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Nov 30, 2010

The flights of 50 years ago

Sometime in 1955 the original Boeing 707 ‘precursor’ the Dash-80, flew over Clovelly Primary School. We didn’t know it was coming. Something I had seen in Popular Mechanics or Life magazine materialised over the ‘queue’ for the tiny bottles of milk that were distributed at play time. A flying saucer couldn’t have caused more astonishment

The Oronsay,at Circular Quay, found at
The Oronsay,at Circular Quay, found at

When I became a reporter, on this day in 1960, the great ocean liners still sailed regularly to Europe and North America, and was it possible to take a ship between most of the capital cities.

But not for much longer.

Some afternoons, when Sydney and Mary and Susanna, Malcolm, Jean, baby Fiona and I then lived in working class Clovelly, there would be three jets in a row after school, a Qantas 707-138, a longer fuselage Pan American 707, and a BOAC Comet IV.

The Comet III that failed to win Qantas away from the 707. Wikipedia Commons
The Comet III that failed to win Qantas away from the 707. Wikipedia Commons

The arrival of the jet age was as much a visible, and insistent signal of change as television and satellites.

The jets were a homework disrupting event. We’d rush outside to watch. Just as the ear splitting noise of a Super Constellation grinding its way into the air was an event that would unpack a practice scrum, or completely silence a classroom.

And then, one day after the Leaving Certificate exams, it was time to go to work, to Broadway with a letter from the Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, Bill Fitter, advising me to turn up at 2 pm in the teleprinter room, next to the sub editors room, on the fifth floor.

My job was that of a copy boy. But to lift my pay above around £5/11/6d to more than £6 required taking the Saturday police rounds radio monitoring shift for the Sun-Herald, and, since I wore a suit, and looked like a young reporter, I wrote stories. Little stories. Filler stories. No-one noticed.

Until one Saturday night. The inmates at the Parramatta Girls’ Home set fire to the roof and threw burning mattresses onto the police below, and the usual police roundsman being otherwise engaged, I had called up a photographer and a radio car, and written a big story, for page one with a spill on page three. This was noticed by ‘Granny’.

How this quickly lead to being paid as a cadet reporter, rather than fired is for another time. I soon became the shipping cadet, and by historical accident, the Sydney Morning Herald’s last full time shipping cadet, as the jets brought the age of the great ocean passenger liners into deep decline , with fewer celebrities to be interviewed as their ships (which you joined off the customs launch from 7 Circular Quay) made their leisurely way to Walsh Bay or Woolloomooloo.

Having lived on Goat Island in Sydney Harbour for part of small boyhood, (in the cottage furthest from the Harbour Master’s mansion), when my father a marine engineer decided to take a land based position with the Maritime Services Board, and having being taken to sea with him at other times, shipping had become a part of my daily life.

This was a Sydney that read the shipping column with as much attention as it read Column 8, (which I also later edited for about a year), a city in which the deep sound of an ocean liner’s horn and its attendant tugs carried right through the offices and warehouses and quite far into the suburbs.

It was the end of a time when bands played wharf side, and streamers stretched and snapped and tears flowed, as parents waved off their children sailing for Southampton or Genoa.

(That’s what the A380 needs today. Brass bands and streamers. Bring back a bit of ceremony and romance to long distance travel. )

But it was also a city at the start of amazing changes, some of them good. Planes fascinated kids back then. Sometime before the war ended I saw a yellow Tiger Moth flying over Springwood where I was born, the first plane I remember seeing. Right down to being able to see a pilot in the open cockpit.

A TAA Douglas DC4 Skymaster, Wikipedia Commons
A TAA Douglas DC4 Skymaster, Wikipedia Commons

By the time I left home, I had flown in DC-3s, past rather than over the Snowy Mountains, in DC-4 Skymasters, and something very rare, an Airspeed ‘Elizabethan’ as Butler Air Transport called them. These second hand ‘Elizabethans’ had some facing seats railway carriage style, and big oblong windows, all the better through which to see the countryside not far below, in a machine that seemed to climb just fast enough the clear the Blue Mountains by the time it reached them.

