Click here to Get Your Photo
American_Aircraft_in_Royal_Air_Force_Service_1939-1945-_Consolidated_Model_28_Catalina__CH14924 (3)
Catalina flying over Ceylon (Sri Lanka)

At the launch of the Catalina Display, Curator Tom Harwood gave a speech about the history of the Qantas Double Sunrise flights. Please find below the Curator’s speech….

“What we’ve come to call the ‘Double Sunrise’ service was a relatively minor part of Qantas  history but a disproportionately important part.

World War 2 almost killed the company. All its efforts, especially since 1931 had been directed at establishing a service between Australia and the United Kingdom which was a fulfilment of the dream the founders had shared since day one of bringing the Empire closer together.

When the first scheduled air mail service departed from Charleville at 5 on the morning of the 2nd November, 1922, Paul McGinness had told the crowd of about 10 that Australia was keeping pace with Europe and America and concluded that it was ‘destined to link Australia to Asia, Europe and Great Britain.’

When he arrived in Longreach a few hours later, Fergus McMaster, who hadn’t, of course, heard McGinness’s speech, spoke in similar terms when he said he looked upon the flight ‘as a small       beginning which would develop into one of the greatest services in the world’ and concluded with ‘we would be neglecting our duty if we allow it to end here.’

In April 1931, Captain Russell Tapp must have set something like a personal endurance record when he flew the DH-61, ‘Apollo’ from Brisbane to Darwin and back as the Qantas contribution to the first experimental air mails between the UK and Australia.

February 1935 saw the DH-86 take Qantas past Darwin for the first time and 3 years later, in July 1938, everything went aquatic with the Short S.23, the ‘C’-class Empire flying boats. That service from Sydney to Singapore was barely established when World War 2 started in Europe. Then the Japanese got involved from December 1941 and everything soon fell apart.

Like most British airliners, the Empires had been designed to fly fairly short stages with frequent stops to pick up and drop off mail. They had a very limited range and with the rapid advance of the Japanese through south east Asia to take over Singapore just 2 months later in February 1942 and the Air Force commandeering half the available fleet, flights to the UK stopped quite abruptly.

Apart from some charter work, Qantas found itself almost back where it started with its only regular airline service being inside Queensland. With Japan on the doorstep, there wasn’t a lot of demand for seats to Darwin.

Meanwhile, in January 1941, Qantas crews had delivered 19 American Catalina  flying boats across the Pacific for the Royal Australian Air Force. There were 2 reasons for that. The Qantas blokes had far more experience than anybody else at long over-water flights and, since at that time America was a neutral non-participant in the war, international law said they couldn’t provide weapons to any nations which were at war.

So, the Catalinas were handed to Qantas – a  civilian airline – at Honolulu and if the airline then passed them to a military body when they reached Australia, that was their business. Perhaps a loose interpretation of the rules but it seemed to work.

America then passed what became known as the Lend-Lease Act. In simple terms, it meant they could lend war materials to friends under a lease or hire agreement. It wasn’t being sold. It was being rented for as long as it was needed and then, the friends could either buy the bits they wanted on a deferred-payment basis or send them back.

Catalina flying boats for the Royal Navy were among the things the Brits got under the Act. In fact, the Poms were the ones who named it after the island 26 miles across the sea, as the old song told us, from Santa Monica in California where the planes were built.

The British didn’t make their final Lend Lease    payment for the things they’d used and lost during the war or kept afterwards, until 2009, 64 years after the war ended.

As far as America was concerned, it was a PBY. PB was US Navy-speak for Patrol Bomber. The Navy had a single letter designation for each   manufacturer who supplied things like aircraft and Y was the letter for the Consolidated Aircraft Company so PBY meant a Patrol Bomber built by Consolidated.

That exercise showed Qantas what a Cat could do. Captain Lester Brain and his crew collected the first RAAF Cat at San Diego. The first leg of the flight to Honolulu took 22 hours to cover the   4828 kilometres and the aircraft still had enough fuel to fly for another 4 hours. On one flight, Russell Tapp flew direct from Canton Island to Sydney – a distance of 5 149 kilometres.

