see them much nowadays – hardly any at all in fact. Lasting
little more than 12 years, the golden age of the flying boat in
Australian aviation history was as brief as it was dramatic. Luxurious
Empire Class flying boats that were designed to open international
air routes and strengthen ties within the British Empire became
targets of Japanese attacks on Australian soil during the World
War II. Flying boats set records, suffered tragedy and played a
crucial role in keeping Australia connected with the outside world.
Following the war, however, the development of longer-range land-based
aircraft signalled a slow demise in the role of the flying boat
in commercial aviation.
On a sunny day a small white seaplane comes home
to roost on the peaceful waters of Sydney’s Rose Bay. Gliding gracefully
over the surface, the single-engined Cessna 145 eventually touches
the water, leaving a trail of white foam and noise, until finally
coming to rest. A lone seabird riding on waters that were once
home to a large flock of mechanical pelicans.
None of the truly wonderful Empire Class flying
boats nor hardy Catalinas that were once native to Rose Bay remain
here. A small commemorative plaque is all that exists to remind
passers by of a bygone era in aviation. It was a time when trans-oceanic
flight was a novelty. A time when flying boats were symbols of
modernity and luxury; when international travel was not simply
a matter of getting from point A to point B, but
Flying boats were primarily designed to carry first-class
air mail. However, they subsequently characterised romance and
adventure. In the 1930s, when international aviation was in its
infancy, there were only a limited number of airfields capable
of coping with larger aircraft. Added to this was the rather frequent
need to stop for refuelling on longer journeys – the average flight from Australia
to England at the time involved some 31 stops – and the navigational difficulties
of flying over open water. An aircraft, which could land wherever there was a
large enough patch of calm water and a mooring buoy, presented obvious advantages.
In July 1938, two C Class Empire flying boats arrived
in Sydney. Only a month later, the first of these set out for Singapore
via Brisbane, Gladstone, Townsville (where it stopped for the night),
across the Cape York Peninsula, to Karumba, Groote Eyelandt and
on to Darwin. The aircraft then crossed the Timor Sea, flying to
Kupang, Bima, Surabaya and Jakarta, before finally arriving in
Singapore. There, the service was taken over by British Imperial
Airlines, who flew the rest of the route to London via
India, the Middle East
The service was started at the behest of the British
Government, who was keen to launch the Empire Airmail Scheme,
in which all post would be transported by air to every corner of
the empire with no surcharge. It was a grand idea that was never
to eventuate. Favoured by Qantas, the introduction of the flying
boats dramatically strengthened Australia’s aerial links
with the wider world, consolidating a commercial air route that
had been in operation for barely four years.
By today’s standards as well as of the time, they were luxurious. The flying
boats carried 15 passengers and a crew of five, as well as 3000 pounds of mail
and cargo. There was only one class: first. For slightly more than the average
annual wage of the time, passengers experienced interiors so spacious that a
game of minigolf or quoits aloft was not out of the question. Cabins could also
be converted into sleeping accommodation at night, in much the same way as on
a rail journey.
Hudson Fysh, one of the founding members of Qantas
and managing director at the time was quoted as saying: “Getting up out of his chair, a passenger could
walk about and, if he had been seated in the main cabin, stroll along to the
smoking cabin for a smoke, stopping on the way at the promenade deck with its
high handrail and windows at eye level to gaze at the world of cloud and sky
Lumbering along at a stately 160 miles per hour,
the flying boats reduced the time taken to travel to England by
air to an unbelievable nine days. Significantly faster than a sea
journey and three days faster (and oh so much more comfortable)
than the much smaller, land-based DH86 biplanes they had replaced. Although
fast and efficient, the journey gave passengers an experience that
has wholly vanished from international air travel today. A leisurely
taste of exotic lands from the comfort of a flying palace that,
although part owned by an Australian company, was most definitely
But it was all short-lived. With the onset of the
World War II, the luxury of sleeping accommodation, cabin crew
and all other trappings were stripped from the aircraft to be replaced
by guns and bomb racks. The size and versatility that had made
these aircraft so attractive in peacetime were to make the same
craft indispensable in wartime. For although during the first three years of
the war, from 1939 -1942, the empire route to London via Singapore remained
in operation; the cargo of mail that had been routinely carried
was gradually supplanted with loads of ammunition. Important wealthy
passengers who had once been carried in luxury were replaced on
return journeys by refugees eager to flee the path of the advancing
Tragedy was to strike quickly though. On the 30th
of January 1942, the flying boat Corio was attacked and shot down
by Japanese Zero fighter aircraft, while ferrying Dutch refugees
from the port of Sourabaya. Only five of the 18 passengers and
crew on board survived. Two weeks later Singapore fell; the Empire
route was broken. Four days afterwards, the first of the Japanese
raids on Darwin caused massive destruction. One of the seaplanes,
the Camilla, was moored in the harbour at the time. Avoiding the
wrecks of burning and sinking ships, the plane was able to take-off
during the raid and managed to escape to Groote Eyelandt, miraculously
Luxurious levels of comfort and space aloft in 1938.
