A Great Pilgrimage Over the Clouds

The Press, 4 January 1938

The Centaurus Arrives – Giant Flying-Boat at Lyttelton – First Visit to the South Island

Thousands of Spectators Throng the Port

Little more than 90 minutes after leaving Wellington, the giant Imperial Airways flying-boat Centaurus arrived yesterday morning at Lyttelton, an event that drew to the port one of the largest crowds it has known. It was an occasion notable for two things at least, for the waiting thousands saw the arrival of the largest aeroplane that has come to the South Island, and one that, with its arrival in New Zealand a few days ago, gained the distinction of having made the longest flight in the history of British commercial aviation.

Lyttelton Wharf is crowded with spectators to see the Centaurus. Image by Leo White.
Lyttelton Wharf is crowded with spectators to see the new flying-boat Centaurus make its first visit to the South Island, 3 January 1938. [1]
But its arrival was not the spectacle many had hoped it would be. It came from the south-west, flying swiftly over Gebbie’s Pass and landing off Erskine Point one and three-quarter minutes after it was first sighted by those on the wharves at the port. It came silently, for a fresh breeze from the north-east carried away from the crowd the roar of its four super-charged engines. The speed of its landing was a revelation of the ease with which the huge machine can be manoeuvred; but those who had hoped to have a close view of it in flight—and there would have been few in the crowd who did not expect this—were disappointed.

The reception at Lyttelton was described by the crew of the Centaurus as the most enthusiastic they had had anywhere in the Dominion so far.

Fortunately the heavy mist over Lyttelton cleared about an hour before the arrival of the flying-boat. At 5.30 a.m. a misty rain was falling in the port, but the weather began to clear at 6.30, and there was brilliant sunshine when the flyingboat arrived. Then the peak of Mount Herbert could be seen, for the first time in three days. But Christchurch did not share the fine weather, and many who had hoped to see the machine over the city on its way to Lyttelton were unable to do so. Cashmere residents, however, were more fortunate, for they saw the flying-boat as it headed towards Gebbie’s Valley.

Cheers for Crew

As the flying-boat landed and then taxied to its mooring between the Gladstone pier and the steamer express wharf there was a buzz of comment; but there was no cheering until the crew were at the landing stage of the Akaroa jetty, on which the reception ceremony was held. Then there was a round of clapping and those near the jetty followed the lead of the chairman of the Lyttelton Harbour Board (Mr R. T. McMillan) in cheering the commander of the flying-boat (Captain J. W. Burgess) and his crew.

The actual landing of the machine was too quickly and too efficiently carried out to excite the crowd. The crowd was looking for the spectacular, and it would have been stirred from interest into enthusiasm if the machine had flown overhead. Many, too, particularly those near the reception jetty, lost sight of the machine as it came near the water off Erskine Point and their next view of the machine was when it taxied into the inner harbour.

There was much to admire in the massive but graceful appearance of the machine and in the manner in which it was moored. As it swung to starboard towards the mooring buoy, with two of its motors turning over quietly, the mooring hatch in the-nose opened and a member of the crew threw out two sea anchors to make the boat lose way. When it was a few yards from the buoy a light line was thrown from a dinghy that had been waiting at the buoy and in a moment or two the big craft was securely moored.

Seaplane Centaurus, Imperial Airways Ltd, moored Lyttelton harbour, Christchurch.
Seaplane Centaurus, Imperial Airways Ltd, moored Lyttelton harbour, Christchurch. [2]
captain-burgess
In December 1937, Captain John W. Burgess had flown Centaurus across the Tasman cutting flying time to 9 hours 15 minute. On 30 April 1940 he flew the inaugural Auckland to Sydney route for the newly formed Tasman Empire Airways Limited (TEAL – later to become Air New Zealand) in the flying boat ‘Aotearoa’ with 10 passengers on board. [3]
Two doors were opened on the port side, and to one of these went the Harbour Board’s launch, from which the harbourmaster (Captain J. A. Plowman) greeted Captain Burgess. On its return trip the launch brought off the members of the crew and the passengers. With Captain Burgess was the crew of five, consisting of Mr C. F. Elder, first officer, Mr T. J. Broughton, flight engineer, Mr A. Low,senior wireless opepator, Mr H. Dangerfield, wireless operator, and Mr H. J. Bingham, steward. Among the passengers were the Minister for Defence (the Hon. F. Jones), the Minister for Labour (the Hon. H. T. Armstrong), the Minister for Lands (the Hon. F. Langstone), the Chief of the Air Staff (Group Captain the Hon. R. A. Cochrane), Mr. N. S. Falla, managing director of the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand, Ltd., Mr F. N. Clarke, manager of Union Airways, Ltd., Mr B. A. Blythe, chief pilot for Union Airways, Ltd., Mr A. G. Gerrand, another of the Union Airways pilots, and Captain J. W.Burgess, sen.

