What’s the world’s longest flight? That is a matter of some dispute and the subject of a ‘pissing contest’ among some of the world’s most prominent airlines.
Before the worldwide COVID-19 shutdown, Singapore Airlines had a tenuous claim for the ‘longest flight’ — the Changi to Newark (New Jersey, USA) service on an Airbus A350 with a scheduled flying time of 18:45 (18hr 45min). Other contenders for the crown included Qatar Airways with its Doha-Auckland (New Zealand) flight (at between 17:40 and 18:25 depending on winds), and Qantas’s Perth (Western Australia) to London Heathrow service (17:25). Qantas intended to steal the title decisively with a planned Sydney (Australia) to London service in 2021, but this has been postponed due the pandemic.
The historic winner
What is often forgotten in this frenetic world of ours, is that the actual title has been held, undisputed, for many years by Qantas. And not with a shiny new Boeing or Airbus packed with business people working on their laptops (or watching movies) either. The real record is for the so-called ‘Double Sunrise’ flights flown by Qantas Catalina flying boats between Ceylon and Australia during the darkest days of the Second World War.
To tell you this fascinating story, here is my great friend, mentor and collaborator Roger Thiedeman, who is keenly interested in the history of aviation in Ceylon/Sri Lanka.
The story of the Double Sunrise flights
Singapore’s fall to the Japanese on February 15, 1942 caused a sudden stoppage of the ‘Horseshoe Route’, a commercial multi-stop airline service between Great Britain and Australia operated jointly by Qantas Empire Airways (QEA) of Australia and Britain’s Imperial Airways (which later became BOAC) using Short S.23 Empire flying boats. QEA airplanes flew the ‘leg’ from Australia to Singapore, linking with Imperial for the longer haul to the UK — and back.
With former transit and changeover point Singapore in Japanese hands, an alternative route was sought to maintain this important line of communication between Britain and some of its colonies, not least Australia which was geographically isolated from much of the British Empire. A senior Qantas flying boat commander, Capt. W.H. Crowther, suggested a nonstop service to be flown by QEA Catalinas across the Indian Ocean, bypassing Singapore, between Perth, Western Australia and Koggala Lake in the south-eastern corner of Ceylon.
Capt. Crowther’s proposed flights would carry only three or four passengers — mainly VIPs — plus freight and mail from Western Australia to Ceylon, and continue onward from Koggala to Karachi (in present-day Pakistan, then still a part of British India). At Karachi Harbor, a BOAC flying boat was slated to take over for the remainder of the service to England. This scenario would be played out in reverse for the return trip.
By then Koggala was home to Catalina and Short Sunderland flying boats of the RAF. Given the technical and logistical support this afforded, it made Koggala an ideal western terminus for the Catalinas that Capt. Crowther envisaged for the transoceanic route, even if it would test the outer limits of the airplanes’ range and endurance. Until then, no aerial sector existed which even approached the nonstop duration of 28 hours estimated for the Indian Ocean crossing between Australia and Ceylon.
However, with Capt. Crowther’s plan duly adopted, and a few proving flights successfully accomplished, Qantas purchased five Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boats from the RAF. To maximize their capability over the long haul, over-water journey, the airplanes were stripped of all non-essential equipment, and a few rudimentary passenger seats plus auxiliary fuel tanks installed. In a whimsical touch redolent of nautical tradition, the quintet of ‘Cats’ were each named after stars in the Milky Way: Antares, Rigel, Spica, Vega and Altair.
The inaugural service took off from Koggala Lake, eastbound for Nedlands on the Swan River in Perth, on Saturday July 10, 1943: 77 years ago. (This is contrary to the incorrect date of June 29 inscribed on a commemorative plaque on the bank of the Swan River.) Despite all but two crew members suffering food poisoning, and the added inconvenience of unfavorable headwinds, the Catalina alighted on the Swan a little over 28 hours later.
So began a regular air service that was not only unusual but dangerous too. The ever-present threat of detection by Japanese warplanes demanded that flights operated in strict radio silence throughout almost the entire duration of the long Indian Ocean crossing. The crew could only listen out for any weather reports they might be fortunate to intercept.
For eastbound passengers, the most curious aspect of the 28-hour flight was to see the sun rising twice between takeoff and touchdown. To commemorate this rare encounter, Qantas presented them with a certificate proclaiming their membership of ‘The Secret Order of the Double Sunrise’.
In 1944, the Catalina flying boats on the Indian Ocean nonstop service were augmented with — and subsequently replaced by — Consolidated Liberator landplanes (converted B-24 bombers). Ratmalana aerodrome was the Ceylonese terminus for the latter, but with some limitations. While Liberators inbound from Australia could land at Ratmalana without difficulty, insufficient runway length prevented Perth-bound flights from taking off with a full load of fuel for the long trip eastward.
To overcome this, upon leaving Ratmalana the Liberators first headed for the RAF base at Minneriya. There, their fuel tanks were filled to capacity before lifting off from the longer runway at Minneriya on their marathon journey to Australia. Not until 1945, when runway extensions were carried out (aided by a team of elephants), did Ratmalana become the departure point for Qantas services to Australia. Later still, RAF Negombo (now Katunayake Airport) supplanted Ratmalana as the landplane terminal.
Toward the closing stages of QEA’s wartime Indian Ocean operations another landplane type, the Avro Lancastrian (derived from the legendary Lancaster bomber), was used on the route.
But on August 6, 1945, when a Boeing B-29 Superfortress of the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) dropped an atomic bomb over Hiroshima to effectively end the Pacific War, the writing was on the wall for those nonstop long-distance flights. Singapore, once more under British control, re-established its value and convenience as a staging point on the Britain-Australia aerial route.
Consequently, on April 5, 1946, the departure from Perth of a QEA Liberator bound for Colombo rang down the curtain on what was the world’s longest regular airline sector. In fact, the Catalinas’ Koggala to Perth nonstop ‘Double Sunrise’ flights which began in 1943 remain the longest in terms of flying time for airline operations. It is a record that will probably stand unbroken until regular inter-planetary travel becomes a reality!
Importantly, let us not underestimate or forget how the tiny island of Sri Lanka, by virtue of its geographically strategic location, ensured the success of that crucial air route during World War II.
Roger Thiedeman, Melbourne, Australia; 2020
(With acknowledgment to Barry Pattison & Geoff Goodall, co-authors of “Qantas Empire Airways Indian Ocean Service, 1943–1946”, published 1979; and thanks to Geoff Goodall and Phil Vabre for supplying illustrations for this article.)