These photographs were taken one day in 1974 when I visited Lord Howe Island, spending about two hours on the island. The sole purpose of the trip was to experience travel on a flying boat.

The flying boat service from Sydney to Lord Howe Island was — I believe — the last regular use of large flying boats anywhere in the world.

Flying boats had intrigued me from the first time I became aware of their existence. Probably at the age of about eight — seeing a description and pictures, including the luxurious interior — of one the Short Empire flying boats. At that stage I was not aware that flying boats were already obsolete.

The design of flying boats as illustrated on this webpage date from about 1937. They provided a level of roominess and luxury on long distance international flights — such as Australia to England — that has never been equalled.

But that luxury service, starting in 1938 was very short lived as the second world war brought it to a premature end. In any case, the fares were astronomical, you either had to be extremely rich or a Very Important Person to take an international trip on an Empire Flying Boat. Their main purpose was to carry air-mail.

Flying boats were designed to take off and return to the surface only on water. At a time when there were few airfields that was an advantage. World war II lead to the construction of numerous airfields throughout the world. As a result at the end of the war the flying boats' days were numbered.

Lord Howe Island flying boat service

Lord Howe Island is about 11 km long, and 2 km wide, and has a population of 350. It is part of the Australian state of New South Wales, and lies in the Pacific Ocean, about 770 km east-north-east of Sydney. It is listed on the World Heritage Register due to its rare bird and plant life.

From the 1950s to 1974 Lord Howe Island's main connection with the outside world was by flying boat. This came to an end in September 1974, when an airfield was constructed on the island.

Since I had always wanted to travel on a flying boat, I called Ansett — who operated the service — to enquire about making a booking. They told me the service was soon coming to an end and that they were no longer taking bookings. However, through a contact at the Victorian Government Tourist Bureau I succeeded in getting tickets.

It all seemed an expensive folly, especially as the cost of a return train fare from Melbourne to Sydney and a night's accommodation in Sydney had to be added.

In retrospect, it was money well spent. The experience was priceless!

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Beachcomber (VH-BRC) waits for departure at Sydney's Rose Bay flying boat base.

Beachcomber was built in the United Kingdom as a Short Sunderland Mark 3 flying boat in 1943 (Short Bros construction number 2018). Sunderlands were a military flying boat, the design being based on the Empire flying boat. They were slightly smaller than the Empire flying boat, but still a big aircraft for the time. This one did not operate as a Sunderland, being kept in reserve. In 1947 it was converted by Short Bros to a Sandringham Mark IV Tasman class flying boat.

The Sandringham flying boat was a major rebuild of the Sunderland for civilian service. It had seating for thirty passengers, and from October 1947 to December 1949 was used by Tasman Empire Air Lines (TEAL, now Air New Zealand) on the Australia — New Zealand route.

In 1950 this flying boat was refitted with 41 seats for domestic service on the Australian east coast. In that service it had various owners. The seating was arranged in compartments, as in a railway carriage, with passengers facing each other. There was plenty of space, and leg room. It provided a civilised form of air travel.

Meanwhile Islander (VH-BRF) waits in Rose Bay, and will follow Beachcomber, after its departure for Lord Howe Island. At this time two flying boats — Islander and Beachcomber were in service on the Lord Howe Island run. The timetable varied from day to day, and was dictated by the tides at Lord Howe Island. One flying boat followed the other, apparently one on its own was insufficient to carry the load.

Islander was built in the United Kingdom as a Short Sunderland Mark 3 flying boat in 1944 (Short Bros construction number SH.113). It worked in the Royal Air Force, the Royal Canadian Air Force, the Royal Norwegian Air Force, and the Royal New Zealand Air Force before being taken out of service in New Zealand in 1959. It was sold to Ansett in 1963. They refitted it at Rose Bay in 1964 as a passenger flying boat, seating 42 people. Unlike Beachcomber, the seating was arranged in the normal aircraft way, all facing forward. This made travelling on Islander less interesting than Beachcomber. On Beachcomber you could strike up a conversation with your fellow travellers, and have more leg room.

Ansett purchased Islander to replace Short Sandringham flying boat VH-BRE Pacific Chieftan which had been damaged beyond repair in July 1963, when it broke its moorings during an overnight storm at Lord Howe Island.

Close up of Islander's tail.

And the front end.

On board Beachcomber with window seat downstairs in cabin A or B — an ideal location for photography. As the long slow lumbering take-off begins, Islander can be seen outside the window.

The take-off continues ...

and another view of Islander during Beachcomber's take-off.

And again.

An interesting view of the non-flying boat Shintai.

At last Beachcomber is airborne, whilst a Sydney harbour ferry goes on its way.

 

 

After about 2-1/2 hours the island came into sight. This is Balls Pyramid, a rocky outcrop off the coast of Lord Howe Island. The flying boats cruise speed was about 150 mph (240 km/h), and top speed around 200 mph (320 km/h). .

