Funny Weather for Flying Boats in the Tropics
In the Fifties when the Solent was operating across to Tahiti on what the Public
Relations folk called the Coral Route.
The Met Forecasting for the flights came out of Nadi Met Office at Laucala Bay.
It was a white stucco building two doors up from our house, near the Tennis Courts at
For the return trip the Met Service in Papeete provided the hopes and expectations regarding the weather for the return flight through Samoa.
Only rarely were there any problems but sometimes the signals to “Mike Oscar”
en route needed some amending information that had come in from the Met Service
too late for the Captain’s briefing at Laucala Bay; or from the Apia message Centre/radio station and the crew was already travelling in the Taxi to the moorings/slipway in the early morning hours.
There was on one occasion when airborne on the last leg from Aitutaki
to Tahiti a signal came to Digger Dawson at the Radio desk, that there was
a very high tide affecting the alighting area and the message ended saying
that the tide was “two metres” higher than usual.
Up front we looked at each other and had a laugh because we could not
believe that the tide was in fact some “six feet” higher than normal.
“That means the ocean is flowing through the town”, we said and had
Anyway, we could do nothing about it because we knew there would be
“water to land on”. When we flew in we noted that there seemed to be
little unusual, but did note that the reef edges were not showing
or defined by a line of breaking surf where we knew the reef was and
that the alighting area marker buoys still floated to define the
We found the reality when we boarded the Passenger launch and saw
that the whole hard standing area was under water and then when we
arrived at the hotel “Les Tropiques”, we found that the bar there
was flooded with about a foot of water flowing through the whole place.
Ame Hogstead, the Manager, shouted us free drinks to celebrate the event and
we sat at the Bar, bare footed and with our uniform trousers rolled
up above our knees,to celebrate the event.
The tide passed and the water level fell as the great hill of ocean passed,
as tides always do and by the time bedtime came, Papeete was once again OK
to be visited and our bungalows clear of the flowing tide.
You may think this was unusual but I recall the lounge of the Grand Pacific
Hotel in Suva with the cane furniture floating about and we had to occupy
a small bungalow in the garden which was above the water level.
Then again, Mary and the children and I were staying at LomaLagi, which at
the time was accessible only by dinghy, so our car had to be parked for our
week’s stay in the mainland Village.
During the second light of our stay there was some thunder and lightning
and then very heavy rain and a stream of water started flowing through
our Bure; in the front door, through the bedrooms and the kitchen and out
the backdoor. We lifted everything that was moveable and stacked it on the
kitchen table. Then an hour or so later it had all passed.
The children thought it was great! When we finished the holiday and
returned to the Village found that the men there had lifted the car and moved
it to higher ground where it escaped any sea water damage.
From these tit bits you can see that the weather could do some quite funny
things in Fiji, so when on the 3rd of December 1958 the leg from Samoa to
Laucala Bay had a bad terminal forecast because a hurricane which had traversed
the Suva area and had left the lagoon and facilities at Lacala Bay inoperable
because of floating debris etc which had come down the Rewa River, I amended
the destination to Lautoka where I knew we had a mooring buoy.
It was to my memory the only Solent passenger flight ever made to Lautoka,
although there had been flying boat landings there during the war. The first
was by Capt Jack Jurgessin in RMA “Aotearoa” back in September, 1939,
prior to the work related to the choice of Nadi for the Fiji International
Our passengers were all taken off by a local launch and transited then in
Taxis via Nadi for their onward movements.
We held long discussions with Jack [Joe] Shephard on the Radio as to the
state of the Laucala Bay alighting area, and after some hours took off and
flew back to Lacala Bay where all was more or less back to normal. The
Control Launch had gathered logs etc and towed them clear of the landing
area. All in the day’s work for a Flying Boat team!
Evans Bay Pilot Training
In view of some recent world news I thought I would go to an event from the days when Tasman Airways was getting lined up for route expansion when the Solents would be coming into service.
It was in 1948 and there was a day’s activity that could so easily have resulted in the same sort of disaster that befell the Polish Government a few weeks ago.
