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    Syd's Last Pirate


    WR269

    Interview - Captain Charles 'Chic' Eather

     

    Many many years ago, a good friend gave me a taste for history-based fiction aviation books, and I was lucky enough to read one in which I actually knew most of the people given credits!

     

    As I finished the book, I found myself craving for more…but could find none to my taste. One day, whilst waiting for my wife, I saw an old bookstore that had a closing down sale…all books, any books, only $5.

     

    Ok, only one aviation book in there…had never ever heard of it, didn’t know what it was about, but it had a photo of a Cathay Pacific 747 in the cover…the name of the book: “Syd’s Pirates”…sounds like an ok novel to me….so for $5, I got my bargain.

     

    At that time, Cathay Pacific was well known to me…a relative was a senior pilot, and my adoptive father was a senior check and training captain, plus I knew another 3 active pilots in it, so that night I opened the book around 8pm and started reading…

     

    Dammit, it was 2AM when I forced myself to put it down!

     

    Upon reading the first chapter I realised this was no novel, it was an autobiography…

    Reaching the 3rd chapter I realised this was not just an autobiography, this was a magnificent historical document of a golden era of aviation still shrouded in myth, mistery and legend.

    When I finished the book, I was astonished to realise I had just read the “unofficial” biography of one of the world’s largest and most successful airlines, Cathay Pacific, plus aviation events I had vaguely heard of, and the life of a very interesting character, the author, Capt Charles “Chic” Eather.

     

    Could this book actually be true? I asked the people involved in Cathay…they all had a chuckle…yes, they all knew about the book…yes, management had a frown when the book was mentioned, and yes, that’s the way things happened. WOW.

    I went back out looking for another copy of the book and could not find any…it was as if by magic, it could not be found anymore, all bookstores said they were sold out. I lent my only copy to a friend, we wont mention his name, right Pete?..and 10 years later he returned it..at that point I renewed my search for another copy of the book…the internet was in full swing, and still could not find a new copy, however, what I did find, was a contact for the author himself…

    I purchased a second book directly from Capt Eather, which he was kind enough to sign for me, “We Flew in Burma” was yet another amazing historical document of a land and events people and time forgot.

     

    Corresponding with Capt Eather via email gave me the feeling of interacting with an actual living legend, not just by his feats and the history period he was part of, but by the humble nature he maintains, incredibly friendly, open and affable. So naturally, I invited him to talk to us Avsim folk. Captain Eather advised he was still performing the “Checkerboard” approach to Kai Tak using FS2004 until a few years ago, so he is well and truly a member of the Sim community.

     

    Captain Eather, many thanks for your time.

    Having read your books, I cannot help but wonder what it must have been like, living those adventures and stepping through the days in the post-war world where expansion was the name of the game.

     

    Capt. Eather - As I am now into my 93rd year, you will appreciate that my recollection of long past events is a little hazy and I need to jog my memory by referencing my recorded work.

     

    Q: What attracted you to aviation? How did you start? What were your first aeroplanes?

     

    Capt. Eather - At a very early age, my main influence in pursuing an aviation career was Charles Kingsford Smith and I recall watching his arrival in Sydney from the US standing ankle deep in mud with my father at Mascot. Thereafter I followed Kingsford Smith’s career with great interest.

    I was too young and, more to the point, financially embarrassed, to undertake the Kingsford Smith Air Service Training course so I had to put my flying ambitions on hold. However, I was fortunate at the time to have met the manager, Harry de Leuil, who would play a major part in my later career, and who arranged for me to have a short training flight with the chief flying instructor.

     

    It was only after my time in the Merchant Navy that I commenced my flying experience. Most of my flying was undertaken in the de Havilland DH 60 and 87B Gipsy Major and my first solo flight was in August 1941.

     

    Q: You have a very interesting start to your career...all the way to the merchant Navy...can you tell us a bit about it?

     

    Capt. Eather - When I left school, I obtained work in various protected industries until my enlistment and subsequent discharge from the Army when they found out through my mother that I was underage. As a result I went and joined the Merchant Navy which took me overseas to a number of interesting places. At the completion of my Merchant Navy time, I was slightly better off financially and began my flying training in earnest in 1941.

