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Then & now: skies were the limit

Post-war Hong Kong was a magnet for aviation entrepreneurs with a big appetite for risk, writes Jason Wordie

 

After 1945, the post-war world dissolved into the broader chaos of peace, as conflicting right- and left-wing ideologies reared their equally ugly heads across Asia into the cold-war era. As ever during periods of international transition, excellent business opportunities existed for those prepared to take risks. And as Hong Kong has always provided plenty of scope for talented chancers, many entrepreneurs headquartered themselves here.

Rapid technological advances have, historically, been a direct outgrowth of prolonged periods of conflict. Nineteenth-century medical improvements, to cite one example, accelerated during the Crimean war and the American civil war, and expanded enormously during the first world war. And so it was with air transport and radio communications technology during and after the second world war.

The end of the Pacific war brought significant numbers of reliable, workhorse aircraft, mostly United States Air Force Dakotas, onto the open market while large numbers of well-trained ex-military pilots with years of experience in desperate, seat-of-the-pants operations were in search of employment. These (mostly) young men had been, to varying degrees, traumatised by their war experiences and found adapting to post-war life very difficult.

Many, it must be said, were in search of ongoing excitement. For many veterans, the war was a period of great personal stimulation and camaraderie that peacetime simply could not equal; and on some deep level the anarchy of warfare was desperately missed. Danger-induced adrenalin rushes had become an addiction.

For those who didn't want to go back to a "home" that their wartime experiences had alienated them from, or who had formed attachments overseas of one form or another, Asia and its upheavals offered tempting prospects.

The late 1940s saw dozens of small regional "airlines" commence operations, and many were headquartered in, or flew through, Hong Kong. Local commercial directories from this period provide interesting clues as to their routes and operations. Some carried passengers but most transported freight, wherever it was needed or wanted, to whoever paid the most.

And what did these "airlines" move? Pharmaceuticals were a major item: penicillin and other wartime "wonder drugs" became vitally important in other, low-level conflicts. Gold bullion - which could be purchased legally in Macau in those years - was moved from place to place as political turmoil caused Asian currencies to fluctuate wildly.

Strategic materials, including various kinds of (mostly weapons-grade) rare earths and processed rubber, also found ready markets. Freight charges were consistent with the level of risk run by pilots, especially when the Dutch East Indies melted politically into what became Indonesia and central government control in Burma collapsed after independence, in 1948.

Most notably, the mainland offered fantastic short-range air-cargo business opportunities as the civil war heated up from 1946 onwards. By 1948 communist assumption of power had become - to any astute observer - a matter of when, rather than if. And as the country imploded through-out 1949, desperate people were transported for a fee. Political and economic refugee movements were partly facilitated by private air charters, which were used by the Nationalists to ferry officials and their families around China, and eventually on to Taiwan, during their government's last chaotic months.

 

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Then & now: skies were the limit

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