Lord Howe Island by flying boat: a golden age in colour and B&W, c 1951
// Maritime Archaeology «
Vintage 1950s Australian nostalgia is the theme of the latest set of commercial photographs from the emerging Gervais Purcell archive at the Australian National Maritime Museum.
Taken on assignment for Ansett Airways, these images from the brief and glamorous years of the Australian flying boats are doubly significant because they mark the advent of colour photography, and the black and white frames among them suggest a transition period where both formats were in demand.Early colour film processing and printing was expensive and didn't become widespread in Australia until the late 1950s. The Melbourne Argus newspaper, for example, was one of the early adopters of the technology (in 1952) and accrued significant debt in its aggressive move to lead the market. Teething problems and technical complications sometimes delayed print-runs, but printers, advertisers and commercial photographers like Gervais had to embrace the change and quickly master the new medium. The tourism industry was well placed to harness the photogenic potential of exotic landscapes and a world beginning to transmit colour. Lord Howe Island is a volcanic remnant situated 600 kilometres north-east of the coast of New South Wales in the Tasman Sea. It is a registered UNESCO World Heritage Site. These days its dominant industry is tourism but during World War II it became a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) meteorological station and radio base from which large Catalina flying boats flew regular military excursions.
The first sea-plane to arrive on the island was in 1931, and you can read about that particular aviation expedition by Francis Chichester (also renowned for his achievements in sailing and navigation) on the Lord Howe Island Museum website.
Flying boats are distinguished from sea-planes by their boat-like hulls that can rest in the water. The pilots of both types of craft needed good nautical skills to manage the planes and negotiate the changing conditions of wind and sea.Trans-Oceanic Airways (TOA) pioneered the first commercial passenger flying boat service to Lord Howe in August 1947, with Qantas starting a similar service to the island a few months later. Both companies used Catalina and Sandringham planes and operated out of the Rose Bay Airport on Sydney Harbour. At the time, Australians were listening to Perry Como and Bing Crosby, and learning about Christian Dior's New Look Parisienne fashions.
When TOA and Qantas ceased the Lord Howe Island route three years later in 1950, Ansett filled the niche. The airline offered up to six flights a week to the island from Rose Bay, each way a three-hour trip.
There were three flying boats during Ansett's 27-year service: Beachcomber, Pacific Chieftain and Islander. All were Sandringham type craft. Beachcomber, which features in Gervais' photographs, was originally built in the UK as a Sunderland (1943) and was converted by Ansett to a Sandringham. Pacific Chieftain suffered severe storm damage twice in 1964 and was replaced by Islander.
By 1974 the production of flying boats had greatly diminished, parts were expensive and technology and times were moving on – Perry Como and Bing Crosby gave way to Stevie Wright's Evie on the Australian charts and flared trousers and psychedelic prints were making their way into fashion. A land airstrip was constructed on Lord Howe and Qantas brought in modern planes that could carry larger numbers of people from Sydney and beyond with greater speed. When Beachcomber and Islander left the island for the last time in 1974, the brief golden age of Australian aviation shimmered into history.
What became of the two surviving Ansett flying boats? Well, both Beachcomber and Islander were sold to an ex-US Air Force pilot, Captain Charles Blair (husband of actress Maureen O'Hara). Islander was renamed Excalibur and Beachcomber became Southern Star. Both planes were intended for a tourist service carrying passengers between New York and the Virgin Islands. While this vision never came to pass, it is said that Blair and O'Hara flew Southern Star frequently and that a seat was added to the flight deck especially for O'Hara. When Blair died in 1978 the flying boats fell into disrepair and were eventually sold to cover debts. Excalibur was sold privately and is thought to have made its way into an American aviation collection over time. Southern Star was bought by the Science Museum in the United Kingdom and was prepared as the centrepiece of the Solent Sky Museum at the Southampton Hall of Aviation. When the museum opened in May 1984, Beachcomber reappeared restored to name, body and interior in the Ansett colours.
If you'd like to know more about the golden age of Australian aviation beyond the flying boats, you can read this interesting article by the late Warwick Abadee (1935–2015), one of this museum's founding members and longest-serving volunteers.
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-Gemma Nardone, digital content producer/curator
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