     

    Extract from Syd’s Pirates:

    During May 1940 I enlisted with the lst Australian Anti-Aircraft Regiment and became Gunner Eather NX 17877. My term was brief; intervention of some sort or other led to my discharge - "not occasioned by his own default". The following January, not at all discouraged, I decided I would still be of combative value to my country and joined the Merchant Navy.

     

    My first trip was on S.S. Mungana, a 3315-ton rust-bucket that set out on the seventy-mile trip from Sydney to Newcastle one night in February. She was so unseaworthy that what should have been a routine passage of a few hours developed into a nightmare of forty-eight. Her rudder fell off outside Newcastle and we wallowed round in mountainous seas until a tug came to drag us into port. The tug was delayed because the boom was closed following the bombardment of any enemy ship that had tried to slip out of harbour in a fruitless attempt to break her internment. I'd had enough of Mungana, but the experience had one good result. I had been so seasick that never again was I sick anywhere.

     

    Next month, March 194l, I signed articles on HT Queen Elizabeth, then the largest ship in the world, and I recall her with affection. Her turn of speed was absolutely phenomenal, and it earned my heartfelt thanks when we cleared the Suez port of Taufiq (Tewfik) in a hurry because of an impending bombing raid on Alexandria. Returning from Suez, when we crossed the Great Australian Bight the seas were so mountainous that the after gun-deck was untenable. Though it was more than seventy feet above Plimsoll line the seas broke right over it.

     

    I walked from stem to stern under the keel of that massive vessel later, when she was in dry dock at Singapore. Finally on a Sunday morning, January 19,1972 I saw the beautiful ship, now rechristened Seawise University and registered at Panama, racked by explosions and consumed by spreading flames in Hong Kong's western harbour. Her blackened hulk remains there to this day, a mass of useless metal.

     

    Q: Looking back on it now, how would you describe the start to your career compared with modern day aviation?

     

    Capt. Eather - There is a lot more structure in aviation now compared to when I started and individuals had to rely on there own initiative and self support. What we would now describe as the ‘corporate’ part of the business was more hands on than today largely due to the small size of these new aviation enterprises.

    Of course, in my early career (my ‘salad days’), we did not have the luxury of flight training simulators and, what hasn’t changed, is the fact that to pursue an aviation career, is still a costly exercise.

     

    Extract from Syd’s Pirates:

    I signed off the QE on June 25, 1941, and the very next day found me belted into the cockpit of a DH 60 Gipsy Moth (VH-UFV) with craggy-faced Howard K. Morris patiently demonstrating how to fly it straight and level. On a day in August, after I had piled up six hours and ten minutes instruction he climbed out of his seat, removed the forward control stick and, tucking it under his arm, stalked away, saying over his shoulder, "Off you go".

     

    I did, and managed a really good first solo. Immediately anyone set out on his first solo those days, an unwritten rule stopped the operation of the whole airfield until the tyro had concluded this once-in-a-lifetime experience. As I rolled to a stop Howard K was leaning against a Tiger Moth just off to the right, talking to the Air Force instructor who was holding his machine with the prop just ticking over. He bounded across to me with a beaming grin and told me, 'Do another circuit'- something he had never done before, or since, probably. This time I made every mistake in the book, and still wonder that I got through without damaging myself or the Gipsy. The silence from Howard on my return could have been cut with a knife, and we left the scene followed by ungentlemenly guffaws from the RAAF instructor.

     

    As with all private ventures in wartime our fuel supply was limited. This retarded the building up of flying hours in pursuit of the elusive 'B' Commercial licence, the Open Sesame to a job. To get round this we used to introduce new members to the Royal Aero Club of New South Wales. On joining they became entitled to a fuel allowance - so it was important to canvass only those who didn't want to take flying instruction, and our ingenuity knew no bounds in locating candidates for membership who would pass on their share of the priceless gravy. Two of the several new members I brought in were Chinese sisters named Bow, who raised the eyebrows of the selection committee when they listed their occupations as 'champagne bottle turners'.

