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During World War II, Australia needed a way to get war plans and key personnel to and from London while avoiding enemy-controlled territories. To make that happen, Qantas — then known as Qantas Empire Airways — was tasked with flying between Ceylon (known today as Sri Lanka) and Perth, Australia — a 4,000-mile journey across the Indian Ocean. Today such a mission would be routine; in 1943, it was anything but.
The airplanes chosen to fly this route were Consolidated PBY-5 Catalina flying boats. Since there would be no opportunity to refuel midtrip, the Catalinas had to carry nearly 2,000 gallons of fuel, and the enormous weight of that fuel meant they couldn’t carry much else. The planes were stripped of all nonessential equipment, and only three passengers and a limited amount of mail were allowed onboard.
The maiden flight took off on June 29, 1943. Because radio silence was needed to avoid detection by enemy aircraft, the Catalina pilots relied on their compasses and the stars for navigation. Laden with fuel, the flying boats lumbered at a speed of roughly 115 miles per hour at the choppy altitude of 2,000 feet. There were no flight attendants onboard. Most of the passengers were military officers or government officials, and they were provided with a modest array of cold snacks and a hot plate they could use to make coffee or tea.
What the flight lacked in comfort, it more than made up for in duration, taking 28 hours on average and more than 32 hours when the weather was bad. The flight was so long that it became known as “The Double Sunrise,” since the crew and passengers had two opportunities to see the sun come up while aloft. To confirm that they had been in the air for more than 24 hours, each passenger received a certificate officially inducting them into the “Secret Order of the Double Sunrise.”
While the flights themselves were long, the “Double Sunrise” service was a relatively short-lived phenomenon. By late 1944, the Catalinas were being phased out in favor of newer, more powerful aircraft that could carry more payload and — to the delight of the passengers — cross the Indian Ocean a lot faster. But in their brief history, the flying boats made an important contribution to the Allies’ war effort, keeping the lines of communication open across incredible distances.
I am happy to share this somewhat obscure milestone in aviation history — not only because I am an aviation buff but also because Qantas is one of our longest-standing and most valued partners. Needless to say, our airlines have made crossing great distances infinitely easier, more comfortable and faster than it was six decades ago — or one decade ago, for that matter. To illustrate, today Qantas can fly you nonstop from Sydney to our Dallas/Fort Worth hub (8,600 miles) in about 15 and a half hours. From DFW, you can connect to AA service to dozens of cities in the U.S. and around the world.
Earlier this year, AA and Qantas announced our intention to form a joint business that will make travel between North America and the South Pacific even easier. I feel confident saying — and I’m sure you will be glad to know — that on any flight operated by either AA or Qantas, the maximum number of sunrises you will see is one. And, I am pretty sure you will not be given a hot plate!
Wherever you are going today, we are grateful that you have chosen to fly with us. Have a great trip!
Gerard J. Arpey