Qantas and the secret 'Double Sunrise' flights

By 1942, the Japanese were established in every landfall between Australia and Singapore. It was at this point that Qantas founder Hudson Fysh proposed to the government that a fleet of Catalina flying boats be used to link Australia to Britain via Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka), a flight of more than 5600 kilometres through enemy-controlled skies.

Although accommodation for the Qantas personnel was scattered throughout the city, few residents of Perth were aware of the role of these dark-coloured aircraft that operated only a few miles from the city centre. One commonly held belief was that they were heading off for missions to Papua New Guinea, and while such a misconception guaranteed the secrecy of the operation, for some it had a negative side.

Catalina crews were officially on the RAAF Reserve, but for security reasons they wore civilian clothes while off-duty, a requirement for which [first officer] Rex Senior suffered several unpleasant consequences, once receiving a white feather neatly enclosed in an envelope. Then, while walking to work one morning through Kings Park, he stopped at a kiosk to buy cigarettes, only to be told by the woman behind the counter: "Go and join up. There are no cigarettes for bludgers."

At the other end of the route in Karachi, Senior would experience another incident which would baffle him for the rest of his life. Walking with one of his close friends, navigator Dolf Nuske, down a Karachi street, they were approached by a small Pakistani man who offered to tell their fortunes.

For the equivalent of 10 shillings the man produced what would turn out to be an almost textbook preview of Senior's life, but when Nuske held out his hand the man handed back his money with the comment: "No tell, master."

Within two years, Nuske was dead, killed when his aircraft disappeared over the Indian Ocean.

In June 1944 the four-engine B-24 Liberator landplanes were delivered to Qantas and began to parallel the Catalinas on the route, now using Learmonth as their first Australian landfall. Not only were they able to carry five times the load of the Catalinas but slash 10 hours off the flight time between Ceylon and Australia. With their entry on the route came another significant company development: the introduction of the "Kangaroo Service", the result of a brainstorm between Hudson Fysh and [pilot] Bill Crowther and a trademark which remains in the Qantas operations today.

Bearing a kangaroo emblem on the nose, the Liberators gradually began to supersede the Catalinas, which flew their final trips in July 1945. Soon after the Nedlands base was closed and the Western Operations Division headquarters moved inland to Guildford. There would, however, be some lasting mementoes of this unique service. Every passenger carried received a coloured certificate denoting their membership of "The Secret Order of the Double Sunrise" for experiencing the sunrise twice during their more than 24-hour flight.

Somewhat fittingly, and just by chance, Fysh, the man who had done most to carry the fight for the establishment of the service, became the holder of the Double Sunrise certificate for the longest of the Catalina flights - from Ceylon to Perth in 31 hours and 15 minutes - on his way back from talks in London in August 1943.

Even after the war, Lester Brain would meet American airmen who found it hard to believe what the Qantas Catalinas had achieved, considering their own 2500-mile (4000-kilometre) stretch between California and Honolulu the ultimate challenge.

Even with the coming of the jet age the Indian Ocean service stands as an incredible accomplishment, particularly when pitted against the very strict guidelines surrounding the operation of twin-engine aircraft over water, guidelines which existed well into the jet age. By the time they were withdrawn from service the Catalinas had crossed the Indian Ocean 271 times, experiencing only six in-flight engine shutdowns, a lasting tribute to the work of [engineer Norm] Roberts' men and the reliability of their engines.

Fysh would describe the Indian Ocean service as 'the most fascinating and romantic undertaking ever performed by Qantas". Other aviation accolades would follow when the veil of secrecy was lifted after the war, although Fysh himself would repeatedly fail in his efforts to gain for them official recognition, despite pointing out the crews faced the same risks flying through enemy skies as any of their military counterparts. Had they been shot down and captured they would have suffered a similar fate.

Frustrated, he created his own special company award, the "Long-Range Operations Gold Star", which would later become known as "The Crowther Cross", to be worn on the uniforms of those who took part.

As for the faithful Catalinas? Sadly, they were destined for a watery grave.

Due to the terms of Lend Lease under which any World War II aircraft emanating from the United States were forbidden from having any impact on the economy of the country to which they had been loaned at the end of hostilities, the four aircraft still in Perth were flown out to sea near Rottnest Island in November 1945, set with explosive charges and scuttled.

Ironically, as if defying fate to the end, Rigel Star refused to submit to the explosive charges and wouldn't sink, forcing those charged with despatching her to fire 500 rounds of .303 bullets before she caught alight and disappeared. The fifth Catalina, Spica Star, then at Rose Bay, was sunk off Sydney three months later.

As for the men who flew and serviced them, many would go on to stellar careers in Qantas and Australian aviation.

Breaking new ground

Such was the demand for expertise and the shortage of qualified people that promotions could come at a young age. When Jack Drinkall was appointed works foreman at Moorooka at 21, he was so conscious of his youthful appearance among his workmates that he attempted to make himself look older by growing a moustache.

The instrument shop highlights another important aspect of Qantas wartime support operations: the employment of women. Along with the 30 employed by [George] Roberts, many others contributed to the war effort at Rose Bay, Randwick, Archerfield and Moorooka. Despite joining an industry which prewar was strictly a man's world, the women were held in high regard for their hard work and dedication, although there would be some interesting aspects to their involvement.

Once, [Qantas works superintendent at Randwick, Ern] Aldis became increasingly mystified when he noticed some of his 60 female workers regularly disappearing into the women's locker rooms at Randwick. Finally working up the courage to confront them, he found they were shelling peas and peeling potatoes to save time preparing the evening meal at home. After mildly admonishing them for doing so on company time, he turned a blind eye to the practice for the rest of the war.

It would be another woman, however, who would be the catalyst for a workers' confrontation at Archerfield that would threaten the smooth working reputation of the base.

Connie Jordan came on the scene long before the world had ever heard of "glass ceilings". One of the most remarkable employees ever to grace a Qantas workshop, not only was she the first woman in Australia to hold a ground engineer's licence but she was a qualified pilot, had four musical degrees from London's Trinity College and taught ballet and ballroom dancing. Somehow she also found time to drive racing cars.

After several years with the Queensland Aero Club, Jordan joined Qantas in 1942, first stationed at Cloncurry and then Charleville, where she was the solitary female engineer for the Flying Doctor and Qantas services between Brisbane and Darwin.

But it was when she arrived at Archerfield in 1942 as the only engineer qualified to sign out the company's Lockheed Lodestars that the trouble started. Most of the work on the Lodestars was being done at night so the aircraft could operate to Port Moresby during the day, but when the men learned a woman would be placed in charge they promptly walked off the job.

By the time Aldis and the union representative arrived on the scene, a large group of unhappy workers had gathered outside the hangar and the union man, standing on a ladder, launched into a fiery address to the assembled throng. "I've never seen such a dastardly act done by anybody," he opined, "to put a team of able-bodied men under the charge of a woman is unbelievable. I reckon it's probably the worst thing I have ever heard."

By now Aldis and Harry Williams, who was responsible for the hangar team, could see days of workshop productivity flying out the window as the union man continued his harangue. But when he asked for any man who had a licence on the Lodestar to put up his hand, not only was there a dead silence but not a hand was raised.

He continued to stare at the throng for a few more moments then, pointing to a Lodestar, continued: "If not one of you men have enough brains to get a licence on this aircraft, you'd better go back to work for a woman and when one of you does get a licence, I'll make sure that man gets the job."

With that everyone went back to work.

Courage in the Skies by Jim Eames is published by Allen & Unwin, RRP $29.99.

This story Qantas and the secret 'Double Sunrise' flights first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.