     

    We tapped another source of fuel supply by flying Army co-operation exercises to give gun-laying and predictor practice to anti-aircraft units at Bantry Bay and Lurline Bay on Sydney Harbour's North Shore. We pilots still had to pay for the hire of the aircraft but the fuel allowance meant we could build up our flying hours towards the coveted licence.

     

    My old friend Bob Smith recalls those flights with amusement. We were supposed to fly over the batteries straight and level at about 5000 or 6000 feet but occasionally we would vary this with aerobatics and upset the predictor readings. Then the telephone would run hot with protests of righteous indignation and the dark threat of fuel withdrawal would bring us back to the straight and narrow. When I asked how they would handle the situation if any enemy aircraft did in fact follow an aerobatic course, I met a stony silence.

     

    In this period I had been accepted for the RAAF Reserve, presented with a lapel badge and an instructional booklet and told to report three nights a week to nearby Newington College for technical lectures. I found the evenings very enjoyable and learned a lot from my instructors. The course stood me in good stead when I finally sat the examination for my 'B' licence. But the inactivity of the intervening periods was driving me to distraction and I decided to make another trip on my Merchant Navy papers. My RAAF Reserve status precluded this, but I rationalized that I wouldn't be missed for a few weeks. I was only kicking up my heels waiting for that Air Force call-up, and nothing appeared to be happening even though the Nips had entered the fray.

     

    So in February 1942 I was aboard RMS Aquitania when she cleared Sydney Heads, and spent two Fridays the thirteenth dodging enemy subs. One of those thirteenths still haunts me. We ploughed through a vast area of wreckage. There were swollen bodies and, I fear, some which still contained a spark of life. Their weak but joyous calls turned to curses as we made no attempt to slacken speed and pick them up. Stopping to pick up survivors was just what the murderers skulking beneath the placid surface would be hoping for us to do; we would have been sitting ducks. But that knowledge was poor compensation for us, and none for them.

     

    We entered Honolulu's Pearl Harbour, littered with mute evidence of the infamous Japanese attack. After a quick shore leave we found that our task was to transport some 2000 American women and their children to the mainland. The sex which was offered and enthusiastically accepted throughout the run to San Francisco was out of this world. I know of few who missed out, and no difficulty arose until an inexperienced helmsman, whose mind was on far more pleasurable occupations proceeded to turn to starboard instead of to port in response to the blast that signalled the convoy to take a zig-zag sub avoidance. Fortunately no real damage resulted from the near collision. I think we lost a little paint off the starboard bow, but this did lead to a restriction of nocturnal pleasures. Probably just as well, for only the most agile could negotiate the deck and avoid the copulating couples occupying every nook and cranny.

     

    At San Francisco we learned that certain irregularities existed in the articles we had signed, and it became necessary for each crew member to sign off and, if he wished, to sign new articles. I accepted this as an opportunity to leave the ship legally, and put into train a scheme to sneak across the border into Canada and there offer myself to the British Air Transport Command.

     

    The British Consul could offer little advice on joining this command from American soil, but did say many others had followed my proposed route and were now doing sterling service flying replacement aircraft to the British Isles. It was a great pity Bob Buckby, another old mate of mine did not follow this path. He joined a refrigeration ship in Sydney which was "bumped" in the Atlantic, with the result that both his legs had to be amputated due to frostbite. I recall going aboard with him while this ship was alongside the Pyrmont wharves in Sydney, and she had death written all over her. When I expressed these fears Bob showed not the slightest interest.

     

    As I sneaked up to the Canadian border a giant American cop grabbed me, gave me a couple of vigorous shakes and marched me off to the local bastille. He mellowed when I explained my reasons for being at the border, but not sufficiently to close his eyes to his duty. Next morning found me standing at attention to the very same Consulate official as had so recently advised me how to join the Air Transport Command.