The recent news item from Poland told of a deadly flight when the majority of the Polish Government was flying to a remembrance celebration in the Eastern Russia, and while attempting to land in weather and visibility conditions that clearly were below standards the aircraft crashed on landing and all were killed..
On 10 March 1948 Tasman Airways risked a large percentage of its aircrew in a similar action.
Evans Bay at Wellington was a named as an alternate landing area in the event that Mechanics Bay was closed by weather etc but few of the aircrew had ever flown there. It had been decided by Flight Operations that in preparation for the start of regular flying operations into Wellington with the Solents, when they came into service that all the pilots should carry out a number of landings in Evans Bay. The aircraft used was a Catalina which the Company had bought [Civil Registration, ZKAMI] and Captain Cliff Le Couteur as the most experienced Catalina pilots and I were assigned to fly it to and from Evans Bay.
The Company decided to get as many of the Company pilots as possible to complete the necessary “three take-offs and landings” to entitle them to add Evans Bay into their accepted list of operating areas,
Early on the morning of 10 March all spare pilots that were available piled into the Catalina; (I can’t recall just how many] and then, first thing in the morning we flew to Wellington. It was not a fast trip ! the flight time was 2 hrs 50 mins. And then, throughout the day we took turns as each of the Company pilots flew the mandatory 3 take-offs and landings to validate the “Recent Experience” entry in their log book.
Finally, at the end of a long and tiring day we all boarded the Catalina once more and flew north to Auckland; but because it was now dark and the Catalina had no clever navigational gear, we flew out around Cape Egmont. The days of “electronic navigation” etc had not yet come over the horizon so we had a navigator working at his desk and taking star sights to fix position etc as we went out to sea and around the Cape Egmont. Ian Russell was designated as Navigator and with a sextant and radio bearings to ensure we were clear of Mt Egmont, we flew north. He was kept busy taking star sights and radio bearings and observing drift from small target flares dropped from the rear of the Catalina. Then when west of Whenuapai we turned and descend on the Whenuapai radio range [ That is an ancient bit of navigational gear that was based at Whenuapai] to approach for a landing at about 10pm back at Mechanics Bay. It was a flight of 3 hrs 30 and is listed as “night” in my Log Book}.
The next morning, [ as the “local person ” for the newly formed Pilots Association] I spoke to Capt Brownjohn about the lack of wisdom of putting so many of the Company pilots in the same aircraft for this days activity and he agreed and I don’t think it was ever repeated. [The crash in Russia which wiped out the Polish Government reminded me of the day we had all flown to Evans Bay. We had some 60% of the Company’s flying staff on board; Just think about the promotions that would have occurred !!!]
This was still some 18 months before the Solents came onto the fleet and about the time that the Sandringham’s were grounded while their engine cooling problems were being worked on. During these months the Tasman aircrews had little to do other than play a lot of golf so the Catalina Day at Evans Bay was thought to be a wise idea.
During these months there were long spells of idleness and most of the city golf courses would see groups of idle aircrew wildly swing their clubs as they occupied their idle days.
There was still some flying duties though. The trans-Tasman air service was kept up during the time of the Sandringham’s grounding with TAA chartered DC 4 aircraft flown by TAA pilots but with Tasman Airways Navigators aboard; and because all Tasman’s Pilots had to hold an International First Class Navigator’s ticket we could provide the crew for this role on the DC 4 crews.
I note from my Log Book that on March 20/21st 1948 that I crewed on a DC 4 making the Tasman flight as Navigator on an Australian DC 4 VH TAB with Captain Les Fletcher of TAA and this provides a marker for those days when the Sandringhams were grounded with the engine heating problems.
It was to be three months later; on June 24 before I note in my logbook that I did another flight to Sydney. You can see why we developed so many skilled golfers during those months!
When we resumed Trans-Tasman flights in the Sandringhams, they were all daylight flights until the Solents began their services.
