In the mid-1930s Australia signed up to the Empire Air Mail Scheme to take mail from Sydney to England by flying boat.
With commercial air travel to Australia in its infancy (the first regular service only starting in 1933), the flying boats were to be operated as a joint venture between Qantas and Imperial Airways, then England’s largest airline. Qantas would fly Sydney to Singapore via Brisbane, Gladstone, Darwin and Indonesia, after which Imperial Airways would take them on to Southampton via Thailand, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Libya and France. Set downs included the Sea of Galilee and a lake in central Iran.
A terminal was built on the shores of Rose Bay through 1936, with moorings for the flying boats, a terminal for passengers, a hanger for the planes and slipways to get them in and out of the harbour. As it was a joint Australia-England venture, the planes were sourced from the English Short Brothers factory. Six flying boats were built by Short Brothers for the run – Coolangatta, Cooee, Carpentaria, Corio, Coogee and Coorong. These flying boats were big enough and powerful enough to cover distance with plenty of room for passenger comfort.
The first through service from Sydney to Southampton left Rose Bay on 5 July 1938. The Cooee flew a first class service with 30 stops between Sydney and London. The official opening of the terminal and the regular service followed on 4 August.
The flying boats took 15 passengers, two pilots and three crew. Food was prepared in a galley on board, a promenade deck allowed passengers to stretch their legs, have a drink or even play quoits or putt golf (according to the brochure). Breakfast and lunch were served on board, while passengers were accommodated in first class hotels at the end of each flying day.
The first flights took ten days one-way. It was pricey, with tickets costing £205 Sydney–London; less for shorter distances. At a time when the average wage was £3 per week, it was well beyond the reach of most people. A second service between Sydney and Auckland started in 1940, with South Pacific runs and Timor flights (using Catalinas) soon following.
The outbreak of war in Europe meant the re-routing of flights, but war in Asia from 1941 saw the service suspended. Flights were now in the frontline and involved evacuating civilians out of Asia in advance of the Japanese invasion (about 8,000 out of Singapore alone). In January 1942 the flying boat Corio was shot down and in March 1942 the service was stopped.
With the end of war, the civilian flying boats restarted but were now in competition with long range land based planes, including many former WWII bombers. Using former military Catalina’s the flying boat service now took 5 ½ days to England, with new routes opening to Noumea and Fiji.
In 1955 Qantas discontinued the flying boat service, selling its aircraft to Ansett Airways. Ansett continued to fly to the South Pacific until the last flights to Norfolk Island and Lord Howe left Rose Bay in 1974. These were not only the last for Sydney but the last flying boat service in the world.
Soon after the terminal and the infrastructure was removed. Today Rose Bay’s Catalina restaurant serves as a hint of what had once been Sydney’s premier international airport.
You can read more in Kim Hanna’s entry on Rose Bay Airport on the Dictionary here: https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/rose_bay_airport
Mark Dunn is the former Chair of the NSW Professional Historians Association and former Deputy Chair of the Heritage Council of NSW. He is currently a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of NSW. You can read more of his work on the Dictionary of Sydney here. Mark appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Mark!