So, when Qantas Managing Director Hudson Fysh was trying to re-establish connections with the UK without having to travel through America which was then the only option, he thought Catalina. The problem was to get some.

Arthur Corbett, the director-general of Civil Aviation told Fysh there was no point asking the Americans because they had none to spare and he was against the Indian Ocean proposal         because it would put the lives of crews in danger.

It was strange attitude from a man who’d asked Qantas to send unarmed flying boats into parts of Indonesia to evacuate civilians and troops to Australia under the noses of the Japanese – flights which had seen 2 aircraft shot down and the crews and passengers killed.

He was also the one who suggested Broome in Western Australia as the evacuation centre     because he thought it was beyond reach of Japanese attacks. Many evacuees were killed when the Japanese staged their raid on the town in May 1942.

Corbett also opposed a Qantas suggestion that they look to moving operations from Rose Bay in Sydney to Lake Boga in Victoria in case of Japanese attack, just before the midget subs stage their raid and proved Sydney Harbour wasn’t a marine fortress.

Fysh talked to the British government and was able to borrow 5 Royal Navy Catalinas which were based at Matilda Bay in the Nedlands area of Perth and at Lake Koggala in Ceylon – the place we call Sri Lanka nowadays.

Qantas wasn’t first to do the trip. Five Catlinas from the Royal Netherlands Naval Air Force flew Perth to Ceylon in March 1942 to rejoin the part of their squadron which had escaped to the west when Java fell.

In May 1943, the Royal Air Force did the first of 7 survey flights along the route with the last on June 25th being the delivery of the first Cat for Qantas. They’d been modified with extra fuel tanks to have 36 hours of endurance and, after a couple of months, they were fitted with fuel dump valves   under the wings which were used a couple of times.

Russell Tapp, who’d been appointed the Senior Route Captain, First Officer and Navigator Rex Senior with Engineer Frank Furniss and Radio   Operator Glen Mumford did the first scheduled  service on the 29th and took the RAF crew back to Ceylon with them. 28 hours and 10 minutes later, they moored at the RAF terminal at Lake Koggala.

JX577 4 Antares Star Ceylon (3)
Catalina landing on Lake Kaggola

Experience showed 99 knots or 183 kilometres an hour was the most economical cruising speed with the engines being adjusted as weight burned off to have a constant burn of 22 gallons or 100 litres an hour. 28 hours was the average length of the flight. The shortest was 27 hours and the   longest was 32 – a long time to be jammed in a tight and noisy space wondering if a stray Jap might shoot you down.

That’s why the service was called ‘Double Sunrise’. You always saw the sun rise twice on each flight and Fysh drafted a certificate which was given to passengers who used it although they couldn’t show it to anybody because it was a secret.

The flights were timed to pass through Japanese-patrolled areas during darkness so they wouldn’t be seen but propaganda broadcasts soon let the crews know the enemy was aware something was going on.

Because they were officially airline flights, they had no weapons but they were carrying military       despatches so if they’d been forced down, the crews would probably have been executed as gun-runners and spies.

Back home in Perth, life was tough too. To help preserve secrecy, the crews weren’t allowed to wear their Qantas uniforms away from the base so they were fit young men in civilian clothes and that made them cowards in the eyes of some locals.

Rex Senior told the story of going in to a shop to buy cigarettes and being told, in what he said were very harsh tones. to ‘go and join up’. There are no cigarettes for bludgers.’ On another occasion he received a white feather, the traditional symbol of a coward, in the mail.

The reality, of course, is that these chaps were taking far greater risks with their lives every week than many blokes in uniform.

Captain Bill Crowther was in overall charge of the operation and at his suggestion each aircraft was named after one of the stars used for celestial navigation. Each one had a British civil registration and the Royal Navy used large numbers under the tail fin to identify each one.

From November 1943, the service was extended to Karachi which added 2 and a half thousand   kilometres to bring the overall route up to a smidge more than 8 000 kilometres. The Perth to Ceylon section of 3 580 nautical miles or 6630 kilometres established a world record for the   longest-duration scheduled airline service ever. The secrecy lasted for 12 months.