Inspection of Boat

The crew were met at the landing stage by the chairman of the Harbour Board. After welcoming the crew on behalf of the board, Mr McMillan invited the Mayor of Lyttelton (Mr F. E. Sutton), the Mayor of Christchurch (Mr J. W. Beanland), and the Minister for Labour, who is a former member of the board, to join him in the speeches of welcome. After Captain Burgess had replied, the crew and those who were official guests at the reception, were entertained by the board at morning tea in the Coronation Hall. Among the official guests were members of the Christchurch City Council and the Lyttelton Borough Council. Some of the guests were shown over the flying-boat by Captain Burgess later in the morning.

Many inquiries were made about the possibility of the boat making a flight later in the day, but Captain Burgess was not able to make any decision until the afternoon. He then decided not to take the machine into the air.

Crowd welcoming the flying boat, Centaurus, Lyttelton Harbour
Crowd welcoming the flying boat, Centaurus, Lyttelton Harbour [4]
The members of the crew were guests at lunch on the Wahine, and in the evening they were the guests of the Mayor of Christchurch at dinner at Warner’s Hotel. After this they were tendered a civic welcome, the ceremony being held on the balcony of Warner’s Hotel.

Yesterday the boat was refuelled, and this morning at 6 o’clock she will leave for Dunedin. The passenger list for Dunedin will be the same as that from Wellington, except that the Hon. H. T. Armstrong and the Hon. F. Langstone, both of whom are remaining in Christchurch a few days, will not be on board.

Seaplane Centaurus, anchored in Lyttelton harbour, January 1938
Seaplane Centaurus, anchored in Lyttelton harbour, January 1938. [5]

Visitors to the Flying-boat – Features of the New Design- Roomy Accommodation Inspected

Riding easily at her moorings near the Akaroa jetty the Centaurus was a centre of interest for thousands at Lyttelton all day yesterday. All round her cruised pleasure craft, and from every vantage point spectators stood impressed by her size, and admiring her graceful lines.

During the morning, immediately after the reception, a number of visitors were privileged to inspect the flying-boat. Harbour Board launches taking out scores of sightseers. Not long was allowed aboard the craft for inspection, but what time there was was used to the full by the visitors. They tried the seats, admired the tiny kitchen — not much tinier than those of some small flats — stood on the promenade deck gazing through the windows in an attempt to envisage the view that the lucky passengers had had, and listened eagerly to the description of the outstanding points of the vessel given by their guide.

People aboard the boat Owaka, welcoming the seaplane Centaurus to Lyttelton, Christchurch
People aboard the boat Owaka, welcoming the seaplane Centaurus to Lyttelton, Christchurch [6]
A reporter of “The Press” who went aboard was most impressed by the roominess. The seating accommodation — for 24 in the daytime and 16 at night — is certainly much more roomy for individual passengers than is that of a New Zealand railway carriage. The spacious promenade deck, on which passengers are free to walk round while the flying-boat may be thousands of feet up has ample room, and very tall men are not in any way inconvenienced by their height. Actually four members of the present crew of the Centaurus are more than six feet in height and they can walk through all the cabins without stooping. In fact the cabins have a celling of from eight to nine feet.

The seats are extremely comfortable to sit in, and can be adjusted to several positions, as well as changed into bunks. The bunks themselves are wide and roomy.

