Air Travel in Australia: Flying Boats

As you walk along the foreshore of Rose Bay in Sydney's eastern suburbs, were it not for the occasional buzz of a float plane as it lands and takes off across the bay and the fact that a restaurant on the bay is called Catalina's, you would never know the bay played a short but important role as Sydney's international airport. It began in May 1914 when a Farman Hydro-aeroplane made an emergency landing there. Twenty years later a flying boat base was established on a 'temporary basis' and became a terminus for Qantas Empire Airways and Imperial Airways for their London to Sydney passenger services. The first passenger flight, by an Empire class Coo-ee, left for Southampton on 2nd February 1938. The service continued until the end of 1947 when Lockheed Constellation airliners replaced the flying boats that had pioneered the Kangaroo Route , the name Australians gave to the England to Australia run.

Flying boats were used in the 1930s to pioneer the concept of international air travel. As the clouds of World War II gathered, aircraft builders were developing larger, faster, more luxurious flying boats and the airlines began developing flying boat bases such as the one at Rose Bay in anticipation of a boom in air travel. A trans-Tasman flying boat service began in April 1940 which at its peak, saw a fleet of four Sandringhams servicing the route and making the seven hour crossing to Auckland. Services to Lord Howe Island, Fiji and Tahiti were introduced using Sandringhams, Hythes, Solents, Sunderlands and Catalinas. The hangars of the Qantas base provided maintenance for the flying boat fleets of Qantas, Tasman Empire Airways Limited, Barrier Reef Airways and Imperial which operated these services, as well as the Qantas flying boats on the Perth to Ceylon route.

After the war, the anticipated boom in air travel came, but advancements made in the design and performance of land-based aircraft during the war saw the flying boats becoming obsolete before they had a chance to make their mark. Elaborate plans to build an international airport and hotels on the Rose Bay foreshore were first put on hold, then abandoned completely as the flying boat services were replaced by land-based aircraft which could not land at Rose Bay. The last Qantas flight from Rose Bay took off at midnight on 16th august 1955. By 1962, the number of personnel at the base had dwindled to 11.

The final commercial flight from Rose Bay, an Ansett service to Lord Howe Island, took place on 10th September 1974, closing a brief but important chapter in Australia s aviation history and returning the bay to being the quiet harbourside community it was before the arrival of the flying boats.

Flying Empire Class On The Kangaroo Route
Qantas flying boats ushered in an era of stately and pleasurable flying - and they were built for comfort and safety rather than speed. Only 16 passengers could be accommodated during flights with overnight legs, but they enjoyed "the most luxurious saloons ever prepared in an aircraft" spread over a series of tiered cabins including a smoking room and bunk-like sleeping berths.

Hudson Fysh, one of the founding members of Qantas and managing director at the time, recalled: "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."

There's plenty of romance in that vision, but it came at a price: a Sydney-Singapore return trip was slightly more than the average annual wage of the time, which in today's terms would mean handing over some $72,800. That included three overnight stops en route to Singapore - at Townsville, Darwin and Surabaya - spent at sumptuous hotels while the aircraft lay at moorings in a nearby lake or seaport. The second leg of what had already been tagged as Kangaroo Route, from Singapore to London, took a further six days.

It was a brief shining moment for the flying boats before the start of World War II saw the aircraft stripped of those wide seats and sleeping bunks, to be replaced by guns and bomb racks. The short-range Empire Class was replaced in 1943 by the longer range Catali├čna flying boats, which were retired in the early 1960s but gave their name to the five-star Catalina restaurant adjacent to the site of the old Rose Bay terminal.