There has been a lot of angst in recent years about Sydney’s single international airport. Surely a city of the size and stature of Sydney should have a second airport capable of handling international flights.

Curiously, once upon a time Sydney did have a second international airport, as close to the city as you could get: Rose Bay.  Between 1938 and 1974 Rose Bay operated as Sydney’s flying boat base with flights to London, Asia, New Zealand and the South Pacific.

The Coolangatta takes flight from Rose Bay c1939

Flying boats were all the rage in the years prior to World War II.  With domestic air travel in its infancy and few large planes capable of long haul flights, flying boats were big enough and powerful enough to cover distance with enough room for passenger comfort.

The first large flying boat, the Empire Airlines boat Centaurus arrived from England on a survey mission for the proposed route in January 1937.

The public hype was enough to attract 50,000 people to the harbour to see it land.  When finished, the Rose Bay base included a large hanger on land, with slipways and terminal facilities for the boats and passengers.  The start of the service also saw the QANTAS headquarters move from Brisbane to Sydney where it remains.

The first through service from Sydney to Southampton flew in July 1938 with the Empire Flying Boat and Air Mail Service Cooee flying a first class service with 30 stops between Sydney and London.  Up the east coast, the boats then crossed the Timor Sea heading to Singapore, before hopping across Asia, the Middle East and Europe for a ten day trip.  Set downs included the Sea of Galilee and a lake in central Iran.

The flying boats took 24 passengers with sleeping accommodation for 16.  They included a galley where food was prepared, a promenade deck where passengers could stretch their legs, have a drink or even play quoits or putt golf (at least they could in the promotional adverts!).

The flights operated from the Australian end by QANTAS, also included a steward, the first on Australian planes.  Breakfast and lunch were served on board, while passengers were accommodated in first class hotels at the end of each flying day.

Two Qantas flying boats sit at anchor at Rose Bay airport, c1938

It was a bit pricey though with tickets costing around twice the average annual wage.  A second service between Sydney and Auckland started in 1940, with South Pacific runs and Timor flights (using Catalina’s) soon following.

The service had hardly been running when war broke out in Europe.  Although this was no real impediment (other than a re-routing of flights), war in Asia from 1941 was a different prospect.  Suddenly the service was frontline and involved in evacuating civilians out of Asia in advance of the Japanese invasion (about 8000 out of Singapore alone).

In January 1942 the flying boat Corio was shot down, with only 5 of the 18 on board surviving.  By March 1942 the international flying boat service was severed, the RAAF had commandeered aircraft and QANTAS had lost 5 of 10 boats.  Fitted with new, longer range Catalina’s however, the service was back in the air to Europe by mid 1943.  Those that flew the route were inducted into the Secret Order of the Double Sunrise, signifying them spending more than 24 hours continuously in the air.

With the end of war the civilian flying boats restarted but now in competition with long range land planes, mostly converted bombers.  Using Catalina’s the service now took 5 ½ days with new routes opening to Noumea and Fiji.

In 1955 QANTAS discontinued the flying boat service, selling its aircraft to Ansett Airways who continued the service 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; a curious cross-over between the shipping lines and the age of air travel.

Although the boats are gone the hint of them remains, with Catalina’s restaurant named in memory and the float plane service still flying out of Rose Bay.

Is it worth putting Rose Bay forward once more in the second airport debate I wonder?

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