Web-footed aeroplanes in Hong Kong And Macao
From IDJ, with many thanks to Yannis Baritakis, on Syros Island, Greece, for adapting IDJ’s original word document including images for inclusion on our website.
Flights using seaplanes and float-planes between Hong Kong and Macao were not entirely unknown after de Ricou’s Macao Aerial Transport Company in the 1920s failed to continue with the project due to interference and indifference by the Macao and Hong Kong governments. Hong Kong resident, American aviator and showman Harry Abbott (Crazy Harry), had similar plans to create an airline based in Hong Kong using very large twin-engine Curtiss flying boats acquired from the Philippine government and lying at Manila. One arrived in Hong Kong in April 1925. He envisaged flights serving the region as had de Ricou, but financial issues defeated him. Hong Kong-Canton Airways declared plans for a network of routes based on Hong Kong using de Havilland ‘Giant Moths’ utilising floats and wheeled under- carriages. However, the partners in China failed to provide their share of the investment and so another project failed to get off the ground.
Interestingly, in 1930 Hong Kong’s first Flying Club was initially known as the ‘Seaplane Club’, used float-planes to teach its members to fly. This must have been quite difficult and daunting for the trainees’ due to the high elevation of the cockpit above the baseline of the floats. Kai Tak was not yet a viable airfield for learning to fly from at this time, forcing pupils to train on water. These aircraft were soon wrecked beyond repair. When training resumed it was on conventional aircraft with wheels on the undercarriage.
Meanwhile, Royal Navy ships of ‘The China Squadron’ were arriving in Hong Kong carrying various types of float-planes primarily to be used for aerial scouting and pirate deterrent duties. As Portugal had similar aircraft based in Macao, the pilot-officers naturally visited each other by air and socialised.
Lady Clementi, the wife of Hong Kong’s governor was photographed by the SCMP leaving a Portuguese Navy (Macao Naval Air Service) Fairey 111D after a flight from Macao to Kai Tak with her son on 21 March 1928. Her husband, as Governor had been a supporter of de Ricou and taken his first flight in one of de Ricou’s aircraft at an ‘Air Day’ at Repulse Bay.
All remained quiet in Macao which suited the enclave well, until Pan American Airways and its trans-Pacific Clipper flying boats burst onto the scene. Pan American’s Chairman Juan Trippe was a revolutionary visionary in the airline world. He had pioneered routes and services from the USA down to the Caribbean and South America, but was thwarted from flying to Europe across the Atlantic by the UK’s government’s opposition relating to reciprocal traffic rights for its own Imperial Airways which had no aircraft capable of flying across the Atlantic Ocean. Trippe then looked West to take on the challenge of crossing the Pacific commercially carrying government subsidised air mail and small parcels, the goal being China with Shanghai as the airline’s intended terminus.
To this end, Trippe commissioned the building of a series of modern metal flying boats from the Sikorsky, Martin and Boeing aircraft companies capable of flying very long distances. Included was the project was the construction on remote island bases of hotels to use as stepping stones across the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean. Pioneering over-ocean navigation techniques and weather forecasting had to be developed by his staff. Meanwhile, in order to gain a foothold in China, in 1933, Pan American bought into the China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC) and developed a sea-plane route between Shanghai and Canton as a feeder service intended to link with the transpacific Clippers at Canton. The British government was refusing permission for Pan American and CNAC to service Hong Kong as there was no British airline operating services to the Colony at that time. Canton was found to be operationally very difficult for CNAC’s seaplane services due to the uncontrolled, congested landing areas available on the river.
Trippe then turned to Macao. Its ruling Portuguese government in Lisbon fairly quickly authorised the necessary permissions for the airline to operate in the enclave. Pan American staff immediately moved in to build and establish terminal buildings and a radio and direction-finding station.
With great fanfare Pan American overcame its hurdles and its aircraft started crossing the Pacific on survey flights to Manila, initially only carrying mail and small freight. Then came the great day on 23 October1936 when Juan Trippe, his wife and members of Pan American’s Board of Directors arrived at Macao in the airline’s latest aircraft, the ‘giant’ Martin M130’ Philippine Clipper.
Macao’s population celebrated with large crowds and festivities to greet its arrival. Later in the day the Clipper departed for the short flight to Hong Kong to be met by the Governor Sir Andrew Caldecott. Trippe and some of his party then left the Clipper’s passenger group so the aircraft could return to Manila and the USA, while they boarded a CNAC seaplane heading for Shanghai where Trippe inspected his CNAC interests. After which, Mr & Mrs Trippe returned to Hong Kong and travelled to Europe, initially by Imperial Airways, who had recently commenced scheduled services with DH86 land-planes between Penang and Hong Kong. After Trippe’s visit to Hong Kong, permission was granted for both Pan American Airways and CNAC to operate scheduled services to and from the Colony.
Macao’s importance as a terminus quickly diminished, despite the infrastructure investment and facilities Pan American had put in there. Pan American’s Manila-Hong Kong shuttle services very often bypassed Macao as sufficient passenger, mail & freight traffic was not available to warrant landing there. The airline’s company personnel based in Macao travelling on business were the main beneficiaries of any flights. Local traffic would have been nil and too expensive to contemplate when compared with ferry fares. Often at their own discretion, pilot’s chose not to call at Macao in either direction. As late as 1940, Macao was shown as a port of call in published timetables, but with no flights listed. Presumably it was regarded as a “Request Stop.”