As the Japanese advanced rapidly through Java, an
urgent demand was placed upon the remaining craft – the
evacuation of stranded Dutch civilians to Broome and the relative
safety of Australian soil. The evacuation was carried out by
the Empire Class flying boats of Qantas, as well as by German-built
Dornier DO24 flying boats, operated by the Dutch KLM airlines.
On 28th February 1942, a large flock of these aircraft rode at
anchor off the coast of Broome. When the Japanese attacked, many
of these flying boats were still loaded with civilians waiting
to be carried south to more populated parts of the country. Some were also
refuelling; there was little or no chance of escaping the onslaught.
Of the 15 flying boats that were moored off the coast at the
time, only two survived. Sadly, seventy lives were lost.
It was a dark time in Australian aviation history.
The Empire route that had been so successful no longer existed.
Even if it had, there were simply not enough aircraft available
to operate a regular service. Of a fleet of 10 Empire Class flying
boats owned by Qantas, only four remained. Five aircraft were lost
as a result of enemy action, one as a result of RAAF action – a landing incident
at Townsville. Qantas was left with only two flying boats; the other two had
been pressed into service with the RAAF. Apart from a handful of much smaller
conventional aircraft, suitable mainly for domestic use, Qantas was largely incapable
of delivering either international or internal services. The company did retain
however, a collection of flying boat-experienced and capable pilots.
|The Centaurus on
the Brisbane, 1937.
Two years previously, Qantas pilots had been given
the task of ferrying 18 new PBY Catalina flying boats to Australia
for use by the RAAF. Differing greatly to the C Class Empire flying
boats, the Catalinas had been specially designed as a patrol bomber
for the US Navy. Arguably the most successful flying boat ever
built, Catalinas were unbelievably versatile and seemingly indestructible.
With a range of 5000 kilometers (over 3000 miles), it was inevitable that they
would one day wind up in use in Australia.
The first Catalina to make its presence felt in
Australia was in 1939. Chartered by the Australian and New Zealand
Governments, the aircraft was used by the famous Captain P G Taylor
to survey an alternative air route to Britain, in the event that
the empire route via Singapore should ever be severed. His journey
took him from Port Hedland in Western Australia to Mombassa in
Kenya via Batavia, Cocos Island, Diego Garcia and the Seychelles.
|A Consolidated PBY-5B Catalina.
|Captain Russell Tapp uses a compass on the Indian Ocean Catalina
|The long, lonely trip over the Indian Ocean.
Although Capt. Taylor gained distinction for having
pioneered this and many other international air routes (he also
used a Catalina, the ‘Frigate Bird’,
to fly across the Pacific from Australia to South America in 1951), he may be
best remembered for his efforts in walking on the struts of Charles Kingsford
Smith’s aircraft, ‘The Southern Cross’ in mid-flight to gather
oil from one engine and transfer it to the other. This Herculean effort did not
go unnoticed by the designers at Boeing (manufacturers of the stately China Clippers,
and America’s answer to the Empire Class flying boats). These large aircraft
actually contained small tunnels inside each wing, through which an unlucky
engineer could crawl, in the event that some form of in-flight maintenance
Having proved itself in peacetime operations, the
Catalina heralded a remarkable chapter in Australian aviation history.
Again at the urging of the British government (without whom the
pre-war flying boat service would never have happened), the RAF
supplied Qantas with five Catalina aircraft, if Qantas agreed to
open a flying route from Perth to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). It was to
be the world’s longest
regular non-stop service – a total distance of 5632km (3520 miles). To
enable a flight over such a long distance, the aircraft were stripped of all
unnecessary weight, including almost all creature comforts, save for seats, a
small basket of food and a thermos. Airmail was carried on microfilm, thereby
reducing a load of several tons to a parcel of around 60 pounds, and only three
passengers were allowed. To further complicate matters, these missions were flown
in complete radio silence across enemy-patrolled waters. This also meant that
pilots had to navigate by dead reckoning, using only a map, a compass and the
stars to find their way.
