Recollections of flying from Suva to Sydney in 1946 on the Qantas flying-boat Coriolanus


© Rod Ewins 2009.  May be cited with acknowledgement and URL.


A few years ago a friend referred me to a book by another ex-Fiji person, Alexander Frater:  Beyond the blue horizon: On the Track of Imperial Airways  London, William Heinemann. I don't remember him personally, as he was 4 years older than I and he went to school in Australia, so our paths would never have crossed, but I do remember there being a Dr Frater at the CWM Hospital, his father. The chap who referred me to this is a pilot - flies little sightseeing planes etc. and has a passion for airplanes. In conversation I mentioned that the first commercial flight I had taken was in the Coriolanus, at which he pricked up his ears and referred me to this book, which is a very interesting read.  It opens with an account of flying on the Qantas flying boat Coriolanus in Dec.1946, and is a remarkable feat of memory for one who was only a boy of nine at the time of his flight.

I had actually flown from Laucala Bay to Rose Bay, Sydney on the Coriolanus even earlier, in the middle of that same year of 1946, and I was even younger, not yet six years old. How we both came to fly that route in the famous aeroplane is described briefly in an article about the Short Empire flying boats: “…the first Qantas aircraft to enter the liberated Singapore [at the end of World War II] was VH-ABG 'Coriolanus', on 8 October 1945 [this was the sole survivor of Qantas' fine pre-war fleet of Short Empires, the others having been destroyed in active service]. Post-war, the same aircraft inaugurated the Sydney / Brisbane / Noumea / Fiji route on 19 November, flying it until December 1947. 'Coriolanus' was the last Empire flying boat in operation in the world. It was broken up in Rose Bay during 1948.” I have no memory of the stopover in Brisbane, so it must have been brief and we probably didn't leave the plane. On occasion the stopover was in Hamilton rather than Brisbane, as in this photo:


Coriolanus about to touch down in Hamilton in March 1947 with Bulimba Hill in the background. Photo by John Wilson, Brisbane Courier Mail


I can recall being rowed to and from the flying boat in dinghies at each ingress and egress, something that my Mum, a poor swimmer, was very nervous about. I on the other hand could already swim pretty well and was an old hand at small boats, having regularly been out fishing with the Fijians who lived on the shore below our house, so I took that all in my stride. On the flight, I remember Mum and Dad being amused because there were some Fijian men in the rear section and when the normal-sized Western meals were served the Fijians inhaled them and looked around wistfully for something more to fill the void normally taken up with a large load of dalo or tavioka!  


The most exotic of our “ferrymen” were the ones in Nouméa, who had on all whites, and berets with red pompoms. I have no recollection, though, of whether they were Europeans or kanakas— such distinctions were apparently not important to a small boy who had more regular contact with Fijians and Indians than with other Europeans. I recall that the plane was anchored directly off the jetty of an impressive hotel where we were to spend the night. I have not been able to verify which hotel Qantas used for stopover guests. I believe it was either the “Hôtel Pacifique”or the "Hotel Royale". Both these hotel names exist today, though attached to resorts that are a far cry from the splendid white colonial building of my (admittedly rather vague) memory—a bit on the lines of the Grand Pacific Hotel in Suva and Raffles in Singapore. However, both are on the water's edge, like the one we stayed in.


When we had followed our cases into the rooms, we came down onto the lawn by the seaside and sat under a large spreading tree (probably the popular flamboyant tree—Delonix regiabut I don't remember that) to be served afternoon tea. I can still see in my mind’s eye the Coriolanus bobbing at anchor not more than a hundred metres away. What I also clearly remember is that it was the first time that I had ever slept on a feather mattress (an experience to be repeated only once in my life, in an old hotel in Zurich in 1963), and was most impressed by how it enveloped me. Not worried by it, just intrigued!


Of the airplane itself, my main memory is of the relatively large amount of space we had. In usual form, the CSR had put us in First Class, in the section right at the front of the plane—presumably where Frater describes the Governor sitting on his flight. We could see back to the main cabin well enough, and walked about in flight as well. I recall that there was lots of room for me to sit on the carpeted floor near my parents’ seats colouring-in a colouring book (whether given to me on board or taken with me I don't recall).  I remember that in the front section our meals were served on tables that were brought along for the purpose, as I recall they were probably folding tables similar to card- or camp-tables. Those in “Economy” would have used the ones in the centre of the cabin pictured here:


On these were spread starched linen and silver service! I don't recall it being divided into cabins like a ship, as Frater describes in his book, and think his memory may be at fault there. What I recall is a fore-and-aft division of space, as well as an upstairs/downstairs, and that is borne out by this photo:


Apropos the spaciousness, I like the following quote: “Hudson Fysh [founder of Qantas] described the delights of flying boat travel, “Getting up out of his chair a passenger could walk about and, if he had been seated in the main cabin, could stroll along to the smoking cabin for a smoke, stopping on the way at the promenade deck with its high handrail and windows at eye level to gaze at the world of cloud and sky outside, and the countryside or sea slipping away below at a steady 150mph [240km/h] if there was no wind. On the promenade deck there was also a practical useable space where quoits or even golf were played, and child passengers could play. There was even a demand for fishing lines at refuelling stops, where both passengers and crew members would enjoy the relaxation of dropping a line over the side.” (Incidentally, that Qantas history makes fascinating reading too! There is a great description of the Catalinas that Qantas flew between the Swan River, Perth, and Koggala Lake, in southern Ceylon, to avoid the Japanese.)


The other clear recollection I have is astonishment and not a little alarm when we were taking off, at the sea rushing up to cover the portholes, as though we were diving into the sea rather than taking off! What an adventure—I was almost sorry when we were rowed ashore at Rose Bay. The adventure that started there was far more prosaic and less to my liking!


Here is a picture of the Coriolanus on Rose Bay in 1938, very much the scene that greeted us in 1946.

I haven’t found a closer photo of her in Australia, but there is this one of the Cooee, another of Qantas's “Short S30 Empire” flying-boats and sister of the Coriolanus.