Q: You flew regular flights to Burma before actually leaving Cathay Pacific and joined Union of Burma Airways...your book "We Flew in Burma" lists this very interesting yet little known period in History...what attracted you to Burma? What type of flying operations did you conduct? What stays vivid in your mind about this period?
Capt. Eather - My first tour, the first of many to Burma was in May 1948 and went for the expected 3 weeks. With each tour my affection for the country grew and I even entertained thoughts of becoming a citizen. My duties were pleasant and each flight was crammed with interesting things and the short Irrawaddy River Delta flights were most exciting.
Extract from Syd’s Pirates:
The Karen insurgency was at its peak. The government troops had no answer to its dedicated well-led forces, and large tracts of food bearing country fell to its advance almost daily.
In a matter of days the Karen army encircled Rangoon, severing all land borne communication. The remainder of the country was on its own. The Karens had gained control of the rice bowl that fed Burma, the vital Irrawaddy Delta. However, in the glory of their victories they failed to recognise the importance of Mingaladon Airport. They left it almost intact and although they over-ran it and held it for one night, their sappers did not devastate it. A few well-planted land mines would have decommissioned it for months, and it was this wasted opportunity that would finally bring the Karen uprising to its knees.
Whoever controlled the up-country airfields was of concern to air charter operators. Flights frequently left Mingaladon for a destination without knowing who controlled it, so the authorities devised a panel marking system they guaranteed solved the problem, while Karen intelligence often knew the sequence of the day and displayed it correctly. The aviator then entered a spidery parlour as an unsuspecting fly. At the beginning of March 1949
Maymyo fell to this ploy with serious implications.
At this time we were holding a daily lottery whose prize went to the crew with the most bullet holes in their plane’s airframe. The winners got a case of beer, which in a country short of life’s necessities had a low priority, and was a princely prize that soon attracted criminal intent.
Being an acknowledged teetotaller, my peers elected me one of three accredited scrutineers, but even at this early stage a group of devious men had their own agenda, and doubts arose when the same crew kept winning. Their plane resembled a patched sieve, and one day a scrutineer casually scratched a patch that fell off to expose unblemished skin. With the connivance of a beer addicted airframe engineer the crew had corrupted our lottery. We all felt betrayed.
It was a simple but devilish scheme, and our lottery went into liquidation with many a pondering brow clearly wishing they had thought of it!
We were undoubtedly involved in a shooting war, but lacked the knowledge to make an educated assessment of its danger. The fact that our licences were issued by an outside authority led to raised eyebrows in high places.
In Hong Kong A.J.R. Moss sent a memo to the Colonial Secretary, seemingly more concerned with aircraft nationality than crew safety. His memo pointed out that aircraft displaying Colony registration must not be suspected as being part of any Burmese military adventure. He also made a thinly veiled charge that Cathay crew might be construed to be gunrunners.
Most of our charters brought food to beleaguered towns. Our payloads were primarily onions, potatoes, rice and ghee, that foul smelling clarified buffalo butter. After loading his DC-3 with the manifest goods Captain Ed Berry invariably added six bags of potatoes that he blithely declared were for Mum. With this profitable sideline he never used any part of his salary.
Neither our pay nor insurance cover was adjusted to compensate for these hairy conditions. When a crewmember broached the subject he found himself faced with stony silence or derision.
One afternoon we met in Bob Smith’s hole-in-the-wall office. The Agenda was to compose a letter to management expressing our concern that the Burma operation had reached dangerous levels. Without warning a 20mm Oerlikon shell pushed its snout through the wall. All present held their breath, and almost instantly, everyone had cleared not only the office but the hangar as well. After a time we decided that our letter was vital and returned to the menacing presence.
Bob Smith’s casual one finger typing reached subsonic speed and soon the letter lay ready for signing. Shaking hands scribbled mostly illegible signatures, but who cared! That afternoon Ceddie Carlton, the Angry Ant, bore it back to Hong Kong.
Later, when Bob decided the shell was a dud he carefully chiselled it from the wall and it became his doorstop.
Our Operations Manager, Captain Dick Hunt answered the letter in person, and that night he loudly belittled our concerns. After ruining our evening he decided our mess standards added nothing to his exalted position, and removed his patronage to the luxurious Strand Hotel. We considered his departure a blessing!
On the morning of 5 March he arrived at Mingaladon to fly with Captain John Riordan. What better way to show his contempt than to do a flight up-country. As he arrived on the flight deck he contemptuously ordered Riordan to hop into the right-hand seat, then off they went to Meiktila.
The flight continued as the previous evening had ended with more lecturing about how bloody frightened you blokes have become, using every pretext to lever more money off a struggling impoverished company. His soulful plea brought moisture to Riordan’s eyes but retribution lay just beyond the horizon.
At Meiktila the airfield signals were correct, indicating that the place was still under Government control. As he cut the engines, Hunt said, Look, John must be a VIP coming back with us. We’ve got a guard of honour. John looked and said, yes, we have, and they look like Karens. Bloody rot! scoffed Hunt.
