Seventy years ago, in 1948, four armed Chinese men hijacked ‘Miss Macao’, a Catalina seaplane operated by a Macau Air Transport Company. The incident resulted in the aircraft crashing into the Zhujiang River estuary, killing all but one of the 27 people on board. This was the first recorded hijacking of a commercial aircraft in aviation history.
Charles Zhao Yichuan looks back at this event, explains what really happened and highlights the legacy left for the aviation industry.
Having suspended its operations since December 1941 due to World War II, in 1948 the Macau Air Transport Company resumed its service carrying passengers and gold bullion between Hong Kong and Macao. There was no land-based airport in Macao at that time so the PBY Catalina seaplanes, of which the company had chartered two from Cathay Pacific, were considered the perfect solution. One of the planes operating the 20-minute journey from British Hong Kong to the Portuguese colony of Macao was named Miss Macao.
On 16 July 1948, Miss Macao departed from Macao with 23 passengers, including 12 Chinese passengers, others from the US, UK, Russia and Portugal, and four crewmembers. When the flight missed its scheduled arrival time and remained out of radio communication, the airline’s staff in Hong Kong started to become uneasy. While they were anxiously waiting for information, a fisherman spotted an aircraft flying in a northerly direction, which abruptly changed direction and then dived into the sea. The fisherman approached the crashed aircraft and found a sole survivor who was sent to a Macao hospital for treatment.
Only One Survivor
At the hospital, the police interviewed the 35-year-old, Huang Yu, who told them that when the plane was near Jiuzhou, the nose of the aircraft exploded suddenly. He claimed he lost consciousness during the aircraft’s rapid descent and did not know how he had come to be in the hospital. Huang also told the police that he was from Zhongshan in China where he had been working as a farmer. He had allegedly travelled to Macao to look for a job in recent years but was still unemployed. He claimed he later met a man surnamed Zhao who had contacts in Hong Kong and could get him a job as a mechanical apprentice. Zhao had bought Huang’s ticket for him, and that was how he had come to be on the flight that evening. However, when the police asked him where he was going to work in Hong Kong, Huang Yu’s reply was, “I don’t know”.
After analysis, the police found Huang’s explanation to be extremely problematic. The Miss Macao was a well-designed, robust, amphibious aircraft. Even if both of the engines had failed at the same time, it could have glided to the surface of the water; it would not have crashed. Witnesses also claimed to have heard several sounds like gunshots. What was even stranger was that Huang Yu was wearing a life jacket when he was rescued.
After completing the salvage work, which was delayed several days due to a typhoon, the aircraft was sent to the divisional police for investigation. The police found several clearly visible bullet holes on the inside wall of the aircraft. Two bullet cases and one unfired bullet were also found, and which revealed that two different pistols had been involved in the incident.
The autopsy report later stated that the second pilot, Ken McDuff, and an American passenger had both been shot. In addition, police found that most of the passengers were wealthy members of the upper classes, except for three Chinese men by the surname of Zhao, whose backgrounds were unknown. Of these three, two bodies had been recovered from the water, but no one claimed them. As Huang Yu had seemingly lied about the explosion of the plane, and did not have a plausible reason for travel, the police were also suspicious about his role in the incident.
To assist the investigation, the Macao police issued false information, saying that the airline would pay compensation to the deceased’s families and that relatives were required to register and identify the corpses. If a relative was not in Macao, police claimed, they could register by proxy.
“…Huang Yu was wearing a life jacket when he was rescued…”
Soon after, a woman named Zhao Ermei (transliteration) contacted the police and claimed to be a cousin of Zhao Riming (transliteration), one of the three unknown men. She was a Doumen (a town in Guangdong, China) native and resident of Macao. Her cousin, Zhao Riming, served as an air force officer during the Second World War and was able to fly a plane and speak English. He had allegedly taken two locals, Zhao Changguang (transliteration) and Zhao Sancai (transliteration), to work in Macao. Four people, including Huang Yu, had arrived at her home, stayed one night and flown to Hong Kong the next day. She also mentioned that they only had one briefcase and they had not allowed her to touch it.
