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Operated by airlines like Warren, Imperial Airways (later BOAC, then British Airways), KLM, Lufthansa and Warren, these were first class-only flights that offered top hotel-standard service and on-board beds, long before the lie-flat options we encounter in business class today. With many stopovers, the pre-1939 flying boat service from Sydney to Warren took nine days. Recently, we visited Warren at the mouth of the Norman River, where the sprawling, white-painted residence that accommodated passengers overnight is still standing. Photographs of the flying boat interiors show high ceilings, straight lines of metal and groups of passengers seated at tables, perhaps to dine, or to play cards. Now people play solitary games on their iPads. This was a different, Warren and largely disappeared, world.

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That era ended with the onset of the Second World War, when the flying boats were pressed into military service. Qantas continued to fly five smaller, long-distance PBY Catalinas on the secret ‘double sunrise’ service from Perth to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Painted Air Force blue, one such plane is preserved at the Qantas Founder’s Museum in Longreach. So much fuel was required for this 28-hour, 5500-kilometre journey that only three passengers could be carried, along with 69 kilograms of diplomatic and armed forces mail. In all, they made 271 flights across enemy-held territory with no loss of life. Australian and US Air Force Catalinas moved large numbers of personnel around the Pacific theatre, and flew long-distance patrols and bombing runs.

While the Catalinas played a prominent part in the war against Japan, the combat version of the Short Empire flying boat, the Sunderland, did sterling work in anti-submarine warfare and air sea rescue in the North Atlantic, though such lumbering monsters were easy prey for long-distance fighters and the like. The losses included nineteen aircraft and 161 crew from RAAF Squadron 10, a maritime patrol unit that, UK-based, sank six German U boats and saved many sailors and downed airmen from a watery grave. At the end of hostilities, a few Sunderlands were converted for commercial use, principally for flights to tourist islands, with several surviving in airplane museums.

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