Riordan merely shrugged, then went back to open the cargo door. As it swung open he got a precise salute from a diminutive officer whose serious expression spread to a wide grin as he said, I’m a Karen. I expected nothing less said Riordan, returning the salute. Then he excused himself and returned to the flight deck where he imparted the good news. In a subdued whisper, Hunt asked what should they do. Just what they bloody well tell us, the realistic Riordan advised.
The Karens locked the crew in a room, and later their guard tapped on the door and in plummy Oxford English asked if they had any special requests for dinner. Hunt said he wasn’t hungry but would appreciate a beer. John, testing what the traffic would bear, asked for medium rare a steak and a woman for dessert. Neither request surprised the guard who soon returned with a medium rare steak, a case of beer and two women. As the dawn came up like thunder the officer woke them with their orders for the day. He casually told them they were honoured for they were to help capture Maymyo. They would fly his troops to the airfield at Anisakan, from where his men would proceed to Maymyo five miles on. They would go at once!
What if we refuse? Hunt snarled. The still-smiling officer un-holstered his revolver, blew down the barrel, in a manner pleasing to the Western movie buff, said quietly, Now, Captain,
I fervently hope you are not going to be difficult. Maymyo is some 65 miles north east of Meiktila and just east of the legendary city of Mandalay. The hill-town of Maymyo became an oasis to a Raj community escaping the summer heat of the Irrawaddy Delta, but they earned their cool holiday by surviving a narrow road of frightening bends, and by 1949 the civilised traveller arrived by landing at the pocket-sized airfield at Anisakan.
On 7 March 1949, Hunt and Riordan flew two loads of Karen troops to Anisakan, and by the early evening Maymyo had fallen to the invaders. The casual way the Karens captured the airfield showed their superiority to the Burmans.
A few minutes after they landed at Anisakan they had full control of the airfield. A short time later an Airspeed Oxford of the Burmese Air Force touched down. The unsuspecting crew taxied in; cut the engines, and were led away under guard. Under Karen persuasion they revealed that a Spitfire would soon land. Still in Government uniforms, the Karens made things look lazy and normal, and the Spitfire pilot joined his colleagues in the brig.
The capture of the important hill town of Maymyo was little more than a walk in the park. As the defenders saw the Karens flitting from tree to tree they realised their inadequacies and fled into the jungle.
Hunt and Riordan made no further contribution to the Karen war effort. For two days the Karens treated them as honoured guests. They were driven to their DC3 to find it thoroughly cleaned, shining inside and out like a new pin.
The diminutive colonel autographed Riordan’s logbook then plucked off his artillery badge and pinned it on Riordan’s jacket. He removed Riordan’s Cathay Pacific wings and pinned them on his own breast as his men broke into spontaneous applause. Facing Riordan he said, When we capture Rangoon we’ll make you the first Marshal of the Karen Air Force. With a serious demeanour Captain Riordan accepted their accolades.
His words to Captain Hunt were in stark contrast. Captain, he said, I don’t like you. I am releasing you because your friend asked it of me, but don’t fall into my hands again.
A thoroughly chastened Hunt hastened back to Hong Kong where he reported that the Burma operation did entail a certain amount of risk. We all got a 50 per cent pay rise, plus 30 rupees an hour danger money.
Q: After Burma you went back to join Cathay Pacific.....where did the name "Cathay Pacific" come from? what were the actual motions that brought about the birth of Cathay as a new entity?
Capt. Eather - In an effort to broaden the scope of the Company a meeting was held in Shanghai and amongst other things it was decided to rename the Company Cathay Pacific. The name reflected the China and Central Asia origins as well as the Company’s aspirations in the Pacific area.
The new Company was born out of a desire to move away from a merchandise and freight focus to a passenger service. Setting up up of the new Company, required tact and diplomacy in dealing with the political heavyweights of that time. You will remember that China was in a period of transition with competing power and influences from Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek and Mao Tse Tung.
The company moved its operations to Hong Kong and was registered in September 1946 as Cathay Pacific Airways (Hong Kong). Soon after it expanded with scheduled services to Macau and then later services to Manila, Siam (Thailand) and Burma.
Q: What was the original equipment of Cathay Pacific when it started as a new entity? Can you tell us more about it?
Capt. Eather - As I mentioned previously, the first planes in the Cathay Pacific stable were the C47s Betsy and Niki. By the middle of 1947, CPA operated 5 DC-3s and in 1948 3 Catalinas were added to the fleet including the ill-fated Miss Macao.
Betsy at Kai Tak
Q: HAECO is a world-renown Aviation Engineering name, how did it start? How was it related to Cathay Pacific?
Capt. Eather - The creation of an aircraft engineering dynasty began when the Jardine Aircraft Maintenance Company Limited and Pacific Air Maintenance and Supply Company Limited merged in 1 November 1950. CPA was just one of many HAECO clients and enjoys a continuing close working relationship.
Q: Your new book "Airport of the Nine Dragons" gives a very good insight into Kai Tak ...can you tell us a bit of its history? How did it morphed into its final shape? Can you give us a snapshot of operations into Kai Tak through the years and many different aircraft types that used it?
Capt. Eather - The 1911 Revolution brought a massive influx of refugees to the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong and the resultant housing problem attracted Wu Ting-Fang who conceived that reclamation was the answer.