     

    He was now severely reprimanding me for doing anything so foolish. Didn't I realize I was alienating the great friendship which existed between our now-allied countries? Later, with a mischievous grin, he said I'd blown my opportunity by getting caught. But he became quite earnest when he said I mustn't try it again; this was a condition of the bargain he had struck to get me off the hook of my immigration misdemeanour. I had to phone him each day until he could find me transport back to Australia. This materialized about two weeks later in the form of dear old Queen Elizabeth and I became a semi-passenger back to Sydney under a Discharged Seamen's Agreement

     

    We carried thousands of American servicemen to Australia on what proved to be a pleasant voyage. Of all the remote outposts imaginable we stopped for refuelling at the French Marquesas Islands, northeast of Tahiti in the latitude of Peru. While there, I watched an amphibious aircraft, a U.S. Navy Kingfisher, trying to take off with an obvious overload of bombs. Each time the pilot made an abortive run he would drop one more bomb over the side. He finally got airborne but as he left the water his remaining bombload exploded and he disintegrated before my eyes. But the incident had a surprising and permanent effect on my life. That moment finally clinched my decision to make commercial flying my lifelong profession.

     

    Misfortune awaited my return home. I had missed my RAAF call-up and they had sacked me. When I went to see them they informed me in the most forthrigtrt manner that I had committed a crime by leaving the country after my acceptance for the Reserve. After ripping a strip off me for several minutes the officer in charge of the section became interested in my escapades and we spent some time in these reminiscences. Despite his obvious sympathy he could not intervene in my re-appointment. He told me my papers were marked that I was a 'bit of a lone wolf' and not amenable to discipline. He merely asked me to return my lapel badge.

     

    Q: You make note of your earliest flights...the Narrabeen Beach Landing...can you take us back in time?

     

    Capt. Eather - An incident occurred on 21 November 1944 that had overtones of sabotage and made headlines of the day.

    On a flight skippered by Jimmy Broadbent, we lost engine power over Broken Bay at the mouth of the Hawkesbury River just north of Sydney. As I said in my book, the plane “assumed the gliding angle of a rock”. Jimmy was able to land on the hard sand at Narrabeen Beach where the plane came to rest pointing out towards the incoming waves.

     

    After quickly arranging for the American passengers and the Royal Mail to be off-loaded, Jimmy calmly opened the wing exit window and sauntered the length of the wing and “with regal splendor stepped onto the dry sand”.

     

    In the frenzied activity to save the plane, the tractor driver, in his enthusiasm, tore off the tail of the plane.

     

    Some days later it was discovered that a mixture of sugar and sand had been found in the engines, most likely an act of sabotage as there were some of General Douglas MacArthur’s staff on board.

     

    Extract from Syd’s Pirates:

     

    An incident that occurred on 21 November 1944 had overtones of sabotage and made the headlines of the day. However, like most unexpected adventures it began in a state of normality. I arrived at Mascot with an excited mind for my skipper was the great Harry Frank Broadbent, or Jimmy to his legion of friends. In this state I barely noticed the weather was stormy and blowing a gale, and his natural ease had me working as though we were a long time team. With loaded plane we left the blocks spot on schedule at 2 a.m. A short taxi brought us to the take-off point, but from that moment things began to go wrong. Our ignition check found an earthed magneto that forced our return for maintenance. The ground engineer told us the delay would be about an hour. Jimmy grunted, chose a chair in the dispatch room, and went to sleep! Four hours later my skipper ordered wheels up as he rolled her onto the heading for our first technical stop at Archerfield, followed by Rockhampton enroute to Townsville. During the delay the storm front had cleared to sea and we could see a mosquito winking 100 miles away. The raucous take-off scream of VH-UZP's twin 450 HP Wasp Junior engines was reduced to climb. They purred like kittens as they hurled us into a sky so vividly blue that it tortured the eyes.

     

    The altimeter had ticked past 5,000 feet when, without warning, the starboard engine spluttered and lost thrust. We were over Broken Bay at the mouth of the Hawkesbury River just north of Sydney. Jimmy applied full power to the other Wasp and turned back for Mascot. Other than a gradual loss of altitude to preserve control speed against the dead engine's drag, he had everything under control. My job was to monitor the radio and the port engine. Suddenly, it began to lose revs and the plane assumed the gliding angle of a rock! We could not stay in the air much longer. A slamming turn to port lined us up with Narrabeen Beach. A slight bump and Jimmy had put her down on the hard packed sand. As she lost way the slope of the beach caused her to slew gently to the left, stopping with the docile surf softly caressing her nose. Jimmy instructed me to get the passengers out, and in my excitement I nearly cut myself in two, slamming against my still firmly locked seat belt. I overcame this obstruction and then tried to strangle myself with the radio headset cord. Jimmy was in hysterics and told me I'd make a fortune on the boards in vaudeville. I left the flight deck with a troubled mind. Would I make a better comedian than a pilot! Yet, this gracious man never mentioned my embarrassing antics again -naturally, neither did I!

