Ansett Flying Boat Services.
The in-depth histories of the individual aircraft were operated by Ansett Flying Boat Services.
Ansett Flying Boat Services t/a Ansett Airways Flying Boat Division, was established on May 01, 1952. It absorbed Barrier Reef Airways Pty. Ltd and its two Short S.25 Sandringham flying boats 'VH-BRC' and 'VH-BRD' and integrated its schedules into those of Ansett. However, Barrier Reef Airways continued to operate under its own title, for publicity purposes, until March 30, 1953.
Ansett Flying Boat Services began twice-weekly Brisbane - Hayman Island – Townsville - Cairns Sandringham services on May 31, 1952. From July 01 they included South Molle Island on its Tuesday’ Whitsunday Islands services but ceased flying to Daydream Island. A combined Brisbane - Southport (Broadwater) - Grafton - Sydney service was commenced on July 25, 1952. A proving flight had been flown by B.R.A.'s Catalina VH-BRB on July 23.
The airline was dealt a cruel blow when its Short S.25V Sandringham VH-BRD sank at its moorings, on the Brisbane River, after being hit by an unidentified boat on October 31. The collision damaged its port float and hull which permitted flooding of the aircraft, causing it to sink. It was refloated on November 03 and towed to the Colmslie Slipway, Brisbane the next day. Following a detailed inspection it was declared a total loss. It was temporarily replaced by the Short S.25V Sandringham Mk IV VH-BRE during 1955.
Ansett Flying Boat Services / Barrier Reef Airways operated its last Brisbane - Gladstone - Heron Island service on January 24, 1953, using B.R.A.'s Catalina VH-BRB. With the removal of Heron Island from the airlines network, there was now no requirement for the Catalina VH-BRB to be in the fleet and the aircraft was withdrawn from service and sold.
The airline ceased all trading under the Barrier Reef Airways name on March 30, 1953. Its Catalina VH-BRB did not operate any Ansett Flying Boat Services flights.
The Trans Oceanic Airways' liquidators sold their Short S.25 Hythe VH-AKP to Ansett Flying Boat Services on May 20, 1953. It operated in T.O.A. colors, with Ansett Flying Boat Services titles in red, still named 'Tahiti Star' and was used to maintain schedules, pending the arrival of a replacement aircraft for VH-BRD.
From July 09, Ansett Airways / Ansett Flying Boat Services replaced Trans Oceanic on regular services from Sydney to Lord Howe Island, initially using the ex-T.O.A. Short S.25 Hythe VH-AKP.
The Short S.25 Hythe VH-AKP operated its last Ansett Flying Boat Services service on March 12, 1954. It was officially withdrawn from service on March 24 at Rose Bay, Sydney.
During 1955 the replacement Sandringham VH-BRE 'Pacific Chieftain' entered service. This aircraft, the ex Qantas Airways aircraft VH-EBX had been purchased on December 17, 1954. During at least 1956 – 1957 Ansett Travel Service offered ‘Air Cruises’ to Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific using Ansett Flying Boat Services S.25 Sandringhams.
The Consolidated 28-5ACF Catalina VH-BRI, initially registered to ANSETT-ANA, entered service on the Proserpine - Hayman Island route on November 12, 1959. It had been re-engined with more powerful Pratt & Whitney ex-DC-4 engines. This conversion had been started on January 27, 1960 and was registered to Ansett Flying Boat Services Pty Ltd on October 28, 1960. With the old ANSETT-ANA titles replaced with ‘Ansett Flying Boat Services’ it was relaunched on November 03, as 'The Golden Islander'. At the same time ANSETT-ANA’s NSW Sales Manager, G. Davies announced that the new company would reduce fares by 15 to 20 per cent off the current regular airfares in an effort to increase passenger demand for the service.
During the early 1960s the property developer Charles H. Degotardi, a prominent figure in opening up the Smiths & Wallis Lakes area near Newcastle, chartered Ansett flying boats to fly potential buyers to / from the area.
Disaster struck the Catalina VH-BRI on the night of July 08, 1962 when it sank near Langford Reef, Hayman Island, in some 25m of water, after a heavy landing. Unknown to the pilot, this hard landing had loosened several rivets in the hull. The next morning it was laying with its wing on the surface of the water. It was a complete write-off and was struck off the Register the same day.
Some twelve months later, on the night of July 03, 1963, the Short Sandringham VH-BRE's starboard float was lost in a bad storm, whilst it was moored at Lord Howe Island. After the aircraft broke its moorings it was washed ashore. The aircraft was returned to its mooring and the port wing was weighed down with sandbags. It was badly damaged the next night during another fierce storm. This time the starboard float collapsed and the starboard wing was submerged. With salt water entering the aircraft it was considered as being damaged beyond repair and was subsequently scrapped at the Island, with the hull being towed beyond the reef and scuttled.
The airline initially held off buying a replacement for this aircraft as there was a possibility of the government building a landing strip at Lord Howe Island. General manager Stewart Middlemiss stated "What's the point in spending a small fortune on another flying boat, if the government decides to put in a landing strip? We have been attempting to get a decision on the strip, one way or another, for a long time and now somebody better make up their mind. In the meantime we'll fly on one aircraft and hope the islanders will be sympathetic to the difficulties. We've done a pioneering job there and the service is no money-maker."