A BEA 'Elizabethan' similar to one briefly flown by Butler. Wikipedia Commons
A BEA ‘Elizabethan’ similar to one briefly flown by Butler. Wikipedia Commons

Before then, a Comet III did a tour that included Sydney, in December 1955. We were a large tribe, and living in Clovelly by then, and decided to walk to Kingsford Smith Airport to see it come in. With Pippy, our toy foxie. By the time we reached Maroubra, minus Pippy, who wisely turned back and caused parental alarm by arriving home alone, we sidetracked ourselves by trudging up and rolling down the sides of the large sand dunes that once were there, near a now vanished Speedway, when suddenly the sleek jet made a surprise banking turn almost beside us on its way to the runway. We could see the dolphin shaped nose, the oval windows, and the golden Speedbird on the tail. We had seen the shape of things to come, and went home happy, to a ‘where the hell have you been’ welcome.

An original Vulcan B1 bomber. Wikipedia Commons
An original Vulcan B1 bomber. Wikipedia Commons

Less than a year later another astonishing ‘shape’ roared low over the ‘battler’ part of the eastern suburbs, a delta winged Avro Vulcan B1, which was to crash at Heathrow Airport a few days later at the end of its around-the-world tour.

In the same time frame, there was a visit by a USAF Convair B-36, an incredibly complicated bomber which had six rear facing propeller engines and two sets of two small turbo-jets.

The B-36, a ten engined propeller and jet bomber, Wikipedia Commons
The B-36, a ten engined propeller and jet bomber, Wikipedia Commons

And sometime in 1955 the original Boeing 707 ‘precursor’ the Dash-80, flew over Clovelly Primary School. We didn’t know it was coming either. Something I had seen in Popular Mechanics or Life magazine materialised over the ‘queue’ for the tiny bottles of milk that were distributed at play time. A flying saucer couldn’t have caused more astonishment, including among the teachers.

The play time surprise, the Boeing Dash 80, seen here at Renton. Wikipedia Commons
The play time surprise, the Boeing Dash 80, seen here at Renton. Wikipedia Commons

Fast forwarding to the present, it is easy to conclude that the thrill and pleasures of flying have been lost. The fantastical, often impracticable aeronautical design adventures of the post war era have been replaced by the theme and variations of pressurised tubes with seating that becomes the less comfortable as it becomes more affordable.

Since US airline deregulation in 1979, and the privatisation of the British Airways soon after and the end of the two airline domestic carrier policy in Australia in 1989, the stories about airlines have been more about economic and competition reform.

More recently, it has become apparent that the air travel markets, even in Australia, are not ‘mature’. As fares fall, and as we become richer, air travel in this country is predicted to treble by 2030, although the size of this activity will by then be approaching the thresholds of viable high speed rail developments, and sub orbital space transportation between continents will be high above the horizon, in the logical succession to the 21st century version of the joy flight, a rocket ride.

In the 60s the mainstream wisdom was that the 16 daily Lockheed Electras or DC-6Bs that Ansett-ANA and TAA flew in tandem, almost to the minute, between Sydney and Melbourne, were all that Australia would ever need.

In 1970 or early 1971 Ross Alexander, Reg Ansett’s minder summonsed myself to a smoke filled room at the top of Swanston Street where RM lectured the ABC television news audience , in black and white, about how nothing larger than a Boeing 727 could ever be justified in this country. I had suggested otherwise on an ABC program, and a rare TV interview was considered necessary to curb the heresy.

"All Australia would ever need" an Ansett-ANA 727, a found image
“All Australia would ever need” an Ansett-ANA 727, a found image

Ansett had immense power over the timing of change in Australian aviation. Australians were forbidden interstate jet travel on Ansett-ANA and TAA until it suited Reg Ansett in the mid-60s but you could catch a BOAC Comet IV to Darwin, from Essendon of all places, or an Air-India 707 to Perth in the early 60s for a 25% surcharge on the regulated domestic fare.

A BOAC Comet IV at Darwin 1961, Wikipedia Commons
A BOAC Comet IV at Darwin 1961, Wikipedia Commons

The 80s however changed the story emphasis in air transport in Australia to the inevitability of deregulation, privatisation and the consequent enabling of increased social and business mobility. James Strong saw this with sharp, and convincing clarity, and the early 90s consolidation and privatisation of Australian (formerly TAA) and Qantas was an overt agenda from the end of the previous decade. Bryan Grey saw the opportunities throughout the 80s, contorted however by the two airline policy limitations that once repealed lead to his unsuccessful but heroic foray with Compass.

