Our World Flying Perth to London: A look back in time

Super Connie. The Super Constellation cut the travelling time to Australia. Picture: Supplied

Flying from Perth to London once took 10 days and required making 37 stops but the Boeing 787-9 recently delivered to Qantas will take just 17.5 hours to travel non-stop in one hop to the British capital and just over 15 hours to come back. 

The 236-seat fuel-efficient aircraft will finally smash the tyranny of distance in March and passengers travelling in the ultimate flying machine will enjoy a new travel experience scientifically tailored to maximise their wellbeing. 

That experience will be in stark contrast to that marathon 10-day journey undertaken before World War II.

The first part of the journey from Perth to Darwin was flown by MacRobertson Miller Airlines in a 6-10 passenger de Havilland DH-84s and later the slightly larger DH-86.

The hazards faced by MMA pilots flying that route were many and sometimes amusing, and included the Port Hedland runway’s dual use as part of a golf course, with poles left in the putting greens.

Weather and aircraft reliability were big enough issues to require an extra day to make the connection with the Qantas Short C Class flying boats which stopped at Darwin.

The British-built flying boats were state-of-the-art and could carry 15 passengers in luxury.

At the time, Qantas chief Hudson Fysh wrote: “Getting up out of his chair, a passenger could walk about and, if his seat was in the main cabin, stroll along to the smoking cabin for a smoke, stopping on the way at the promenade deck, with its high handrail and windows at eye level, to gaze at the world of cloud and sky outside, and at countryside or sea slipping away below at a steady 150 miles an hour (214km/hour).”

He continued: “On the promenade deck there was also a practical, useable space where quoits or clock golf were played.”

According to John Gunn’s book The Defeat of Distance “the meals were sumptuous. Grapefruit and cereals, egg and bacon, bread rolls with tea, coffee, or cocoa for breakfast; then later, roast mutton with peas and potatoes, or a choice of ham, pressed beef, or ox tongue with salad, followed by peach Melba, a cherry flan, or cheese and fruit.

“Looking after the passengers were the pleasant and polite stewards, aerial pioneers of personal care and service. The big boats were a delight to operate for the pilots too, both in the air and on the water. They were much more comfortable, with more crew space, and had better communications as well as the new automatic pilots.”

There was no night flying and passengers stayed overnight in the most luxurious hotels available, though in Western Australia the accommodation was basic at best.

The return fare was about $820, the equivalent of two years of minimum wages.

This made flying before WWII something restricted to the rich and famous and quite an event.

The papers of the day in Perth would announce in the public notices the passengers that were arriving or departing.

During the war, the link with the UK was kept open initially by four Catalina flying boats that were based at Crawley and flew up to 30 hours non-stop to Sri Lanka.

Qantas mechanics dubbed the operation the Kangaroo Service, later renamed the Kangaroo Route, because of the great hop from Perth to Sri Lanka.

The name stuck, though the first aircraft to carry the familiar kangaroo were Consolidated Liberator bombers that were also used for passenger flights.

The immediate postwar period saw Avro Lancastrians, a passenger conversion from the Lancaster bomber, pressed into service while airlines waited for delivery of planes such as pressurised, four-engine Lockheed Constellations.

The Constellations were a quantum leap forward in every aspect.

Tourist — or economy class — was introduced in 1954 on what became known as the Kangaroo Route and within two years accounted for 44 per cent of passengers.

Introduction of the faster, longer-range Super Constellations (pictured at top) cut the four-day travelling time to Australia to 54 hours and 30 minutes.

These aircraft were pressurised and could fly above a lot of the weather, making for a smoother ride, but vibration and noise from the engines were major issues.

The jet age saw Qantas opt for the Boeing 707 while its partner on the Kangaroo Route — BOAC — chose Comets and VC-10s.

The introduction of more powerful turbo-fan jet engines in the early 1960s enabled greater range so fuel stopovers such as Darwin could be dropped. But the journey was still 27 hours with five stops.

Jets were able to fly much higher — up to 40,000ft — and thus could avoid the worst of the weather.

The 1970s saw the arrival of the Boeing 747 “jumbo jet”, an aircraft which opened up travel to many more people, but two stops were still required to get between Australia and the UK.

Boeing’s 747-400, with more powerful and economical engines, in 1989 enabled British Airways and Qantas to offer one-stop flights on a year-round basis in both directions.

The flying time was now down to 22 hours from Perth to London.

While aircraft such as Boeing’s 777-200LR have been able to operate non-stop over similar and even greater distances since 2006, it is the economy of the latest generation of aircraft such as the Boeing’s 787-9 and the Airbus A350 that makes these routes viable.

For instance, the 236-seat Qantas 787-9 burns 34 per cent less fuel per passenger than the airline’s 484-seat A380, according to a Merrill Lynch report.

The carbon-fibre construction of these new aircraft allows for lower cabin altitude and higher humidity that virtually eliminate the worst impacts of jet lag. This makes longer non-stop journeys much easier on the body.

And rather than two years wages, a return economy seat on the 787 non-stop service will cost about one week’s average salary for an Australian and 1.5 weeks for a British resident.

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