     

    With no further impediments I had the rear door open in a flash, and standing in the surf helped the dazed Americans disembark. When I removed the Royal Mail canvas bags I had finished my duty. In a spirit of accomplishment I shrieked All Clear. With a solemn, Thank you mate, Jimmy came towards me, saw my grinning soggy condition and smiled sympathetically. Then I learned a lesson in savoir faire that remained with me throughout my flying career. He turned, opened the wing exit window, sauntered the length of the wing and with regal splendour stepped onto the dry sand. The rising tide gradually had VH-UZP awash.

     

    In a frenzy of activity a tractor driver passed a heavy rope around the tail wheel and cone, and in his great enthusiasm tore off the tail. His good intentions caused the only structural damage to our graceful plane. Some days later we learned that a mixture of sugar and sand was found in the engines. Most likely sabotage, as aboard were several of General Douglas MacArthur's staff.

     

     

    w01.jpg

    Young First Officer "Chic" Eather in front of beached aircraft

    w02.jpg

    News Article

     

     

    Q: Your first Commercial Aviation position/job..ANA...was it everything you thought it would be? Take us back to it...your fondest memory? Memorable flights? Friendships? Aircraft?

     

    Capt. Eather - I had my first ‘near death’ experience at the time I was trying to accumulate sufficient flying hours to get my Commercial pilots licence. The Aero Club’s DH-60 was sitting on the tarmac awaiting my arrival when, whilst I was impatiently retying a loose shoelace , a US Army Vultee Vengeance dive bomber crashed into it. (Note – in my books the Vultee is identified as a RAAF plane). To my horror, the severed head of the Vultee’s observer rolled to a halt at my left foot.

    After being hired by Ansett Airways, my very first commercial flight ended with a landing on the beach at Narrabean in Sydney. I was fortunate to be First Officer to Captain Jimmy Broadbent a very experienced and record breaking pilot who touched down on the beach without so much as getting his feet wet – as I said in my book, such savoir faire.

    I had many adventures as my career progressed including the formation of my own Australasian Aeronautical Company with a Genairco biplane as well as a Wackett Trainer and a Tiger Moth. The Tiger Moth provided me with my first forced landing experience in a street in the Sydney suburb of Rockdale.

     

    Extract from Syd’s Pirates:

     

    In February 1946 I teamed up with Leo Bennett and Willie Walters.

     

    We secured a New South Wales certificate of registration for The Australasian Aeronautical Co. with offices in Ross Smith Avenue, Mascot. Leo was our Managing Director, our bagman Willie held the title of Photographic Superintendent, with my input as Flight Superintendent. Professor Gerhard R. Felser, then Consul General of Austria, arranged the registration of our company. He also prepared income-tax returns and became a life-long friend.

     

    Our best asset was a Genairco. It was a biplane with a roomy front cockpit that sat two passengers side by side, with the pilot operating from a rear cockpit. All were exposed to the elements. This was a joy-flight money-tree, particularly when operating from the abandoned wartime airstrips at Tuggerah Lakes, Albion Park and Goulburn.

     

    w03.jpg

     

    I undertook various assignments such as ferrying surplus Commonwealth Tiger Moths from Tasmania to the Australian mainland. Later on, I also undertook the ferrying of surplus Avro Ansons that were located in many parts of Australia.

    Following this I spent a short period with the Mandated Airline in New Guinea flying a DH-84 Dragon but, due to the hazardous terrain and changeable weather, I decided to leave this job early.

     

    Q: You joined Roy Farrel's Export/Import Company....can you tell us about this period in your career? The kind of flying you did, equipment, where you flew, memorable flights, fond memories and people.

