Erik Blyth NELSON [1907-1997]

Submitted by moddsey on Sat, 08/27/2022 - 15:05
Erik Blyth
Birthplace (town, state)
Birthplace (country)
United Kingdom
Died in (town, state)
Oxford, Maryland
Died in (country)
United States
Cause of death
Cancer and heart disease

Appointed Assistant Superintendent of the Civil Aerodrome on 1 May 1934.

Left Hong Kong on leave in 1938.

Photos that show this Person



Kai Tak Airports' first manager-Erik Nelson

Erik Nelson returned to Hong Kong and Kai Tak airport during 1986 for the first time since his departure on leave and war service in 1938. The occasion was the airports’ 50th anniversary celebrations of scheduled passenger services. Mr Nelson was 79 years old when interviewed on the occasion for Hong Kong’s Sunday Morning Post, March 23, 1986, edition. Various photographs of him in Hong Kong accompany the article.

“No one really knew when the next plane was coming in until we got news from Saigon. Flying was problematical until we found out about the weather.” he said. “We didn’t have voice communication with the planes, Only Morse Code which at times was not too clear. It sometimes happened that we got the message only after a plane had arrived.”

“I remember working out a weather report and tapping out to the pilot what the weather was like before they came in. I remember going into the radio room to send it and looking out at the aircraft as it arrived.”

The first scheduled airliner to service Hong Kong was called the Dorado, a DH86 Express airliner of Imperial Airways arriving from Penang. The price of a passenger ticket was £30 from Penang and £175 from London. But Mr Nelson said “Not many passengers came or went to London by plane in those days. One or two of the general public occasionally came out. Long distance aviation was pretty primitive. People were used to long weeks voyaging by P&O liner or sailing down from Shanghai.”

“There were several officials meeting the Dorado, Postmaster General Mr Butters was in the welcoming party. I was representing the Government because I ran the airport. I suppose there were quite a few present. I remember the head of the technical school was there, Flight Lieut. Vere Harvey, now Lord Harvey of Prestby, living in Guernsey. He was Member of Parliament for Macclesfield for a long time. But he had been a pilot and started up the school (The Far East Flying Training School).”

Mr Nelson described conditions at Kai Tak at the time, “as primitive.” Initially large landplanes were rare. Later airlines would use flying boats (Pan American & CNAC) on their occasional irregular visits to Hong Kong.”

The civil airfield near Kowloon City was being built at the time and we were operating out of a couple of rooms courtesy of the Fleet Air Arm. We had the edge of the airport where the water came up to the slipways for flying boats—where the airliner parking areas are now. The main runway was water for the flying boats, which has now been filled in and turned into a concrete runway. There was no proper land runway only a gravel and sand track with a little grass on it. In it were three nullahs – ditches for drainage and we had them covered with concrete. That gave about 1.500 feet of landing space.”

Erik Nelson first came to Hong Kong in May 1934 and taking over from the original manager, Mr A. J. R. Moss who had no technical qualifications. Nelson learned to fly at the famous Brooklands motor racing circuit in Surrey and got a job as a demonstration pilot for aircraft manufacturer A, V. Roe before returning to Brooklands as chief flying instructor.

He said “I applied for the job out of pure bravado. I was an aeronautical at engineer at Brooklands, and in December 1933 I saw an advert asking for an assistant superintendent at Hong Kong Airport. “I knew of only one man who had all the qualifications they wanted. But anyway, I applied for it, but heard nothing because they obviously interviewed the other guy. But when he turned it down. I was interviewed and sent for by the Colonial Office in March 1934. I went to No.11 Downing Street in London and was ushered into an enormous room with a long oak table at one end. I was asked some funny questions by a lot of old gentlemen when one fellow with a beard said to me “do you ‘Hunt’?” I did not quite understand what he was getting at, but in a flash realised that he wanted to know if I was a gentleman or something. So very depreciatingly I said I had been too busy, but my father was secretary of the North Worcestershire Foxhounds. So, I got the job.”

