Qantas celebrates 60 years of the 'Kangaroo Route'

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The Independent Online

The stewards wore white uniforms, female passengers were in mink coats and the flight from Sydney to London took four days including six refuelling stops, two overnight stays and a total of 55 hours in the air.

Tomorrow marks the 60th anniversary of the inaugural Qantas service on the "Kangaroo Route" the world's longest air route, spanning 10,600 miles. In 1947, it was a journey that required not only stamina but wealth. A return ticket cost 585 even then equivalent to 85 times the average weekly wage in Australia, or half the cost of a suburban house.

On 1 December 1947, a Lockheed Constellation 749 aircraft, powered by four piston engines, took off into drizzly skies over Sydney. On board were 29 passengers and 11 crew, which was all the plane could accommodate. On today's jumbo jets, 19 crew are in charge of an average 412 travellers.

There was only one class back then first and the passengers dressed accordingly: men in three-piece suits and ties, women in fur coats, high heels and pearls. Meals were prepared in Sydney, then shipped to stops along the way. There were no food trolleys and no in-flight entertainment, apart from a visit to the cockpit.

Modern travellers regard a 23-hour flight from London to Sydney, plus a refuelling stop, as an endurance test. But they should spare a thought for those on board that Constellation. After taking off from Sydney, it first stopped in Darwin to refuel before going on to Singapore, where it stayed overnight since there was no night flying. Other refuelling stops followed in Calcutta, Karachi and then Cairo, where the plane spent another night. The final stop before arrival in London was Tripoli.

At that time, though, four days was but the blink of an eye. Most people travelling between Britain and Australia could afford only to go by sea, which took six weeks. Even the flying boats of the 1930s took up to 14 days to complete the trip, with as many as 43 stops en route.

Indeed, some Constellation passengers complained that the journey was too swift. "There were some people who said it was too fast, and they didn't have time to readjust," said a Qantas historian. But travelling across different time zones at such a leisurely pace meant jet-lag was not a problem.

Flights had connected Australia with the "mother country" since the early 1940s, with Qantas taking passengers to Singapore and Imperial Airways the forerunner of BOAC, later British Airways conveying them on to London. But the Constellation that took off 60 years ago was the first all-Australian flight. Reflect-ing the close ties between the two countries, it carried nearly a ton of food parcels for Britons facing the privations of post-war rationing, which had been purchased with money donated by Qantas staff.

The new regular flights brought the two countries closer, and enabled mail to get through without taking months. Among those on the first flight was Russell Carter, a 22-year-old accountant travelling to a job overseas. He told the Sydney Morning Herald: "It was a nice flight, comfortable inside, only two seats each side of a centre aisle. It was pressurised and therefore insulated, so we weren't deafened by the noise."

Initially, the cabin crew were all male but as more women and children began to fly, air hostesses were recruited. Barbara Harding-Smith, who became a stewardess in 1956, said: "We were the entertainment. There was a suitcase on board with airmail letters and cards, a game of chess, magazines. That was really it. You would make a point of talking to passengers."

Standards of dress were strictly enforced, with regulation haircuts, only "natural" make-up and no jewellery except a watch or engagement ring. Married women could not be employed. That proved a problem because numerous romances blossomed between pilots and stewardesses during the long spells in the air.