Fortunately — from my viewpoint — we ran into a storm on the way, and the flight became exceedingly rough, which made the trip far more interesting and therefore better value for money! It is the only time I have been on an aircraft where the rain has leaked in through the windows.

Coming in to the lagoon at Lord Howe Island.

Beachcomber at Lord Howe Island with the service launch under its wing.

Beachcomber at Lord Howe Island with a smaller service launch under its wing.

A view of Lord Howe Island near the airport.

Islander with a service launch departing.

Beachcomber on the left, and Islander at Lord Howe Island

Close up of Beachcomber.

And Islander

The departure jetty at Lord Howe Island. Passengers were ferried to the flying boat on the launch. Beachcomber can be seen in the top left already on its way, whilst Islander waits to take its passengers on board.

"Landing" in a flying boat was interesting. As the hull made contact with the water it sounded as if the hull was being pounded by rocks, and there was a lot of spray temporarily obliterating vision through the windows.

Links

Fortunately both Beachcomber and Islander have survived and been preserved in museums. Neither have operated since the early 1990s, and neither now have airworthiness certificates. Beachcomber belongs to the Science Museum, London, and is on display at the Southampton "Hall of Aviation". It has been returned to the condition and livery it was in when last operated by Ansett on the Lord Howe Island service. Islander is on display at the Fantasy of Flight Museum, Miami, Florida, USA.

VH BRC Beachcomber

This link gives a concise but detailed life history of the Short Sandringham flying boat VH-BRC Beachcomber illustrated above, and includes many photographs including pictures of the interior.

VH BRF Islander

This link gives a concise but detailed life history of the Short Sunderland flying boat VH BRF Islander illustrated above, and includes many photographs including pictures of the interior.

List of all Short flying boats which operated in Australia

This link lists all Short flying boats known to have operated in Australia, with links to details of each of them. Note, the flying boats are listed by registration code, not construction number. As most flying boats had a number of registration codes during their life the number of entries on the list far exceeds the number of flying boats which actually operated.

Flying Boats - Sydney's first international airport

This is a pdf containing images of international and Lord Howe Island flying boats, and other memorabilia, which featured in an exhibition at the Museum of Sydney in 2008.

The Golden Age of Flying Boats in Australia

This is a detailed article on the era of flying boats in Australia.

Flying Boats - Sydney's golden age of aviation

Another detailed article on the flying boat era - this one in reCollections, Journal of the National Museum of Australia.

Fantasy of Flight - Short Sunderland

This is a webpage of the current owners of Islander. It includes many photographs, technical specifications, and a very interesting description of how Short flying boats were manoeuvred in the water.

Short S.25/V Sandringham 4 - VH-BRC Beachcomber

This is a webpage of the current custodians of Beachcomber.

Seawings

This is a website operated by a flying-boat enthusiast. If you select "Walk-Rounds" on the home-page menu, then go down the list to "SHORTS" and find "Sandringham" click on this and it will lead you to a wonderful collection of detailed photographs of Beachcomber preserved in the Southampton "Hall of Aviation" museum. These include all parts of its interior.

Now go back to the home page and select "References" on the menu, then select "Short Empire Reference Archive". You will now find a marvellous collection of information on Short Empire flying-boats, including the full maintenance manual in pdf form (20 Mb), and two books in pdf format.

Lord Howe Island - information

This link gives details of Lord Howe Island

Links to YouTube videos

Islander and Beachcomber in action

This is an excellent 8 minute 40 second film taken towards the end of the Lord Howe Island operation. It includes cockpit scenes, taking-off and "landing" at Sydney and Lord Howe Island, and views of the flying boats in flight. The in-flight views around Sydney are particularly interesting as the flying boats are shown with Sydney harbour bridge, the opera house, and modern high rise buildings as backdrops.

If you only watch one of these videos — this is the one to watch!

VH BRC Beachcomber taking off from Lord Howe Island

This is a 43 second extract from the film above. It shows Beachcomber taking off, and includes a glimpse of Islander waiting to follow.

Beachcomber - returns to England for preservation

This shows the former Beachcomber in flight and landing on the Solent River, Southampton in 1977, in preparation for its preservation at the Hall of Aviation, Southampton, England.

Short Empire flying boats - Part 1

This is a 10 minute item made up of extracts from a number of 1937 and 1938 newsreel films showing Qantas and Imperial Airlines Short Empire flying boats doing test and demonstration runs in England, Ireland, Newfoundland, the USA, Australia and New Zealand.

Short Empire flying boats - Part 2

This is a 3-minute addition to the previous item. It is a 1938 newsreel film the Empire flying boats of Qantas and Imperial Airways in Australia, New Zealand and England.

Short Sunderland flying boats and the Berlin airlift

This is a 4 minute documentary recording the use of Sunderland flying boats in 1948 operating between Hamburg and a lake in the western sector of Berlin, to help provide vital supplies to the residents of West Berlin at a time when the USSR had blocked all land access to West Berlin.


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All photographs Copyright Frank Stamford who may be contacted by email at: frank.stamford@bigpond.com

Last updated: 29 December 2009