Mr Nelson later became secretary at the Hunt at Fanling in Hong Kong and so justified the faith that the old gentleman at the interview found in him. That man turned out to be Commander G. F. Hole, Harbour Master and Director of Air Services, affectionately known as the “Hon Aperture.”

When Mr Nelson arrived in Hong Kong, he found he was basically expected to run the airport single-handed. “I found myself being pretty well airport manager, control tower operator, weather reporter and assistant to the Customs” he said. “I used to examine the pilots and engineers at the Far East Flying Training School, and as airport manager issued their certificates and licences.

“There were only about 600,000 people in Hong Kong at this time. It was fairly rural, and I used to play golf on a nearby nine-hole golf course. It was very pleasant living. My salary was £800 a year and I had two motor cars and four domestic servants. Hong Kong was much more colonial. There were little or no political troubles. The main problem was the gradual Japanese incursions across China. In those days our planes would come in over Lyemun Pass, and that gave them the largest area to land in. Or, they could have to come in over Kowloon City.”

Mr Nelson stayed in Hong Kong continuously until he was due his contractual seven months leave with two months travelling time. In 1938, it was a 30-day trip back to the UK by P&O liner as the government had given no thought of flying its civil servants to and fro. Fortuitously, Erik Nelson was offered a trip by Pan American ‘Clipper’ flying boats from Hong Kong, via Manila, to San Francisco. Presumably a result of his close contacts over many years handling the airlines activities at Kai Tak.  

After various adventures while on leave in the USA, and back in war-time UK, Nelson reported for Royal Air Force duties where he became involved in directing the life-line trans-Atlantic air services. Post-War he eventually became President of the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation of Canada. 

 On meeting Kai Tak Airport manager Erik Nelson

Captain Harold Farquhar and Fritz Beiler passed through Hong Kong in September 1935 on a world flight starting in Mexico City where Farquhar was Second Secretary at the British Embassy. It appears their visit to Kai Tak was not very pleasant as described below from his published diary entries. They were flying in an American built enclosed cabin Beechcraft Staggerwing.

A few impressions of British aviation in Hong Kong

When we circled over the airport, we couldn't find the windsock. The civilian head of the airport (this was Erik Nelson at this time) subsequently explained that, although he had received my telegram announcing my arrival at 11:30 a.m. he hadn't taken the trouble to put it up, as "he was used to spare amateurs turning up two or three days late, don't cher know." I replied that I did not know but was fortunate in being able to judge the wind direction from the position of various craft at anchor in the vicinity.

In subsequent conversation I gathered that we had made a very bad landing. "Fetched the ship in with the motor," what we call "rumbled in" in England. Rather bad form, what! Sort of thing the best people in England don't do, don't cher know. After all, one ought to practice dead stick landings-motor might always fail." To my reply the (a) if I had to fly around the world with the idea of my motor stopping, I should never leave the ground, and (b) that I never knew motors ask permission to fail when over an airport. There appeared to be no immediate rejoinder.

Pained surprise and indignation was expressed that I had flown right across, Mexico, the USA, Canada, Alaska, Siberia, Manchuria and China without a "Log-book". Mr. Nelson insisted on taking my Certificate of Airworthiness for Export, and the British Air Ministry's telegram validating it, subsequently handing me back an incorrectly completed logbook, and losing the telegram, the first words of which were "This telegram must be carried on the ship as evidence of validation."

Various leading lights in British civil and military aviation in Hong Kong carefully inspected the aircraft when I wasn't looking or wasn't in the hanger but ostentatiously ignored it when I approached it. A few illuminating comments were made as, "What on earth is that instrument for?"(meaning the engine manifold pressure) and "That Sperry artificial horizon can't be much good-it doesn't function, and in fact is put out of order if you fly upside down!" To judge by this and similarly unintelligent comments I should imagine that this to be the normal attitude and state of mind of colonial British fliers.

I couldn't get any decent maps or information on the next Hong Kong-Hanoi stretch. In desperation I appealed to Far East Aviation-a British concern who train Chinese pilots to fly. After being asked who the devil I was and what the hell I was doing in their hanger, I did receive some help and information.

