Barrier Reef Airways.
The in-depth histories of the individual aircraft were operated by Barrier Reef Airways.
On October 08, 1946 Christian ‘Chis’ Poulson, who was the proprietor of Heron Island, and Stewart C. Middlemiss, an ex RAAF Catalina pilot, formed the company Poulson & Middlemiss which traded as Barrier Reef Airways Pty Ltd. With an initial capital injection of £1,000, they purchased three ex-RAAF Convair PB2B-2R Catalinas on October 28, 1946. Two of these aircraft were eventually converted to 22-seat civil configuration, although only one ‘The Beachcomber’ initially entered service. Priority was given to converting this aircraft, registered as VH-BRA, in order to commence operations as quickly as possible.
The second Catalina, which would eventually become VH-BRB ‘Buccaneer’, was slowly converted, as the limited funds permitted. Despite the publicity brochure mentioning the operation of three Catalinas, Barrier Reef Airways’ planned third Catalina, provisionally named ‘Bermuda’, never entered service. It is understood that although purchased for only £500 each, the two aircraft to be converted had less than 1,000 hours RAAF service.
The 22-upholstered leather seats were distributed between three compartments. A cold meal, known as a ‘Tropical Salad’ was served during the flight, as the aircraft had no cooking facilities. Heron Island was served only by a long, often rough, launch trip, while Gladstone had no air service at that time. Therefore a Brisbane - Gladstone - Heron Island flying boat service seemed like an excellent idea.
On January 16, 1947 the airline’s first Catalina VH-BRA ‘The Beachcomber’ made a survey flight on the Brisbane - Gladstone - Heron Island route. A survey flight to other Whitsunday Islands was made on January 20. During April, Barrier Reef Airways undertook some charter operations whilst awaiting its state airline operating licence. On June 25, 1947 ‘The Beachcomber’ commenced a special charter flight, flying Brisbane - Rockhampton - Mackay - Lindeman Island - Hayman Island - Bowen -Townsville - Brisbane, with Reg Ansett as its VIP passenger. This charter permitted Mr Ansett to inspect the islands, with a view to establishing a tourist resort. He secured a 99-year lease on Hayman Island, allowing him to be develop it as a tourist resort.
Barrier Reef Airways was officially launched by Queensland’s Lt. Governor, the Hon. F. G. Cooper on July 02, 1947. Guests included the Queensland Deputy Premier, Mr Vince Gair. After the ‘opening ceremony’ the guests were taken for a one-hour flight over Brisbane.
On July 12, 1947 the airline commenced services from Brisbane (Hamilton Reach) to Gladstone and Heron Island using ‘The Beachcomber’ flown by Capt. S. Middlemiss, after final approval was granted by the Queensland Government for intrastate airline operations. The initial schedule was restricted to Fridays and Saturdays. The 560km Brisbane - Heron Island service took 2 hours 20 minutes compared to existing 21-22 hour rail/launch trip via Gladstone.
Services commenced on the Brisbane to Lindeman, Daydream and South Molle Islands on July 21, 1947, using the Catalina VH-BRA. Brisbane’s Hamilton Reach terminal was used for passenger operations, while the nearby Colmslie base was used for aircraft maintenance. Services were operated on a Monday, landing at Lindeman Island and either Daydream Island or South Molle Island. During the summer months a round-trip was operated, departing Brisbane at 06.00. However, during the winter, available daylight hours did not allow the 960km return trip to be completed in one day and these flights departed Brisbane at 10:00 and overnighted at Daydream Island. The Whitsunday ‘Catalina’ services took only 4 hours, compared with the existing 2-day rail/launch service. Around 1000 passengers were carried in the first two months of operation.
Disaster stuck the airline on November 27, 1947 when its co-founder Chris Poulson was lost at sea. Stewart Middlemiss stretched his meagre finances and bought-out the Poulson family share in BRA.
During December the Catalina VH-BRA flew a charter to Merauke, New Guinea, transporting a tug crew. At Christmas a special charter was flown to Sydney, plus additional services were operated to Heron Island and Gladstone. After Christmas, with tropical heat and rain reducing traffic, the Whitsunday services were suspended until the end of March, while the Heron Island service was reduced to once weekly.
