We had to wait five days before the other flying boat Islander, a converted ex-RNZAF Sunderland, could be refitted to collect us (it had been stripped for refitting with extra tanks for the overseas post-sale trip). To our surprise, we even had a flypast by Air Force photographic aircraft, checking to see if a Hercules aircraft could be sent for us, while back in mainland Australia we were making the news services! Then we had to wait for better weather – modern jets do not have to contend with their runways becoming bumpy when the wind rises!
Finally the weather relented enough for Islander to make the trip for us. As we taxied to takeoff, it was sad to see Beachcomber on the shore (photo 2). Then came a very bumpy departure, in fact our first take-off run was aborted because the boat began to ‘porpoise’. Finally we were away, the power of the recent gales still demonstrated by the huge waves crashing into the fringing coral reef to the west of the island (photo 3). We were barely airborne when the air hostess (who we knew well after a week ashore) leaned around the corner of the galley and asked if we would care for a beer - would we what!
We were scheduled to stay on Lord Howe for two nights, leaving on the morning after that. The tides and need for clearance above reefs meant that possible flight times changed daily. On the second night of our stay the uncommon westerly winds had risen to gale strength. I well remember the urgent thud of feet on the corridor passing my room in the early hours of the morning, and the voice calling “Hey, Lloyd, come quick, your flying boat has broken its moorings and has washed aground”. Lloyd was the flying boat Captain.
Sure enough, when we went to the beach in daylight, there was the sad sight of Beachcomber beached, the starboard float snapped off and crushing into the wing, the front passenger door stove in, and the lower deck half full of water (yes, these had upper and lower decks, well before 747s). Everyone stood around in shock, some locals were crying.
Eventually a channel was dug up the beach with a bulldozer, making a small dock for the aircraft, and the water was pumped out. Then the aircraft was dragged to safety by a combination of manpower and bulldozers. We would not be going home on her, but she was saved from the elements for the engineers to make the necessary repairs. She later flew out and went overseas to fly with Antilles Air Boats on charter flights to the Virgin Islands, before being pensioned off and saved in the museum.
That left us shipwrecked and marooned on a sub-tropical paradise (but unfortunately in the winter in bad weather).
Fondest memory: Not surprisingly, with a flying boat there are no covered gangways for boarding and disembarking. We had to climb from the flying boat into a small open motorboat to go ashore. As we did, I took this photo of the purser standing in the front mooring hatch – apart from his cabin duties, he also had to operate as the ship’s deck hand for mooring. The open front door of the aircraft is also visible.
Built during WWII as a Sunderland patrol aircraft, in 1947 the factory took it back and rebuilt it for passenger use: in 1974 she was the world’s last airworthy genuine Short Sandringham flying boat.. She proudly carried the name Beachcomber , was registered VH-BRC and flew for Ansett Flying Boat Services. I’m glad that she now is preserved in a museum in Southampton in the UK – if you click here you can see photos of her now, including the interior.
She carried about 35 passengers and had a purser and air hostess. I wish I had taken photos of the interior (but you can see some on the link above): this was the most comfortable aircraft I’ve ever flown in and worlds apart from being shoe-horned into a modern jet. Passengers sat facing each other in little separate cabins like a train carriage, with ample leg room and open luggage racks above. This was flying in style: the cabin dividers were timber panelled and there were large windows, through which was the reassuring sight of two large propellors on each side – and, in case those should stop, an even more reassuring large float a little further out.
Shortly after takeoff from Sydney, the cabin crew came around with a ‘home cooked’ breakfast of scrambled eggs, tomato and toast, made in the aircraft’s galley by the purser. None of the pre-prepared shrink-wrapped plasticised rubbish airlines now serve!
The flying boat was unpressurised, so we travelled at a comfortable 7,000 feet, below cloud level and with an excellent view of the island as we approached (see page heading photo).
This photo, taken as we arrived, shows the south central part of the island, the cliffs of Mt Lidgbird disappearing into the clouds, and part of the reef and lagoon on the western side of the island. The prevailing winds here, particularly in the summer, are from the south east, so the lagoon is usually quite sheltered. You also see here a good reflection of the window on the other side of the aircraft’s cabin.
The second photo shows the clouds of spray as we arrived. Then everything became quiet and stopped shaking, as the four large engines were stopped and we dropped anchor (3rd photo).
The sensations of takeoff and landing in a flying boat are somewhat different than in a jet. There is not the same urgent push in your back, just a gentle acceleration accompanied by bumping as the hull strikes small wavelets. Outside the ground does not rush past, instead there are sheets of water as takeoff commences: these gradually subside as the speed builds up and the flying boat moves “onto the step” and begins to aquaplane across the surface. At this stage takeoff becomes very smooth and then the climb begins. Landing, not surprisingly, is the reverse – an imperceptable touchdown on the water, followed by increasing bumping and spray.
I have a vivid memory of watching as one of Sydney’s hydrofoil Manly ferries flashed past as we began our takeoff run. I watched through the spray as we gradually overhauled it, then caught up and lifted away alongside (photo 2), then passing an outbound Manly ferry (photo 3) and banking north over Fort Denison (photo 4) before the harbour bridge, with the city and partly-built opera house on our left.
Fondest memory: Early on a wintery June morning, I found myself at the old Rose Bay flying boat base in Sydney, waiting to board. It almost could have been a scene from the 1930s, with the jetty, the waiting Sandringham flying boat, the flags flying above the cockpit: so different from the hustle of a modern jetport. This really was being in a time warp – one of the last trips flown on what had been the last scheduled flying boat service in the world! We had to wait while a Department of Civil Aviation launch ensured that the landing area was clear for takeoff.