How UK-Australia journey went from 28 days to 17 hours in 100 years

Since the first London-Darwin flight in 1919, the time taken to reach Australia from the UK has fallen from 28 days to 17 hours

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Thursday 22 March 2018 17:15
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A guide to the Qantas Perth flight - The longest nonstop scheduled passenger flight ever from a UK airport

As the first direct flight from London to Perth takes off on 25 March 2018, we look at the hundred-year journey that resulted in this impending feat of aviation.

1919: First flight from UK to Australia

Australian brothers Ross and Keith Smith, along with two mechanics, take off from Hounslow Heath (very close to Heathrow) in a Vickers Vimy on 12 November. Twenty-eight days later they land in Darwin, and share a £10,000 prize awarded by the Australian government. The stipulations were that the pilots must be Australian, the plane must be built in the British Empire, and the journey must take less than 30 days. An attempt three weeks earlier by another crew had been thwarted when they were arrested in Yugoslavia as suspected Bolsheviks.

Ahead of the winning flight, Hudson Fysh and Paul McGinness survey a route across northern Australia in a Model T Ford car. The exercise gives them the idea of an air service for the Outback. The following year they found Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services: Qantas.

1933: Imperial Airways survey flight

On 29 May an Atalanta aircraft, under the command of Major H G Brackley, takes off from Croydon aerodrome, south of London, and flies to Paris. No paying passengers are on board.

This is the first stop of a month-long journey to assess the practicality of a passenger and mail service. Among more than 30 stops are Rome, Athens, Cairo, Karachi, Delhi, Bangkok and Singapore.

The plane reaches Brisbane on 23 June, Sydney on 26 June, Canberra on 28 June and Melbourne on 29 June.

1935: First UK-Australia through passengers

Imperial Airways and Qantas Empire Airways open the 12,754 mile London to Brisbane route for passengers for a single fare of £195 (about £13,000, allowing for inflation) on 20 April. The weekly service takes 12 days.

The first official Qantas passenger from Singapore to Brisbane is Lady Edwina Mountbatten.

Old style: Qantas flight attendants in the 1930s

1938: Sydney gateway

Qantas long-haul services move to Sydney, with the start of the C Class flying boat service to and from Singapore.

1939: Move closer

The British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) is created by a merger of Imperial Airways with British Airways.

1940: Missing link

The last link in the British Empire air service is completed in April when Tasman Empire Airways (now Air New Zealand) begins flying C Class flying boats between Sydney and Auckland.

1940: UK-Australia link gets tricky

For a time during the Second World War, the gateway to Australia is Poole in Dorset. A C Class flying boat, operated by BOAC, links the port with Lagos and Durban. From there, a weekly “horseshoe” route heads north to Cairo then on via Karachi, Calcutta and Singapore to Sydney. After the fall of Singapore on 7 February 1942, BOAC decides to go no further than Calcutta.

1944: Brand awareness

Qantas adopts the red kangaroo as its symbol, first applied to the nose of Liberator aircraft.

1946: Normal service resumed

BOAC and Qantas begin a flying boat service to Australia on 12 May, taking five-and-a-half days. BOAC goes as far as Singapore, where Qantas picks up.

1947: Air wars

Qantas begins services on what it calls the “Kangaroo Route” using Lockheed Constellation aircraft, replacing flying boats and competing with BOAC. The journey takes four days from London to Sydney, with refuelling stops in Rome, Tripoli, Cairo, Karachi, Calcutta, Singapore and Darwin. BOAC responds the following year with a weekly London to Sydney service using the same aircraft type. The first flight is aboard a plane named Banbury, piloted by Captain G R Buxton.

Speed bird: Publicity poster for BOAC

1953: Speed bird

First high-speed operation from the UK to Australia and onwards to New Zealand, using a Viscount prop jet. It flies from London to Christchurch, 12,365 miles in 40 hours 43 minutes, calling at Bahrain, Colombo, Cocos Islands and Melbourne.

1954: Low cost

With the introduction of Super Constellation aircraft, Qantas starts selling the cheap seats: tourist (economy) class goes on sale between Australia and the UK.

The 1958 book Flight One Australia: A Ladybird Book of Travel Adventure

1959: Jet age

The journey time is dramatically cut between the UK and Australia with the introduction of jets between London and Sydney. BOAC uses the Comet 4, Qantas the Boeing 707. The overall flight takes under 30 hours.

1961: West express

A new Qantas route from London to Perth has refuelling stops in Tehran, Karachi, Colombo and Jakarta.

1965: Export drive

BOAC starts a twice-weekly Comet charter service in January for carriage of emigrants from the UK to Australia.

1967: Empire ends

The Australian airline drops the “Empire” label and becomes Qantas Airways Ltd.

1969: Globe-girdling

For a time, BOAC flew around the world; 28 October was the first day a British-built VC10 flew from Los Angeles to Sydney.

VC10 aircraft belonging to BOAC at Heathrow

1971: Jumbo age

Qantas introduces the Boeing 747.

1984: One-stop hop

British Airways starts the first one-stop link to Australia in March, a 20-hour link from the UK to Perth, with a refuelling stop in Bombay (now Mumbai). For the first time it is possible to have dinner in London, breakfast and lunch en route and dinner in Australia. The flight continues to Sydney and Auckland.

1988: Charter era

Britannia Airways launches charter flights from the UK to Australia. Initially the airline was obliged to use odd airports such as Alice Springs, Cairns and Canberra. One of the Boeing 767s used for the service had the registration G-BOPB, which some Australians insisted stood for Bugger Off Pommie Bastards.

Later flights served Melbourne and Sydney, and were routed through Sharjah in the UAE and Batam Island in Indonesia.

In the same year, Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man refutes the suggestion that “all airlines have crashed at one time or another” by saying: “Qantas never crashed.”

1989: Long reach

As a publicity stunt on a delivery flight on 16 August, Qantas flies a Boeing 747 non-stop from Heathrow to Sydney. There are no paying passengers on board. The journey takes 20 hours, nine minutes and five seconds, and sets a new distance record for a non-stop flight by a commercial aircraft. It burns 178 tonnes of fuel, and has 5.6 tonnes left upon landing.

2000: Peak Australia

With Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways still a distant threat, British Airways and Qantas announce the biggest-ever range of services from the UK to Australia in February – including four daily Jumbo jets between London and Sydney and three between London and Melbourne.

2004: Paperless

The first e-tickets are issued for flights between the UK and Australia. The last paper tickets were written four years later.

2008: Superjumbo age

Qantas introduces the Airbus A380 “Superjumbo”. Until Saturday 24 March 2018, there is a daily Qantas A380 from Heathrow to both Sydney and Melbourne; from Sunday 25 March, the latter is downsized to a Boeing 787, which continues from Perth to Melbourne.

Qantas Airbus A380 lands at Sydney

2013: Gulf gain

Qantas drops Singapore as the refuelling stop between London and Australia, with Dubai taking its place. From Sunday 25 March 2018, the stop for Qantas flight 1/2 between Sydney and London reverts to Singapore.

2018: Giant leap

On 25 March 2018, the first passenger-carrying non-stop flight from the UK to Australia, using a Qantas Boeing 787-9, leaves Heathrow at 1.15pm for a 16 hour, 45 minute flight to Perth.

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