On 10th July 1943, the first service departed from
Koggala Lake in the south of Ceylon bound for Perth, where it would
land on the Swan River. This was the first of 271 flights that
took place between 1943 and 1945, all without incident. Depending
on the prevailing conditions, a typical flight lasted anywhere
from 27 to 32 hours. Because of the length of the flights, passengers
witnessed the sunrise twice while airborne. At the end of each
journey, passengers were awarded a certificate admitting them to
the ‘Secret Order of the Double Sunrise’.
The last flying Catalina (built 1945) still in Australia,
now based at Nowra, NSW. It sports the famous WWII, ‘Black
Cat’ livery.(Picture: Andrew Carlile)
Catalinas across the Pacific, to New Guinea and Bouganville.
The famous Catalina flying boats that were used
to undertake these missions were also distinguished in other theatres
of war. The Black Cats, as they were dubbed because of their matte
black paint, used to patrol the oceans searching for enemy shipping.
Just before dusk on the 4th of April 1942, a lone
Catalina sighted a large Japanese fleet (the same carrier fleet
that attacked Pearl Harbour four months earlier, with six aircraft
carriers and 300 aircraft) 640km (400 miles) south of Ceylon. The
fleet was sailing to attack the headquarters of the newly established
British Far Eastern Fleet. The radio operator onboard the Catalina
managed to transmit the location of the fleet shortly before the
aircraft was shot down by six Japanese Zeros from the carrier Hiryu
in high pursuit. However, allied forces on the island had been
alerted to the enemy’s presence and managed to prepare somewhat
for the ensuing Battle of Ceylon, which commenced Easter Sunday 5th April. The
heroic actions of the crew of that Catalina remain as part of the island nation’s
The years immediately following the World War II
brought with them something of a dilemma for Australian aviation
officials. The flying boats that had served them so well were now
obsolete. Advances in the field of aviation, such as pressurised
aircraft that fly much higher and faster than their pre-war counterparts, coupled
with a large increase in the number of land-based facilities, combined to make
flying boats redundant. The British built three large flying boats after the
war but only one ever flew (just a few times) before all three were mothballed
and eventually scrapped.
Although they were luxurious, a journey from Australia
to England by seaplane took over five days. A converted Lancaster
bomber on the other hand, could make the journey in a little over
60 hours (although providing much fewer passenger comforts along
the way). Until suitable civilian aircraft became available, the
post-war answer was to use a combination of Hythe flying boats and Lancastrian
aircraft. Passengers could either choose to travel quickly in cramped quarters
on a land-based aircraft; or, comfortably in a slower flying boat.
|The last operational Short Sunderland
still flying is based in Polk City, Florida, USA. This aircraft
(built in 1944) once flew for Ansett Airlines on the Lord Howe
Island route. (Picture: Andrew Carlile)
A Catalina departs.
The Rose Bay Flying Boat Base in 1938.
Yet the hardy Catalina remained, being used in remote
places or for applications such as firefighting, where the ability
to land on either land or water presented an obvious advantage.
In one bold post-war experiment, the RAAF were to attach crude
rockets to the fuselage of a number of Catalinas to assist in providing
greater power on take-off. Trans-Australia Airlines and Ansett widely used
Catalinas in domestic aviation, especially in northern Australia,
until the early 1960s, when these services were gradually replaced
with newer, purpose-built land-based aircraft.
Flying boats were to remain a feature of domestic
aviation in Australia, until the mid-70s, when the last flying
boat service to Lord Howe Island was finally removed. The flying
boats had, by that stage, become too old to keep in regular service.
No new models being available, an all-weather airstrip was constructed
By the 1970s the terminal at Rose Bay was nearing
the end of its useful life. Gradually the number of services diminished,
until the Rose Bay flying boat base closed in 1977. From now on,
smaller seaplanes were being relegated to a different role. Tourism,
charter flights and other special duties are now their mainstay.
Regular commercial services by flying boats are now a distant memory.
Sources: Warwick Abadee
Qantas Airways Archives Department (Ted Malmgren)
The Royal Air Force