     

    Capt. Eather - In December 1946, I was fortunate to be hired by the manager of the Roy Farrell Export Import Company and he was the same Harry de Leuill who I mentioned earlier. From the moment he hired me, my life became an adventure, punctuated by moments of terror. I suspect that my possession of a 2nd Class Aircraft Navigators Licence was the influencing factor in my being preferred over more experienced candidates.

     

    The Company was set up initially as the world’s first air merchandising company focusing on the small but growing China Australia market.

    The first plane operated by the Company was a war surplus C47 “Biscuit Bomber” affectionately named “Betsy” by those who flew her. As business grew, a second C47 was purchased and christened “Niki” (sometimes spelt Nikki).

    The “merchandise” carried by the Company was varied and ranged from “soap to nuts to pig’s bristles and tennis balls” - the Company later evolved to be primarily a passenger service.

     

    My flying experience in the early period took me to many parts of Asia as well as regular flights to Australia and the occasional flights further afield.

     

    w04.jpg

     

    Q: The Miss Macao affair... These days of course incidents like these are brought forward in a different light...but back in the 1940s...how did it affect operations? Morale?

    Capt. Eather - Just two weeks after I crewed the Catalina, dubbed ‘Miss Macao’, with Captain Dale Cramer, she came to a tragic end as a result of what I describe as the world’s first “skyjacking’. This CPA plane was often used to transport valuables including gold bullion as part of a series of Gold Charters between Hong Kong, Saigon and Batavia.

     

    On 16 July 1948, Miss Macao had just commenced her return flight from Macao to Hong Kong, when the crew were attacked by a band of air pirates. The attack resulted in the tragic demise of Miss Macao and the crew and passengers (with the exception of one surving hijacker).

     

    Authorities in both Macao and Hong Kong found themselves in a quandary as there was no legislation covering air piracy or skyjacking under which they could prosecute those involved including the sole survivor. This situation has been rectified as there are untold volumes of legislation relating to these sorts of crimes.

    Another interesting fact is the lack of security covering airline passengers and boarding restrictions. This was identified by an article printed in the South China Morning Post which referred to the “insight-anticipated procedures” adopted in later years to use army mine detectors to screen passengers. Captain Syd de Kantzow also stated at the time that the only solution to the new pirate hazard was the installation of metal detectors at departure points.

     

    Extract from Syd’s Pirates:

     

    Roy Farrell and Syd de Kantzow bought their Catalina in September 1947 from the USAAF Federal Liquidation Commission in the Philippines. They got a steal for 6,000 pesos - about $HK 12,000, and safely negotiated the 600 miles of restless sea that separates the Philippine Island of Luzon from Mainland China. The then unregistered plane put down at Kai Tak during the late morning of 2 October 1947, and almost before the propellers stopped turning an army of engineering minions descended on her.

     

    w05.jpg

     

    With indecent haste they commenced to strip her, and with the remarkable engineering efficiency that Cathay Pacific commanded in those days, the passenger conversion was completed by late November. On 5 December she entered service with the registration VR-HDT. She seated 23 passengers and with just 993 hours on the clock she was a lovely and regal lady in youthful bloom.

    In her new civilian role the airline added an icebox for cold drinks - no other catering was necessary. So, for an outlay of about $HK 50,000 Cathay Pacific had an asset that was valued at $HK 173,400 when the Company restructured just six months later. Dubbed the Miss Macao she made her inaugural flight to Macau on 9 April 1948 under charter to the Macao Air Transport Company (MATCO).

     

    Miss Macao had logged a total of 1,596 hours when, on 16t July 1948, she became a muddied, twisted heap of corroding metal and the tomb of innocent people. With this metamorphosis she entered history, having become the victim in the world’s first air piracy, an attempted skyjack that went miserably wrong.

    The China coast shelters perhaps the last strongholds of the pirate scourge, with the possible exception of the Sea-Dyak lairs in Malaysia waters. The late twentieth century routine had a simple approach. The pirate band took passage as ordinary coolies on a steamer, and at a given signal they produced revolvers and captured the ship’s bridge. They then shot the junior officer and tossed his body to the fish as an example of their earnestness, after which they found little resistance to sailing the prize to their headquarters at Bias Bay. There they plundered the passengers and held the crew to ransom. Bias Bay is the modern Daya Wan, a bay east-north-east of Kowloon.

