Queensland Air Museum's Involvement with Sandringham F-OBIP
In the early 1970's
Queensland Air Museum was alerted by Mr. Douglas Pearson Jr of Papeete
in Tahiti of the circumstances surrounding the fate of Sir Gordon Taylor's
Sandringham flying boat Frigate Bird III. The aircraft was located
at the Faaa Airport in Papeete and was threatened with destruction due
to proposed airport expansion works. The Local French authorities had
placed a deadline for the removal of the aircraft from Faaa Airport. The
aircraft was to be sunk in the lagoon if it had not been moved by the
deadline. The Queensland Air Museum, in conjunction with the Queensland
Branch of the Aviation Historical Society of Australia, negotiated with
the French authorities in Tahiti for an extension of the deadline for
destruction of the aircraft. This was done with the assistance of the
French Consul in Melbourne. QAM mounted an expedition to Tahiti to survey
the aircraft and its situation with the intention of examining the viability
of moving the aircraft to Australia. Ultimately QAM's efforts were not
enough and as a means of preserving the aircraft from destruction it was
donated to the Musée de l'Air in Paris. The following is an account of
QAM's part in the preservation of F-OBIP.
Patrick Gordon Taylor, later Sir Gordon and "Bill" to those who knew him
well, was born in 1896 and died in 1960. The following is a brief account
of some of his many achievements.
P.G. Taylor flew with the Royal Flying Corps on the western front during
World War One where he flew Sopwith Pup aircraft. During his military
service he was awarded the Military Cross for bravery after completing
more than forty offensive patrols. After the war P.G. Taylor continued
his flying career as an airline pilot. One of his most memorable exploits
was during the Southern Cross oil exchange incident on May 15th
1935 when he managed to transfer oil using a thermos flask, from the failed
starboard engine to an overheating port engine on the Southern Cross.
He did this by climbing outside the aircraft six times, using the wing
struts. P.G. Taylor was awarded the George Cross for this heroic deed.
P.G. Taylor was a superb flyer and navigator, and he turned astro-navigation
into an art form. He was very much an individual and a loner and was never
able to tolerate the routine of airline service for any great length of
time. P.G. Taylor was always happiest as an explorer and this was a role
he carried out very, very well. He became dedicated to flying boat operations
after leaving Sir Charles Kingsford Smith's Australian National Airways.
His skill as a navigator and his experience with flying boats made him
well suited to the exploration and survey role. After a long and eventful
association with aviation, P.G. Taylor was knighted in 1954 for his services
to aviation. Sir Gordon Taylor died in Hawaii in 1960 and is buried there.
Some of P.G. Taylor's epic exploratory flights were initially, three survey
flights. The first being a survey flight from Australia to Africa in 1939
in a PBY Catalina named Guba. P.G. Taylor was the first pilot to
fly this particular route. During the Second World War, aircraft traveling
this route pioneered by P.G. Taylor, became Australia's only direct communication
link with the UK. Aircrews traveling on this route were airborne for more
than twenty-four hours and earned the famed Order of the Double Sunrise.
Another of his pioneering flights was the 1944 survey flight from Mexico
to Australia. P.G. Taylor was commissioned to survey a mid-Pacific air
route between Mexico, New Zealand and Australia. The aircraft used for
the flight was an RAF aircraft, another Catalina JX275 and he named it
Frigate Bird so P.G. Taylor obviously had a great association with
birds of the sea.
P.G. Taylor's third survey flight was from Australia to Chile, in an aircraft
called Frigate Bird II, another Catalina. This was an ex RAAF aircraft
and was registered VH-ASA and he flew basically from Sydney to Quintero
in Chile after making their initial landfall at Valparaiso via Tahiti
and Easter Island.
There was a noteworthy incident at Easter Island where P.G. Taylor had
to sail the aircraft from one side of the island to the other, because
he could not get off, as the sea conditions were too rough. To get around
to the leeward side of the island he had to physically sail the aircraft
by tacking the aircraft with engine on, engine off and it took him the
best part of a day to do that. You can only imagine the stamina of the
man. And then to refuel the aircraft, take off and fly from there to Chile,
which was about a 14-hour flight, he was an amazing man.
Frigate Bird III was built as a Sunderland flying boat in 1943
by Short Brothers at Rochester. It was built for the RAF with the serial
number JM719. The aircraft was later converted to a Sandringham VII Bermuda
class flying boat for service with BOAC. It was originally intended for
use on the Bermuda run from Baltimore in America and was named St George.
With BOAC it served roughly 2000 flying hours which was a very short airline
flying career for this particular aircraft.
P.G. Taylor purchased the Bermuda class Sandringham in 1954 and he paid
£20,000 for it. He named the aircraft Frigate Bird III with the
registration VH-APG. The plan for buying the aircraft was to open an air
cruise route to the South Pacific islands. P.G. Taylor was quite familiar
with these islands and he figured that there was a bit of money to be
made there, so that is what he did. His air cruises were very informal
and his cruise itinerary varied to allow for his passengers wishes. After
P.G. Taylor finished with his air cruising around the South Pacific islands
in 1958 the aircraft was sold on to Transports Aeriens Intercontinentaux
(TAI) and was re-registered as F-OBIP. The aircraft was used to fly from
Papeete to Bora Bora for connection with the DC-6 service to Paris.