Days of Teal and the Flying Boats: Beginnings of the Coral Route
During the Pacific war the RNZAF had provided the Pacific Islands [Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and the Cooks ] with what was known as the “Regional Service” and after the war ended the aircrew simply changed their uniform and became National Airways and continued to do the same job using the same DC 3 aircraft with a slightly different paint job!
NAC Management went ahead and bought a nice Suva home in an “up-market” street; MacGregor Rd, which was to be the residence for the Company’s Pacific Manager.
This was Tom O,ConnelI; and as a side note here I should mention that this man, was killed some ten years later when he was a passenger in a Bristol Freighter that crashed onto the Russley golf course near Wigram in 1957.
National Airways management seemed to have ignored the reality of the Conference that had I taken place in Chicago in 1944, because the NZ Government had played a significant role in the debates there and backed the other three Commonwealth nations against the pressures of the United States. This in spite of the reality that we had only two aircraft capable of flying the Tasman Sea. That Conference established the basis for all future worldwide international civil aviation and we shared the table with the USA, Great Britain, Canada, and Australia. Tasman Airways was New Zealand’s designated International carrier and when this finally sunk in Doug Patterson, (the GM of National Airways) was shattered and so too were the NAC aircrews who had been flying those Pacific sectors for some ten years..
The NAC Sunderland ZK AMK continued to operate to and from Suva and the Pacific Island Regional route continued through to the Cooks, but this was targeted to end when the Coral Route began operating with the Short Solents. This change would take place after the completion of the lagoon clearance work, being carried out by the NZ Government / TEAL Survey in the Catalina ZK – AMP headed by Capt Cliff Le Couteur.
On a night in June of 1951 when theTasman Airways survey crew was resident at Aggie Gray’s, the NAC Regional flight crew Capt Dan Carlaw was also overnighting on their way to Rarotonga.
After dinner in the cooler airs of the Samoan evening the crews relaxed over a few glasses of beer in the secluded calm of Aggie’s Yard and inevitably, the debate started as to whether TEAL was or was not, taking the bread and butter of the aviation business from the mouths of the NAC lads.
One word led to another and then in a flurry of exchanged words, shirts were stripped as the two aircraft captains squared off to settle something of a “challenge of honour” The few American tourists [ guests at Aggies ] looked on in wonder — and it looked like the few early physical exchanges might turn into a more serious exchange. But like all such events, sanity prevailed and there was no blood spilled. Dan Carlaw felt he had upheld the NAC side’s argument and Cliff Le Couteur felt that he had also upheld the rights of New Zealand’s International Carrier.
The NAC management had failed to realize that they were now just a Domestic carrier for NZ ; and Tasman Airways / TEAL Air New Zealand [ to be !] was the designated International Operator for our country.
The Coral Route: As Recalled by Maurice McGreal
My memories about the Coral Route are not just what you have heard over the years; beautiful lagoons; the stopover at Aitutaki and so on. Books and magazines have been filled with these tales .
But my memory stream is different. I was with the First team to step ashore onto the city wharves at Papeete Harbour and then I was with the last to leave the slipway at Faaa.
It was a simple flight routine that we called ” The Coral Route” . A morning flight from Suva to Samoa. Then a midnight take-off for Akiami and then a swim in the Lagoon there and then four hours to the arrival at Papeete ; where for the first few months we landed in the harbour and came ashore by the Douane; [the Customs House.]
There the team of ladies with garlands of flowers and coronets about their heads awaited to welcome us with a kiss and a garland of flowers for our tired shoulders.
The Notice boards on the main street there announced : “Tous les Mecredies; L’Avion TEAL arrive” . Indeed. TEAL was the news of the day !
Taxis whisked us off to “Les Tropiques”, a hotel the likes of which we had never seen before. The main house was a large thatched roofed structure in the expected Polynesian style, set in a scatter of 70 ft high coconut palms. The residential fares were scattered among these. Each a self contained and well appointed residence ! Quite luxurious as I recall.
I have never forgotten the first time I walked across to the Restaurant and Bar area after dumping my bags at my Unit. As I walked across the grass I looked back and saw my footprints as clear as if they had been made in the sand by the beach. It was known as ” sensitive grass” but they faded within minutes.
