The Golden Age Of Flying Boats In Australia

Club Marine Magazine | VOLUME 19, ISSUE 6

Lasting little more than 12 years, the golden age of the flying boat in Australian aviation history was as brief as it was dramatic.
You don't 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 an adventure.

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 and Egypt.

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 outside."

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 British.

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 Japanese forces.

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 undamaged.

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.

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.

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 was necessary.

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 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 folklore.

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.

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 on land.

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