A heavyweight signing

40 years ago, Cathay Pacific Cargo took the long-haul and wide-body plunge by buying its first Boeing 747 freighter, Hong Kong Trader

Cathay Pacific Cargo started its 40-year love affair with the Boeing 747 freighter in late April, 40 years ago.

Bought ‘nearly new’ from British Airways, the purpose-built Boeing 747F freighter was Cathay Pacific’s first, a commitment to the airline’s confidence in its future in air cargo, and the potential of Hong Kong as a global freight hub. It was dubbed Hong Kong Trader, the first of two 747 freighters to carry that name.

Back in 1982, Cathay was already partway through its push to break out of the regional market to start a more comprehensive long-haul carrier network. It already had six 747s in its passenger fleet equipped with Rolls-Royce engines, which made the ex-BA jumbo a natural fit.

Old and nearly new: G-KILO, soon to be VR-HVY, taxies past Cathay’s Boeing 707 freighter

Registered G-KILO with its previous owner, it entered service with Cathay Pacific Cargo as VR-HVY, which showed that both airlines had a wry appreciation of the utilitarian nature of the aircraft’s size and purpose.

The business mood at the time was bullish, despite the whisperings of a developing global recession. ‘This puts us in a completely new league,’ wrote then-Cargo Sales Manager Robert Atkinson in Cargo Clan. ‘It means Cathay Pacific’s long-term commitment to cargo in cash terms has increased to a very significant degree.’

The purchase was such a special occasion that Cargo Clan dedicated an entire issue to the aircraft’s arrival. ‘It is unusual for a magazine to devote an entire issue to one subject,’ said the editorial, ‘and even more so when that subject is an aircraft. We believe that Hong Kong Trader deserves this honour.’

Cathay Pacific Cargo was already (and remains) in a joint venture with Lufthansa, and Hong Kong Trader doubled the number of jumbo cargo flights between Europe and Hong Kong, with stops in the Gulf and plans to integrate London into the pattern. However, noted Atkinson: ‘The logistics change from a 707 narrow-bodied regional service to 747 long-haul wide-body service should not be over-estimated.’

New home: Hong Kong Trader at Kai Tak

He went on to observe that the two Lufthansa and two Cathay flights from Hong Kong ‘entitles us to stake a claim to providing the premier air freight service from the Far East to Europe.

‘As regards the future,’ he went on, ‘nobody knows the course of the world economy, but here in Hong Kong there’s definitely a movement – you can’t hear, touch or smell it but you can certainly sense it!’

VR-HVY went on to have an illustrious career with Cathay Pacific. Other than a quick spell on loan to the Royal Air Force in 1991, she continued in service and was reregistered in 1997 ahead of the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, finishing her career as B-HVY. She retired in 2008, and was flown to Kemble in Gloucestershire to be cut up. Ironically, the same site and fate that is befalling some of BA’s retired passenger 747s.

Today, Cathay Pacific Cargo operates 20 747 freighters, including 14 next-generation 747-8Fs – proof that the boundless optimism of 1982 was indeed well-founded.