Sydney Seaplanes: Scenic flights over Sydney - the flying boat is back

For almost 40 years flying boats were a familiar sight on Sydney Harbour. In the days of long sea voyages, the 10-day flight from Rose Bay to Southampton aboard a Qantas Empire Flying Boat was the ultimate in speed and luxury.

"Back then a one-way ticket to England cost £200 – about a year's wages for the average person," flying boat enthusiast Matthew Holle says. "The only people who could afford to travel by flying boat were businessmen, government officials and the military, not the likes of us."

Shorts, the company which made Empire flying boats, famously said: "We don't build aircraft that float, we build ships that fly." Aircraft were sumptuously appointed with galleys, a promenade deck, a mini golf course and even a wine cellar. In those halcyon days, all 14 passengers flew first, or Empire, class – economy was unthinkable.

A trip to England by flying boat was similar to taking a relaxed sea voyage. Apart from their leisurely 150-mile-an-hour speed, these aircraft could not operate at night, so passengers stayed in luxury hotels on the way, stopping at cities such as Singapore, Rangoon and Athens.

Although they appear hopelessly romantic to the modern traveller, these Shorts Empires were at the cutting edge of aircraft design in the 1930s; flying boats were the first planes to offer in-flight cabin service, and reclining seats.

Sitting on the deck of the sleek new Sydney Seaplanes terminal in Rose Bay, it's easy to imagine one of these majestic aircraft thundering across the harbour, struggling to become airborne with its cargo of oysters, champagne, strawberry ice-cream and, more importantly, mail.

"The service was initially established to carry mail between Britain and Australia," Holle says. "Flying boats could carry larger freight loads than land-based aircraft of the time and could land on any reasonably large body of calm water – essential because of the frequent stops involved."

The new Sydney Seaplanes terminal, which opened in November 2016, pays homage to these aviation pioneers who established Australia's first commercial airport at Rose Bay in 1938; in its heyday the flying boat base had a passenger terminal, hangers, an engineering department, a refuelling depot and a staff of 270.

With its glitzy oyster bar, luxurious fit-out and sweeping harbour views, the new Empire Lounge is a fond reminder of the glory days of the Shorts flying boats and the Catalinas and Sunderlands which followed later.


Designed principally for the use of seaplane passengers, the over-water terminal is already a popular breakfast and lunch spot for Rose Bay locals. The cafe serves healthy snacks, salads and freshly shucked oysters and a decent selection of wine by the glass, plus barista made coffees.

But it's also worth lingering for a few minutes in the Flying Boat Museum. The collection, curated by Arterial Design and Holle, includes photographs, posters, certificates and other memorabilia, plus fascinating video interviews with former pilots, engineers and passengers.

Holle, who works for the Historic Houses Trust of NSW and lectures widely about flying boats, has a strong personal connection with the old Qantas base at Rose Bay. His parents met here in the 1950s.

"My Dad started with Qantas as an engineer in 1947 and my Mum joined the company a little later as a hostess," he says. "I came into the world thanks to the flying boats."



Sydney Seaplanes Base (Lyne Park, Rose Bay; 02 9388 2802) houses a cafe, oyster bar, VIP passenger lounge, small gift shop and Flying Boat museum. The dining room, which is open daily, serves hearty breakfasts and wholesome lunches, with a good choice of fresh seafood, salads, sliders and platters – plus all-day coffee and snacks. Meals are priced from $12 to $23, with cheese platters from $33. The bar is open for happy hour drinks on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings. The museum contains historic photographs, log books, certificates and other memorabilia, plus a video display which tells the story of the flying boats and the Kangaroo Route from Rose Bay to Southampton.


Sydney Seaplanes offers scenic flights over the city, Bondi Beach, the Sydney Opera House and northern beaches plus longer foodie adventures to Palm Beach, Berowra Waters and Cottage Point; overnight trips also available. A 15-minute scenic flight over Sydney costs $200 a person, with a minimum booking of two passengers required.


Mark Chipperfield travelled at his own expense.

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