With the Japanese being pushed back, they were no longer seen as a threat and Fysh did an         interview with the Sydney Morning Herald which was published on July 5th, 1944 where he talked about the service which had been running for the past year.

It continued for another 12 months. By then, the Liberator bomber, a landplane which was another Consolidated product – and the first Qantas aircraft to wear a kangaroo – had taken over on the Indian Ocean Kangaroo Route.

The aircraft were handed back to No. 300 Wing Transport Command of the Royal Air Force who had 4 of them towed off Rottnest Island and machine-gunned. The fifth, for some reason, was  flown to Sydney then towed out through the Heads and sunk in the ocean. They were well past being worth returning under the conditions of the Lend Lease Act.

All sources say there were 271 crossings with a maximum of 3 passengers but Rex Senior’s memoir says there were 860 which is 3.17 per flight.

Hudson Fysh in ‘Qantas at War’ says there were 858 passengers which is 3.16 per flight and John Gunn in ‘Challenging Horizons’ quotes a memo which company general manager George Harman sent to Russell Tapp which says there were only 648 passengers which is 2.79 per trip.

But, of course, it wasn’t really a passenger service.

The real business was 51,600 kilograms of microfilmed mail and 6,728 kilograms of freight with a total distance travelled of 956,630 miles or 1,539,546 kilometres.

As I said a few minutes ago, in the overall context of the Qantas story, the ‘Double Sunrise’ is a very small part. In terms of what it meant for the survival of the company, its postwar development as a long-rang international air service and the development of the skills of its people both on the ground and in the air, it’s one of the most important parts of the saga so far.”


  1. Chris says:

    Apparently the Double Sunrise flights were so heavy with extra fuel that to keep the Catalina in trim, no one could move from their position for the first 8 hours! They needed a long stretch of Swan from east of Pelican Point to Claremont for take off, just clearing the ‘saddle’ of Peppermint Grove. There are many tales of the Cats on the Swan, interacting with civilian life 1942 – 44.
    Congratulations to Qantas Founders Museum for highlighting this important bit of aviation history.

  2. Edward Furze says:

    Hi Tony,
    From my Dad’s logbooks, he flew the Double Sunrise flights in Catalinas as Captain or First Officer from Sep 30 , 1943 until Dec 13, 1944 , when he converted to Liberators.

      • Edward Furze says:

        Yes, Tony he flew every propellor driven aircraft for Qantas, from 1943 until 1962, that being the Lockheed Electra L188C. I well remember him saying that was a beautiful aircraft and such a joy to fly.

  3. Mike Clifford says:

    I was told by Ron East CASA Perth in 1988 ,ex RAF B24 Liberator Captain serving in India WW2 that a Qantas Lancastrian overtook his B24 on his port side a 1000 feet below on a Ceylon Broome flight. That Lancastrian was never seen again . Can you help with this aviation history fact? Cheers Mike 0411744948 Perth WA

    • Alleyne Johnson says:

      Mike, the Aircraft was Lancastrian G-AGLY, piloted by Captain Frank Thomas, flying from Ratmalana, Ceylon to Port Hedland via Cocos Island with 5 passengers and a crew of 5 on 23rd March, 1946. A radio report which mentioned showery weather was sent when the aircraft was 690 miles north west of Cocos Island then aircraft and occupants disappeared. Observers on the ground saw signs of storms in that direction and investigators were of the opinion that the aircraft probably exploded when struck by lightning. To quote Sir Hudson Fysh from ‘Wings to the World’, ‘These converted wartime aircraft often smelt strongly of petrol fumes in their after-section. In all, a total of 13 aircraft flew 437 hours covering 72,105 miles in an elaborate search, but without result.’

  4. Pete Lewis says:

    My Dad was a wireless air gunner on a Royal Canadian Air Force 413 Squadron Catalina that did a double sunrise flight for Qantas arriving in Perth on 18 Aug 1943. My wife and I visited Perth in March 2023 and spent some time at the Qantas memorial. A moving time we’ll spent in reflection.

    • Carissa Jesberg says:

      Hi Pete, what an interesting story! If you are happy to, please email to share your story about your father with our Senior Curator. We would love to hear more.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.