Aircraft model, Short Sandringham, 'Pacific Chieftain', VH-BRE, Ansett Flying Boat Services Pty Ltd, 1:10 scale, fibreglass / wood / metal, made by Iain Scott-Stevenson for the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 2006
Flying boats have been an integral part of Australia's civil aviation history since the 1930s with the introduction of the Short S23 'C' Class boats operated jointly by Qantas and Imperial Airways (later BOAC) between Australia and the United Kingdom. Since World War II improvements to landplanes and to the establishment of all-weather airports the role of the flying boat was relegated to flying long over water or coastal flights. Australia was one of the last countries to operate large four-engine flying boats on regular services and it is noteworthy that, of the remaining preserved four-engine flying boats a number have an Australian provenance; Solent VH-TOA and Sunderland VH-BRF in the United States; Sandringham VH-BRC in England and Sandringham VH-APG (Frigate Bird III) in France. The Australian use of the flying boat, it has been said, was dictated by Australian geography; being an island continent with a mainly coastal population and a proximity to the islands of the South Pacific; many of these not possessing landing grounds for land planes. Also the official aviation bureaucrat's view was that long over water flights should be carried out in a flying boat. This was safer, in their view, than long over water flights carried out in land planes. However, with the establishment of the reliability of land planes coupled to the comparative economic shortcomings of the flying boat, the land planes became predominant and the official attitudes changed.
Ansett Airways was the last large flying boat operator in Australia, under its division -Ansett Flying Boat Services Pty Ltd. Ansett Airways became the second Australian domestic operator under the two-airline agreement when it merged with Australian National Airways in 1957 and took over its routes. To ensure that the flying boats did not compete with the land plane services the flying boat operations were reduced to the Sydney-Lord Howe Island route and to island charter operations. With the cessation of the Government subsidy on the Lord Howe Island route and the construction of an airfield on the Island the flying boat service ceased in 1974.
The Sandringham flying boat was the most numerous of the four-engine flying boats used in Australia. While Trans Oceanic Airways used Short Solents, the sleeve valve engines they used were problematic and the supply of spares to maintain them was also an issue. The Sandringhams were powered by the reliable Pratt and Whitney Wasp engine, as used by the Douglas DC3 landplane. This commonality made spares acquisition relatively simpler and the knowledge of the maintenance of these engines was more widely held in the civil aviation community.
The operation of the flying boats was synonymous with the Sydney suburb of Rose Bay. Initially begun pre-WWII as the Qantas flying boat base, it became the home to other operators including Trans Oceanic Airways and the Ansett Flying Boat Services Pty Ltd. The large boats circling the Sydney CBD on departure or arrival was a familiar sight to many Sydney siders from the late 1940s to 1974. Rose Bay is still the focus of seaplane operations in the early 21st century.
The model of VH-BRE 'Pacific Chieftain' is representative of the last era of large flying boat operations in Australia encompassing the use of Sandringham flying boats by Qantas, Barrier Reef Airlines and Ansett Flying Boat Services from the the base at Rose Bay, Sydney. It reflects upon the activities of Stewart Middlemiss, founding partner of Barrier Reef Airways and Manager of Ansett Flying Boat Services Pty Ltd; Chris Poulson, partner in Barrier Reef Airways and owner of Heron Island and Reginald Ansett, Owner of Ansett Airways and owner of Hayman Island.
The model was made by Museum model maker Iain Scott-Stevenson using fibreglass components of a Short Sunderland model supplied by model maker, Tim Nolan. Iain remodelled the military Sunderland nose to resemble the civil Sandringham and borrowed a mold for the Pratt and Whitney engines to fabricate those for the model. Iain selected the early Ansett livery and the registration representing the Sandringham lost while moored at Lord Howe Island in 1963.
The model represents Short Sandringham VH-BRE, 'Pacific Chieftain' (constructor's number SH32C) as operated by Ansett Flying Boat Services between 1957 and 1963.
The Short S25 Sandringham was a conversion of the Sunderland III flying boat that had been operated by the Royal Air Force's Coastal Command and the RAAF. The gun turrets in the nose and tail were removed and the bow reskinned to provide a more streamlined nose. A streamlined cone fared in the tail. The interior was modified to provide a measure of comfort and luxury for between 22 and 45 passengers. The first Sandringham, G-AGKX, an ex-Hythe class boat of BOAC, powered by four Bristol Pegasus 38 engines, made its appearance in 1946. Subsequent Sandringhams were powered by four Pratt and Whitney Wasp engines.
Between April 1950 and December, 1951, Qantas took delivery of five newly converted Sandringham 5s. The first acquired on 13 April 1950 was VH-EBX, constructor's number SH32C, christened 'Pacific Chieftain'. It was operated by Qantas on the Pacific and New Guinea services until sold on 10 December 1954 to Ansett Flying Boat Services Pty Ltd as VH-BRE which, by this time, had taken full control of Barrier Reef Airways, hence the inclusion of the aircraft in the Barrier Reef Airways registration sequence. Barrier Reef Airways had been established in 1946 by Stewart Middlemiss and retired sea captain, Chris Poulson. Poulson owned Heron Island on the Barrier Reef and the airline hoped to encourage tourist traffic to the island. In 1947 Barrier Reef Airways began services to Heron, Lindeman and Daydream Islands from Hamilton Reach in Brisbane. The service initially used two ex-RAAF Catalina flying boats. At the end of 1947 Chris Poulson was lost at sea and Middlemiss continued on alone. He bought two Sandringhams from Tasman Empire Air Lines (TEAL), financing them with the sale of 51% of his airline to Ansett Airways. As Ansett imposed financial pressure on Middlemiss he succumbed and sold his remaining 49% holding in Barrier Reef Airways to Ansett but remained as an employee of Ansett, managing the flying boat operations. Early in 1953 Middlemiss moved the Ansett Flying Boat Services head office to Rose Bay in Sydney and it was here, in 1954, that ex-Qantas Sandringham VH-EBX joined Ansett as VH-BRE. Ansett operated the Sandringhams from Hobart to Cairns, to Lord Howe Island and on cruises to Noumea, Fiji, Samoa, Itutake and Tahiti. These cruises were operated 3 to 4 times per year. With the merger of Ansett and Australian National Airways (ANA) in late 1957, the takeover by Ansett of ANA's routes saw the flying boat operations as competition and, except for special charters, the flying boats operated only to Lord Howe Island from that time. It was on a charter that VH-BRE was lost at Lord Howe Island in July 1963.
With Stewart Middlemiss as Captain and Ron Gillies as First Officer, VH-BRE was being flown to Fiji with a team of bowlers constituting the charter passengers. It was decided that the flight would make stopovers at Lord Howe Island and Noumea "...to give a bit of variety...". On the night of 2nd July an exceptionally strong wind broke the aircraft away from its moorings and drove it up onto the beach, causing a badly damaged wing and a dislodged starboard float. The flying boat was refloated and reattached to the mooring. The next night a gale force wind caused the Sandringham to sink. Irretrievably damaged due to the ravages of salt water and battery acid, all usable parts were salvaged and the the stripped hull was towed from the lagoon to the open ocean and scuttled.
Sandringham VH-BRE was replaced by a military Sunderland (NZ4108) purchased from the Royal New Zealand Air Force and registered VH-BRF. It was civilianised and remained in service with Ansett Flying Boat Services Pty Ltd until that division ceased operation in 1974.