3/15/1951: Qantas’ Maiden Flight across the South Pacific

3/15/1951: Qantas’ Maiden Flight across the South Pacific

DALLAS – Today in Aviation, a Qantas Airways (QF) flying boat service began a survey flight from Sydney to Valparaíso via Easter Island in 1951. The flight marked the airline’s first flight across the South Pacific.

Before pioneering an air route from Sydney to Valparaiso, Chile, with the Catalina Flying Boat “Frigate Bird II,” Captain Patrick Gordon “Bill” Taylor (later Sir P.G. Taylor) was involved in a variety of other important and nerve-wracking aerial adventures. Taylor was the right man for the job.

“Frigate Bird II” touching down offshore from the RAAF base. Photo: The Australian War Memorial.

The Qantas Flying Boat’ Frigate Bird II’

The Catalina is a twin-engined high-winged monoplane flying boat with retractable wing tip floats built by Boeing Aircraft of Canada Limited starting in 1944. It features an almost cantilevered wing mounted above a shallow but broad hull on a central pylon housing the flight engineer. 

The wing has a rectangular center section and tapered outer stressed-skin all-metal panels, though the ailerons and trailing edges are fabric-skinned. A unique feature is the wingtip floats, which are mounted on pivoted frames that can be retracted electrically so that, in flight, the floats form the wingtips. The hull is also all-metal, with a broad, semicircular upper surface. 

The power plant of the Boeing flying boat comprises a pair of two-row Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp engines neatly cowled on the center section with cooling gills. The engines drive Hamilton variable-pitch propellers. The aircraft’s physical dimensions are 5500mm (h) x 31700mm (w).

VH-ASA Flight Crew

As a result of the Captain’s experience, Taylor had been granted permission by the Australian government to conduct a survey flight in order to establish a commercial air route. Taylor was given the option of choosing an aircraft, and the Catalina PB2B-2 was the best option.

The aircraft was named ‘Frigate Bird II’ and given the Civil Registration VH-ASA. The ASA was chosen primarily to stand for Australia-South America. 

According to research conducted by the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Captain Taylor was accompanied by Captain G.H. “Harry” Purvis (First Officer), E.D. “Blue” L’Huillier (Engineer), Angus Allison (Radio Officer and Bowman), and Sydney Morning Herald Journalist Jack Percival (Official Correspondent and Executive Officer).

The Flight

Before heading east to South America, the ‘Frigate Bird II’ flew to Grafton, NSW, and landed on the Clarence River. Noumea, New Caledonia; Lauthala Bay, Fiji; Satapuala Bay, Samoa; Aitutaki, Cook Islands; Papeete Harbour, Tahiti; Mangareva, French Gambier Islands; and Easter Island were all visited by the Bird II. 

The refueling stop on Easter Island was critical for the aircraft. The crew had to land on the open sea because there was no sheltered area for take-off, posing a significant danger for an overloaded plane. There was a hurricane, freak swells, and all three anchor ropes were cut, not to mention Captain Taylor being swept overboard.

At last, and with the aid of JATO (jet-assisted take-off) rockets, the crew was able to sail the ‘Frigate Bird II’ around the island like a cruise and eventually take off.

The Touchdown and Return Flight

The Frigate Bird II, escorted by a Chilean Air Force Catalina, arrived in Valparaiso, Chile, on March 26, 1951. It touched down at Quintero Air Force Base, where Chile’s President and Air Force officials greeted the crew members warmly. 

After completing its diplomatic mission and establishing an air connection between Australia and Chile, the type departed after nine days in the South American country. 

The crew arrived in Sydney on April 21 to a large reception after a similarly eventful return flight. The ‘Frigate Bird II’ was later presented to Captain Taylor as a gift by then-Prime Minister Robert Menzies in honor of the pilot’s exploits and pioneering career.

Featured image: The Frigate Bird II. Photo: Powerhouse Museum. Article source: “The Frigate Bird II and her Captain Revealed.” Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences.

European Deputy Editor
Writer, aviation fanatic, and Airways European Deputy Editor, Lee is a plant geek and part-time Flight Attendant for a UK-based airline. Based in Liverpool, United Kingdom.

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