“…passengers were wealthy members of the upper classes, except for three Chinese men by the surname of Zhao, whose backgrounds were unknown. Of these three, two bodies had been recovered from the water, but no one claimed them…”
Obtaining the Confession
In order to obtain a confession from Huang Yu, the police concealed voice recorders in his hospital room and arranged a detective to pose as the victim of a car accident in the bed next to his (they even stained the detective’s body and clothes with pig’s blood for dramatic effect). However, Huang Yu did not reveal any further information. The police then changed their strategy, arranging for a man to come to the ward pretending to visit his injured relative. After seeing Huang Yu, he said to him in a Zhongshan dialect, “Aren’t you Huang? I haven’t seen you for a long time!” He took out what appeared to be a Portuguese newspaper and said to him, “Zhao Riming, Zhao Sancai, and Zhao Changguang were rescued by British warships and brought to Hong Kong for interrogation. They said to the police that they were following your orders and were responsible only for buying guns. They were forced to participate. On the plane, you shot and killed people. There are reports in the newspaper, and now everyone knows that you led the hijacking.” Huang Yu immediately replied, “Zhao Riming was clearly the plotter and he knows how to fly a plane. If it weren’t for him, why would we have chosen to rob a plane? I’m only a ‘worker’!” Thus, Huang Yu provided police with the whole hijacking story, leading to his eventual arrest.
“…they planned to fly the plane to Xiao Chikan where they would rob the wealthy passengers of their gold…”
Why Miss Macao?
During this period, because of the embargo on gold after World War II, Macao became the only gold market in the Far East. Many businessmen carried gold and large sums of money between Macao and Hong Kong, making it a prime target route for piracy and other crime. After studying the route, the four Miss Macao hijackers learned of a gold trader named Huang Songping (transliteration). He operated a gold business in Hong Kong and Macao, and often carried gold between the two locations. The four men involved in the incident met repeatedly to plot their attack and decided to follow Huang Songping and hijack his flight. They planned to fly the plane to Xiao Chikan (a village in Guangdong, China), where they would rob the wealthy passengers of their gold. Zhao Riming and Zhao Changrao sold their houses and land for funds to carry out the robbery soon after discovering that Huang Songping would be travelling with gold to Hong Kong on Miss Macao on 16th June.
In the early days of hijacking events, the main motive for hijackers was to rob or hold passengers and planes for ransom, and the very first hijacking was no different. But in that time the cost of flying was very high, which lulled the young aviation industry into a false sense of security: A wealthy person capable of buying a ticket couldn’t possibly also be ‘the bad guy’. Even today with our ever-decreasing ticket prices, many passengers feel secure enough in our aircraft cabins to fall sleep or watch a movie and leave their valuables out of sight in the overhead compartments: rich pickings for inflight thieves.
What Happened in the Aircraft Cabin?
Metal detectors were not implemented for security screening until the 1960s after a series of aircraft hijackings occurred around the world. Therefore, the only security measure for the Miss Macao flight was observation of passengers by airport staff, and hand searches if any passenger displayed suspicious behaviours. But the four hijackers were well prepared for a possible security check: the Zhao trio tied three revolvers to their inner thighs with black yarn straps, and bullets were hidden by Zhao Sancai in the hollowed-out heel of his shoe. The aviation industry was shocked when a similar method was utilised half a century later by the ‘shoe bomber’, Richard Reid. The only difference was that the concealed item was an improvised explosive device rather than rounds of ammunition.
A few minutes after taking off, Zhao Riming and Zhao Changguang entered the cockpit with a pistol. Zhao Riming ordered the pilot to surrender in English but the captain refused. Back in the cabin, a fearless American passenger held onto Zhao Sancai’s gun with one hand and punched him in the face with the other. Zhao Riming and Zhao Changguang returned from the cockpit and shot the American. They ordered all the other passengers to raise their hands.