I plan to publish an account of those times in a book, although its main emphasis will be on the low cost revolution that Brett Godfrey, with ‘small change’ from Richard Branson, was able to achieve with Virgin Blue, as well as the consequences intended and unintended that arose from that success. There is much to tell about these and related events, leading up to the present, and how essential the enabling of less expensive travel has been to improving people’s lives.

We’ve now arrived at a time and place of considerable peril for consumers. Airline managements have largely abandoned the legacy investments in flight standards and pilot experience, even as piloting itself continues to change from the skills required in the 707 and DC-8 age to those of systems management.

The dominant view is that Australia can’t afford exceptional excellence in aviation. We have to dumb down to ‘world’s best practice’ which is a euphemism for ‘legal or regulatory minimums’. Managements seem to want pilots to think like shareholders or accountants, rather than pilots. Regulators are quick to make excuses for carrier failings rather than carry out their obligations to the public. The weasel words, ‘working with’ industry stakeholders is short hand for inaction.

Difficult but essential issues about the public administration of air transport are beginning to tower over the landscape, like a deadly storm line. These issues are with us now, when the media itself is imploding, and the investment in or will to pursue their coverage is minimal.

The lucky country will not enjoy lucky skies for ever. The luck has to be earned.

And a glimpse of the view from the flights of the next 50 years, public image
And a glimpse of the view from the flights of the next 50 years, a public image

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33 thoughts on “The flights of 50 years ago

  1. Mark Parker

    Congratulations on 50 years covering aviation in Australia. Since I stumbled across your Plane Talking blog a few years ago it’s become required (and thoroughly enjoyable) reading – particularly as someone who’s a frequent traveller here and abroad.

    I think the work you’ve done to raise awareness of a number of significant issues facing aviation here in Australia (JSF, safety, oversight to name a few) deserve wider recognition

    Cheers Mark

  2. Amber Jamieson

    Well done Ben, what a lovely account. Congrats!

  3. Sophie Black

    a beautiful post Ben… but I would still like a photo of tiny Ben Sandilands, preferably with Pippy in the shot …

  4. Keith is not my real name

    That was great, thanks Ben.

  5. Ben Sandilands

    Thanks all. Much appreciated. Will-get-new (working) scanner-soonest!

  6. Tweets that mention The flights of 50 years ago – Plane Talking --

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by, sophie black, AmosKeeto, Amber Jamieson, David Eccles and others. David Eccles said: Mr Sandilands writes with passion & objectivity for an industry he loves. Read this Congratulations @PlaneTalking ! […]

  7. mrsynik

    Two points here.

    1 – The way air travel has become so damn uncomfortable over the last 15 years I wish there was an alternative in the form of a modern Ocean Liner (i.e. not an over priced cruise ship)

    2 – Congrats on the 50 years. I notice ABC’s Media Watch’s 20th anniversary site has an old show hosted by Stuart Littlemore referencing you in an article you wrote in the Bulletin disclaiming you live in ‘The Shire’. Was this your only appearance on MW Ben?

  8. Quizzical

    Well done Ben, congratulations on the milestone and what you achieve via this blog.

    I still have my TAA “Junior Pilot” badge from the days when kids were encouraged to visit the cockpit before terrorism sent the western world broke with security.

    Also, hoping age has not sent me off track, I’m certain I have memories of watching flying boats landing and taking off on the river at Grafton.

    The Constellation is still wooing our ears thanks to HARS, may you also enjoy such longevity!

  9. freecountry

    A remarkable account. A vividly nostalgic recall of the wonder I used to feel as a kid, looking up at the sky, imagining the pilots as explorers of that great big blue and white world.

    I’m not an air man but I was brought up on Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Wind, Sand and Stars, his observation that an aircraft is perfect not when there’s nothing more to add but when there’s nothing more to take away, his description of the companionship between pilots who’ve eached braved the stormy darkness out there and made it home again, to sit together in silence and quietly eat a bowl of hot soup.

    On a more cynical note I hope your book sheds some light on what really happened to Ansett. The amazing coincidence of all those safety concerns suddenly coming to light on the Thursday before Easter, which unlike the Christmas period has no flexibility for rescheduling flights, has never really been explained to my satisfaction.

  10. The Pav

    I happily add my congratulations and appreciation.