Les Tropiques always had a drink ready to welcome us and “mine host”; Arne Hogstead ensured that we were OK and his Free Drink was usually followed by ones we bought ourselves.
Perhaps I should just give a brief run down as to how I had reached this wondrous place. Back in late 1944, when it was clear that the war was well into the Home Strait, I had thoughts for the future and I wrote a letter to the Chairman of Tasman Airways from West Africa; [ Sierra Leone ] where I was flying Sunderlands with 490 Squadron. His reply was short and just suggested that I call and see Tasman Airways when I returned home.
Back in Britain I had married a lady I had met four years earlier in the RAF and I sailed for New Zealand on the liner “Andes” in September and my wife of some five months followed on two months later on the “Dominion Monarch”.
I didn’t call on the airline at once but decided to get the feel of Civvy Street by returning to University with a view to completing my degree. Then some months later, I had a somewhat strange interview with Oscar Garden, and the result was that I immediately became a member of the staff of Tasman Airways along with Edgar Allison, an Australian who had been signed up in Sydney.
Ed Allison and I became close family friends from that first day we met, but when in 1956 he suffered a heart failure and dropped dead as he crossed the street in St. Heliers Bay, there was a vacancy for a new captain on the Coral Route. !
He had just completed his routine licence medical only minutes before ! Now there’s a warning for you all. Don’t think you’re fireproof because your doctor has listened to your heartbeat and taken your pulse and nodded wisely saying “That’s fine”
Bear with me now and I will add a few comments from those days of long ago. Everyone in the Company knew everyone else. Oscar was God and had come from a dour north of Scotland / Isle of Man scene and this seemed to dog his life for all his days. He did not fit the concept held by Government for an “Imperial” airline head and when he was passed over and Geoffrey Roberts was appointed; someone considered to have with more gravitas, Oscar resigned and abandoned aviation forever!
His daughter Mary, has told me that she never reaIly knew Oscar and felt that he scarcely knew his family. When he died his ashes were scattered along the shoreline north of the Browns Bay beach.
Before he left the Company his last act was to take young Jim Kennedy out in an S 30 and check him out as a Captain for he seemed to have a strong attachment to Jim. who had come to Tasman from Union Airways. In reality Jim had little or no experience as a Captain of a Four Engined flying boat and Oscar had arranged for him to go off and fly for Cook Strait and West Coast airlines to achieve more command flying hours during the later war years.
Keesing and Phil Le Couteur had both come onto the staff about the same time and seemed to be a bit like the Twin stars; Castor and Pollux and their status at the head of the Operational Unit’s structure seemed to be a parallel scene but there was no doubt that Keesing was well ahead In the intellectual stakes.
Peter Jury, was also in that hierarchy and had come with Ken Brownjohn from Union Airways to fill the gaps left when some of the experienced pilot staff left to go back to a role on Atlantic Ferry duties
The appointment of a new Operations Manager then came up and Jury wanted this but Ken Brownjohn was appointed. Peter Jury became disheartened and left shortly after, for he believed he should have had the job. He returned to run the family farm but it was scarcely the future he really wanted. He was from an early Colonial family which had settled inthe Wairarapa and among his forebears were some Maori family lines.
Tasman Airways had grown out of a British shipping company and there was still floating around within the parent Company structure some level of cultural prejudices that could be said tended to limit the choice; particularly it seemed for the Flight Deck scene.
Back in the I40’s Tasman Airways was a Company struggling on with its two under capacity aircraft; it could scarcely be called an Airline until the arrival of the Solent, which started the process of “Growing up”.
Before that because of the Company name it was simply thought of as an add-on to the air-route operated by Imperial Airways / Qantas from London, through the East and across Australia to Sydney.
The Mk lV Solent gave Tasman Airways a level of operational activity that enabled it to spread its wings into the Pacific and pick up the bits and pieces of the air service that had grown as an RNZAF communications flight and then had been taken over by NAC in November 1947. This was when Ihe Company gained a “Publicity” team; the name was disguised and it became TEAL, with the Maroro logo.
