For the past three years, this column has looked back at the people, places and planes that have shaped Cathay Pacific over 72 years of flying from Hong Kong.
It owes a huge debt of gratitude to Gavin Young’s engaging history of Cathay Pacific, Beyond Lion Rock. The book charts the airline’s humble beginnings as a post-Second World War freight service started by two ex-military pilots to supply the Chinese mainland, and follows its progress to the 1980s, when the airline was established as one of the world’s best, forging long-haul routes with huge, modern aircraft. In these rollercoaster 40 years, the planes went from two ex-military Douglas DC-3 Dakotas to a fleet of Boeing 747s. It’s a brilliantly told story with the voices of those involved throughout.
But Young’s Cathay odyssey ended just as the regional airline was growing into a global carrier, in tandem with its regional base’s expansion into a global hub. The idea of relocating Hong Kong’s compact, congested inner-city airport at Kai Tak had long been mooted, and in July 1998, the new Hong Kong International Airport opened at Chek Lap Kok off Lantau Island.
Shuttering the airline’s operations late one night to start again a few hours later 30 kilometres away was a mammoth task. The priority was to ensure planes, people and the equipment needed to service them were in place for the morning’s first flight.
Unfortunately for those whose job it is to chronicle the airline’s history, such moves are a great opportunity for a clear-out. There was less focus on retaining the magazines, meeting minutes and documents that would have been the ideal feedstock to update the airline’s history post-Beyond Lion Rock.
So the second debt of gratitude is to Matthew Edmondson and the team at the Swire Archive in Hong Kong, who are doing an astonishing job of rebuilding the airline’s past through generous contributions of mementos from current and former staff, trawling through eBay and even lucky finds in the city’s skips.
From next month, this column starts its own new chapter, looking behind the scenes at the people, processes and planes of the current and future Cathay Pacific. Watch this space.