'New Zealand's International Airline'

The Coral Route       

The most fond memories of TEAL's numerous services was the Coral Route. 2002 marked the 50th anniversary of this service - labelled the most romantic airline route in the world by those who flew it.

TEAL introduced the service in 1951; ferrying passengers from Auckland's harbour across to Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti and the Cook Islands in luxury Solent flying boats. The journey harked back to the 1930's with the twin deck flying boat carrying a relatively small number of passengers.

The route was first charted in wartime when Sunderland flying boats operated by the Royal New Zealand Air Force kept the far-flung island outposts of British Empire connected. After the war, thousands of experienced, superbly trained ex-military pilots gave civilian aviation a global shot in the arm. The Southern Hemisphere was no exception. Landing on, but not in, a South Pacific lagoon is anything but languorous. During the war, Kiwi pilots had mastered the art of aeronautical island-hopping. Any pilot who didn’t study his tide charts and know his currents, and exactly how much clearance he could count on over the heads of the coral reef, tended to get wet fast.

Short Solent IV flying boat 'Aoteoroa II' ZK-AML

Short Solent IV flying boat 'Aotearoa II' ZK-AML in 1949

At first, it was intended to be just a mail service. But the concept — a scheduled air service, flying boats linking islands scattered over thousands of miles on the South Seas; silver craft putting down oh-so-softly in tropical lagoons — was just too appealing. Before you could say "Gilligan’s Island," the Coral Route became one of the most glamorous, most luxurious air passenger routes in the world. Initially a monthly service, it was increased to fortnightly after just six months due to its popularity and additional Solent flying boats were later added to the fleet.

The route and typical flying times were: Auckland - (7.30hrs) - Fiji - (3.45hrs) - Samoa - (5.00hrs) - Cook Islands - (4.05hrs) - Tahiti.  Back then, Jet lag was impossible; when it got dark the pilot set down in a lagoon and the passengers were taken to a fine hotel.

Carrying about 45 passengers, the aircraft with luxurious two deck surroundings were more like high-class restaurants, complete with silver service, tables with linen tablecloths and powder rooms. An onboard chef cooked meals to order. 

They were the domain of the wealthy, including rich tourists from the United States and Europe and the occasional movie star.

Flying was seen to be very glamorous back in the 1950's. To add to the occasion passengers dressed in their finery with women in their hats and furs, men in suits and neckties. On rare occasions, when children accompanied their parents, they wore their Sunday best. Compare this with today’s cattle class in flight experience of packed airplanes, howling children and people dressed like they're coming from the gym (except they're usually too fat for that ever to be the case).

Short S.45 Solent 4 flying boat 'Aoteoroa II' ZK-AML.

In 1954 a young Queen Elizabeth II undertook an antipodean tour of the Empire accompanied by Prince Philip. They departed Fiji for New Zealand, on a Tasman Empire Air Lines Short Solent IV flying boat 'Aoteoroa II' ZK-AML.

In Auckland and Wellington, crowds would flock down to the waterfront to watch the flying boats arrive and depart. The roar of the four 2040 hp Bristol Hercules engines and the huge plume of sea spray created an exciting spectator panorama. The human fascination for flight was at an all time high in the 40's & 50's and travellers that could afford the luxury of air travel were to be envied and admired. The world seemed enormous, fragile, newly reborn after the war and flying was a wonder.

When in operation, the aircraft flew more than 4.8 million km over about 143,000 hours, skimming aquamarine runways in island lagoons.

The 30 pound ticket was six times the average weekly wage and there was only one class - first class.

Airtime could be noisy for the five-man crew — pilot, co-pilot, radioman, navigator & flight engineer — but passengers were ensconced in an insulated, upholstered cabin lounge that resembled a set from a Cary Grant movie.

The Solent ambled along un-pressurised at about 220 knots - 400 kilometres per hour. Passengers were always treated to fabulous scenery as the maximum cruising height was only 3000 metres and the pilot often dipped well below this restriction to take full advantage of the view below.