    The change in aviation is mindblowing. Since my childrens generation have grown up with things as they are they have no sense of awe which I still get when I seen a large jet flying although I regard propeller drive aircraft as more interesting

    I remain wedded to the belief that the most beautiful aircraft ever was the DH Mosquito

    I remember when flying was an event now it is a chore.

    As a child flying in the sixties Qantas gave me a Certificate for crossing the Equator. Very flash with Neptune and all. Still have it in a frame along with one from a sea voyage.

    I was also given a tour of the cockpit. I think my sister & I were the only kids on the flight. Blowed if I can remember the type of aircraft. Constellation perhaps?

    For some reason the flight from Perth to Singapore had to refuel in Jakarta. This was during the Malaysian Incursion. Due to my father position we were locked up as a family in a tin shed at the airport until departure. Relations with Indonesia were a little different then.

    I must be getting old with all this nostalgia

  11. wordfactory

    As a Mexican who has never ceased to be mystified by the once-faraway fantasy land of Sydney, I loved Ben’s snippets of the harbour city in the 1950s and 1960s. An indication of my terminal inability to understand Sydney is the fact that my favourite suburb is and always has been Maroubra, out on the clifftops near one of the greatest landscapes ever reserved for golf tragics. Maroubra’s outstanding feature is that it may have been the only capital-city suburb in Australia that had an armed guard on the front door of the local bottle shop as recently as the 1990s. Thank you, Ben. Don’t stop now.

  12. zut alors

    What a terrific article, Ben, it’s made my day. The Comet 111 was a beautifully sleek looking machine – but was anything ever as elegant as Concorde?

    The shot of P&O’s Oronsay also brought back memories as I was a passenger on the final voyage prior to its trip to the scrapyard in the early 1970s.

    I always read your articles with interest: you and Crikey are to be congratulated for publishing relevant and important information for the flying public. Nobody else gives a rat’s about us!

  13. Pumpkinbob

    Thanks Ben.
    I remember Butler’s Ambassadors and most of the others.
    We should not accept the lowering of any standards, be they safety or service, in the name of progress! You bring us so much new information on so many aviation matters.
    Keep up the wonderful work you are doing.

  14. Venise Alstergren

    BEN: Lovely, lovely description of flight before the Jumbos and Airbuses. THE PAV beat me to it. Them were the days when the airlines had to appeal to US, the hoi poloi. Anyone remember WE used to get Special Airline Bags?? The best one was an Air France one with a handle rather than a strap.

    Big roomy Strato-Cruisers (sic) roamed the skies; heaps of leg room and fully reclining seats were the order of the day. At night you could see the fires behind the engines-sorry to be so un-technical. And the living was easy.

    Today even business class is stuffed to the gills with people, and who were the spin doctors showing beds in business class? There was a time when the smell of diesel fuel took me to Singapore- just after Merdeka- or Saigon, Rio, Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Hong Kong.

    These days you go from the anonymous air transit lounge into an air conditioned tube. Big deal.

    I hate mid flight entertainment. It’s much more fun looking at the map and the ‘where you are now’ arrow.

  15. Michael R James

    Probably the “best” 50 year era to have lived in for aviation? It will make a great book (or iPad App?).

    And Sophie, forget “a photo of tiny Ben Sandilands”, I want to see Ben when he was throwing paves on Boule Mich’ in May 68; he was a soixante huitard, you know? (Well, he arrived to work in Paris the month before but he is obviously a subversive type, and the timing suggests he was probably one of the organizers 🙂

  16. Venise Alstergren

    THE PAV: I’m getting even older I think. God what a trip into nostalgia I took just then. I never, ever got a certificate for crossing the Equator, boo hoo.

    The worst plane I can remember was all strips of metal riveted onto each other, was it a Lockheed Electra? (I think TAA flew them) And the best was when I was five years old and my father took me up into an open cockpit and a bi-wing thingy. It was the start of the greatest love affair of my life and even today I can’t get over the thrill of hurtling down a runway with the engines screaming with power. The moment of lift-off followed by the one when the under-carriage comes up.

    There I go again: Nostalgia, get thee behind me.

  17. Luke Buckmaster

    A beautiful piece Ben. Congratulations on the half century and keep up the great work.

  18. Ian Scandrett

    Thankyou for a great column.
    Ian Scandrett.