NAC was quite shattered when the Government ruled that Tasman Airways would be the overseas operator and NAC would be restricted to the home scene. The reality of this step had grown from the Chicago Conference  from which ICAO was born. NACseemed to have ignored this aspect and was quite dismayed because they had gone ahead with plans for their South Pacific service. They were so confident that they would be the operator, that Tom O’Connell (NAC) had bought a nice house on Dennison Rd in Suva to be the residence for the Head of their Pacific Operation.
The route to Tahiti had no competitor and it had the potential to be expanded by extending to the north via Christmas Island to terminate in Honolulu but alas; the idea never look off.
Tahiti had virtually no regular contact except for the Mesagenes Maritimes ship every three months. So the Tasman Airways flying boat service offered a real bargain and only needed the island lagoons checked to ICAO standards so that the Solent could proceed in compliance wfth international standards.
The NZ Government funded the survey of the route, by providing a Catalina [resurrected from the RNZAF cast-offs] and a crew while the Public Works provided the works engineers. This was June of 1951 and carried the name; the PACSSA expedition.
The TEAL team was CJ Le Couteur and myself, both ex RAF Catalina captains; “Macko” Jackson was the Radio man; Bert Carlyon and Ron Oliver were the Engineers and there was a Finance Man from CAA who carried the spending authority etc. [Alas, I think they have now all passed on,]
We flew the Catalina to provide transport for the team and in between times worked with the PWD engineers and surveyors. We swept the lagoon areas for coral heads and identified and blasted coral heads from the take- off areas at Samoa, Aitutaki, Papeete and Bora Bora. This latter was a necessity as an alternate alighting area, should Papeete be closed by weather.
The take-off areas had to be checked and cleared over at least, 13,000 feet and to a width of 750 ft wide and to prove these the survey team spent two months; a task in which the aircraft crew took a full part.
Ron Oliver worked in a small canoe leaving markers, which really were coconuts with a long string and an anchor weight to identify where the problem coral head was.
Cliff Le Couteur, (nicknamed ” the bomber”) would dive to the base of the coral heads, carrying in his hands a live bomb of dynamite sticks with the fuse “fizzing” and place it close to the base of the problem and then, rush back to the launch to quickly get clear before the bomb went off.
The great raft we had designed on the spot we named Kon Tiki and the Samoan MOW men built it on one of the old American Air Force’s slipways at Satapuala. This was towed up and down the 13,000 ft long operating area at about 3 knots, to identify any coral heads that could rip the bottom out of the Solent as it taxied for a night departure.
By November 1951 the work was all done and a Route Proving flight [as required by ICAO standards] went ahead with a complete load of Govt and Company “Big Wigs”. This was made by ZK AMQ, a Mk 3 Solent, under the command of Capt. John McGrane, with Capt CJ. LeCouteur. This aircraft had been bought by the Company especially for this Pacific service but nobody had ever thought to check whether it could comply with the necessary engine-out performance that could be needed in the case of an instrument approach at Tahiti.!
Harold Denton’s Publicity team at TEAL had dreamed up the name, “The Coral Route” but the MK III Solent; ZK AMQ was unable to meet the engine failed performance requirements and was retired to end up as “pots & pans” in the scrap scene. A Mk IV from the routine Tasman services was then brought into the role and this continued until mid September 1960 when we all returned like a Noah’s Ark in ZK AMO which sits now in splendid display at MOTAT.
The Company moved a complete crew and support team to Suva in 1954 and in September of 1957 after Ed Allison’s death Brownjohn phoned me at 9 pm that same evening asking if I could goto Suva to fill the space. My wife and family were at the time visiting her folks in Yorkshire so I said , “No problem” and next day I was on my way with Pan Am to Nadi.
It was the start of a great three years; unique in the lifetime of any airman. Our passengers came from the lists of th Great and the Beautiful; from London, New York and elsewhere. There were rich ones, authors and actresses.
