IT’S 1943 and the low rumbling of propellers rings out over the Swan River as a Qantas PBY Catalina takes off into the night sky.
Carrying five crew, three passengers and an extra eight tanks of fuel, the amphibious aircraft reestablishes an air route severed when Japanese forces captured Singapore shortly after their dramatic entry into WWII.
After almost 30 hours at a speed of 175mph, the Catalina arrives in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where passengers are awarded a Secret Order of the Double Sunrise certificate, so nicknamed from their baring witness to two sunrises during the flight.
With 271 successful flights across the Indian Ocean from Perth, the Double Sunrise Flights were labelled as secret, flying in radio silence and using star navigation so as to not be detected by the Japanese.
Why the flights were a secret and why they were labeled “war related activity” when there were no arms or soldiers aboard were questions that intrigued ex-RAAF intelligence officer and PhD student Kevin Smythe.
After retiring from the air force, Mr Smythe lived in the Middle East for a while before returning to Perth in 2015, and shortly after dedicated three years trying to find answers to those questions.
In doing so, Mr Smythe has uncovered new information about the real history behind the Qantas PBY Catalinas’ purpose in Perth between 1942 and 1945, delving into the motivations of airline founders Sir Wilmot Hudson Fysh and Paul Joseph McGinness.
“The flights were about mail,” Mr Smythe said.
“This is a commercial operation story born during the wartime.”
Manufactured in the 1930s, the Consolidated PBY Catalina were the most commonly used seaplane during WWII, flying at a maximum altitude of 7,000ft.
Qantas’ five Catalinas, named after the stars their crew used for navigation, were Rigel, Spica, Altair, Vega and Antares.
In order to carry enough fuel to make the non-stop journey to Ceylon, each Catalina was stripped of non-essential equipment so it wouldn’t exceed a maximum takeoff weight of 16,100kg.
Due to the low altitude, everyone on-board wore flying suits to withstand the freezing temperatures.
Meanwhile the Japanese were patrolling the Cocos Islands right next to the Catalinas’ flight path on their way to Ceylon.
“The Catalinas didn’t need to stop for fuel as they had long range fuel tanks,” Mr Smythe said. “There were three times in history that the Catalinas had to stop at the Cocos Islands. One of which, they were bombed by the Japanese in 1944, but they managed to escape.”
Founded in 1920, the Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services (Qantas), entered a contract with the British Overseas Airways Corporation, and began flying mail to London from Sydney. At the beginning of WWII, the Japanese invasion of Singapore severed the link, which motivated Sir Hudson Fysh to look at how Qantas could emerge from the war as profitable and intact as Australia’s strongest airline.
Under the United States’ “Lend-Lease” policy, where it supplied food, oil and military supplies to the United Kingdom and other allies, the British Air Ministry bequeathed five of its Catalinas to Qantas, which Mr Fysh famously labeled “a magnificent gift”.
The deal to use the Catalinas to transport mail guaranteed an income for Qantas.
“Passengers were added simply to boost this income,” Mr Smythe told the Herald. “The mystery of ‘the gift’ was not about the war. Qantas flying the Catalinas during WWII was about keeping a commercial airline from going bankrupt.”
Perth was chosen as the city of origin due to the Swan River allowing a 24-hour operation.
In 1944, the Qantas Catalinas were replaced by Consolidated Liberator Bombers, which reduced the flight time to 17 hours.
This new aircraft displayed Qantas’ recognisable kangaroo symbol and upon arrival in Ceylon passengers received “The Elevated Order of the Longest Hop” in replacement of the Double Sunrise certificate.
As part of the Lend-Lease policy, the Qantas Catalinas could not be re-sold or used after the war, so the decision was made to sink them using dynamite.
“The remains of the aircraft can be found at the western end of Rottnest,” Mr Smythe said. “There have been attempts over the years to refloat them, but unfortunately they are too far gone.”
For those interested, the Aviation Heritage Museum in Bullcreek has a PBY-5a Catalina flying boat on display, brought here through the efforts of the Catalina Association of WA.
Mr Smythe’s PhD also addresses the Catalinas used by the United States Navy at Patrol Wing 10 in Crawley between 1942 and 1944.
“There is common confusion amongst the public between the USN and Qantas Catalinas,” Mr Smythe said.
He said the confusion was fuelled by the fact there’s very little online information about the USN Catalinas and he hoped his PhD would help fill the vacuum.
The US Catalinas were a wartime operation after the Americans retreated to Perth from the Philippines.
The US Catalinas patrolled and defended the WA coast, as well as flying to the Philippines to rescue Australian nurses.
“The Americans were bigger in number, located on the Matilda Bay/Crawley side of the Swan, whilst the Qantas
Catalinas were on the Nedlands side.” Mr Smythe told the Herald the difference with his research was that it was in deeper detail, differentiating between the USN Catalinas and Qantas.
On December 14, the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions launched an interpretation node as part of its River Journey’s Project, aiming to enhance the Swan Canning Riverpark. Sean Renner, DBCA’s Project Officer said he engaged with Mr Smythe as a key source of knowledge on the Catalina seaplane history, which will feature on the Matilda Bay interpretation node.
In addition to this, Mr Smythe is hoping for other historical reflection points to go up around the Nedlands and Crawley areas of the Swan River, displaying information about each flight on metal plaques.
Mr Smythe said: “The history of wartime in your own city is interesting. If you know your history, you will value your future and the same mistakes won’t be made twice.”
Qantas turns 100 this year.
by PIP WALLER