle for the routes to fly and the capital for the aircraft to fly them – milestones in a small regional airline’s struggle for bare survival before ultimate international success.

A day or two before this flight I met in London the British principals of Cathay Pacific and was surprised to discover they showed no sign of
schizophrenia. They might have done so. For while the airline is based in Hong Kong where it grew up, the British family Swire, with whose name Cathay Pacific is indelibly linked, has its headquarters thousands of miles away, half a dozen Jumbo jet lengths from Buckingham Palace. There, a small mountain of Cathay Pacific’s yellowing records waited for me, and there will be a similar mountain confronting me in Hong Kong. A daunting prospect. For now, moving half awake across Asia at something like 550 miles an hour, I can only note my impressions of a Boeing 747, the greatest of all commercial jetliners, in flight. A Cathay 747, of course.

How long have we taken to get to – wherever we are? Flight CX250 took off from Gatwick yesterday evening in an English summer deluge that fell on us like an irritating farewell thump on the back. My watch, glinting in oriental sunlight, tells me it is 4.30 a.m. Resting my forehead against the window I see an infinite fleece of white cloud thousands of feet below. Hong Kong is evidently still remote in the golden haze. I fumble my headphones on and let sounds of Mozart creep in my ears. Time passes….


On the flight deck, high up where the whale’s blow-hole should be, Captain Mike McCook Weir, a grey-haired, stocky figure, deliberately adjusts his headset askew so that one earpiece covers a single ear, leaving the other ear free to pick up remarks, technical or flippant, from his First Officer or Flight Engineer. He flicks at a switch among the array before him, which even in the light still give out a faint glow like coral under sunlit water. Into the mike he says crisply: ‘Kunming control. Cathay 250 position Kunming 54. Level 12,000 metres.’ Kunming is the provincial capital of Yunnan, so we are a scimitar slicing a swift, clean arc over the broad body of China at about 39,000 feet.

A Chinese voice with a faint American tinge comes in. ‘Cathay 250, this is Kunming control. Your position copied. Over.’

The big jet tilts to starboard, into the last leg of a 7,250-mile flight, a turn barely perceptible but for the changing slant of sunlight over the blanketed passengers huddled in the semi-dark cabin. Cocooned and tousled, they stir reluctantly. Speed and the night have made distance quite meaningless, but surely there is still time to kill….

‘Ladies and gentlemen. Sorry to wake you.’ The Captain’s voice fills the cabin. ‘I thought you’d like to know we are approximately one hour and twenty minutes away from Hong Kong. The time in Hong Kong is 12.30 p.m. on a fine, clear day with a temperature of 20 degrees Celsius or 82 degrees Fahrenheit, and quite a strong northeasterly breeze. Thank you.’ A click and Mozart is restored to me.

Nothing in his voice showed that Captain Mike had only just settled back into his seat after a four-hour nap in the bunk behind the flight deck. This long flight deserves, and gets, two crews. After the best part of nine hours on cockpit duty, the Australian relief pilot, ready for his share of sleep, made way for McCook Weir with a quick briefing. At the same time, Steve, McCook Weir’s co-pilot, fresh from sleep himself, now hunched down in the pallid glow of the instrument panel, starts to check the computerized navigation systems. That done, he squints down from his window, hoping to spot familiar landmarks, the pointed hills of Yunnan and the muddy
of the Hong Shui He river, and is gratified to find them as usual seven miles below him.

Another hour to go. The map page in
, the Cathay Pacific
magazine, shows me what I’ve missed. Over the Channel in the evening haze to Holland and on to the darker Baltic. Night and Moscow; then, high across the sombre immensity of Russia, the invisible Volga, the Urals, our wing lights winked unheeded at hundreds of sleeping villages; over the Aral Sea, over the Golden Road to modern Samarkand along which the pilgrims’ camel bells no longer beat. It’s important to keep dead centre on this only air lane on the trans-Soviet route, to avoid reprimands or worse from touchy Russian air controllers with spy-planes on the brain. Still, like Moghul conquerors we winged past the rampart of the Hindu Kush into Kabul control’s airspace, over the Khyber Pass, safely over Lahore, Kipling’s City of Dreadful Night. Across India, the darkness began to lift. I saw nothing of all that. We were rushing towards the sunrise and, sleeping, I missed too the first pearl-pink touch of sun on the Himalayas, the appalling sweep of towering mountains – Annapurna, Everest, Kangchenjunga – where Kim thought, surely the gods must live.

I see from the chart that our route over Bengal severs the C of Calcutta, and in a flash a memory of the sixties returns – a dismal airport shimmering in wet heat among limp palms, and huge kite-hawks wheeling and tumbling over the windswept runway like scraps of dirty brown paper, a menace to aviation. At this height we are unlikely to hoover an eagle into an engine or dodge a feathered missile homing in through a windshield; not even a condor could survive up here. Perhaps it wouldn’t matter much anyway. I read somewhere that Boeing tests the strength of its one-and-a-half-
windshields by catapulting 10lb hamburgers into them at 190mph. Why hamburgers? Why not a frozen TV dinner? In another test dozens of plucked and frozen chickens are rapid-fired at every Boeing’s nose. That sounds more sensible: frozen chickens must be capable of greater damage than hamburgers, but even they simply bounced off, leaving hardly a dent.
A recent copy of Cathay Pacific’s
Flight Safety Review
glimpsed in the London office carried a report covering bird-interference for the period of July to September 1985: ‘Bird strikes: Shanghai 4: (One bird struck First Officer’s windshield. Nil damage to aircraft.) Peking 1. (During landing First Officer noticed small bird – sparrow-type – pass down right side … evidence of strike. Nil damage.)’ Not a sparrow-type falls … but nil damage. It is reassuring.