Singapore born Dr. Wu was the first Chinese English Barrister-at-Law and the first Chinese appointee to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council in 1880. His idea appealed to a group of Chinese merchants that included Sir Kai Ho Kai and Au Tack. In 1014 this group formed the Kai Tack Land Investment Co. Ltd., but Sir Kai Ho Kai died soon after its formation in some financial distress. In 1916 this company-started work in Kowloon Bay and the reclamation continued steadily until the strikes in the early 1920s and a recession in 1925 caused the project to fail. The reclamation dream of the Kai Tack Land Investment Company lay unfinished and vacant. Meanwhile, in 1920 Mr Au Tack had died.
Kai Tak in 1952
Surely the name of Kai Tack came from the title of the Company that they had formed before their demise.
The name Kai Tack Airport had a brief life for it had changed prior to the Japanese occupation. As Kai Tak Airport it became legendary but it would have achieved that fame regardless of any name.
Kai Tak in 1957
Q: In 1954, a Cathay DC-4 was shot down by Chinese fighters...can you tell us about this incident and the period in Cathay's operations?
Capt. Eather - 23 July 1954 began as C.S.V.U. – clear sky visibility unlimited. It was a day when even the most restless soul found tranquillity. However, as the minutes ticked by, aerial murder would reduce it to another day in infamy.
Cathay Pacific’s Skymaster, VR-HEU, had slipped beneath the restless waves of the China Sea, a flaming pyre, the victim of an attack by Chinese Communist fighter planes operating from San Ya (Yaxian). This is a military aerodrome at the southern extremity of Hainan Island.
To give you an abbreviated account of this murderous incident would not do it justice. I think it is more appropriate for you to read the chapter I have devoted to the incident in Syd’s Last Pirate – Chapter Thirteen – VR-HEU’s Moment of Truth.
Q: Cathay joined the jet age and it was an important milestone...your recollection of this migration? Types of operation? memorable flights?
Capt. Eather - In 1961 discussions began on what aircraft CPA would adopt to upgrade to pure jet equipment and what most suited the Company’s network. In 1962 the General Dynamics Corporation and the General Electric Company had made a tempting offer for a Convair 880. Then fate seemed to side with Cathay when it allowed a Boeing 707, a Boeing 720B and a Convair 880 drawn up in a line at Kai Tak as on parade. J.K. Swire quickly disposed of the Boeing 707 – it exceeded our needs. The choice hinged between the Boeing 720B and the Convair 880. Finally, the nod came to the Convair 880 when a pool of Convair spares was available in Japan that effectively reduced costs for replacement. Of course there were other aspects to the decision centred around readily available maintenance at HAECO and financial sweeteners from the Hong Kong Bank.
The fleet of Convairs grew steadily over the years before CPA began replacing them with the Boeing 707s.
In my books, I have covered many memorable incidents during the Convair times including a disastrous run-in I had with a bird that destroyed one of my engines. This led to a blow out of 6 tyres when I overshot the runway in the stricken plane at Taipei International Airport.
Q: Your thoughts on the Convair 880?
Capt. Eather - As I have described in my books, I found the Convair 880 to be a complete ‘hot rod’ – once it got it’s tail up there was no stopping it. I loved flying it even though it was not an easy plane to master.
Q: in 1972 Convair VR-HFZ was destroyed by a bomb planted on board...can you tell us about this episode?
Capt. Eather - In June 1972 VR-HFZ was cruising over Vietnam when it and there were no survivors. It was not until July that the shocking truth was disclosed that a bomb was planted on board as part of a plot to defraud the insurance company that covered the lives of the bombers family members. Unfortunately, based on circumstantial evidence, the plotter was found not guilty and the Insurance company paid up.
Q: You finished your career on the Boeing 707....your fondest memory of this machine?
Capt. Eather - The first splendid Boeing 707-320 VR-HGH entered CX service on 24 August 1971. The Boeing gradually replaced those hot-rods until 15 September 1975 when the last Convair 880 disappeared from the Hong Kong Aircraft Register.
Long before the departure of the Convairs the company had purchased twelve magnificent Boeing 707s from NorthWest Airlines, USA. Twenty of us were chosen for the initial course that commenced in Minneapolis in June 1971.
My first command on a 707 began in Tokyo en route to Hong Kong via Osaka when a vicious typhoon (No.23 - Trix) struck and I aborted the approach to Osaka and proceeded to Taipei.
My retirement command also took place during an unannounced storm that coincided with the death of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek .
Q: Once in retirement, you became a household name in aviation circles thanks to your books, Syd's Pirates is still a "classic"...and more recently, "We Flew in Burma" and "The Amazing Adventures of Betsy and Nikky"...any more books planned?
Capt. Eather - Short answer, No but, I have the early research material for a sequel to We Flew in Burma which I am calling Terror in Paradise.
Q: Looking back at your flying career now...what brings a smile to your face?
Capt. Eather - The memories of all of my fantastic adventures and the opportunities people gave me. I travelled to many wonderful places and met lots of most interesting people.
Captain Eather, this has been an interview I will remember for a long long time.