     

    A famous incident occurred on 10 December 1890 when the Douglas Line’s S.S. Namoa was captured after clearing the waters of the Colony of Hong Kong. This was a shocking attack where Captain Pockcock was murdered and his officers shackled. The pirates then raped, looted and killed. The low yield of their loot enraged them to a brutality beyond belief, and a method used to disclose hidden loot was to jam a carpenter’s file between the victim’s teeth and work it with both hands.

     

    On the 17 April 1891 the Chinese authorities brought several pirates to a Kowloon beach. There a group of Europeans witnessed as the executioner beheaded 16 pirates convicted of the Namoa atrocity. That beach fronted Kowloon City near the site that became the Airport of the Nine Dragons - Kai Tak Airport.

     

    The plan for pirating the Miss Macao developed in the minds of Chio Tok, Chio Kei Mun and Chio Cheong, three villagers of Nam Mun, on the south east coast of Tao Mun Island. Their bankroll was $HK 3,000 gained from selling the family rice field. Tok, the leader, had learned to fly amphibians while living in Manila. The idea was for the gang to pay the normal passage fare and board in the usual way. Once airborne they would subdue the crew, allowing Tok to take over the controls. Although it was a straightforward plan Tok foresaw two weaknesses.

     

    Kei Mun was an opium smoker with a habit costing three dollars a day and probably unreliable under pressure. The greater weakness was their lack of knowledge of the local coast or islands. Where would they take the captured Catalina?

     

    To rectify this deficiency Tok approached Wong Yu, a 24 year old rice farmer who also lived on the island of Tao Mun. Wong knew the Seong Chao region like the back of his hand. He suggested several likely spots to land the plane that also were suitable for conducting hostage negotiations.

     

    Wong Yu agreed to join the band, although he stipulated that he would take no part in the actual hold-up, doubtless reasoning that should the attack fail he could continue to Hong Kong as an ordinary passenger. His sole contribution would be to direct Tok to the most suitable landing site, also stipulating that he would not guard the captured passengers. Further, he astutely reminded Tok that any site they chose would lead to the locals blackmailing them to keep silent.

     

    Both disturbed and influenced by Wong Yu’s many conditions Tok redrafted his plans and dismissed Kei Mun, but he kept Wong Yu in the scheme, perhaps as a precaution against betrayal, and enlisted a clansman from Sio Chek Kam, another village on Tao Mun.

    Just before 17:30 hours on 16 July 1948 Captain Cramer got taxi clearance from Kai Tak Tower. He lined up Miss Macao and did her engine check. Roy Downing cleared him for take-off. Cramer opened the throttles fully, his feet firm on the brake pedals. As the sound

    above his head reached a comfortable roar he released the brakes and Macao Flight Two was rolling on schedule. At 60 knots he lifted the nose-wheel off the concrete and at 75 solid back-pressure on the control yoke brought the Catalina into the air, On the call of Wheels Up his young first officer, Sydney-born 23-yearold Ken McDuff, selected the gear lever to up. The ponderous system took nearly two minutes to tuck the wheels into the hull in a semblance of streamlining.

     

    Most pilots believed the undercarriage system was the nightmarish design of Emmet of the magazine Punch, but surprisingly, it seldom failed. The nose wheel was its weakness having a tendency to lag and a judicious skipper would visually check the watertight doors were fully closed before making a water landing.

     

    Duty controller Roy Downing recorded take-off at 5.30 p.m., and watched the Miss Macao flying out at 1000 feet on a track of about 275 true before gently turning to port around the northern tip of Lantau Island on the normal good-weather route. Levelled out, the Catalina quickly achieved its flight-planned airspeed of 130 knots, and with power reduced the passengers could maintain a shouted conversation, for soundproofing was a non-existent luxury. Lantau Island, eight miles from Hong Kong and flaunting a craggy peak of 3065 feet

    contributed to the limitation of radio contact between Hong Kong and Macao, a matter of great concern when any aircraft became overdue. First Officer McDuff advised Hong Kong they had Macao in sight and went off the air. This was normal procedure for the low operating height and the damping effect from Lantau Island prevented reception.