  19. Marcus L'Estrange

    Marcus L’Estrange: To Zut Alors; I also was on the Oronsay in early 1970 but the ship was going for a major refit, not scrapping, in Hong Kong. Great coverage Ben

  20. Colonel of Truth

    Thanks for an evocative piece. Reminds me of seeing a low flying Vulcan at the 1966 (sic) air show at Fairbairn. As I recall, the show aimed to raise money for Churchill fellowships, WSC having died in early 1965. I took some 8mm movie film, transferred to DVD only a few years ago, of the Vulcan and other aircraft from a vantage point atop (I think) the old terminal. The film dyes had faded but it is still easy to see the Vulcan steal the show.

  21. John Bennetts

    DC3. Lasts for ever. Still going strong somewhere. Lovely memories of hop/hop/hop trips across the Outback, even Newcastle-Sydney when I was 12. No more hints, except that I am a tad younger than the Sandiland.

    Beautiful, nostalgic, rational, evocative article. Ben, get on with that book.

  22. Meredith Carson

    Hi Ben,
    First up – thanks so much for your work and congratulations on punching 50 years in!
    I can’t wait to read your book.
    Like you, I’m an aviation enthusiast and wish we could bring back the popular romance associated with flight. When I was a kid, I used to hang out in my backyard watching Qantas 747-SPs, Continental DC-10s and Concorde; we were dressed up in our smartest attire to travel. I used to hang out in the cockpit as a 12 year old and as a teenager, smoke ‘oh so glamorously’ over Europe. How times change.
    As ever, I look forward to your perspective on my favourite subject.
    Wishing you a great day.

  23. AR

    I loved watching the Constellations lumbering & straining into the air from Mascot and all school boys got a snk-snk thrill from the near-homophone on the big tailed Fokker Friendships. However it was watching the RAAF’s double tailed Vampire fighters ziping about over Sydney to & from Richmond that made me yearn to fly.

  24. Angra

    As a matter of interest there are three DC3 aircraft in and around Jackson’s Airport in Port Moresby. All are ex RAAF and saw war service. Two were also ex TAA and were on Australia-PNG routes. One saw service with the PNG Defence Force and was still flying into the 1980’s. This one is mounted on poles at the Airways Hotel and has been converted into a bar (the Balus Bar). You can enjoy a drink in the cabin (as I did recently) and look out over the remarkable views across the Owen-Stanleys and consider the amazing war-time aviation activity which took place here.

    More info here –

  25. David Klein

    Fantastic article Ben, bought back fond memories of when I sat on my push bike parked against the cyclone fence at Sydney airport and looked in awe at an Elizabethan parked outside a hangar. Little did I know then that I would eventually end up on a project team for the introduction of the A380 before I retired.

  26. Space Dog

    Thanks for the memories Ben. And so true your comments about Australian aviation in 2010. Alas, the ‘golden years’ of aviation are rapidly disappearing into the past.

  27. Tom Mullin

    Congratulations Ben, looking forward to more years to come. A great article as usual.

    I don’t think any of your regular readers would object to some more nostalgia pieces. I know I find them fascinating.

  28. Bill Parker

    As usual a great story Ben. Happy anniversary!

  29. Beagle1

    Hi Ben,
    I loved your post and congrats on your long and successful career. When you write your book, don’t forget the momentuous Airbus breakthrough in 2000 at Qantas!!
    All the best,

  30. joanjett

    Lovely post, brought back memories of my first plane trip alone at the age of 6 on TAA and my half wing badge! Looking forward to your book 🙂

  31. sydneydave

    Sorry about late post but I just joined here. Great article which brought back memories as I went to school at Kogarah in the 1960s under the flight path which was often a problem for classes but did get to see 707s, 727s, DC8s, DC9s and rarely the most beautiful of them all – the VC10.

  32. Ben Sandilands

    The VC10 was a supremely graceful airliner. There are historians of flight as yet unborn who will look upon it with the same reverential wonderment as they will upon the Concorde, the Super Constellation, the Douglas DC-6B, the Convair 990, the 707, the 727, and any of the Zeppelins or Flying Boats. And I think I’d include the TU-104 as well, there was a truly gothic quality to its lines, or maybe a Gotham City quality, as it could easily find a place in the Batman and Robin comics of its era.

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