I lunched with British author Grahame Greene at Jean Chapiteau’s pavement restaurant in Papeete; and with Alec Waugh the British writer and others who were passengers on my trips. Never to be forgotten was dining and dancing at Les Tropiques beside the calm waters of the Faaa lagoon.
Les Tropiques was a unique place. The residential Fares and a the main building were all built to preserve the Tahitian scenario . The dining area and dance floor extended out into what was a small reclamation from the lagoon and the whole area was ringed by palms and hibiscus. Moorea loomed a few miles to the west and the soft evening light gave the whole scene an ambience that would always remain with the visitor.
When Les Tropiques burned down in mid 1960’s a bit of the magic that was the Coral Route, was lost.
The day after fire had destroyed the main hotel unit, we arrived to find nothing but the debris and ashes . The Manager and I walked through the ruins of the place that had been the heart and soul of the scene. I picked up an ash encrusted “something” and Arne said, ” Keep it as a souvenir.” What was it ? Well if you have a close look in one of the display cabinets at MOTAT behind the Solent you will a Stirling silver cocktail shaker on display.
That ended the Romance of Tahiti for us!
Thereafter the Papeete stopover was just another room in a hotel, and hotel rooms are much the same everywhere. Only at Les Tropiques were they different.!
An Exciting Take-Off on the Waitemata Harbour in Auckland
Some Skippers were not averse to putting on a theatrical performance.
One of the morning Ferryboats, crowded with passengers, happened to be
crossing the Harbour at the time we were about to take-off for Sydney.
It was not often the Office Workers had such a chance to be so close to
watch a great flying-boat taking-off or landing, but for the North Shore
City workers, it was a spectacle they could sometimes see from the ferry boat
as they went to their daily grind.
In late Summer of 1950 I noted an event that I felt was a bit too close for comfort.
There was a lot of shipping about on the Harbour as we taxied from the pontoon
in Mechanics Bay for take-off and the 8 o’clock ferry was full of City bound workers.
We had slipped the moorings and taxied out from the pontoon to line-up for the take-off
bound for Sydney. The trans-harbour traffic seemed clear.There was only one Ferry on
the Port side and the only Cargo vessel in the scene was anchored.
The Launch gave us a “Green” and the Skipper pushed the outer engines to full power.
The bow came up on the great surge of water from the chine where the side
of the hull connects to the planing bottom and we were on our way. The Skipper
fed the two inner engines into the full power position with a small correction
to offset the swing that came from the surge of the great Hercules engines and
I placed my hands behind the throttle levers as he took the Control wheel with both
hands. We were now on the step and the speed was building past 56 knots
towards the take-off speed.
Then slowly the low flat bow of a vehicular ferry with its midship superstructure
came into view behind the anchored merchantman.
I gave a quick hand sign to indicate the sighting of the car ferry,and the Skipper
gave a quick nod. Then from behind the breakwater there appeared the bow of a
second car ferry travelling towards Devonport.
Our take-off space was narrowing and I made a quick indication to ensure
that the skipper had seen the problems. He gave a quick nod and I saw that
we were to a “Go” phase.
The two vessels were steadily closing and the Skipper’s knuckles whitened
as the Solent’s speed continued to mount towards the take-off and his knuckles
whitened with his grip on the control wheel.
We flashed past the first Ferry with a couple of hundred feet to spare off one
side. The city wharves now lined the port side of our take-off path and we edged
fractionally to the left to improve the clearance from the approaching southbound
ferry coming from Devonport.
We were now on the step and racing across the sunlit harbour waters at about
80 knots. Behind us would be a great creamed wake setting back into the
harbour and the ferry was closing to an uncomfortable nearness on our starboard
bow. The Skipper then suddenly pulled back on the control wheel and the Solent
leaped fifty fleet into the air. As we swept overhead, the upturned faces
of the vehicular ferry passengers could be seen, beside their cars.
A stream of water from our keel rained across the upturned faces.
We climbed away and set course for Rose Bay. The Skipper grunted as he took
a pull at his moustache and said:
“Got a cigarette? I seem to have left mine ashore.”