The golden age of fly­ing boats

Australian Traveller - - Contents -

THE PLACID WA­TERS of Rose Bay in Syd­ney are dis­rupted only when a sea­plane comes in to land and take off again; whisk­ing high­fly­ers away for joy rides over the city, or to leisurely lunches on Palm Beach or the Hawkes­bury River. The Syd­ney Sea­planes base sits a stone’s throw from the wa­ter­front fine-din­ing in­sti­tu­tion, Catalina – its name a nod to Rose Bay’s sur­pris­ing his­tory. On 5 July, 1938, an Em­pire Class fly­ing boat de­parted from here: Aus­tralia’s first in­ter­na­tional air­port. It was bound for Eng­land, and marked the start of the golden age of Aus­tralian avi­a­tion, when moder­nity and lux­ury com­bined. Over 10 days – with 30 stops along what would be­come known as the ‘Kan­ga­roo’ route – pas­sen­gers en­joyed a first-class ser­vice, in­clud­ing break­fasts of grape­fruit, steak and pineap­ple juice and an on­board wine cel­lar. But the nov­elty didn’t come cheap; tick­ets were far be­yond the reach of most Aus­tralians, at a price that was equiv­a­lent to an an­nual salary. The ser­vice was sus­pended in 1942, as war took hold and the planes were req­ui­si­tioned by the air force. By the time nor­mal life re­sumed af­ter the war, land-based air­craft had de­vel­oped ex­po­nen­tially and fly­ing boats were look­ing in­creas­ingly anachro­nis­tic. Syd­ney, though – and its am­ple wa­ters – re­mained well-placed to ex­ploit their as­sets, and so be­gan a new era for the fly­ing boats. Their sights were now set on Aus­tralia’s east coast and sur­round­ing South Pa­cific des­ti­na­tions. Matthew Holle, cu­ra­tor of the Mu­seum of Syd­ney’s 2008 ex­hi­bi­tion Fly­ing boats: Syd­ney’s golden age of avi­a­tion, re­calls his ear­li­est mem­ory of these air­crafts, land­ing in a la­goon on Lord Howe Island. “As we touched down a huge plume of wa­ter cov­ered the win­dow so much so that it felt like we were un­der­wa­ter,” he says. “We then tax­ied to a moor­ing and were greeted by is­lan­ders in a ten­der who brought us ashore to the most un­spoilt island in the Pa­cific.” Holle’s par­ents worked on the fly­ing boats at the Rose Bay ter­mi­nal. His mother, Mar­garet Belling­ham, was a hostie when she met Holle’s fa­ther Noel, a main­te­nance and flight en­gi­neer. The work took the fam­ily far and wide, as fly­ing boats re­mained com­mer­cially vi­able and af­ford­able – much more than they had been in the ’30s, at least – un­til the mid-1970s. And while a ride with Syd­ney Sea­planes today might not take you as far as Fiji, Noumea or in­deed Eng­land, it’s still a thrill. The ter­mi­nal at Rose Bay hosts a small mu­seum ded­i­cated to the fly­ing boats and their fab­u­lous his­tory, and Holle re­calls some idio­syn­cratic in­ci­dents that have be­come the stuff of leg­end: “One pilot was fly­ing to Hay­man Island and was about to touch down when a huge whale sur­faced di­rectly in front! They quickly pulled up and went around be­fore suc­cess­fully alight­ing. An­other time a pilot – who was more used to fly­ing land planes – was re­turn­ing to Syd­ney and for­got he was in charge of a fly­ing boat. He was mak­ing an ap­proach to a run­way at Mas­cot when the first of­fi­cer leaned over and re­minded him they had no wheels, only a hull. Af­ter pulling up, they were fi­nally on the wa­ter at Rose Bay. He thanked the first of­fi­cer, say­ing ‘I would have looked a damn fool had I at­tempted that land­ing’. He was so em­bar­rassed he quickly turned around and stepped out of the door with­out look­ing, and splashed straight into the har­bour.”

FROM TOP: Air­crew (in­clud­ing Matthew Holle’s mother, Mar­garet) depart Lord Howe Island with bun­dles of king­fish, late ’50s; The last fly­ing boat ser­vice from Lord Howe Island in 1974; A Syd­ney Sea­planes flight over Palm Beach.

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