During 1947 five additional ex-RAAF Catalinas were purchased by B.R.A. and stored at their Colmslie base. One is believed to have been onsold to the Dutch, and at least some of the others were used for spare-parts. Although operations continued until September 1949 with only VH-BRA, it reportedly never failed to operate a planned service.
At the end January 1948 the Heron Island services were suspended for six weeks, due to lack of patronage. On March 28th, Barrier Reef Airways included Lindeman Island in its Brisbane - Daydream Island services, with both its services now terminating at Lindeman Island. By mid-1948 services were stabilised at one service to/from Heron Island on Saturdays and two services to/from the Whitsunday Islands on Tuesday and Sunday. Passengers travelling to/from Long Island and South Molle Island used a launch connection from/to Daydream Island. Plans to include services to/from Ballina, Dunk Island and Urangan did not proceed.
During September 1949 the airline’s second Catalina VH-BRB ‘The Buccaneer' finally entered service, allowing VH-BRA to be withdrawn from service for a much-needed overhaul.
On January 31, 1950 Catalina VH-BRB was damaged at Daydream Island, when it collided with a launch, suffering damage to its port wing and engine. This damaged meant that it did not return to service until May 1951. This accident, plus continued financial problems caused by the seasonal nature of its operations and Tasman Empire Airways (TEAL) offering its fleet of Short Sandringhams for sale at £5,000 each, which was a real bargain, but still beyond BRA’s financial reach, led to Barrier Reef Airways to seek additional capital. That finance was obtained from Ansett Transport Industries, as Stewart Middlemiss and Reg Ansett were old friends.
In February 1950 Barrier Reef Airways was granted a license to serve Grafton, but could not start the service at the time, due to post-war fuel restrictions. Services finally began on June 27, 1952.
During April 1950 Barrier Reef Airways was renamed Barrier Reef Airways Pty Ltd. This occurred after A.T.I. acquired 51% of Barrier Reef Airways’ shares and it became a part of Ansett Transport Industries Ltd. (ATI). It gave the airline financial and operational stability well beyond anything possible before. Although B.R.A. continued to operate as such, its reservations were now handled by Ansett Airways and passengers from Brisbane checked in at Ansett Airways’ office at 95 North Quay, Brisbane.
The A.T.I. funds were used to purchase two Short S.25 Sandringham Mk IVs from Tasman Empire Airways Limited (TEAL), for £5,000 each. On April 07, 1950 Barrier Reef Airways’ first Short S.25 Sandringham, ZK-AMH was ferried from Auckland to Brisbane. It was registered as VH-BRC. On April 27, Barrier Reef Airways’ second Short S.25 Sandringham, ZK-AME, was ferried from Auckland to Brisbane. It was registered as VH-BRD. These 41-passenger Sandringhams offered much a higher standard of comfort, safety and speed when compared to the Catalinas. For the first time the airline could serve hot meals to its passengers.
On May 23, 1950 the airline’s first Short S.25 Sandringham VH-BRC, initially named ‘Coral Clipper’, entered service on the Brisbane - Lindeman Island - Daydream Island route. The Sandringhams operated 3-times-per-week to Daydream, Lindeman and Hayman Islands during the peak season. However, as the Sandringhams were too large to serve Heron Island, the Catalinas continued to operate the service, once or twice a week, as required.
On July 02, 1950, B.R.A.'s Sandringham VH-BRC operated the inaugural Brisbane - Hayman Island service, prior to the island’s official opening the following day. VH-BRC had been used to fly in materials for the resort’s construction and flew in around 80 guests for the opening. By 1954 some 70% of Hayman Island’s guests travelled via Barrier Reef Airways.
Trans Oceanic Airways used Barrier Reef’s Sandringham flying boats on charter flights, including flights to Hobart.
During January 1951 approval was given for Barrier Reef Airways to serve Sydney. However, services did not start until July 01. During April the airline’s second Short S.25 Sandringham VH-BRD ‘Capricorn’ entered service, initially operating between Brisbane and the Whitsunday Islands. During May the Catalina VH-BRB was returned to service. During June services were extended to Townsville, but this required a landing on the sea, outside the harbour.
Barrier Reef began a twice-weekly (Monday / Friday) direct Brisbane - Sydney service (via Southport) on July 01, 1951 with the Catalina VH-BRB ‘The Buccaneer’ operating the inaugural service.