     

    Without a normal landing field the Macao authorities decided a radio station was an unnecessary luxury. Therefore the MATCO amphibian skippers were free to make whatever arrangements they deemed necessary. Nor did the Government supply a launch to keep the landing ways clear of small craft and debris. The Enclave’s aviation financial support operated with the frugality of a shoelace with terminal anorexia.

     

    Captain Cramer placed his reliance on one low-powered run over the breakwater-enclosed harbour to scatter the sampans. Normally a second such nudge was unnecessary for the experienced women scullers had begun to make way at the first sound of the Catalina’s engines. As they circled for the landing McDuff climbed into the engineer’s tower and hit the switch that lowered the floats from the wingtips, completing the transition to flying boat. The skipper gently closed the throttles and for the very last time settled Miss Macao sweetly onto Portuguese waters.

    Delca soon had the return passengers seated. McDuff closed the mooring hatch, reached through the window and removed the courtesy flag and stowed it, then strapped himself in the co-pilot’s seat. He was ready for his skipper’s pre-take-off check by holding the appropriate full aileron input. On land aircraft engines are individually run up or checked with brakes locked. However, operating on water, aircraft engines are individually run up as the aircraft turns in a circle. The plane circles to port when the right (starboard) engine is advanced and vice versa.

     

    The test setting for the Catalina is 30 inches of mercury, and each dual magneto is tested in turn. The aileron input is opposite to the turn and the control column is held right back, so that if the aircraft is turning to port the right (starboard) aileron is wound right in. These two actions keep the wingtip floats from digging into a swell and help to tighten the turn, which is vital in a confined area. With an hour to go before low tide Cramer had ample depth of water, but with a slight wind, he must use every inch of space. A firm and continuous movement of his right hand opened the two overhead throttle levers. He nodded as McDuff's left hand followed up, holding the throttles in place against the wave induced jarring. Precisely at this moment he rocked the wings to help bring the hull onto its planing step. The solid bow-wave gave way to a beautiful feathered wake, and the heavy spray that had blocked the passengers’ visibility gave way to well-spaced bubbles.

    Now airborne, Cramer put Miss Macao into a wide, shallow right turn, rolling her onto the Hong Kong heading. Soon the ramshackle buildings of the Chung San area of old Macao gave place to the muddy waters of the Pearl River estuary. As McDuff unfastened his seat belt to climb the engineer’s tower and raise the wing floats Tok and Cheong sprang to their feet. With his menacing gun backing his words Tok demanded that Cramer surrender the controls, but the skipper refused!

    Now airborne, Cramer put Miss Macao into a wide, shallow right turn, rolling her onto the Hong Kong heading. Soon the ramshackle buildings of the Chung San area of old Macao gave place to the muddy waters of the Pearl River estuary. As McDuff unfastened his seat belt to climb the engineer’s tower and raise the wing floats Tok and Cheong sprang to their feet. With his menacing gun backing his words Tok demanded that Cramer surrender the controls, but the skipper refused!

     

    As suspense froze the dumbfounded passengers, Choi moved forward from the centre compartment with his gun drawn. As he ordered the passengers to the starboard side someone intervened. In the confusion McDuff saw an opportunity, grabbing the flagpole and striking Cheong with it. In alarm Cheong cannoned into Tok who pressed his gun’s trigger. The bullet took Cramer in the base of the skull. The roar of the gun was the panic signal for all three pirates to fire. Within seconds all 18 bullets were expended, and yet their terrified fingers kept clicking on empty magazines. The skipper’s lifeless body slumped over the controls and nosed the Miss Macao into a gut-wrenching dive.

     

    Within a few heartbeats the plane was dashed to fragments as she struck the sullen swell below.

     

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    The tail, emblazoned with the Union Jack, protruded for a brief moment before the muddy maw of the Pearl River estuary swallowed it.

     

    The lone survivor, Wong Yu was sucked out through the port blister and instinctively reached for a seat cushion bobbing nearby. Some time later a Macao motorised fishing junk owned by Fung Man Yau, bundled him aboard. He was admitted to Macao’s St Januario Hospital and treated for severe shock and a fractured leg.

    Continued ...



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