First Through Flight Hong Kong-London 1936

Mon, 08/03/2020 - 00:40

Pixie Smith showed an early interest in postage stamps when she sent letters to her mother in Cheltenham

Imperial Airways started the first regular through flights between Hong Kong and London via Penang in March 1936. The service changed in 1937, operating instead via Bangkok. The first inbound mail carried by RMA Dorado was dated 14th March in London and delivered in Hong Kong on 24th March.

Date picture taken
27 Mar 1936


Extract from The Far Eastern Review June 1936:

Royal Mail Aircraft  "Dorado" in the Hangar at Kai Tak Airport March 1936
Royal Mail Aircraft "Dorado" in the Hangar at Kai Tak Airport March 1936 ( Chinarail scan from The Far Eastern Review June. 1936)

" The Far Eastern Review" of June 1936 recorded in great detail the introduction of these first airmail services between London and Hong Kong .  Headlined " The New Penang-Hongkong Air RouteGreat Four-Engined Airliner "Dorado" of the Imperial Airways Makes the Initial Flight ". The three-page article begins: 

Of immense importance through all the Far East is the opening of the new Imperial airway linking Hongkong and Penang and this service was definitely established when the great four-engined airliner, "Dorado," of the Imperial Airways made the initial flight from Penang to Hongkong and back in the last week of March. This speeds up transport and mails from all points in the Far East - to London, to Australia, to Africa and to Europe. The scheduled flying time from Hongkong to London since the establishment of the new Penang air route is ten days.

Map Showing First Far- Eastern Air Routes to Hong Kong
Map Showing First Far- Eastern Air Routes to Hong Kong, ( Chinarail scan from The Far Eastern Review June. 1936)

The arrival at Hongkong of the "Dorado " on its first flight from Penang on the morning of March 24, was a historic event and those arriving aboard the airliner were greeted at the Kai Tak aerodrome by a large throng that included His Excellency the Governor, Sir Andrew Caldecott ; Harbor Master and Director of Air Services, Commander G. F. Hole ; Superintendent of Kai Tak Airport Mr. Eric Nelson, and Mr. M. H. Curtis, Representative in Hongkong of the Imperial Airways.

The flight crew of Imperial Airways aircraft "Dorado" with the Governor
The flight crew of Imperial Airways aircraft "Dorado" with the Governor , ( Chinarail scan from The Far Eastern Review June. 1936)

The great craft on this flight was piloted by Captain J. H. Lock and its Second Pilot, Mr. A. C. Thomas, both veterans in the service of the Imperial Airways and an escort into the Airport was provided by a fleet of six Royal Air Force airplanes from the Aircraft Carrier Hermes in Hongkong Harbor. One passenger, the first to make the flight from Penang to Hongkong and return was Mr. Ong Ee Lim, Chinese flying enthusiast of Kuala Lumpur. On its arrival at Hongkong the "Dorado" delivered sixteen bags, 103 pounds of mail. Fourteen of the sixteen bags were from London, and one each from Singapore and Penang. The London mail, dated March 14, was delivered at 2 o'clock that afternoon. An informative and interesting description of the flight to Hongkong from Penang was given in a radio broadcast by Captain Lock at Hongkong and this, was published by The Times of Malaya.

The entire transit between Hong Kong and London took ten days. This time table shows how the once-weekly service was to operate in each direction  on the  England-Australia  through service:

Hongkong-Penang Route Time Table  with London Connections - 1936
Hongkong-Penang Route Time Table with London Connections - 1936,  (Chinarail scan from The Far Eastern Review June. 1936)



The DH 86 aircraft was rushed into production in four months from first flight to airline service to meet an airmail tender. It was an enlarged DH Dragon Rapide and was obsolete when built as it was an under powered wood and canvas design competing with the Douglas DC3 which was all metal and had more than twice the horsepower.

The DH 86 was a throughly dangerous aircraft; Lightly built, it  was very sensitive to weight changes and had poor longitudinal stability. There were numerous crashes. An investigation report was suppressed for forty years.

@"rushed into production ...." enlarged " ( former model ) .... a throughly dangerous aircraft; .........and had poor longitudinal stability. There were numerous crashes. An investigation report was suppressed for forty years

This is beginning to sound something like a more recent story, except this time the manufacturer hasn't gotten away with suppressing the reports of crashes . 

