By Mr Stuart Braga
One of the world’s first hijackings of a commercial flight occurred on 16 July 1948 with the attempted take-over of a Cathay Pacific Catalina en route from Macau to Hong Kong. The attempted hijack went badly and the aircraft, named ‘Miss Macao’, crashed into the Pearl River estuary with only one survivor, Wong Yu, who was one of the hijackers.
VR-DHA, Cathay Pacific’s DC-3, under repair at the Macau racecourse, 1947
What gave the hijackers their opportunity was that Portugal was not a signatory to the Bretton Woods agreement. This was an international monetary arrangement, agreed upon by all 44 Allied nations in 1944 at the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, USA. It created the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and set up a system of fixed exchange rates with the US dollar as the international reserve currency. It also placed an embargo on the movement of gold and silver bullion. Portugal, a neutral country in World War II and thus not a signatory to the agreement, was not subject to the embargo. The absence of these controls in the Portuguese territory of Macau meant that it quickly became an important gold trading centre. It was the premier unregulated melting pot of East Asia in the wheeling and dealing in the precious metal. Air transport, high above any eager criminals, came to be seen as a safer option than sea transport for moving gold.
This opportunity brought a new player into a risky game. Soon after Hong Kong returned to civilian rule in May 1946, a new airline, Cathay Pacific Airway, was established on 24 September 1946. It acquired seven ex-military DC-3 aircraft, one of which, VR-DHA attempted to inaugurate the airline’s shortest hop between Hong Kong and Macau. However, in February 1947 it crash-landed on the racecourse, the only piece of open ground available, in front of a packed grandstand of VIPs brought together to celebrate the occasion, after clipping its undercarriage on the sea wall. Not for many more years would Macau possess a safe landing strip.
The aircraft was out of commission for several months, and the incident highlighted the unsuitability of the landing ground. The day after the crash, Roy Farrell, one of Cathay Pacific’s founders, dashed off to the Philippines to buy two war surplus amphibious Catalinas from the U.S. Government Liquidation Commission to fly on the gold contract. Cathay Pacific set up a subsidiary, the Macau Air Transport Company, to fly its Catalina aircraft between Macau and Hong Kong. This service continued until October 1961. The Catalina was the ideal aircraft for operations between Macau and Hong Kong as both had suitable harbours for flying boat operations and the amphibious Catalinas could land at Kai Tak in Hong Kong.
One of the ‘Cats’ was numbered VR-HDT and was given the name ‘Miss Macao’. It had logged less than 1,000 hours of operations in its military service and was in good condition. It soon became famous for all the wrong reasons. On 16 July 1948, four gangsters boarded ‘Miss Macao’ for the flight to Hong Kong, which took off at about 6.00 p.m. There was ample daylight left, as sunset that day was at 7.10 p.m. The short flight was known locally as the One Cigarette Hop, this being the time taken to smoke a cigarette.
The leader of the ‘air pirates’ as they became known, Choi Tok, had been studying Cathay routine for months and had learned to fly Catalinas in Manila. He was accompanied by two clansmen from his village. These three carried pistols. The fourth member of the gang was Wong Yu, a rice farmer, who had local knowledge of the remote coastal location to which they planned to fly the Catalina. Here it would be beached and plundered. The gang expected that there would be gold bullion carried on the flight.
The pilot in command was Captain Dale Cramer, a former US Navy pilot who had served in Patrol Squadron 45 during the war and had left the Navy in 1947. His co-pilot was Flying Officer Ken McDuff, a 23-year-old Australian. There was one other crew member, Flight Hostess Delca Da Costa, a 21-year-old Macanese. Seven or eight minutes after take-off from Macau, F/O McDuff left the cockpit to attend to retraction of the wing floats. This was necessary to enable landing on the runway in Hong Kong. The hijackers made their move and at pistol point attempted to take control. A scuffle broke out and McDuff attacked one of the hijackers with a mooring flag. Choi ordered Cramer to relinquish the controls of the aircraft. Their plan instantly failed when Cramer refused to comply, and Choi shot him in the head.
Catalina VR-HDT, possibly at Kai Tak Airfield, Hong Kong
As the pilot’s body slumped over the steering column, the aircraft, out of control, spiralled into the Pearl River estuary, about six miles north-east of Macau. The remaining crew members, Ken McDuff and Delca da Costa (who were engaged to be married) were killed and 23 of the 24 passengers on board also died. Wong Yu was not armed and took no part in the hijack, remaining belted in his seat. This is probably why he survived the crash. A fisherman in his nearby junk who saw the crash rescued Wong, the only survivor he could find. He took Wong, suffering a broken leg, to a hospital in Macau, where he refused to cooperate with investigators.
A recording device was concealed near his hospital bed. In addition, police officers disguised as patients were placed in neighbouring beds, and from time to time elderly ‘relatives’ came to sit by them and hold their hands. In time Wong told all he knew, and from his confession and from the Al Capone-style clothing of his three confederates, the Macau police were able to round up six or seven other Macau Chinese for questioning.
They were taken into custody, but the authorities had difficulty with the legal aspects of charging Wong Yu for an act of piracy on a British registered aircraft in international airspace. Legislation had yet to catch up with the new phenomenon of hijacking. They suggested that he be handed over to the Hong Kong government, but the Hong Kong authorities doubted that there was enough evidence to bring him to trial. After being held in custody for three years Wong was released without charge and returned to his mainland village. He was never heard of again. One story has it that soon afterwards he was struck and killed by flying debris during a typhoon. He would not have been the first or the last person in China to disappear in mysterious circumstances.
Luís Augusto de Matos Paletti, the Macau Police Commissioner, revealed that four millionaires went to their deaths on ‘Miss Macao’. The wife of one told Paletti that her husband was carrying HK$500,000 when he boarded the plane. Was there any gold aboard ‘Miss Macao’? The wreckage was soon recovered from the shallow waters of the Pearl River, but published accounts of the incident do not mention the recovery of any gold. If there was any, that too mysteriously disappeared.
The end of ‘Miss Macao’ also marked the end of Cathay Pacific’s gold-running flights. They were not illegal but were certainly not ethical from the British perspective. Cathay Pacific had already been in discussions with the big British firm of Butterfield and Swire which acquired a majority shareholding a few weeks earlier. Its chairman, Charles Roberts, became chairman of Cathay Pacific and decided that the Macau gold run did not sit well with the firm’s reputation. “We do not feel disposed to have our name associated with the trade”, wrote Roberts. “We would not like any such smell attached to us”. He had already during the war as an internee at Stanley Camp become respected for his tactful dealing with many difficulties.
That decision ended the likelihood of any more hijackings of aircraft flying from Macau, but the world would experience many horrors much worse than this one, culminating 53 years later in the terrible events of 11 September 2001.