On the morning of January 4th 1938, a fine rain was falling on Whakaraupō Lyttelton Harbour as thousands of people gathered along its shorelines and wharves to welcome the largest aeroplane to ever visit Te Waipounamu South Island – the flying boat Centaurus. Operated by British Empire Airways in association with the Australian Qantas Empire Airways, the Centaurus had left Southampton UK on route to Australia, via South East Asia some 10 days earlier, on a survey flight to open up a new Australasian air route. Travelling from Darwin through to Brisbane and on to Sydney, she then crossed the Tasman Sea bound for Auckland.
Commissioned by Empire Airways in early 1935, Centaurus was the third Empire flying boat built by Short Brothers of Rochester. With two levels, she could seat 24 passengers for day travel, or 16 night passengers with the plush seating folded out to bunks, and still have room for the upper level promenade deck. A steward’s kitchen allowed for meals, and with five crew on board there was still room for up to 1.5 tons of mail and freight.
An S-23 Empire Class boat, the Centaurus was powered by four Bristol Pegasus Xc engines producing 910 horsepower on takeoff, with a maximum speed of 320 km/h at 1,680 m, and 740 horsepower when cruising at 266 km/h. Fully loaded she grossed 18 tons, was 26.8 m long, 9.7 m high, and had a then huge wingspan of 34.75 m. With a service ceiling of 6,100 m and a range of 1,220 km, she helped pioneer commercial intercontinental flight and entered the British Aircraft Register as G-ADUT with her first test flight in November 1936.
Having left Auckland on the morning of January 3rd, 1938 she landed in Wellington just three hours later, departing the following morning for the 90 minute flight to Ōhinehou Lyttelton, where one of the largest crowds to ever grace the harbour was gathered in anticipation. While Christchurch remained under a low grey cloud, the harbour weather cleared and the sun shone brilliantly on the flying boat as she came in across Gebbies Pass and landed with no fuss – or sound, due to flying into a fresh north-easterly – just behind Erskine Point. With the landing being apparently something of an anticlimax, the first good sighting for the crowds was when Centaurus taxied into the inner harbour to a mooring buoy near the Akaroa Jetty. When New Zealander and former RAF pilot Captain J. Burgess, along with his co-pilot, navigator, flight clerk, steward and their 12 passengers disembarked, the assembled crowd cheered loud and long. With the crew hurried away by dignitaries after a formal greeting ceremony, the crowds remained through the afternoon, on the wharves and on small watercraft, taking in the modern marvel of this new age of intercontinental travel.
The Centaurus would fly out the following morning for Dunedin and then back to Auckland to complete its survey of the Far East route from Britain to Australia and New Zealand. She was then bought by Qantas in December 1938 before being commandeered the following fateful September by the Royal Australian Air Force. She entered war service as A18-10 for the No. 11 Maritime Patrol Squadron, performing armed reconnaissance and transport duties in and around New Guinea and the Dutch East Indies. The Centaurus was destroyed while anchored at Broome harbour in far north Western Australia, when Zero fighters from the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service based in Timor attacked, killing 88 civilians and Allied military personnel on March 3rd, 1942.
In just the 87 years to 1938 since the Canterbury Association’s First Four Ships set sail for Aotearoa New Zealand, the flying boat Centaurus ushered in a new era in transoceanic travel. Capable of travelling that same distance in a tenth of the time it took the old sailing ships, and five times faster than the modern cruise ships of the day, the Empire flying boats were amazing harbingers of the modernity we perhaps take so much for granted today.