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Flying boats of Australia

Flying boats were used early and continued in service late in Australia, from the 1920s to the 1970s.

Qantas Empire Airways, Cooee landing on Sydney Harbour, 1938, RN Smith collection.

A flying boat is an aircraft that can take off and alight on water and whose main body is a hull that rests fully in the water. Because they can operate from any fairly calm stretch of water, they were beautifully suited to Australia with its long coastline surrounded by immense oceans. Flying boats didn't require expensive land airports and they became the basis for Australia's international air transport before the Second World War. In 1938, large luxury flying boats began to operate a 10 day service between Sydney and Europe. A ticket cost more than the average yearly wage.

Catalina flying boats in the Second World War played a unique part in daring missions by Australian airmen in Asia and the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

After the war, flying boats helped to increase access to the South Pacific and appeared in a great array of peacetime ventures, but their place gradually diminished due to the wartime construction of land airports. In 1974 the last regular Australian flying boat passenger service, between Sydney Harbour and Lord Howe Island, finished and the 50-year era of the Australian flying boats was over. Rose Bay, the last major flying boat terminal in the world, closed.

Like enormous water birds, flying boats combine the worlds of the sea and the air. People who have worked with flying boats or travelled in them speak affectionately of their beauty and romance.

Ships that fly

Seaplanes were some of the earliest forms of aviation and were the forerunners of flying boats. A seaplane has floats supporting the main body or fuselage, which sits above the water, whereas a flying boat's fuselage rests in the water. Both seaplanes and flying boats are often amphibious, having retractable landing gear. There was a period of intensive experimentation with seaplane and flying boat design in the 1890s and early 1900s, particularly in France. The first successful flight of a powered seaplane was in 1910 and of a flying boat in 1912.

Henri Farman, Tandem seated float plane from HMS Ark Royal, returning to its launching ramp, Gallipoli, 1915, Australian War Memorial.

The first purpose built aircraft carrier, the HMS Ark Royal, carried six sea planes which were used by the ANZACs for aerial surveillance of the Gallipoli peninsula in 1915 - including 38 aerial reconnaissance and 18 photographic missions. Australian pilots included RAAF Captain Thomas H Piper and intelligence officer Major Charles Villiers-Stuart who had never been in a plane in his life before. Villiers-Stuart flew in a Maurice Farman sea plane for reconnaissance on 14 April 1914. It had a top speed of 95km per hour and was described as 'one of the crudest and earliest seaplanes ever built', fragile and temperamental as it had a habit of cutting out mid-flight.

In September 1919, the British company Supermarine started operating the first flying boat service in the world, from Woolston to Le Havre in France, but it was short-lived. In 1923, Imperial Airways was formed from the merger of Supermarine (renamed British Marine Air Navigation) and three other key British aviation companies and formed a partnership with Qantas and Tasman Empire Airways Ltd  in New Zealand. Short Brothers, a British company, built the large Empire, Sunderland, Sandringham and Solent flying boats from the 1920s through into the time of the Second World War. The motto attributed to these flying boat manufacturers was

We don't build aircraft that float, we build ships that fly.
John Huxley, When harbour was an airport, and you could play mid-air golf, Sydney Morning Herald, 9 May 2008

Flying boat pilots had to be qualified in nautical knowledge as well as aviation. They had to understand and handle tides, swells, currents, choppiness created by wind, the presence of other watercraft, and the fact that flying boats have no brakes or rudder, only propellers to steer with. Flying boats mixed the ancient traditions of seafaring with the radical new ability to lift off into the sky.

Aircraft including flying boats are usually named according to the company that made them and the company's own system of titles. Companies that produced flying boats included: Fairey, Supermarine, Douglas, Lockheed, Consolidated and Short Brothers.

First flight around Australia – 1924

Fairey IIID seaplane A10-3 on its survey flight round Australia, probably Sydney, 1924, photographer Harry Victory Leckie, courtesy Australian War Memorial P00589.005

In 1924 a Fairey IIID seaplane made the first flight around Australia. Wing Commander Stanley Goble wanted to view the entire coastline for reasons of defence. He and Flight Lieutenant Ivor McIntyre set off from the RAAF base at Point Cook, Melbourne and they completed their 13,700 km flight in 44 days, despite terrible weather and having to replace the engine. They travelled up the east coast, across the Gulf of Carpentaria, then on via Darwin and Broome.