The airline’s operation was now down to one aircraft and another one was desperately needed to maintain the Lord Howe Island service on a long term basis. With very few flying boats left in the world, the situation looked grim, when the Royal New Zealand Air Force came to the rescue.
On December 18, 1963 the ex-RNZAF Sunderland NZ4108 arrived at the airline’s Rose Bay base, after completing a 9-hour flight from Hobsonville New Zealand. A considerable amount of work was needed to convert the Sunderland for civilian use by the Ansett engineering staff. After a major rebuild, the pseudo Sandringham was registered VH-BRF ‘Islander’. This conversion included seating for 42 people, but unlike VH-BRC, the seating was arranged in the normal aircraft fashion, with all the seats facing forward.
A maiden proving flight was made on September 28, 1964, when the aircraft flew to Lord Howe Island, without landing, followed by a return to Rose Bay. On October 09 ‘Islander’ entered service on the Sydney - Lord Howe Island route, as a replacement for VH-BRE. This now allowed the much-used VH-BRC to undergo long-overdue maintenance.
Both aircraft then settled down to operate the Lord Howe Island services for the next decade without further incident or issue. During that period of operation, it was not unusual for flight and cabin crew to operate part of the week on Airlines of NSW Fokker F.27 Friendship services and then the next part of the week flying to Lord Howe Island on the Sandringhams. The aircraft also operated charter services whenever they were offered or available to do so. This allowed the island services to be supplemented with addition income and provided the crews with a different routine.
From September 13 to October 08, 1965, Queensland Airlines operated a Redland Bay - Gladstone Harbour - Redland Bay service, using the Ansett Sandringham VH-BRF, in AFBS colors, whilst the Gladstone Airport runway was being rebuilt.
During 1965 AFBS evaluated the French Brequet 942 flying boat, to replace the Short Sandringhams. Reg Ansett said, of the evaluation, that the subsidy could be reduced, if the new aircraft was purchased and AFBS was given the Norfolk Island services as well. Norfolk Island was at that point being serviced by Qantas, using two Douglas DC-4s on the route. That was not to Qantas’ liking and the proposal and the new aircraft idea was shelved.
On November 18, 1972 R.M. Ansett announced that Lord Howe Island could lose its flying boat services within 6 months, as spares were getting more and more difficult to obtain. Services had initially been due to cease on November 01, but would now cease on May 31, 1973. The two Sandringhams were the Ansett Group's last piston-engined aircraft and the airline was anxious to end such operations. The operations didn't make money, despite the $100,000 per year government subsidy. In addition, the DCA Rose Bay facility was costing the Federal Government a further $250,000 per annum to keep operating. Ataka (Australia) P/L submitted a proposal to sell Ansett a 69-seat Shin Meiwa SS-2A amphibian. The proposal was rejected. Ansett offered $500,000 towards the cost of building the long-talked about strip on Lord Howe Island, stating "We have a common problem in that the satisfactory life of the flying boats is rapidly approaching its end and that all appropriate authorities have known this for many years." The cost of a strip was estimated at around $3 million.
During 1973, after prevarication for years by both the State and Federal Governments, the Federal Government finally decided to build a permanent airstrip on Lord Howe, with the Royal Australian Army Engineering Corps building it, as a training exercise. The original plan was to build a 4,200 ft. runway, the minimum required for Fokker F.27s, but lack of money, environmental concerns and soil stability issues considerations led to it being reduced to only 3,000 ft.
The Sandringham VH-BRC ‘Beachcomber’ had the honour of operating the last scheduled Ansett Flying Boat Services flying boat services to / from Lord Howe Island on May 31, 1974. Non-scheduled services continued until September 10, to permit the completion of the new airstrip.
History has a habit of repeating itself at the Island. On the night of June 09, 1974 VH-BRC ‘Beachcomber’ was blown ashore by 150 k/hr winds which struck the island. Fortunately the wind drove ‘Beachcomber’ onto the sand and not onto the reef. In the process a float was torn off. Having learnt their lessons following the demise of ‘Pacific Chieftain’ in 1963, ‘Beachcomber’ was dragged further up the sand, to minimize the damage that could be caused by the pounding surf. The aircraft was repaired and flown back to Rose Bay for full repairs. It was reported that during the flight back to Rose Bay the aircraft tended to fly 'right-wing-down' due to the copious amount of sand that had entered the wing structure.
On September 10, 1974 the final Ansett Flying Boat Services Pty Ltd service from Sydney to Lord Howe Island return was operated by ‘Beachcomber’. With engine shut-down at Rose Bay, Sydney the Group’s flying boat association with Lord Howe came to an end, an association that extended back to Trans Oceanic Airways in 1952.
Prior to the cessation of services to Lord Howe both aircraft had been sold to Antilles Air Boats, St Croix, Virgin Islands. As each boat was withdrawn from service it was prepared for the ferry flight to the Virgin Islands. This involved repainting and the installation of additional fuel tanks. The first aircraft to depart was VH-BRF, now registered as N158J, on September 25, 1974.
On the evening of November 28, 1974 the confines of Sydney Harbour reverberated to the sound of four finely-tuned Pratt & Whitney radial engines for the last time. ‘Beachcomber’, now registered as N158C, departed on its ferry flight to St Croix, thus bringing to a close Sydney’s association with the graceful Short flying boats.
(My thanks to Fred Niven, Ansett Historian, for this history)