TEAL Coral Route Baggage Label

TEAL Coral Route baggage label

Passengers, who were accommodated in elegant colonial hotels around the Pacific, were advised to carry their bathing suits as hand luggage so they could take a dip in a lagoon while the plane refuelled. Melanoma had not been invented yet, so nobody wore sunscreen.

Flying over the boundless blue Pacific in the 1950s still had a touch of daring, swashbuckling allure, especially when you were low enough to see the sharks. Pilots were demigods in Ray Bans. hostesses were angels in nifty uniforms.

The service would leave from Auckland in the morning and touchdown mid-afternoon at  Suva's Laucala Bay (now the University of the South Pacific) in Fiji.  A line-up of stately black Daimlers, Australian Holdens, and war-surplus Jeepneys with surrey tops, were on hand to ferry passengers to the Grand Pacific Hotel a refined and elegant British colonial building on the waterfront. Passengers enjoyed afternoon tea, a nap, pink gin, and dinner, followed by billiards, and perhaps by conversation with several Somerset Maugham ghosts lurking in the saloon bar.

Next day the passengers were flying northeast to Samoa, landing on the crystal lagoon off what is now Faleolo Airport. This time they were taken to the legendary Aggie Grey's Hotel - to be met by Aggie herself, a woman who made her millions selling hamburgers to American troops and providing the model for Broadway's "Bloody Mary".

Refreshed by another night of dancing and fine food, passengers were up early bound for Tahiti, the French colony that has lured sailors, artists and writers for centuries.

But along the way they alighted at the world's most magical transit point - Aitutaki in the Cook Islands.

Mk III Solent flying boat 'Aparima' ZK-AMQ

Mk III Solent flying boat 'Aparima' ZK-AMQ, taking off from Fiji.

The TEAL 'airport' for Cook Islands was located on Motu Akaiami in Aitutaki lagoon. Motu in the local language-meaning islet. Here the giant Solents landed and then set anchor a short distance off the motu. A clinker built lighter would then ferry passengers to the small wharf and from there they would walk to the 'Terminal' for a meal and refreshments while the plane was re-fuelled.

On occasion, and to the delight of all but the most anxious business traveller, weather further ahead on the Coral Route would demand that a flying boat spend the night on Motu Akaiami. A message would be relayed back to the main island of Aitutaki and a small flotilla of canoes and supply boats would set sail for the motu. On board would be the makings for an island feast, complete with young hula dancers to entertain the stranded passengers and crew while the food was prepared. 

Today, a small resort has been built on the exact spot where the original TEAL terminal stood. The Maroro Village is a link to the past when the well to do of the 1950's, including movie stars such as John Wayne, Carrie Grant and the like, stopped for a few hours or even overnight while the planes were serviced, or waiting for weather to clear. Aitutuki has been described as easily the most desirable destination in the South Seas.

In May 1954 DC-6 aircraft replaced the four Belfast-built Solents on the Auckland-Fiji leg but TEAL retained the Solent IV Aranui for service on the Coral Route until September 1960, which marked the end of the world's last scheduled international flying boat service.

Solent Mk IV  'Aranui' ZK-AMO

Short Solent Mk IV  'Aranui' ZK-AMO the last flying boat retained in service on the Coral Route.

More recently, Air New Zealand senior vice president sales and distribution Norm Thompson said the development of the Coral Route set the airline "on a path of international route expansion".

"The Coral Route not only created a fund of goodwill among South Pacific peoples by providing them with regular communication links, but above all it created a unique tourist experience no other airline could match, and this began building an international reputation for TEAL," Thompson said.

The only remaining Solent IV in the world is on display at the Museum of Transport and Technology aircraft hangar in Auckland where it has been restored by members of the original flight crew and enthusiasts from the Solent Preservation Society. Please click on the following link for further information:

Museum of Transport and Technology

You can still reach the exotic islands of The Coral Route through Air New Zealand. They offer a number of island getaways that capture the glamour and intrigue of yesteryear. Simply click on their banner located on our "links" page for further information.

 

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