33hrs, non-stop. The story of the Double Sunrise flights

The year, well it’s 1943 and the world is in the midst of fighting WWII. Britain needs a way to reach Australia but with the fall of Singapore thanks to the Japanese that’s virtually impossible, the monarchy needs to reach the country it colonised but it needs to happen and there are no two ways about it.

So here’s the plan, let’s depart Western Australia and head to Sri Lanka while passing over India and the rest of the Japanese occupied territory during the night. Our problem? There’s no plane that can do it. But what if there was? Flying boats are all the rage at the moment and Catalina produces one, we need to strip all the parts though.

This service was called the Double Sunrise and its namesake comes from the fact that guests saw two sunrises on there 28hr-33hr journey from Exmouth or Perth to Colombo. The flight is well quite frankly incredible. The route was served by a Consolidated PBY Catalina which only cruised at around 200km/h, snail’s pace compared to the 800km/h speeds most modern jets, she could also only carry 3 passengers and 69kg of mail on the average flight with most non-esstinal equipment removed including deicing and insulation. Certainly a flight you wouldn’t wanna be on without a jacket!

In terms of comfort, well noisy propellers above your head wouldn’t help and the thought of knowing that if an engine failed within the first 10 hours of the flight a ditching in the ocean would result in little chance of ever being found wouldn’t calm anyone’s nerves.

Navigation was also an issue. Due to the possibility of a radio intercept by the Japanese the flight had to be kept secret to outsiders and due to that the flying boat was forced into radio silence with navigation done by tracking stars. A thing that you couldn’t really mess up if you had any hope of making it to Sri Lanka. Once in Sri Lanka the British would fly out to collect or dump passengers to link up with the Double Sunrise flight using BOAC aircraft.

Ultimately the flights succeded and in 1945 they were replaced with more modern aircraft. 271 crossings were made without any haul loss or fatalities and the flights carried 648 passengers along with 18 tonnes of mail. The Double Sunrise flights remain the longest (by time) commercial flights in history and proved as a valuable stepping stone for Qantas into the future. These days (obviously not currently) Qantas operate direct flights from Perth to London in 16 hours, a true advancement in technology.


The Double Sunrise service after docking in Perth image credit

18 Likes

Wow - never knew this! Very interesting.

3 Likes