February 16, 2015

Fiji Airways making history



David Ellis


WHEN they boarded P&O's ship Borda at Southampton back in 1921, Frank and Lucy Fleming appeared just another happy married couple migrating to a new life on the other side of the world in far-off Australia.


But they were anything than "just another couple." For starters Lucy was Lucy Fleming alright – but not because she was married to Frank, but because she was actually married to Frank's brother Bernard Fleming, who'd started divorce proceedings when he'd learned of the affair between his wife and his brother.


And Frank and Lucy weren't really heading to Australia, but were secretly escaping further afield to remote little Fiji in the nearby South Pacific, where some of Frank's forebears had set up businesses even further back in the late 1800s, running island trading vessels, trade-stores, coconut plantations and making sails.


And as well as the travel trunks of clothes and household items Frank and Lucy had taken aboard the Borda, they also had an extraordinarily large wooden crate – not filled with furniture or such, but with a World War I RAF bi-plane broken down into dozens of parts, and which was to go on to become part of Fiji's colourful aviation history…  


Soon after he and Lucy's arrival in Suva, word got out that this unusually-private, ex-RAF officer had built an aeroplane in a hangar alongside a beach near town, and when rumoured he planned to test-fly it one afternoon in June 1922, the local Fiji Times newspaper sent a reporter out to witness the event.


But an angry Frank told the man (as later quoted in the newspaper) that he had no intention of flying his aeroplane that day, and that in any case "it's not a bob-a-head show for you lot to watch me break my neck! "


But after the reporter left, Frank and his Indian mechanic wheeled the plane onto the beach, Frank clambered into the cockpit and as the propeller was spun by the mechanic, gunned the engine and roared off along the firm moist sand. He'd got just a short distance when the wheels sank into an unexpected wet patch at speed, and the plane pitched violently forward, cartwheeling tail over on nose…


Uninjured, Frank Fleming climbed out, surveyed the wreck and pronounced his plane a write-off – Fiji's first-ever attempted flight had crashed without ever leaving the ground.


Some ten years later a ship's captain-cum-aviator, Gordon Fenton also assembled (on a Suva street to the amusement of locals) a Simmonds Spartan bi-plane he'd shipped out from England, but which he simply couldn't get airborne. A mechanically-minded friend examined the plane, and then the assembly booklet – and told Captain Fenton he'd got the wings on backwards.


Making the necessary changes, Fenton was soon literally off and flying – with local businessmen ecstatic at his "speedy" 1hr 35min substitute for the otherwise 216km road-trip between the main business centres of Suva and Lautoka. He registered his company as Fiji Airways in 1933, but with the Great Depression soon reaching into Fiji, the fledgling airline faltered and then folded.


Another enthusiastic aviator, builder Alf Marlow then imported three small Dornier Libelle flying boats from Germany, but he too did not last long. (Old-timers claimed the charismatic Mr Marlow often tired of flying the long, slow route from Suva to Lautoka, so would manoeuvre his little plane above sugar-cane trains of the Colonial Sugar Refinery Company, and when train and plane were doing the same speed would "belly-flop" on top of the soft sugar cane for a free ride the rest of the way. Well, that's what the old-timers said…)


Then in the 1950s famed Australian aviator, Harold Gatty set up Katafanga Estates Airways to service his new holiday resort on Katafanga Island to the east of Fiji's main island of Viti Levu.


A year later he changed the name to Fiji Airways and as the airline grew and expanded internationally, and with ownership in 1971 now including seven Pacific Island governments, this was re-registered as Air Pacific.


But in May 2012, Air Pacific reverted to Fiji Airways – last year celebrating carrying more than 1-million passengers for the first time ever in a single year.


If they were alive today, those Fiji aviation pioneers would be pleased… and we'd say Bula to that!






[] BIRTH of an airline: Katafanga Island off Viti Levu where Australian aviator

   Harold Gatty laid this airstrip for his resort's fledgling airline that would go on to

   become Fiji Airways. (Katafanga Island Resort & Spa)

[] GATTY's first plane in the 1950s. (Fiji Airways)

[] HAROLD Gatty (centre) who flew as navigator with American pilot Wiley Post (left)

   when they established a new round-the-world flying record in 1931. (Wikipedia)

[] FIJI's national airline was known for over 40 years as Air Pacific until being re-

   registered as Fiji Airways in 2012. (Fiji Airways)

[] IN today's stand-out Fiji Airways livery. (Fiji Airways)


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