‘Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, this is your Purser, Albert Templo’ … an avuncular Hong Kong voice announces brunch. Between mouthfuls of coffee and bacon I stare vacantly at the bulkhead panel in front of me onto which the sun strikes like a spotlight.

Back in the capsule of the flight deck the Captain is talking, crisply articulate, to Canton. ‘Guangzhou control, Cathay 250. 12,000 metres. Request descent clearance. Over.’

‘Cathay 250, your position copied.’ A staccato Chinese voice. ‘Cleared when ready to de-scend to one zee-lo thousan’ feet.’

‘Cathay 250 cleared to descend….’

My headset clicks, and the music (Elgar now) is interrupted by McCook Weir’s voice:

‘Ladies and gentlemen, the Captain again. We’ll be starting our descent to Hong Kong some 120 miles away. The weather is fine and we shall be making our approach today to runway One Three … runway thirteen, west-to-east, sharp right – sharp,
right – at the Chequerboard.’

The strong, sinewy chords of Elgar’s Cello Concerto return and with them my thoughts of high-flying collisions with birds. And collisions in general – for example, head-on ones with other aircraft. Not that that danger worries me in the least: nothing like that has ever happened in the history of Hong Kong’s airport. Anywhere in the world, all a pilot and co-pilot can do is to keep a good look-out, the proof being that ‘open-eyed’ pilots averted collisions over the United States ninety times in 1983, and the same number of times in 1984. A jokey directive I once saw in an aviation magazine said:

If you waste seconds

deciding what to do …

It is no longer necessary to

take corrective action …

because you are going to be straining yourself

unnecessarily …

and are going to die all

tensed up….


Alice Yip, my stewardess, returns to remove my tray and, with half-moon eyes sweetly smiling, lisps an invitation from the Captain to join the flight crew for the approach and landing. I follow her up the staircase to the upper deck in the 747’s hump. ‘Hello. Mind your head’, McCook Weir says just in time as I duck through the cockpit door and squeeze into the jump seat behind his left shoulder.

‘Everything in working order?’ I ask him.


‘747 – the queen of the skies,’ says Steve, the young, blond co-pilot, leaning back to shake my hand.

The Flight Engineer greets me too, helps me with my seat belt and hands me a headset. He jabs a finger upwards at the escape hatch in the roof, grinning, ‘If anything goes wrong, follow me because I’ll be the first out.’

The flight deck, a padded cell with a multitude of knobs and clock faces, is surprisingly small for such a large aircraft. One must move stooped, with sloth-like deliberation. Cocked up over the Boeing’s nose, we are 40 or 50 feet in front of her engines and more than 200 feet from her tail, facing ahead expectantly like spectators isolated in a rather cramped box in a very
opera house. All is grey – the only colours are the pale blue of a plastic mug slotted into a holder at my elbow and holding half an inch of tea dregs, the dark blue of the plastic straps securing oxygen masks above our heads, and the yellow of the spongy, disc-like earpieces of our headsets. We might almost be in an operating theatre. The atmosphere is clinical, unflurried, the pilot’s softest remarks distinctly audible, the occasional tram-like hiss when the Flight Engineer swings his seat back and forth on metal runners fixed in the floor quite startling. You realize there are people under your feet – a loudspeakered Jeeves-like voice comes boldly through the floor from the First Class cabin below – Albert Templo’s, talking about duty-free regulations.

In the calm tones of a surgeon consulting his anaesthetist at the start of a routine operation, Mike McCook Weir confers with China. At first ground control’s voice babbles something very like, ‘Kee bas how wa-a-a-….’ Let’s see how McCook Weir copes with
, I think with mildly malicious interest. But evidently the remark was not addressed to us because the same voice follows impeccably with ‘Cathay 250, 12,000 metres.’

‘Cathay 250, 12,000 metres,’ McCook Weir quietly acknowledges, and then to me, ‘The Chinese and Russians use metres. We use feet like everyone else. Makes it slightly complicated.’ He reads off a handy printed card that converts metres to feet at a glance: ‘12,000 metres, that’s 39,400 feet. Now we go down.’

We sink heavily and evenly like a submarine beginning a dive. Below us a familiar landscape is taking shape. Over Steve’s head, I can just see the Pearl River surging down muddily from Canton, slowly broadening as it gathers in the even browner water of its eel-like tributaries. On my left, a darker mainland; red mud roads writhing like frantic serpents between terraced hills. Ahead, broken glimpses of open sea between shifting clouds.

A clear Hong Kong Chinese voice now, friendlier. ‘Cathay 250, heading of 220 degrees and descend to 6,000 feet. Over.’ Steve reads back the instruction, the aircraft dips once more, and McCook Weir calls for the approach checklist.

‘Cabin signs.’


‘Inboard landing lights.’



‘Set for landing….’

And so on, until –

‘Checklist complete.’

The Flight Engineer has made his final fuel check. We shall still have 4,070 gallons in our wing-tanks when we land at Hong Kong. Cheerful news, because that quantity would be enough for us to make one quick circuit in case of a missed approach, or to divert to Canton and if necessary to circle there in a holding pattern for half an hour. An unlikely thing to happen, it’s true: despite the tricky monsoon season, Kai Tak is only closed by bad weather for an average of three days a year. And Cathay’s pilots are coming into their home port, a place they know in all its moods.


The glossy pages of
confirm the outlines of the history I am setting out to write.

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