Seaplane Centaurus, anchored at Lyttelton harbour
Seaplane Centaurus, anchored at Lyttelton harbour [7]
Two Floors Provided

For most of the 88 feet of her length two floors are provided on the Centaurus. The height from the waterline to the tail assembly is 24 feet, which gives ample accommodation for the passengers in the several spacious cabins. Between the huge wings with 114 ft spread and the rounded, bulbous nose of the Centaurus is the steward’s pantry or kitchen, and a large cabin with accommodation for seven passengers during the day and four at night. Above this are the control rooms with the captain and the first officer sitting above the nose, the radio operator in a cabin immediately behind them, and the ship’s clerk has accommodation between the two central airscrews.

Under the wing, amidships, is a cabin with room for three passengers during the night and four, in the daytime. Behind this is the promenade cabinet for eight passengers during the day and four fortnight flying. An after cabin holds yet more passengers, and other compartments are designed to hold bedding, freight, and mail.

Four Bristol Pegasus motors, each of 740 rated horsepower, give the Centaurus and her 27 sister flying-boats a maximum speed at 5500 feet of 200 miles an hour. The cruising speed is 165 miles an hour. The weight of the Centaurus fully loaded is about /18 tons. On the present trip to New Zealand the Centaurus is fitted with extra storage tanks for petrol to hold 2040 gallons, and her oil tankage has also been increased, the result of both changes being that her flying range has been greatly increased for the present trip.

small-boats-welcome-the-centaurus
Small boats welcoming the flying boat, Centaurus, Lyttleton Harbour [8]

“Freedom of the Port”  – Lyttelton Extends Warm Welcome – Congratulations to Captain Burgess

A few minutes after the four propellers of the Centaurus had stopped, and she was safely moored, a crowd of thousands listened to the official welcome extended to the crew of the first flying-boat ever to visit a South Island port. Brevity marked most of the speeches, all the speakers congratulating Captain J. W. Burgess and his crew on the splendid achievement of the flight from Southampton, and all expressing the hope that the visit would pave the way for regular landings by flying-boats at Lyttelton.

The Lyttelton Harbour Board had invited many guests, representative of Parliamentary, local body, and shipping interests, to the official reception on the Akaroa jetty, and after the few short speeches the crew and passengers on the Centaurus, as well as the guests, were entertained to morning tea in the Coronation Hall.

Mr R. T. McMillan, chairman of the board, presided at the welcome, the arrangements for which had been made by the secretary, Mr C. H. Clibborn, and the harbourmaster, Captain J. Plowman.

Mr McMillan said that the arrival of the Centaurus was an event Canterbury would remember for a very long time, not only because of the thrilling nature of the flying-boat’s trip from England, but because of the historical value of the journey. The Centaurus was the first flying-boat ever to land at a South Island port. He congratulated Captain Burgess and his crew on their flight, and on their safe arrival in New Zealand waters.

Public occasion, welcoming the seaplane Centaurus to Lyttelton, Christchurch
Public occasion, welcoming the seaplane Centaurus to Lyttelton, Christchurch. [9]
New Zealander in Command

New Zealand people had taken a keen interest in all the stages of the 10 days’ flight from England, and took particular pride in the knowledge that a New Zealander had been chosen by Imperial Airways to command such a fine vessel on the long trip from England. He also offered to Captain Burgess and his first officer, Mr C. F. Elder, congratulations on behalf of the people of Canterbury on the promotion given them by Imperial Airways last week, on the completion of the flight from Southampton to New Zealand.

As far back as 1929 the Lyttelton Harbour Board, endeavouring to keep pace with modern times, had had an investigation made into the suitability of Lyttelton as a landing-place for seaplanes. “We were given the assurance then that this port was very suitable,” he added, “and, no doubt, in the very near future many flying-boats similar to the Centaurus will be arriving here.”

The Harbour Board was anxious to co-operate with both Imperial Airways and the Government in the development of air transport between England and New Zealand via Australia, and he could foresee the time when many flying-boats would visit the port bringing tourists to the South Island. He hoped that Captain Burgess himself would arrive on many more similar visits to Lyttelton.