For the first time since leaving Mexico I had to pay a fee for landing plus two days of hangar fees in a practically empty hangar. Nothing was charged for the well-meaning efforts of an RCA wireless expert to clean up the Lear radio that hasn't functioned since.

An undercurrent of criticism was apparent because I was getting gas (petrol) from (American) Socony-Vacuum instead of (British) Shell petroleum. And because I, a Britisher, was hopping around in an ‘American built aircraft’.

Captain Farquhar's diary notes continue recording a fairly uneventful flight to England. He eventually became Sir Harold Farquhar with a career as a British Ambassador to many counties around the world.

Long-distance fliers Dr Clyde Fenton and the Latvian flier Cukors made similar autobiographical comments about Nelson's attitude.

The BALTIMORE SUN link to Nelson's obit doesn't work at my location. Says it is not valid in this part of the world.

IDJ - Fascinating reading. Thanks for the SCMP article.

The obituary in the Baltimore Sun dated 24 March 1997 is reproduced below:

Erik Blyth Nelson, an aviator who designed airplanes and helped develop trans-Pacific air routes, died of heart failure Thursday at the William Hill Center in Easton. The longtime Oxford resident was 89.

Mr. Nelson's varied career began in the 1920s, when he was a professional motorcycle racer in his native England and ended when he retired as president of Lockheed of Canada in 1970.

He was one of the last of the pre-World War II engineers who designed the aircraft they flew and blazed international air routes in Europe and Asia.

"He was one of the last surviving aviation pioneers in the world," said David R. Owen of Riderwood, a retired Baltimore attorney and former Navy officer, who met Mr. Nelson in the early 1940s in Baltimore.

"He was a wonderful English character who was perhaps the most personable, easy-to-know person that I've ever met. It was no wonder that he quickly got to know everyone in Baltimore," Mr. Owen said.

"He had the soul of an artist and the mind of an engineer," said a son, Christopher Nelson of Annandale, Va.

In 1942, Erik Nelson, a Royal Air Force pilot and expert pilot of Sunderland flying boats, was taken off active duty with a bomber command and sent to Baltimore to establish a VIP seaplane service for British Overseas Airways Corp. at the old Municipal Airport, where Dundalk Marine Terminal now stands.

He often flew British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and other members of Churchill's Cabinet across the Atlantic to wartime meetings in Washington with President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In 1943, he returned to duty as a group captain in the RAF, securing captured airfields in Europe.

After the war, he served as BOAC's operations director until 1950, when he emigrated to the United States. He joined Lockheed Aircraft Corp. as director of East Coast, Canadian, Latin and South American and Caribbean sales operations and later became president of Lockheed of Canada. After he retired, he moved to Oxford.

He was closely involved in the design of the L-1011 airplane, and after the 1979 crash of a jumbo jet in Chicago, he served on a congressional committee that investigated airline safety.

Mr. Nelson was born in Warwick, England, and entered Oxford University to study music. But "he had the wanderlust," said his son. "He was the third son of minor English landed gentry and had to go out and make a living."

For seven years, Mr. Nelson raced motorcycles throughout England until he discovered airplanes. He later studied at Coventry Tech and earned a degree as a licensed practical engineer.

In 1930, he joined the Royal Air Force Reserve, where he became friendly with T. E. Lawrence, the enigmatic "Lawrence of Arabia." They shared an interest in motorcycles and often rode together.

"Lawrence changed his name to Airman Shaw, and one day my father referred to him as Lawrence. He glared and got up from the table. No one was to ever call him that and the two never spoke again," Christopher Nelson said.

In the mid-1930s, Erik Nelson made two significant contacts in the British Secret Intelligence Services. The first was Sir William Stephenson, a Canadian with the code name of "Intrepid," who was director of the spy organization, and the other was Sir Noel Coward, the English actor and playwright with whom he collaborated on several songs.

At the behest of Mr. Stephenson, "during the 1930s, he would fly over Germany and would request permission to land at German air bases in order to use the bathroom," said his son with a laugh. "And then he would do his best bumbling Englishman interpretation, all the while counting and observing the aircraft rTC on the ground."

