Cathay Pacific celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2021. At the time of celebration, it was suffering from the crippling slowdown in aviation, with a large part of its fleet still grounded. Despite this, it has seen impressive growth over those 75 years. Even more so when you consider that it was started back in 1946 with just one DC-3 aircraft.
Starting service in 1946
Cathay Pacific was founded in 1946 by two airmen, Roy Farrell and Sydney de Kantzow. They were both ex-military pilots who had flown supply routes from India to China during the war. Their main goal with the new airline was to fly much-needed goods from Australia into post-war China.
Its first aircraft, operating these routes from Sydney to China and Hong Kong, was a Douglas DC-3, with registration VR-HDB. This was not a new aircraft. It has already carried out cargo operations during the Second World War. The aircraft was known from the start as Betsy.
The airline, and the aircraft, first started operation in Shanghai. Besty started service in January 1946, flying freight services from Sydney to Shanghai. After facing problems with the Chinese authorities, Farrell and de Kantzow re-located the business to Hong Kong and registered a new airline as Cathay Pacific Airways Limited. Service began in September 1946.
DC-3 service and routes
Betsy then began operating Syndey to Hong Kong flights. She operated cargo flights to start with, but (along with other DC-3s) was later converted for passenger use. She was only alone in the fleet for a few months, with two further DC-3 joining the airline by the end of 1946 (with registrations VR-HDA and VR-HDJ). The second aircraft added was nicknamed Niki.
A former flight attendant on the DC-3 recalls her experiences beautifully in an interview with Cathay Pacific in 2017. She describes how the flights were rough, and service was limited to sandwiches and items stored in thermos flasks. She explains:
“It was often a balancing act to ensure you didn’t spill food or hot coffee into passengers’ laps. ‘There were no straps to hold onto.’ Cabins were loud, and the ride wasn’t as smooth as today’s Airbus A350s.”
Adding more aircraft
In its early years, the airline stayed true to its name. ‘Cathay’ is an old foreign name for China, and ‘Pacific’ was added based on Farrell and de Kantzow’s vision of flying services across the Pacific. Early DC-3 routes included Sydney, Manila, Singapore, Shanghai, Saigon, and Kota Kinabalu. The initial DC-3s had served it well, and by the end of 1949, it operated six DC-3. This is according to data obtained from AeroTransport Data Bank ().
Cathay Pacific expanded the fleet further over the following years. It added the DC-4 in 1949 and the DC-6 in 1958. It diversified from Douglas and added the Lockheed Electra in 1959. And it entered the jet age in 1962 with the Convair 880, followed by the Boeing 707 in 1971.
Betsy left the fleet in August 1955, sold to Ansett Australia. She was not the last DC-3 to leave the airline, however. VR-HDA remained in service until 1961.
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Returned to Hong Kong
After retirement in 1955, Betsy was sold and ended up flying as a cargo aircraft in Australia. Keen to revive its heritage, Cathay Pacific repurchased the aircraft in 1985. Sadly, she is no longer operational, but Cathay Pacific has restored her to how she would have originally appeared. She is on display at the Hong Kong Science Museum.
Keeping the name going
It’s not just the restored aircraft on display that keeps the memory of this first aircraft alive. Anyone flying Cathay Pacific in recent years may remember seeing Betsy beer on the menu. According to the airline, the pale ale is a homage to the effort and dedication that went into building the DC-3.
Have you seen Besty on display in Hong Kong? Can you add any more details about her historic service with Cathay Pacific? Let us know in the comments.