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How time flies...

The history of flights from the UK to Australia

24. October 2017

by Henrik Hanevold

If the thought of 15 hours on board Qantas’ flight between London and Australia has you wincing, it might be worth remembering a time when flying to the other side of the world took the best part of two weeks!

Indeed, commercial flying has changed rather dramatically over the years. That 12-day, multi-stop flight between London and Australia is now a distant memory as Qantas prepares to launch the first direct flights from the UK to Perth in March 2018.

The state-of-the-art Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which Qantas took delivery of this month, is the machine that will connect the countries, and in doing so make the world a smaller place. Looking back at the route’s 80-plus year history, it makes a fine example of just how far the aviation industry has come.


1938/1939 Qantas advertisement       Photo: Qantas

Epic Journey

On 13 April 1935, the first excited (and wealthy) passengers boarded an Imperial Airways (a predecessor to British Airways) Handley Page 42W Heracles set for Paris. Following a number of stops – including Italy, Crete, Egypt, Iraq, UAE, Pakistan, India, Myanmar – the flight landed in Singapore, where Qantas was responsible for the rest of the service to Brisbane. The epic journey took 12 days and up to 31 stopovers.


Cabin interior of a De Havilland D.H.86         Photo: Qantas

Qantas’ leg of the journey, from Singapore to Brisbane, was served by a De Havilland D.H.86 – a four-engined, wood-and-fabric biplane. The journey took three days, more than ten stops, and had no cabin crew on board – although the co-pilot did hand out sandwiches to up to 10 passengers.


A D.H.86 at Brisbane in 1935           Photo: Qantas

There were no through bookings on the very first service from London to Brisbane because of heavy sector bookings, but there were two through passengers on the next flight that left London a week later.

Imperial Airways and Qantas Empire Airways opened the 12,754-mile (20,526 km) London to Brisbane route for passengers for a single fare £195 (approx £9,500 today, taking into account inflation), which was greeted with enthusiasm by travellers whose previous options for getting to Australia included a six-week sea voyage.

10 Days

In 1938, the route was shortened slightly – to about 10 days – with the marathon journey flown in two parts. It began with a lengthy trip from Southampton to the northern Australian town of Darwin in a then state-of-the-art Short C Class flying boat that could carry 15 people.


Spacious cabins on board Qantas flying boats – 1938        Photo: Qantas

Pictures of the relatively luxurious flying boats were publicised in British and Australian newspapers, with scenes of relaxed comfort and plentiful space – enough for a game of golf even – stirring the imaginations of the public.


Rose Bay flying boat base 1939   Photo: Qantas

Despite offering an onboard smoking cabin and promenade deck, the reality of flying at 10,000 feet in one of the aircraft was far from smooth. At that height, flying through tropics often came with severe turbulence, while there was no weather radar to help the pilots manoeuvre through bad weather.

The onboard service may have made up for it, however, with an array of sumptuous meals and, of course, plenty of alcohol served by ever-hospitable flight assistants.


Guilford Airport Perth used by Qantas for UK flights 1944

Photo: Qantas


Four Days

Later, in May of 1945, BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation, which was the result of a merger between Imperial Airways and British Airways) began flights from Hurn Airport in southern England to Sydney. The route was served six times a week by the Avro 691 Lancastrian, a Canadian and British passenger and mail transport aircraft developed from the Avro Lancaster heavy bomber. The flight took about four days, which was a huge improvement on previous flight times.


Qantas Avro Lancastrian        Photo: Qantas

On 1 December 1947, Qantas flew a Lockheed Constellation from Sydney to London to mark the very first flight of the Kangaroo Route. The flight carried 29 passengers and 11 crew and made stops in Darwin, Singapore, Calcutta, Karachi, Cairo, and Tripoli, with an overnight in both Singapore and Cairo). A return fare was £585 (approx £16,000 in today’s money), equivalent to 130 weeks average pay in 1947.


Flying Kangaroo first appeared on Liberators 1944          Photo: Qantas

Later, the faster, longer-range Super Constellations cut the four-day travelling time to Australia to a little over 54 hours.


Sleeper seats on Lockheed flights – early 1950s         Photo: Qantas

The Jet Age

Jet flights started in 1959 – BOAC ordered Comets, Boeing 707s and VC-10s, while Qantas purchased Boeing 707s – and in April 1960, the fastest trip from Sydney to London was 34 hr 30 min with eight stops


Qantas brought the jet age to Australia in 1959       Photo: Qantas

The more powerful turbofan jet engines introduced in the early 60s also enabled greater range, meaning stopovers such as Darwin could be dropped. By June 1969, Qantas had 11 Kangaroo Route flights a week between Sydney and London, taking 29–32 hours with 5–6 stops each; while BOAC had between 7 and 9 flights a week with 5–7 stops.


Qantas began flying B747-200 Jumbo Jets in 1971       Photo: Qantas

These jets were able to reach much higher altitudes, resulting in a much smoother journey – which the airlines were quick to point out with images of children building matchstick towers advertising the fact.


Qantas Boeing 747-200 – 1971         Photo: Qantas

When Qantas added to Boeing 747 to its fleet in 1971, flight times were again reduced and only two stops were required – usually at Singapore and Bahrain. It wasn’t until 1989, however, and the advent of the 747-400 and its more powerful and economical engines, that Qantas set a world distance record for commercial jets when a Boeing 747–400 flew nonstop from London Heathrow to Sydney in just over 20 hours.


First Class upper deck lounge on B747        Photo: Qantas

Non-Stop For 15 Hours

Despite this feat, one-stop flights between the UK and Australia have remained the norm until now – or rather, until next March, when Qantas’ new Boeing 787-Dreamliner – an aircraft designed specifically for comfort on long-haul sectors – will take all the way with no stops.


Qantas’ new Boeing 787-Dreamliner             Photo: Qantas

While other aircraft, such as Boeing’s 777-200LR, have had the capability to fly non-stop over similar and even greater distances, it is the economy of the latest generation of aircraft that makes these routes viable for airlines.

A lot has changed over the last century, and not many places is this more evident than in the commercial aviation industry. What used to take 12 days and was reserved for only the rich and famous will soon be possible in 15 hours and an option for most of the population. It just goes to show how time flies…