PACIFIC REMEMBERS WHEN FLYING THE "CORAL ROUTE" WAS ROMANTIC

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By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (December 16, 2001 – Agence France-Presse)--International flying was not always high security, narrow seats and plastic food. There was a glorious alternative.

A group of ageing aviators got together here Saturday to mark the 50th anniversary of the "Coral Route," a romantic flying boat service from New Zealand to Tahiti and back, via Fiji, Samoa and the Cook Islands.

Jet lag was impossible. When it got dark the pilot set down in a lagoon and the passengers were taken to a fine hotel.

And there was legendary Aitutaki complete with its Polynesian dancers and cocktails on the white sand, palm fringed beaches and a "transit terminal" to die for.

The Coral Route was opened on December 15, 1951 by Tasman Empire Airways or TEAL, the forerunner of Air New Zealand. The service was operated with a British Short Bros. and Harland, Belfast built Mark Three Solent flying boat, which had a crew of five and 45 passengers in luxurious two-deck surroundings.

They had a chef aboard and full silver service.

Initially a monthly service, it was increased to fortnightly after six months due to its popularity, with additional Solents joining the fleet later.

Samoa was added to the route in 1952 and feeder flights from Tonga to Fiji were introduced in 1953.

Solents were gradually replaced with DC6 aircraft, although the flying boats kept flying the Pacific until 1960, which marked the end of the world's last scheduled international flying boat service.

Ray Gasparich, President of the Flying Boat Society here, said a ticket cost more than the cost of the average fare on what was known as the "banana boat."

"It was considered to be fairly expensive in those days. It really was for the people with money, or business people," he told AFP.

He said the Solent flew along unpressurised at about 220 knots (400 kilometers/240 miles per hour) and no higher than 3,000 meters (10,000 feet).

"Generally they would fly along much lower so you got a good view of what was going by.... We plodded along."

The service would leave from Auckland in the morning and fly up to Suva’s Laucala Bay (now the University of the South Pacific location) in Fiji.

Cars were there to take the passengers to the Grand Pacific Hotel, a refined and elegant British colonial building on the Suva waterfront.

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.

Today only the occasional small plane goes to Aitituki, but among the knowledgeable, it is easily the most desirable destination in the South Seas.

There is one famous flight when the plane was coming back from Tahiti bound for Auckland. One of the Solent’s four engines failed and the plane was forced to leave 40 passengers behind while it returned to Tahiti. The passengers were furious and upset, but nothing could be done.

Said the captain at the time: "At first (the passengers) wanted to lynch the crew. By the second day they’d all calmed down. By the end of eight days, when a relief plane arrived, it was impossible to get any of them to go aboard."

Gasparich said the Solent was noisy for the crew, but not for the passengers.

"The seats were extremely comfortable. You had good onboard service."

He laments the domination today of land planes.

"They’re marvelous aircraft, the flying boats, and just as viable today."

Michael Field New Zealand/South Pacific Correspondent Agence France-Presse E-mail: [email protected]  Phone: (64 21) 688438 Fax: (64 21) 694035 Website: http://www.afp.com/english/  Website: http://www.michaelfield.org 

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