Flying Boats: Sydney's Golden Age of Aviation

The 1930s were widely considered aviation’s ‘golden’ age, a time when modernity and luxury combined to define an era in world travel that will almost certainly never be repeated. In Australia the Empire flying boat became a symbol of this era, carrying passengers to many exotic locations around the world in a journey of unprecedented airborne luxury. 

The establishment of the Rose Base flying boat base and this golden age were explored in Flying boats: Sydney’s golden age of aviation exhibition at the Museum of Sydney.

At the end of 1934 the British Government decided to implement an air service that would deliver mail to every country in the Commonwealth at a standard rate. Flying boats were the ideal transport as they could carry much larger freight loads than the land-based aircraft of the time. They were also able to alight and take off from any reasonably large body of calm water, so were capable of making the frequent stops that flying long distances required. Imperial Airways, then Britain’s major airline, commissioned Short Brothers to build a large, long-range flying boat, known as the ‘Short Empire’. With the assistance of the Australian Government, Qantas Empire Airways ordered six of the aircraft and, in May 1938, the airline moved its rapidly expanding operations from Brisbane to Sydney. 

The harbourside suburb of Rose Bay was selected as the site for Australia’s first international airport, primarily because it was a large bay with calm water located close to the city. Other sites considered were Rushcutters Bay and Botany Bay. The latter had been a highly favoured option due to its proximity to the aerodrome at Mascot, but a water airport at Botany Bay would have required building a breakwater, estimated to cost £60,000. At the time, many major cities around the world already possessed water airports, or marine air terminals as they were called in the United States. To fly internationally in the 1930s travellers would most likely depart from a water airport in a flying boat, and it was not until after World War II that commercial land airports and their aircraft became more widely used. 

As well as mail, Empire flying boats could carry up to 14 passengers and with a flight time of only ten days from Rose Bay to Southampton compared to more than 40 days by sea, they began to rival ships as a popular form of transport. Flying boats provided a first class only service (this was long before the advent of ‘economy’ class) – out of reach of most Australians as a ticket cost the equivalent of an annual salary. 

Interior of Flying Boats exhibition showing a mannequin of a hostess.
This article draws on the exhibition Flying Boats: Sydney's Golden Age of Aviation on display at the Museum of Sydney from 10 May to 14 September 2008 and was written by Matthew Holle, Exhibition Curator. Photo © Sydney Living Museums.
Inside a flying baot a group sit around a table and make a toast with the standing hostess.
Flying boats provided a first class only service (this was long before the advent of ‘economy’ class) – out of reach of most Australians as a ticket cost the equivalent of an annual salary. Qantas promotional image Courtesy Qantas Heritage Collection. Card game, Empire flying boat. Photographer unknown, c1938. Russell Roberts Pty Ltd.
The harbourside suburb of Rose Bay was selected as the site for Australia’s first international airport

Travellers in the 1930s were used to the comforts of a large ship. On the flying boats they experienced what it was like to ‘sail the skies’. Indeed, Short Brothers, the company who built the Empires, claimed ‘We don’t build aircraft that float, we build ships that fly’. Empire flying boats contained a promenade cabin, galley, wine cellar and plenty of space to stroll about and socialise, as seen in the many onboard photographs featured in the exhibition. The Empires cruised at just 150 miles per hour and usually no higher than 5000 feet. The promenade cabin featured windows at standing height so passengers could take in the view as the landscape and oceans below passed serenely by.

The Empires introduced the first ever in-flight service and although there were no cooking facilities on board, passengers did not want for anything. A typical breakfast consisted of grapefruit, steak and pineapple juice, while lunch could be ham, salad and strawberry ice cream – all served by smartly dressed stewards. Passengers also enjoyed generous servings of fresh Hawkesbury oysters. The flying boats did not operate during the night, so the voyage from Australia to England required nine overnight stops. Passengers stayed at luxury hotels, such as Raffles in Singapore, or in accommodation built specially by the airline. 

Two figures hold a flag as a large flying boat flies just over their heads.
The Skyways are Today's Highways' Walter Jardine for Qantas Empire Airways, colour lithograph, 1939, Australian War Memorial © Qantas
A man and a woman look at a map of the world with a sleek aircraft flying across it.
Fly Q.E.A. and B.O.A.C. maker unknown, colour lithograph, 1948 Powerhouse Museum, Sydney © Qantas
Qantas poster showing a lady with a basket on her head and a small boat on a river behind
The short cut to the colourful east, Qantas Empire Airways Harry J Weston, colour lithograph, 1939, Powerhouse Museum, Sydney © Qantas

All this luxury disappeared with the outbreak of World War II in September 1939. Needing aircraft capable of long-range operations, the Australian Government impressed a number of Empire flying boats into service with the RAAF. By 1944 all the Empires that had seen service had either crashed or been destroyed by enemy fire and by 1948 there was only one Empire remaining in Australia – it was broken up for scrap in January of that year.

The war also saw the arrival in Australia of the Catalina, perhaps the best-known and most loved flying boat of all. Catalinas were long range patrol bombers and undertook many dangerous night-time flights mining Japanese harbours. They also kept the air route to Europe open after the fall of Singapore by flying epic nonstop flights from Perth to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). It is ironic that the same war that saw flying boats serve with such distinction was also the catalyst for their demise. The massive building works of both airstrips and land-based aircraft undertaken during the war resulted in the marginalisation of the flying boats, which were more expensive to maintain. New technology meant that seaplanes were no longer larger and faster than land-based aircraft.

Although the postwar years saw the worldwide demise of flying boats, Sydney remained uniquely placed to take advantage of their waterborne capabilities. With air travel becoming more affordable, the Rose Bay flying boats set their sights on Australia's east coast and surrounding South Pacific destinations.

Many Sydney residents enjoyed travelling on the flying boats for holidays to Hayman Island; two-week South Seas 'cruises' to Fiji, Noumea and the Cook Islands; charters to Lake Eucumbene near the Snowy Mountains; and trips to Lord Howe Island. Thousands of Sydneysiders holidayed on this island, many returning year after year. Some travellers met for the first time there and returned as married couples on honeymoon. The journey to Lord Howe Island on the flying boat was an integral part of their holiday experience.

By the early 1970s increasing maritime traffic on Sydney Harbour had resulted in the restriction of flying boat services and only two of the aircraft remained at the Rose Bay base. After an airstrip was built on Lord Howe Island in 1974, the two remaining flying boats were sold off and finished their working days in the Caribbean. When the flying boat base closed that same year, a unique chapter in Sydney's history came to an end.

Matthew Holle was the curator of the Flying Boats exhibition.

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