Farrell was born in Vernon, Texas and went to China during World War II to start an export business (Roy Farrell Import-Export Company in Hong Kong. He joined the China National Aviation Company in 1943 and flew in Burma to supply the war effort. He left CNAC to establish Cathay Pacific with Sydney de Kantzow.
Prior to forming Cathay Pacific, Farrell attempted to purchase a ship to take advantage of what he rightfully perceived to be an opening market in China to goods previously unavailable to it before the war. Farrell was unable to locate any ship for purchase and instead bought a C-47 (more commonly referred to as a DC-3) and this airplane was named Betsy. He, along with a crew he assembled, flew the plane from New Jersey through South America, Africa, India, and China eventually ending the trip in Shanghai, and established the Roy Farrell Import Export Company .The Company subsequently purchased another C-47 and this plane was named Niki. Betsy is currently on display in the Hong Kong Science Museum and a plane painted to resemble Niki is on display at Cathay Pacific's offices at Chep Lap Kok in Hong, Kong; the fate of the original Niki is unknown.
As the business developed, Farrell focused more on the shipping aspects of the company and de Kantzow focused more upon flying. The early Cathay Pacific pilots were referred to as Syd's Pirates.
Both Farrell and de Kantzow were ex-CNAC pilots who had flown The Hump, a route over the Himalayan Mountains. Although initially based in Shanghai, the two men moved to Hong Kong and incorporated Cathay Pacific Airways on September 24,1946. Each man put up HK$1 to register the airline.They named it "Cathay" because it was the medieval name given to China, derived from "Khitan", and "Pacific" because Farrell speculated that they would one day fly across the Pacific. The Chinese name for the company comes from a Chinese idiom meaning "Grand and Peaceful State". Due to the very successful operations in 1948 Farrell was forced to reduce his interest from 92% to 10% by the British Government. This was because they would not allow an American citizen to own the controlling interest of a British registered airline. He then established Amphibian Airways in the Philippines and operated it until 1949 when he returned to Texas to raise his family. He sold his remaining interest in Cathay Pacific in 1953. He was active in oil and gas exploration and production in Texas until his death in 1996 at 83 years of age. He was married twice and had two sons and one daughter and nine grandchildren.
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