Still The Longest: The PBY Double Sunrise Flights
Guest Editorial written by Tom Harwood, Curator, Qantas Founders Museum — The new generation of airliners is making 15 or 17-hour flights common but the record for the longest-duration scheduled flights ever was set 76 years ago. From 1935, Australia’s Qantas Empire Airways and England’s Imperial Airways operated a service between the two countries. QEA flew Australia-Singapore while Imperial did Singapore-England to connect the eastern parts of the British Empire.
When the Japanese invaded Singapore and South East Asia in February 1942, the service stopped. The only air connection between the two countries was across the Pacific Ocean via New Zealand, then across the USA and the Atlantic Ocean. QEA crews had delivered the first Royal Australian Air Force Consolidated PBY Catalinas in 1941 and discovered the aircraft’s long-range capabilities. Managing Director Hudson Fysh arranged with the British government for QEA to borrow 5 obsolete Royal Air Force Catalina flying boats to re-open the Indian Ocean route. Because they were loaned, they wore British civil registrations.
As Chief Pilot Bill Crowther suggested, each was named after one of the primary celestial navigation stars: ‘Altair Star’, ‘Vega Star’, ‘Rigel Star’, ‘Antares Star’, ‘Spica Star’. A weekly non-stop service launched between Perth in Western Australia and Lake Koggala in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) from 10th July 1943. After a few weeks, the frequency was doubled. In November 1943, the service was extended, after crew-change at Koggala, by 12 hours to Karachi.
Extra tanks were fitted to give the aircraft an endurance of 36 hours. Because of safety concerns at such high weights, QEA engineers fitted fuel dump valves to both wings. The original design could only dump from one side. The average length of each 5.633 km flight was 27 hours – the longest was almost 32 hours – so crews and passengers often saw the sun rise twice during the flight and it was called the ‘Double Sunrise’ service.
Passengers received a ‘Secret Order of the Double Sunrise’ certificate but couldn’t show anyone. Because it flew through Japanese-patrolled areas, the operation was conducted in absolute secrecy for the first 12 months. Crews weren’t allowed to wear their airline uniforms outside the QEA base at Matilda Bay on Perth’s Swan River and were often accused of being cowards because, as fit young men, people thought they should be in the military. They were taking greater risks in their unarmed aircraft than many men in uniform.
To prevent the enemy detecting and tracing their carrier waves, Radio Operators listened but didn’t send. They received weather reports in code by Morse code from Koggala or Perth every 2 hours. Mail was micro-filmed to save weight. On average, only 3 passengers were carried on each flight. Each passenger had to prove a need to travel so most were military or political VIPs. The public knew nothing about the service until August 1944 when Fysh revealed it in a Sydney newspaper article. The Japanese were then being pushed back north.
The service continued for another 12 months in parallel with converted land-based B-24 Liberator bombers – another Consolidated product – which took over completely from July 1945. In 2 years, the Cats crossed the Ocean 271 times, flying 2.221.095 km with 858 passengers, 41.183 kg of cargo and 94.012 kg of mail.
None of the aircraft could be sold due to their military origin, so 4 were towed to deep water off Rottnest Island and used for machine gun practice. The fifth was flown to Sydney, towed through the Heads and given the same treatment.
Tom Harwood is the curator at the Qantas Founders Museum. The Museum tells the story of Qantas from the early days in Outback Queensland to the present day. Displays focus on the founding figures of Qantas, life in Outback Queensland in the 1920s and the advancement and impact of aviation in Australia and the world. The museums aircraft collection incorporates four of the world’s most significant aircraft – the Consolidated PBY Catalina Flying Boat, Douglas DC-3, Boeing 707 and the legendary Boeing 747. In addition, there are full scale replicas of some of the most important aircraft in the early Qantas fleet – de Havilland DH-61 Giant Moth, de Havilland DH-50, and Avro 504K Dyak; Qantas’ first aircraft. For more information, please see the Qantas Founders Museum Brochure.