The pilot's compass was faulty and so when crossing the Gulf of Carpentaria the navigator had to pull strings tied to the pilot's arms in order to guide him. On their return, a crowd of 10,000 greeted them at St Kilda. (Morrissey, p. 13)

Australia's fledgling air force – 1920s and 1930s

The Fairey IIID seaplane landing at St Kilda to be greeted by 10,000 people, 1924, newsreel still, courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive

Flying boats were a part of Australia's fledgling air force after the First World War (1914–18). In 1925 the RAAF ordered six new British Supermarine Seagull III flying boats for reconnaissance work. These flying boats were built of wood. Two Supermarine Southamptons were added in 1928 and four Supermarine Southampton flying boats of the British RAF journeyed to Melbourne. This was considered proof that flying boats had evolved to become reliable means of long distance transport and came to be used extensively as part of civil aviation in Australia.

The RAAF ordered 24 Supermarine Walrus directly off the drawing boards, under the Seagull V 'A2' designation, which were delivered for service from cruisers from 1935. One Walrus, HD874, was still in service in 1947 with the Australian Antarctic Expedition. (Supermarine Walrus in action) The Walrus was later rescued from the ice, restored and exhibited at the RAAF Museum, Point Cook, Victoria.

Supermarine Walrus landing, still from Supermarine Walrus footage, c 1936.

The Supermarine Walrus (originally called the Seagull V) was a single-engine amphibious biplane reconnaissance aircraft with a maximum speed of 217 kilometers per hour and a range of 965 kilometers. The wings could be folded on ship, giving a stowage width of 5.5 metres. Unusually, the control column could be unplugged from either of two sockets at floor level; and when control was passed from the pilot to co-pilot or vice-versa, the control column would simply be unplugged and handed over. The Seagulls and then later Supermarine Walruses were catapulted into the air from a navy cruiser and afterwards hoisted back onto the ship by crane. (From Sea to Sky)

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.
The Golden Age Of Flying Boats In Australia

Civilian services to Europe 1928–1939

Empire Air Mail Scheme

The Coolangatta Short Empire Flying Boat, departing Rose Bay Terminal, c 1938

By 1931, mail transported by air from Australia was reaching Britain in just 16 days – less than half the time taken by sea. In that year, government tenders on both sides of the world invited applications to run new mail and passenger services between the ends of the British Empire. Australia's Qantas and Britain's Imperial Airways won with a joint bid. They then formed a joint company: Qantas Empire Airways or QEA. QEA's new 10-day service between Rose Bay in Sydney Harbour and Southampton was so successful with letter-writers that soon the quantity of mail was exceeding aircraft storage space.

The British Government decided in 1934 to instigate an airmail service for the whole Commonwealth at fixed rates. For this purpose, Imperial Airways contracted Short Brothers to create a new form flying boat, big and long-range. These were known as the 'Short Empire' and were called 'C' class because all had names starting with C, such as Cooee, Cleopatra and Coogee.

QEA poster, c.1938. Courtesy Civil Aviation Historical Society.

With help from the Australian Government, QEA ordered six of the Short Empires. They were Australia's first commercially produced, all-metal aircraft. In May 1938 QEA moved its headquarters from Brisbane to Sydney.

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. Thus Qantas Empire Airways was born. The Empire Air Mail Scheme commenced in August 1938 and by the end of that year approximately 240 tons of mail had been transported each way between Australia and Britain.

Rose Bay International Airport – 1938

Rose Bay Terminal, c. 1938, photographer unknown. Courtesy Qantas.

Sydney's first international airport was in its harbour, at Rose Bay, to the east of Sydney Harbour Bridge. From 1938, the flying boat mail and passenger services from Rose Bay connected the city more closely than ever to the rest of the world. Rose Bay was part of a world network of water airports, including those at Singapore, Calcutta, Cairo, Southampton, New York (La Guardia), Auckland (Mechanics Bay) and locations in the South Pacific.

In 1938 Sydney Harbour was a much more work-dominated and industrial place than it is today. At the new Rose Bay Airport, the engineers and sheet metal workers carried out their tasks, such as changing engines and replacing damaged panels. Ground crews bolted wheels onto the sides of the flying boats so they could be hauled out of the water and beached for maintenance work.

Department of Civil Aviation employees laid flares on the water to make 'runways' for incoming pilots at night, and 'swept' Rose Bay in a launch to clear any rubbish that might damage a flying boat's hull during take off or alighting.

Maintenance engineers at work on Hythe flying boat, Rose Bay, late 1940s, photographer unknown. Courtesy Margaret Holle.

More than 270 people were working at the base in 1947, employees of Qantas Empire Airways and Trans Oceanic Airways, the Department of Civil Aviation, Amalgamated Wireless Australia (AWA), Shell Oil, and the Bureau of Meteorology.