Pan American continued to operate the Manila-Hong Kong shuttle until 8 December 1941 when the Sikorsky S42 Hong Kong Clipper11 christened ‘Myrtle’ by its crews was destroyed by Japanese aerial gunfire and bombing. Pan American’s flying boat services did not resume after WW11 as land-based airliners could now fly similar distances using the many airfields created during the war.
Prior to the outbreak of WW11, the Royal Air Force had flown multi-engine Supermarine Singapore and Southampton flying boats to Hong Kong from the UK’s primary Far Eastern base in Singapore on ‘flag flying’ missions, but none were based in the Colony.
While Britain’s Imperial Airways had intended to service Hong Kong with its ‘Empire’ flying boats. This was not achieved due to more important calls on the few ‘Empire’ flying boats that had been built. But, one did arrive, ‘Cleopatra,’ on 4 April 1941 on a secret military mission from Singapore with Air Chief Marshall Sir Robert Brooke-Popham and his staff to discuss Hong Kong’s military preparedness. Their flight avoided Japanese held territories by routing via Borneo and the Philippines.
After the war was over, Royal Air Force Sunderland flying boats from Singapore operated frequent mail, military freight, personnel, courier services through to Japan. Eventually a Sunderland squadron was based in Hong Kong where maintenance and servicing was carried out. Imperial Airways became BOAC at the outbreak of WW11 and did not resume services from the UK until 1946 with a weekly and leisurely 7-day journey by flying boat from Poole harbour, Dorset, in the south of England. The journey was soon reduced to 5 days with overnight stops. BOAC’s flying boat services to the Far East finished in August 1949 with the introduction of Canadair Argonaut land-based airliners flying to Heathrow airport. London.
IIII IIiIn Hong Kong, the founders of Cathay Pacific Airways were eyeing up a Hong Kong-Macao service and requested the respective governments permissions to operate it. Using C47 Dakota landplanes onto the only flat open area available in Macao, the racecourse. The inaugural flight was duly set up, but arrival at Macao was not as expected withs the Dakota’s undercarriage clipping the seawall and the aircraft belly landing in front of the assembled VIPs. Sliding to a stop alongside the red carpet. Roy Farrell one of Cathy’s founders immediately set off to the Philippines to acquire two war-surplus Catalina amphibious aircraft that could land on the water in Macao’s harbour and on land at Kai Tak. Under the Macao Air Transport co (MATCO) banner and that of Cathy Pacific they operated regular services including the ‘Gold Run’ through to the late 1950s. The last MATCO Catalina flight was in 1961. Services resumed in 1961 with a new investor and aircraft type as described in an earlier title ‘The One Cigarette Airline’ posted on this website.
Meanwhile in the early post-war years, war-surplus light aircraft became available and were cheap to buy. Two that arrived in Hong Kong, a Stinson and a Piper Cub were converted to float -planes for private use. In addition, a modern Republic Seabee amphibian arrived in Hong Kong. Its owner’s declared intent was to use it to tour around China using the country’s lakes and rivers. Alas, the change in regime in China after 1949 blocked this aim and the Seabee was sold for use in the Philippines. In addition, the Far East Flying Training School acquired an ex-military Vickers-Armstrong/Supermarine Sea Otter amphibian to start among other duties an “Air-Sea Rescue Service.” But nothing progressed on this idea and the aircraft was sold to the Philippines reputably to be used for ‘fresh fish hauling’ to markets.
Throughout the 1950s, RAF Sunderland and US Navy Martin Mariner flying boats were a common sight moored in the waters off Kai Tak’s seawall. Catalina amphibians of various operators continued to arrive from around the Far East for maintenance by HAECO.
With the withdrawal of the Piaggio amphibian operated by Macao Air Transport Co (Hong Kong) Ltd in January 1965, water-borne air transport effectively ceased in Hong Kong.
A modern flying boat/amphibian appeared in Hong Kong as late November 1974 when a Canadair CL215 fire-fighting water bomber was demonstrated in the New Territories.
Attempts have been made to re-introduce float-plane passenger flights to Hong Kong in the 2000s, but these appear to have come to nought.
- Wings over Hong Kong – Pacific Century Publishing
- Hong Kong High-Odyssey Publishing
- Archives of the Hong Kong Historical Aircraft Association (HKHAA)
- Syd’s Last Pirate – Captain Charles Eather References
This article was first posted on 16th January 2020.
Related Indhhk articles:
- Macau Air Transport Company (Hong Kong) Ltd – The One Cigarette Airline
- The Macau Aerial Transport Company – first commercial airline company to be established in Hong Kong or Macau
- Charles de Ricou – founder of The Macau Aerial Transport Company – biography
- Imperial Airways – including first scheduled flight into Hong Kong 1936
- First Air Mails from Hong Kong by the Imperial Airways Service
- The Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Company Ltd (HAECO) photographs