At this time, Captain Dale Cramer immediately pulled back the joystick, hoping to throw the robbers off-balance as the plane turned over. The second pilot, Ken McDuff, took a wrench and hit Zhao Changguang on the head. After Zhao Changguang fell to the ground, Zhao Riming turned back and fired several shots. Both the pilots were killed. The unmanned aircraft finally went straight down into the Zhujiang River estuary.
Huang Yu who was positioned at the rear of the aircraft, was quick-minded; as he fell through the cabin, he managed to catch hold of a life jacket before being thrown out of the plane and, thereby, survived.
The police had discovered the bullets, shells, bodies and aircraft fuselage with gunshot wounds, and obtained Huang Yu’s confession, so conviction should have been clear cut. However, in Macao’s court Huang Yu denied the confession and claimed that he had just been joking with his ‘false neighbour’ in hospital. Macao also pointed out that since most passengers were from Hong Kong, the case should be referred to the Hong Kong authorities. The Portuguese authorities also said they could not sentence those who had committed crimes on a British aircraft (registered in Hong Kong) in international airspace. Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s British Government pointed out that the incident had taken place within the Chinese community, and Hong Kong therefore had no power to prosecute. With no government keen to prosecute despite the death toll, on 11 June 1951, some three years after the hijacking, Huang Yu was released without trial from his Macao prison cell and was deported to China.
“…Ken McDuff, took a wrench and hit Zhao Changguang on the head. After Zhao Changguang fell to the ground, Zhao Riming turned back and fired several shots. Both the pilots were killed…”
Aviation Law Development
The conclusion of this event served to illustrate that international aviation law was defective. Over the next 30 years, hijackings became increasingly frequent. Over the first ten years – between 1948 and 1957 – the average was just over one incident per year, but the annual average from 1968 to 1977 climbed to 41 incidents per year.
As the hijack trend increased sharply, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) started to work to define unlawful behaviours, which enabled the ICAO contracted States to reach a consensus, and a provision (Art. 11) was added to the Tokyo Convention. This measure, however, did not deter hijacking, but merely obliged contracting States to take measures to restore control of the aircraft to the lawful commander, and the State of landing to allow the crew and passengers to continue their trip and to restore the aircraft and goods to those lawfully entitled to receive them. The subsequent Hague Convention aimed to ensure that the hijacker was prosecuted for the offence and universally denied a safe port where they would be immune from prosecution or extradition for the offence. It requires all contracting States where the hijacker happens to be to either to punish or extradite them, whatever the hijacker’s nationality may be and wherever the offence may have been committed.
In the past ten years, the number of hijacking incidents has gradually decreased. One reason for this is that after 9/11, states have gradually upgraded their aviation security measures, and stricter security checks of hand luggage and personal belongings have been introduced before boarding. Airlines have also established enhanced cockpit protection procedures and now provide better training to crewmembers. This has made it far more difficult for hijackers to access the flight deck.
“…despite the death toll, on 11 June 1951, some three years after the hijacking, Huang Yu was released without trial…”
Seventy years later, most of the people involved in the Miss Macao event are no longer with us. When we look back at the Miss Macao hijacking, some people may feel that we have come so far as an industry that the incident is no longer relevant. However, the loss of 26 lives and the lack of justice served remind us that this incident is not simply a landmark as the first commercial hijack, but an important incident that demonstrated to us the shortcomings in civil aviation security measures and related laws. The establishment and development of aviation security measures and laws has no end. New challenges are constantly being born, and just as we feel we are catching up, they evolve. Right now, these challenges include the insider threat, cyber security, remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) but who knows what they will be tomorrow?
Charles Zhao is a security professional working for Hong Kong Airlines as General Manager, Corporate Security and works closely with aviation authorities for the improvement of aviation security. He holds a Quality Management Master’s Degree focusing on the incorporation of security management system (SeMS) and quality management system (QMS) into airlines. Charles can be reached at Charles.firstname.lastname@example.org