Many considered Rose Bay Airport the ideal place to work. After all, you could do some fishing or take a swim in the harbour during lunch break. However workers carrying out maintenance tasks over the water risked losing their tools to the bottom of the harbour if they ever dropped them. To safeguard their tools, they tied them to their belts with a length of string or fishing line.

On board the Empire passenger service

The Empire flying boats travelled between Rose Bay and Southampton in only 10 days, as opposed to 40 days by sea, and they were able to take more passengers than earlier aircraft. They therefore started to compete with ships as a form of transport.

Luxurious levels of comfort and space aloft in 1938.

The trip between Rose Bay and Southampton involved nine overnight stops in luxury hotels or specially built accommodation, plus some 20 stops for refuelling. The flying boat would leave Rose Bay in Sydney at 7:30pm and arrive at Redland Bay at around 11:00pm. Two hours later, she was back in the air, on route to Noumea in New Caledonia, where passengers would go ashore for breakfast. Several days, and many stops later, the flying boat would arrive in London. Most stops were coastal stopovers near cities and towns such as Singapore, Rangoon and Athens. For the overland legs, stopovers required a lake or river for alighting, and included Allahabad in India and Habbaniya in Iraq.

Travel on the Empire flying boats was extremely luxurious. All tickets were first class, and the cost of a one-way ticket to Southampton was some £200, the same as an average year's wage. The first-ever in-flight service of meals and drinks was introduced on these Empire flying boats. They were also the first planes to offer reclining seats.

The interior of the Empire flying boats was very spacious, with 11-foot ceilings in the main promenade cabin. The windows were at standing height so that passengers could enjoy the views, which were unrestricted because the wing sat above the fuselage. Because the flying boats were rarely as high as 5,000 feet above the ground, the views were spectacular. (Museum of Sydney, From Sea to Sky).

PG Taylor's flights across the South Pacific and Indian Oceans

Patrick Gordon Taylor (1896-1966), by Norman Carter, 1940, courtesy of the NLA

Patrick Gordon Taylor, known as Bill Taylor, was well known as a superb navigator. Taylor grew up on Pittwater, the mouth of the Hawkesbury River to the north of Sydney. As a boy he explored the area in his dinghy and there developed a love of the sea, which re-emerged in his love of flying boats.

In 1939 Taylor navigated the world's first flight across the Indian Ocean from Western Australia to Kenya in the Catalina Guba II . In 1951 he made the first crossing of the South Pacific from Australia to Chile in the Catalina Frigate Bird II, via Tahiti and Easter Island.

Taylor was navigator on a number of pioneering flights with Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm. For him, navigation was something close to a religion. On an airmail flight in 1935, Taylor is

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.
The Golden Age Of Flying Boats In Australia

Taylor portrayed his exploit in the 1946 film, Smithy. Taylor received a number of honours, including the Empire Gallantry Medal for bravery in the 1935 attempted crossing of the Tasman which went very wrong. Taylor's heroism saved all aboard, including Kingsford Smith.

Flying boats at war 1939–45

The flying boats provided a vital war service for Australia. More than half the Qantas fleet was commissioned for war service by the Australian Government. All the fittings for sleeping accommodation, cabin crew and other passenger comforts were stripped from the aircraft to be replaced by guns and bomb racks.

In 1943 Qantas began a secret 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.

Postwar period

Once the war was over, military flying boats were up for sale and available for civilian ventures. Many were sold to enterprising ex-RAAF pilots such Bryan Monkton, Stewart Middlemiss and P G Taylor. As chairman of the family firm, P T Taylor Pty Ltd, and a director of Trans Oceanic Airways Pty Ltd, 'PG' operated the Sandringham 7 flying-boat Frigate Bird III from Sydney on Pacific island cruises in 1954-58.

Flying boats lent themselves to enterprises such as a fish transport run between Tasmania and the mainland and whaling at Albany in Western Australia where a Catalina of Australian wartime origin was used as a spotter. (Whaling in Albany)

The Pacific, holidays, honeymoons

More typically, when Catalinas and Sunderlands had their military fittings removed, passenger seating was installed.

Passengers on board the launch departing the Antilles, late 1940s, Lord Howe Island, photographer Dick Morris. Courtesy Hazel Payten.

Qantas flying boats ushered in an era of pleasurable flying – they were built for comfort and safety rather than speed. New airlines such as Barrier Reef Airways and Trans Oceanic Airways appeared. In this period, flying became more affordable.