Welcoming the Captain and passengers from the Centaurus
Welcoming Captain J. W. Burgess, crew and passengers from the Centaurus. [10]
No Harbour Dues

The Harbour Board had not yet taken legal steps to enable it to charge harbour dues for flying-boats, he added, and so it was with very much pleasure that he extended to the crew of the Centaurus the true “freedom of the port.”

The Mayor of Lyttelton, Mr F. E. Sutton, adding his welcome, recalled that within a few days of 87 years ago the First Four Ships had arrived in Canterbury. The Centaurus could come from Southampton to New Zealand and return again to Southampton in one-fifth of the time that those First Four Ships could come in the one trip out to New Zealand.

The Mayor of Christchurch, Mr John Beanland, also extended a hearty welcome to the crew and passengers of the flying-boat. It was not so long back in his memory that the Mayor and the Town Clerk of Chrjstchurch had been invited to make their first flights at Wigram, but the development of aviation in recent years had been amazingly fast. People throughout New Zealand were delighted at the visit of the Centaurus, and for Christchurch he could heartily endorse the welcome that the flyers had everywhere been given.

The Minister for Labour (the Hon. H. T. Armstrong), speaking as a former member of the Harbour Board, said that it seemed a little strange that he, a passenger in the Centaurus that morning, should also join in the welcome extended it when it arrived; but he was very glad to extend to the crew a welcome on the important occasion of the first visit a flying-boat had made to any South Island port.

Official welcome to the Captain and passengers on board the Centaurus.
Official welcome to the Captain and passengers on board the Centaurus. [11]
Captain Burgess’s Reply

Captain Burgess, in reply, said he felt it a great honour to belong to the crew that brought the first flying-boat to visit Lyttelton. It was pleasing and encouraging to see that the public was just as enthusiastic as was the crew of the ship about the visit He greatly appreciated the reception. Everything that was possible to be done had been done—even apparently to the weather bureau lending a hand. The Centaurus had met heavy fog along the coast, but at the Lyttelton Heads the fog had lifted. “I thank you for that, too,” he added, amid laughter. Discussing the flight from Southampton, Captain Burgess said that arrangements had been made as far as Singapore by Imperial Airways, from then on by the Australian line, Qantas, and in New Zealand by the Dominion’s own very efficient internal air service. He paid a special tribute to Union Airways, which he termed the “Imperial Airways of the Southern Hemisphere,” stating that the company had put up a wonderful record of flying without a single accident. [12]

Sources:
  1. Image by Leo White, Whites Aviation Ltd. Source: Alexander Turnbull Library
  2. Seaplane Centaurus, Imperial Airways Ltd, probably Lyttelton harbour, Christchurch. Whites Aviation Ltd :Photographs. Ref: WA-11068-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23069192
  3. Evening Post” Photo. Captain J. W. Burgess. (Evening Post, 12 August 1939). Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/17205132
  4. Crowd welcoming the flying boat, Centaurus, Lyttelton Harbour. Whites Aviation Ltd: Photographs. Ref: WA-11083-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22812037
  5. Seaplane Centaurus,anchored in Lyttelton harbour. Whites Aviation Ltd: Photographs. Ref: WA-11067-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23043255
  6. People aboard the boat Owaka, welcoming the seaplane Centaurus to Lyttelton, Christchurch.. Whites Aviation Ltd :Photographs. Ref: WA-11076-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22901865
  7. Seaplane Centaurus, anchored at Lyttelton harbour. Whites Aviation Ltd: Photographs. Ref: WA-11066-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22777518
  8. Small boats welcoming the flying boat, Centaurus, Lyttelton Harbour. Whites Aviation Ltd :Photographs. Ref: WA-11085-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23024074
  9. Public occasion, welcoming the seaplane Centaurus to Lyttelton, Christchurch. Whites Aviation Ltd :Photographs. Ref: WA-11074-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22788382
  10. Welcoming the Captain and passengers from the Centaurus. Whites Aviation Ltd: Photographs. Ref: WA-11078-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22339809
  11. Official welcome to the Captain and passengers on board the Centaurus. Whites Aviation Ltd: Photographs. Ref: WA-11075-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23240382
  12. THE CENTAURUS ARRIVES,Press, Volume LXXIV, Issue 22291, 4 January 1938
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