During October the airline’s original Catalina VH-BRA was withdrawn from service, while the Catalina VH-BRB remained in service until March 10, 1953.
The Short S.25 Sandringham VH-BRC was temporarily withdrawn from service on January 23, 1952.
Ansett Flying Boat Services Pty Ltd, trading as Ansett Airways Flying Boat Division, was established on May 01, 1952, after ATI purchased Stewart Middlemiss’s remaining shares. Stewart Middlemiss became the General Manager for the new airline. Ansett's N.S.W. Sales Manager, Mr G. Davies, announced that new company would reduce fares by 15 to 20 per cent.
From May 31, the Hayman Island services were extended to Cairns, during the winter peak months, with initial services operating on Thursday and Saturday. Services were flown Brisbane - Whitsunday Island - Townsville - Cairns, overnighting Cairns before returning the next day.
B.R.A. began operating the Brisbane - Grafton - Sydney service, using the Catalina VH-BRB on June 27. At Grafton, the Clarence River was used, as there was no local land-based airport. Initially services were operated on a Friday, with Monday service being added soon afterwards.
Southport’s Broadwater was added to B.R.A.’s Brisbane - Grafton - Sydney route, after Trans Oceanic Airways went into liquidation on July 25. The popularity of the Southport service led to Ansett financing the sealing of the airport at Coolangatta and Ansett Flying Boat Services stopped serving Southport in March 1954. The Southport flying boat facility closed in October 1954.
On August 16, 1952 Stewart Middlemiss, recognising that deteriorating conditions at Brisbane’s Hamilton Reach meant that the airline’s time there was limited and that some two-thirds of its passengers originated in the southern states, sought permission to move its base to Sydney’s Rose Bay, using the ex-Trans Oceanic Airways’ facilities. Negotiations dragged on until May 20, 1953 when Ansett finally purchased the ex-T.O.A. assets at Rose Bay. Ansett terminated the lease on its Brisbane River facilities on November 06, 1953.
The Short S.25 Sandringham VH-BRD was damaged beyond repair on the Brisbane River on October 31, 1952, leaving only the Sandringham VH-BRC and the Catalina VH-BRB to maintain services. As a result, the Saturday - Sunday return service to/from Cairns was suspended temporarily.
Trans Oceanic's Short S.25 Hythe VH-AKP was chartered, until a replacement for VH-BRD could be found. Sandringham VH-BRC, which had been out-of-service since January 23, was worked on by Ansett staff for seven weeks and returned to service on December 21, just-in-time for the Christmas peak. Between December 15 and December 30, the airline’s two remaining aircraft, VH-BRB and VH-BRC, carried a record 2500 passengers on the airline’s Brisbane - Sydney route.
The airline’s Catalina VH-BRB was temporarily withdrawn from service on January 20, 1953, due to leaking fuel tanks, again leaving B.R.A. with only one operational aircraft. From February 17 to 26, VH-BRB flew the Brisbane - South Pacific 'Air Cruise' exploration trip flying Brisbane - Noumea - Suva - Apia - Aitutaki (Cook Islands) - Tahiti, before returning via the same route in reverse on March 03-10. The flight was flown by Captains Stewart Middlemiss and Syd Johannsen, with E. W. ‘Pat’ Adams acting as the Navigator. Reg Ansett was a passenger on this flight.
As Trans Oceanic Airways had gone into liquidation, Reg Ansett was considering purchasing the airline and using its flying boats for such air cruises. During this trip, VH-BRB’s fuel tanks again gave trouble. Following a closer inspection of this aircraft’s fuel problems on March 10, and considering that its C of A inspection was due in 3 months, the necessary repairs to fully rectify the ongoing problem was considered uneconomic and it was immediately withdrawn from service.
Barrier Reef Airways ceased trading on March 30, 1953. All operations were integrated into those of Ansett Flying Boat Services from March 31, 1953.
Barrier Reef Airways had served the following ports at some stage during its existence: Brisbane (Hamilton Reach), Cairns, Daydream Island, Gladstone, Grafton, Hayman Island, Heron Island, Lindeman Island, Southport, Sydney (Rose Bay) and Townsville. Launch connections were provided from Daydream Island to/from Long Island and South Molle Island. Plans to include services to/from Ballina, Dunk Island and Urangan did not proceed.
(My thanks to Fred Niven, Ansett Historian, for this history)