While the rest of the world experienced a decline in the use of flying boats in the 1950s and 1960s, in Australia it was for a while a lively period of expansion.

Flying boats were perfect for travel to the South Pacific, including to Fiji, New Guinea, Nouméa and Tahiti. Here land airports were still uncommon but harbours and lagoons were ever present. Flying boats opened up the South Pacific as a holiday playground for tens of thousands of Australians who returned year after year.

Lord Howe Island service

Short C Class flying boat G-ADUT Centaurus moored on the Brisbane River, c. 1938, courtesy of Tom Gould

Lord Howe Island is the destination most strongly associated with flying boats in the post war period. Thousands of Australians spent their holidays at this unspoilt location, 600 km east of the northern New South Wales coast. Flying boats played a big role in the lives of the islanders themselves, serving as their quickest connection to the mainland. The last flights to Norfolk Island and Lord Howe left Rose Bay in 1974.

From 1953 to 1971, flying boats also operated from Redland Bay on the Brisbane River. These were mainly Sunderland Flying Boats travelling from Sydney to the United Kingdom. Ansett, formerly known as Barrier Reef Airways also operated flying boats from Redland Bay, taking tourists to Hayman Island in North Queensland. Before 1946 flying boats used the Hamilton Reach of the Brisbane River but this was later congested with shipping and unusable after dark.

By the early 1970s only two flying boats remained at the Rose Bay base: Beachcomber and Islander. In 1974 these were sold to Charles F Blair, who had commanded in the US Air Force. Blair planned to use the aircraft to fly 'island cruises' throughout the Caribbean. Unfortunately, his plan was never realised. He was killed in 1978 when a seaplane he was piloting crashed in the Caribbean. (Museum of Sydney).

End of the era of flying boats

Farewelling the last flying boat service from Lord Howe Island, 1974, photographer Dick Morris. Courtesy Hazel Payten.

The growth in the number and length of land-based runways during the Second World War took away the flying boats' advantage of being able to alight on water. Moreover, the waterways of the world became more crowded, with less space for long take-offs. Sydney Harbour, for instance, now carries far more pleasure boats than in the 1930s. Because they are built to take off and alight on water, flying boats are slower and less efficient than land-based planes. They are vulnerable to damage by storms and their upkeep is also more costly due to constant contact with salt water.

As the speed and range of land-based aircraft increased, the commercial competitiveness of flying boats shrank even more. Helicopters have taken over the air-sea rescue role and true flying boats are rare.

Where to see flying boats

Flying boats are well loved and a few have been carefully preserved:

  • PG Taylor's Frigate Bird II Catalina, in which he and his crew crossed the South Pacific from Chile to Australia for the first time, is on display at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.
  • A restored RAAF Seagull 5 flying boat is at the RAAF Museum, Point Cook, Melbourne. It was wrecked and lay icebound in Antarctica for many years.
  • A Catalina flying boat was bought in May 2013 in Puerto Rico to go on display in a new museum in the former RAAF base at Rathmines, New South Wales. Enthusiasts have been searching for a Catalina for years for this purpose.
  • Whale World at Albany in Western Australia has a Catalina of Australian wartime origin that was used as a spotter in the whaling industry after the Second World War.
  • Lake Boga Flying Boat Museum display a restored Catalina.
  • Qantas Founders Museum at Longreach in Queensland will soon have a Catalina on display.
  • Australian National Aviation Museum at Moorabbin, Melbourne, has a Catalina fuselage on display and being restored.

Useful links

Look listen and play

Exhibition and events

Organisations and restorations

Film and DVD

Online resources

Print resources

  • Historic Houses Trust and Museum of Sydney, Flying boats: Sydney's Golden Age of Aviation, 2008, exhibition brochure and other information
  • PG Taylor, Bird of the Islands: The Story of a Flying Boat in the South Seas, Cassell Australia, Melbourne, 1964
  • B. Freeman, Lake Boga at War, Catalina Publications, Swan Hill, 1995
  • D. Morrissey, A History of Air Transport in Australia, Macmillan Education, Melbourne, 1998
  • David Embry Jones, Wings on the River: Flying Boats on the Brisbane River and Redland Bay, ,Boolarong Press, 2007

Acknowledgements

The exhibition 'Flying boats: Sydney's Golden Age of Aviation' at the Museum of Sydney, 2008 is acknowledged as an extensive source of information.
Thanks to Matthew Holle of Sydney Living Museums and to Graham Malcolm, Chairman of the Australian National Aviation Museum, Moorabbin, for valuable information and insights.

Last updated: 30 October 2013
Creator: Kathryn Wells

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