I am certainly not going to get on a plane which won't fly straight and level without a computer constantly having to "correct" and override  the natural instincts of a long-experienced pilot.  

The DH86 Express was designed and built in 1933 to the requirements of the Australian airline QANTAS for its requirement for an aircraft capable of carrying primarily mail, and passengers as a secondary necessity, between Singapore and its Australian terminals. Its first flight was in January 1934. Britain’s Imperial Airways route network was on the point of reaching Singapore. This airline and QANTAS were to share services to and from Australia.

The first aircraft for QANTAS was delivered successfully. As with many new aircraft designs, problems were revealed during their initial years of service and modified out. The post-war DH Comet 1 & Avro Tudor, and later the BAC 11, DH Trident & VC10 with their “deep-tail- stall” issues come to mind.

Sixty DH86 in three versions were built, far more than many “post-war airliner designs,” and used around the world. Even the venerable Boeing B707 had to be modified for use by BOAC before certification by the British aviation authorities. These aircraft can be identified by a substantial fin on the underside of the rear fuselage.

In the 1930s, Imperial Airways (the predecessor of BOAC and the present-day British Airways) was expanding its route network in an endeavour to link the major parts of the “British Empire.” For the long-distance “Trunk” routes it only purchased aircraft with four-engines for safety, and widely advertised this fact.

The four-engined DH86 was used by several airlines in the UK with routes throughout Europe with safety records comparable with other passenger carrying aircraft of the period. It was also exported around the world.

Imperial Airways selected the DH86 for its ‘Feeder’ routes connecting to its England-Australia and African “Trunk” lines. These were Penang to Hong Kong via Indochina and Khartoum to Accra, Nigeria.

From October 1935 through to March 1936 regular survey flights on the Hong Kong connection were conducted with no mail or passengers carried. After the creation of Imperial Airways (Far East) Ltd. in March 1936, mail and the occasional passengers were carried on a weekly service, the primary purpose of the flights was the carriage of subsidised bulk-airmail. Passengers were carried only when mail-weight loadings allowed.  

The recent image postings on gwulo of the arrival of a DH 86 at Kai Tak are somewhat of a misnomer as this aircraft had already been operating on the survey flights for the previous six-months to Kai Tak airport with Captain Armstrong in command. Captain John Lock took over the weekly flights thereafter.

The DH86 design was derived from the small DH84 Dragon twin-engine airliner, not the later DH 89 Dragon Rapide.

The comparison with the all-metal DC3 is another misnomer as this aircraft was not cleared for airline service in the USA until May 1936, after the Hong Kong services had commenced. It again had initial teething problems and was derived from the earlier DC1 and DC2 models. The DC3/C47s subsequent life was greatly aided by being selected as a primary military transport during WW11.

DC3s did not appear at Kai Tak until late 1941 by virtue of their use by CNAC (the China National Aviation Corporation).

With the incursion of the Japanese into Indo-China, the Imperial Airways route was severed in 1940 and the several DH 86s attached to it were withdrawn to Egypt to become Royal Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force communications and ambulance aircraft aiding  the war-effort.

The last DH86 survived in British hands with the Hampshire Aeroplane Club until 1958 when with a damaged undercarriage at Madrid airport, Spain it was scrapped.

The type had a relatively long life overtaken by advances in metal aircraft technology. De Havilland persisted with wood technology with the design and construction on the elegant but fragile DH91 Albatross 4-engine airliner, and the formidable WW11 DH Mosquito twin-engine fighter-bomber. As with many aircraft designs the DH86 had its problems but was never officially grounded by its principal users.

Like the Boeing B737 ‘Max’, even these days well-proven motors cars from major well-known manufacturers are often recalled back in their tens of thousands to rectify serious safety issues arising during service, despite considerable pre-sales testing.

As an aside, Imperial Airways never serviced Hong Kong with the promised ‘Empire’ flying boats despite what their pre-war advertising and colourful posters might infer. DH 86s maintained the Hong Kong services from the start until they ceased. Even British Airways Archives website shows a picture showing a flying boat arrival in Hong Kong claiming it to be pre-war Imperial Airways one, however the image shows the Japanese War memorial as a prominent feature on the far ridgeline.