In 1934, he was sent by the Colonial Office to Hong Kong as an aviation adviser to help design Kai Tak International Airport. While there, he helped Pan American World Airways develop its trans-Pacific routes.

For 24 years until last year, Mr. Nelson wrote a column "On This and That" for the Star Democrat in Easton.

In 1943 in England, he married Jane Dudley Wilson, whom he met in Baltimore. She survives him as does another son, Blyth Nelson of Mill Valley, Calif.; two grandchildren; three step-grandchildren; and two step-great-grandchildren.

(The abbreviation "rTC" may mean round-the-clock.)

Thank you for the bio.

Interesting how such documents can over time and re-telling reflect ‘alternative facts.’

As the SCMP article states in his own words, Nelson was busy at Brooklands in the early 1930s and subsequently in Hong Kong from 1934 until 1938 as a lowly airport manager or assistant superintendent.

So, it’s not clear how he could have been flying around Germany on clandestine aerial spying missions during the mid-1930s period when European governments were not overly concerned about Hitler et al’s future intentions, especially for the UK. Nelson said he was in Hong Kong continually from 1934 to 1938 without a break, and then having adventures in the USA in 1939.

While he may have given on-site peripheral advice on the development of Kai Tak after taking up his post, the responsibility for the design process and its future was entirely with the Air Ministry in London who periodically sent out dedicated airfield design specialists to Hong Kong and Singapore. The airport at Singapore was the more important as it was a major stop on the Imperial Airways London-Australia trunk-route. Hong Kong’s Kai Tak was only at a dead-end of an Imperial Airways branch line to and from Penang, later Bangkok.

Nelson’s name does not have appeared to be registered in the extensive memoirs of Harold Bixby and H. L. Bond the principal Hong Kong-China based leaders of Pan American Airways cross-Pacific exploits to and into Hong Kong, Macao and China. While these people may have been social friends of Nelson in Hong Kong while he was assisting with the on-site needs of the airline at Kai Tak, he appears to have not been involved in any way in the trans-Pacific flights’ technical aspects. Which were the airline’s undoubted major achievement.

Nelson’s end of contract leave passage to the USA via Pan American Clipper was no doubt facilitated by his social and airport business associations with Bixby, Bond et al. On a HK government servant’s salary, he would have been hard pushed to afford the cross-Pacific fare.

Hong Kong newsprint reports of Nelson’s presence are few and far between. Mainly as a low-level hanger-on at greeting/cocktail parties for the ‘great and good’ international fliers passing through the colony who merited formal receptions at the airport. Nothing has been seen that reveals that he flew at all when in Hong Kong, even recreationally with the flying club.

Presumably he should appear in the colony's Jury lists for the years he was at Kai Tak.                       I wonder where he lived?

Post his time In Hong Kong: - while he was an organiser of the Baltimore-UK-Portugal wartime communications flights on behalf of the British government, these used the very large Boeing Clippers passed on from Pan American Airways trans-Pacific flights to BOAC for that purpose. It seems unlikely that Nelson actually piloted these specialist heavy weight flying boats himself as claimed, especially when carrying wartime VIPS. When they entered service with Pan-Am they were the largest commercial aircraft in the world.

As an aside, American aviation historians often get the ‘Kai Tak Erik Nelson’ mixed up with their own aviation hero, Erik Nelson, a member of the US Army team who were the first people to fly around the world in 1924. They did pass through Hong Kong in June 1924. A couple of pics of them are in the Gwulo files.

Apart from Nelson, just about everyone in the 1930s seem to have met the supposedly reclusive Aircraftsman Shaw a.k.a. “Lawrence of Arabia.” Somebody must have been selling tickets to meet him.

Interesting, that this 'THE STAR' Bio infers that  Nelson was flying Sunderland flying boats from Kai Tak on sweeps across the South China Sea in the 1930s with an RAF Squadron.

RAF Sunderlands did not appear at Kai Tak until 1945 coming up from Singapore after Hong Kong's liberation.

Researchers will read these newsprint bios in the future and lazily assume they all true.

To get the facts correct you have to write your own biography.