Opinion

Big Story: Flying Boat Sight To Behold In Its Heyday

It was the early sixties. As young boys growing up in the village near the mouth of the Rewa River, we marvelled at the Flying Boat roaring above us. It
31 Jan 2015 11:17
Big Story: Flying Boat Sight To Behold In Its Heyday
RNZAF catalina Flying Boat at Laucala Bay in 1953.

It was the early sixties.

As young boys growing up in the village near the mouth of the Rewa River, we marvelled at the Flying Boat roaring above us.

It was a sight to behold. It was an aviation icon in those days.

When it flew low, the ground shook and the deafening noise would force us to block our ears.

But we would run along and follow its shadow until it disappeared. It was sort of our contact with the outside world. We  knew that not only did it carry people but it visited many places because it could land on the sea.

Once, the Flying Boat used to fly over the village very low on its way to a smoke bombing practice between Nukulau and Makuluva Islands. Nukulau was where George Speight was originally held after his conviction of treason in the wake of the 2000 coup. Makuluva is the island close to it.

We imagined the smoke bombs falling. On the opposite side of estuary of the Rewa River, opening up to the sea, stood a solid concrete tower.

We used to refer to it as “vale ni takete” or target tower. It was on a piece of land called Ucuna, owned by my grandmother’s clan. Her brother was a barge operator for the Flying Boat base at Laucala Bay. We were told that the tower was used for the target bombing practice.

The bombing practice had stopped and the tower had begun to deteriorate. But it became a handy shelter for members of the clan from the rain and storms. Today, the tower has disappeared completely, swallowed by the sea as the combined forces of nature through wind and water ravaged the coastline. Back in the village the only connection with the Flying Boat was an under-carriage which was part of the landing and take-off gear. I did not know how it got there but it had been converted as a boat because it was waterproof and sturdy.

As we grew, we used to travel by boat across Laucala Bay to Suva. The hangar at Laucala and a sea wall built as wave breakers to protect the seaplanes reminded us of what was a thriving airbase of the No 5 Squadron of the Royal New Zealand Air Force.

In 1971, as a student of the University of the South Pacific, I stayed in one of the dormitories used by the RNZAF in their heyday. New Zealand gifted RNZAF  base for USP.

Following the Second World War, the RNZAF, with 16 Sunderland Flying Boats, was based at Laucala Bay. It was tasked with “maritime surveillance” over the vast South Pacific Ocean, medical evacuation flights and search and rescue. It linked islands and brought services long before airstrips were built.

It was the largest community of New Zealanders to live in Suva. The people to people connections were strong with many New Zealand families living on the base.

From 1965 the squadron relocated to Whenuapai, Auckland, to re-equip with five Lockheed P-3B Orions. The squadron withdrew its last flight of Sunderlands from Laucala Bay in 1967.

The Flying Boat’s history will be part of celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the withdrawal of No 5 Squadron from Fiji in Suva.

Some squadron members were to arrive in the country yesterday on board an RNZAF 5 Squadron Orion aircraft. The chief guest  will be Air Vice-Marshall Mike Yardley.

The squadron’s  contribution to this country and the region has helped to build lasting relationships between Fiji and New Zealand.

Feedback:  nemani.delaibatiki@fijisun.com.fj

 




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