The way it was: Sydney to Singapore in 4 days by Qantas flying boat

The way it was: Sydney to Singapore in 4 days by Qantas flying boat

If you’re shuttling between Sydney and Singapore this month, here’s something to reflect upon.

August 2013 marks the the 75th anniversary of Qantas’ original Empire Class flying boat service between Sydney’s Rose Bay and Singapore, a trip which in 1938 used to take four full days (with three overnight stops) instead of today’s eight hour jaunt.

But everything was different back then – especially the way we travelled.

Forget about the endless concrete of airports: passengers headed to the Rose Bay Flying Boat Base, nestled on the edge of Sydney Harbour to board one of Qantas’ magnificent Empire Class flying boats.

The zenith of a golden age of commercial flying between the wars, the flying boats were primarily designed to carry first-class air mail but they quickly embraced a modern spirit of  romance and adventure, opening international air routes and strengthening ties within the British Empire.

Qantas flying boats ushered in an era of stately and pleasurable flying – and they were built for comfort and safety rather than speed.

Only 16 passengers could be accommodated during flights with overnight legs, but they enjoyed “the most luxurious saloons ever prepared in an aircraft” spread over a series of tiered cabins including a smoking room and bunk-like sleeping berths.

Hudson Fysh, one of the founding members of Qantas and managing director at the time,  recalled: “Getting up out of his chair, a passenger could walk about and, if he had been seated 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.”

There’s plenty of romance in that vision, but it came at a price: a Sydney-Singapore return trip was slightly more than the average annual wage of the time, which in today’s terms would mean handing over some $72,800.

That included three overnight stops en route to Singapore – at Townsville, Darwin and Surabaya – spent at sumptuous hotels while the aircraft lay at moorings in a nearby lake or seaport.

The second leg of what had already been tagged as Kangaroo Route, from Singapore to London, took a further six days.

It was a brief shining moment for the flying boats before the start of World War II saw the aircraft stripped of those wide seats and sleeping bunks, to be replaced by guns and bomb racks.

The short-range Empire Class was replaced in 1943 by the longer range Catalina flying boats, which were retired in the early 1960s but gave their name to the five-star Catalina restaurant adjacent to the site of the old Rose Bay terminal.

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David Flynn
David Flynn is the editor of Australian Business Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.


  • KG


    12 Aug, 2013 10:57 am

    Great article David, always mesmerised by the olden (golden) days of flying! If only Pan Am was still around (using Catalina's as well).

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  • gredgy69


    12 Aug, 2013 03:27 pm

    KG, I have to agree. I can still remember flying Pan Am when I was a wee young bloke in the 1970's going to US - back in the days when kids could go up to the cockpit and have a look inside. I can also remember the travel bags theys used to give out that went over the shoulder. Ah those were the days.

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  • SaltyJ


    12 Aug, 2013 05:34 pm

    Like this one I found in the shed recently from a trip as a kid in 1979!

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  • Serg


    12 Aug, 2013 11:41 am

    $72,800 current money to Singapore and back! And we whining about business class ticket price! Even Singapore suite looks like basement bargain comparing to this!

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  • kelakwek


    12 Aug, 2013 04:18 pm

    This article seems to be an extract of a more detailed story here?

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  • David Flynn


    12 Aug, 2013 04:56 pm

    Hi Kelakwek: that Clubmarine article is a fascinating and very detailed read, isn't it? But the article above is not an extract of that great read (which I definitely recommend for those wanting a much deeper dive into the entire flying boat era, especially the Catalinas). All that this article and mine share is the quote from Hudson Fysh, which in fact comes from Qantas' own History of Qantas web pages (see

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  • Mal


    12 Aug, 2013 05:21 pm

    It was a toitally different world back then wasn't it? But I don't think I would trade today for yesterday. A year's salary, four days to get to Singapore, people smoking, having to wear all those stuffy formal clothes. No thanks!

    If somebody was to offer an Empire ot Catalina flight as a special luxury treat to SIngapore I might consider it as a one-off but the cost would still be frightening. I suppose if you have to think about how much it would cost you can't afford it!

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  • Geoff Whiteley


    17 Aug, 2013 01:35 pm

    I had the pleasure, and honour, to work at Qantas during the late 1960's with several of the veterans of the QF Rose Bay flying boat base.

    Interesting characters all, with some fascinating tales. All or most of them now probably running the SYD-SIN service in the great flying boat base in the sky.

    Thanks for the interesting article, photos and memories.

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  • gumshoe


    18 Aug, 2013 10:17 am

    My dad took me down there to Rose Bay when they were flying all that time ago, one day one came right up out of the water, it was massive.

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  • abudhabi1


    15 Apr, 2014 08:31 am

    Four days back then.It was 10 Hours via Adelaide or Jakarta not so long ago between Sydney and Singapore if you couldn't get on a Nonstop service which cut it down to eight.I wonder what Todays passengers who do the same trip on an A330 TODAY get that these flying boat people would have dreamed of.

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21 Jul, 2019 11:31 pm


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