Cathay Pacific VR-HEU - Wikipedia, the free encyclopediaI was looking at some A1 Skyraider info, and came across the incident that was highly publicized at the time, but mostly forgotten now.
VR-HEU was a four-engined propeller-driven Douglas C-54 Skymaster airliner, the military version of the Douglas DC-4, operated by the Cathay Pacific Airways from August 1949 to July 1954. While en route from Bangkok to Hong Kong on 23 July 1954, the plane was shot down by fighter planes of the People's Republic of China off the coast of Hainan Island, killing 10 on board.
At 2340 GMT, cruising at 9,000 ft and roughly 10 miles east of the international air corridor line off Hainan Island and only 31 minutes from Hong Kong, two PLAAF fighters, believed to be propeller-driven Lavochkin La-7s, appeared behind VR-HEU, one on its starboard side at a range of about 150 yards back and 300 yards above and the other on its port side. At approximately about 2344 GMT, the fighters started opening fire and the no.1 and 4 engines were hit and caught fire. The no. 4 engine's auxiliary and main fuel tank were also ablaze. While the captain took evasive actions to avoid further damage to his plane, co-pilot Carlton rushed out of the cabin and issued blankets to passengers instructing them to place them on the back of their seats for protection against the bullets. Cathay Pacific engineer G.H. Cattanach, travelling as a passenger to a technical meeting with the Hong Kong Director of Civil Aviation, rushed to and fro trying to make the passengers comfortable when it became known that the plane was going to ditch. VR-HEU began losing altitude and at 5,000 ft, its rudder control was shot off. Travelling at 350 miles per hour, the captain tried his utmost to evade incendiary bullets coming from the fighters by turning the Skymaster left and right. At 2,000 feet, the right aileron was shot off and the plane began turning right on its own initiative. The captain then countered the increasing turn by shutting down the Nos. 1 and 2 engines and fully opening No. 3. Approximately 2 minutes after the initial attack and unable to carry on a controlled levelled flight, the Cathay Pacific captain decided to carry out a ditching of his Skymaster in rough open seas that included 15 feet waves and a 25 knot wind. The starboard wing tip first hit the water, severing the right wing between the No. 3 and 4 engines. The impact caused the tail to break off and float off 50 yards from the main wreckage. The main fuselage now floated at an angle of 45 degrees with the rear open fuselage pointing towards the sky. The attacking fighters ceased firing at the Skymaster around about 1,000 feet before making a turn around the wreckage and headed towards Sanya, a city on the southern end of Hainan Island. While nine passengers and crew were killed by bullets and the subsequent ditching, nine others survived and escaped the sinking plane. Captain Blown and his co-pilot escaped through a broken starboard sliding window which had water coming in fast. With all survivors floating on the water with no life vests on, co-pilot Carlton suddenly noticed that Mrs Thorburn was hanging on to a raft still in its case. Fearing the bright yellow rubber raft might attract the attention of PLAAF fighters, it took Carlton twenty minutes to finally inflate the rubber dinghy and lift all nine passengers in. Once on the dingy and concerned about attacking planes returning, some of the dazed, injured passengers with their clothes in shreds, hid under a plastic sunshade covering the edges of the dinghy. While Captain Blown and passenger Peter Thacher kept watch, the attacking planes never returned.
After realising they were being attacked, radio operator Stephen Wong, holding onto his mike, quickly yelled out the first distress call at 0845 HKT (2345 GMT). "Kai Tak Tower, Cathay XXX, Mayday! Mayday! No. 1 port engine on fire, losing altitude, requesting all possible assistance." Wong continued making a total of no less than ten Mayday calls up to the point when VR-HEU ditched into the sea. An Air Vietnam plane which was en route to Hong Kong from Hanoi and had altered its course as a results of the calls, spotted the sinking plane and a dinghy one and a half miles from the Hainan coast. It circled for 40 minutes before heading for Hong Kong. Thanks to those calls, the RAF in Hong Kong immediately redirected a Saigon-bound Vickers Valetta military transport and further despatch a Short Sunderland flying boat, an Avro York military transport, as well as two de Havilland Hornet fighters, from RAF Kai Tak to the reported position of the C-54. A fully armed French Privateer after intercepting the emergency radio call, also took off from Tourane (Da Nang), French Indochina (now Vietnam). Meanwhile, the civilian-operated Manila rescue control centre in the Philippines, on picking up the SOS call from Wong, alerted the 31st Air Rescue Squadron of the USAF at the Clark Air Force Base. Captain Jack T. Woodyard, on first alert duty that day, about to depart on a routine training mission in his Grumman Albatross SA-16, immediately took off. A second Albatross followed Woodyard 35 minutes later. The Hornets were the first to arrive on the scene, followed by the Valetta, Sunderland, York and the Privateer. While the Hornets carried out a thorough search of the area for survivors, the French Privateer, piloted by an apparent Englishman in a Cockney accent, informed the Albatross which was 50 miles away, that "We have spotted the dinghy with survivors; looks like two of them from here." Using different radio frequencies, the British and American planes were not able to communicate with each other. Captain Blown on seeing the Sunderland arrive, tossed a packet of green sea dye overboard in an effort to assist rescue personnel. The Sunderland acknowledged this by setting off a smoke flare. Unable to land in atrocious conditions, the amphibious Sunderland circled helplessly for 2 hours before Woodyard's Albatross finally arrived and circled for an hour before landing on the calmer side of Ta-Chow Island. It taxied towards the dinghy in incredibly rough water before pulling all survivors on board. The last passenger to be hoisted on board was a badly injured Rita Cheung. Her left leg was broken in 2 places and she had a deep gash on her forehead. Escorted by the Sunderland and York, the Grumman Albatross made a wide turn and headed for Hongkong. Rita, however, died 10 minutes before the plane reached Kai Tak. Radio operator Stephen Wong was also believed killed when his head was impaled on a drift meter during ditching of the Cathay Pacific airliner.
Theories for the attack
There were several hypotheses for the attack, they included:
* VR-HEU was carrying a Chinese Nationalist ambassador;
* The United States Ambassador to Thailand, "Wild Bill" Donovan, former head of the OSS (the forerunner of CIA) was to have travelled on a Civil Air Transport plane that same week.
The official line from Peking, however, was that the Cathay Pacific airliner was mistaken as a Chinese Nationalist (Kuomintang) plane on a mission to raid a military base at Port Yulin on Hainan Island.
Political and diplomatic
The shooting down of VR-HEU stoked tensions between the People's Republic of China and that of Britain and the US. The British Foreign Office, through its Charge d'Affaires in Peking, Mr Humphrey Trevelyan delivered Britain's protest to Communist China two days later. While the US Secretary of State, Mr John Foster Dulles issued a sharp statement condemning the attack, saying the United States took the gravest view of the act of further barbarity and that the Chinese Communist regime must be held responsible.
On the political front, the shooting down probably harmed PRC's chances of admission into the United Nations. Republican senator H. Alexander Smith, interrupted the marathon debate over atomic legislation to read Mr Dulles' statement before calling the situation “critical.” Republican representative Walter Judd, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, expressed the view that the incident was another reason why Communist China must not be admitted to the United Nations.
Apology and compensation
People's Republic of China admitted responsibility three days later by apologising and making compensations to Cathay Pacific and the victims.
Possible fate of the attacking pilots
The two La-7 pilots were rumoured to have been executed by the P. R. Chinese government. Two La-7's were subsequently shot down in a skirmish with Douglas Skyraiders from the Essex class aircraft carrier USS Philippine Sea and Hornet.