TAI merged with Union de Transports Aeriens (UTA) in 1963 and became Reseau
Aeriens Interinsulaire (RAI) the Tahiti based subsidiary of UTA. During
this period, the aircraft was operated by a British crew. Douglas Pearson
Senior was the chief pilot for RAI and the captain of F-OBIP. His appearance
resembled the movie star James Robertson Justice and at the time he was
the only man living in Tahiti who wore a beard. As a result, the local
Tahitians referred to him as Au Barbu, (The Bearded One) and he
became quite a novelty in the area. He was the much-respected captain
of both F-OBIP and a DC-4 aircraft operated by RAI in Tahiti.
Au Barbu had a humorous side to him, and was well known for lining
up the large flying boat on the newly constructed runway at Faaa Airport
during the approach for landing. And conversely lining up on the DC-4
on the water channel in the lagoon, terrifying a lot of people who were
not used to this behavior. Apparently he used to do this trick quite often.
F-OBIP called Le Bermuda by the locals was still in service as
late as 1970. As a point of interest, P.G.Taylor selected the location
for the Faaa Airport during his survey flight from Mexico to Australia.
QAM's expedition to Tahiti was actually an assessment of the aircraft's
physical condition and situation and took place between the 29th of January
and the 18th of February 1977. The expedition involved four members of
the Queensland Air Museum these being Geoff Masters and his wife Mary,
Mike Adams and Ken Woodrow. The expedition is described in the words of
Mike Adams and Ken Woodrow.
"We departed Brisbane on the 29th of January 1977 flying with Ansett Airlines
to Sydney. Fortunately the Queensland Air Museum was able to arrange free
travel to and from Sydney so that cost us nothing in out-of-pocket expenses.
On arrival in Sydney we were able to sight-see at the airport for several
hours which was a lot of fun at the time, while waiting for a mid afternoon
departure flight on a UTA, DC-8 aircraft for Papeete via Auckland, New
Zealand. The French airline UTA generously provided us with 50% discount
on our return airfares from Sydney to Tahiti. We arrived in Auckland mid
evening and waited around for an 11-30pm departure on the same aircraft.
"We arrived at Faaa Airport in Tahiti at dawn on the 29th , the same day
that we left Australia after crossing the International Date Line. It
was a hot, humid morning and the cold skin of the DC-8 was dripping lots
of water and it was like rain coming off the aircraft. Douglas Pearson
Junior and his partner Dany met us outside the customs area where we received
the usual leis and greetings. Then we were taken by car to their apartment
on the fourth floor of a unit block in Faaa, only about 15 minutes walking
time from the airport. Doug graciously allowed us to use his home during
our stay. This proved very convenient for us as it saved us some money
and solved a lot of transport problems because we each had a set of feet.
"After settling in, Doug took us for a preliminary inspection of the aircraft
and to the local airport authorities to obtain passes enabling us to work
on airport land. The task that we expected to be able to achieve on the
expedition was to basically assess the aircraft for transport to Australia.
We had been told to expect that the aircraft had suffered at the hands
of vandals both inside and out, so we had to do something to prevent further
damage. We also decided to improve the presentation of the aircraft and
repair the beaching gear should the aircraft have to be moved again.
"When we went out to see the aircraft, one of the first things that did
strike us, and it was terrifying to begin with, was that it was a very
large, aeroplane. Until you stand right next to one of these aircraft,
and unless you have been associated with them at all, it is very difficult
to get an appreciation of size. It is a towering beast, a really large
"Back at the unit after the initial inspection of the aircraft we began
to plan what we were going to do. We decided to secure the doors and windows
as some of the locals had been using the aircraft for various purposes.
They had broken several windows and levered the doors open in several
places. We also decided to clean out the interior and repair some of the
damage that had been produced by the vandals. The rear end of the hull
had also been damaged when the original beaching gear collapsed due to
wear and tear and also old age. Holes in the skin were repaired by pop
riveting sheets of duralumin which had been donated by the Royal Queensland
"We soon discovered, the information we received that everything we needed
in the way of tools and supplies, being readily available was a little
overstated. We were lucky that Geoff had brought along a small toolbox
with him. With the tools Geoff provided we were able to start work securing
the aircraft, but we found it difficult to cut perspex and dural to size
without a suitable saw. We improvised and used a hacksaw blade with a
rag handle to cut the perspex and dural until we could find a hardware
store where we could purchase some supplies. We discovered a little bit
later on, that everything is available at a good price if you can find
it. It would probably be the same thing for anybody moving into a strange
location, it's a little bit difficult to begin with and you run around
in circles trying to find things. Once you know where they are you can
go straight back to them.
"As we had to do a bit of running around initially in the planning stages
we decided to hire a car. This was a small two stroke, three cylinder
- from memory a Daihatsu. The car was basically a two and a half seater
but we managed to get four people in it. It was the first of the small
Daihatsu cars that we had ever seen. The smallest car in Australia at
the time was a Mini and we were quite amazed at the thing. We had it for
several weeks and we only used a tank of petrol. It still had petrol in
it when we returned it.
"As we said previously, the aircraft, to our surprise was much bigger
than we expected. One of the major problems we had was getting access
into and on top of the aircraft. The beaching gear was still complete
and the main wheel tyres were probably four feet in diameter. There was
an entry door below the cockpit that was a good eight feet off the ground
so we had to borrow a ladder. We were able to do this from the local Airport
Fire Service. The Fire Service were very helpful once we negotiated the
language problem again. And at the end of each day of working on the aircraft
we'd put the ladder on top of the wing for security, to save having to
return it and having to get it again the next day.
"Fortunately, damage from vandals was not as bad as expected when you
consider some of the things that happen here in Australia even now. It
was quite pleasing to see the aircraft in such good state considering
it had been sitting there for basically five or six years and had been
threatened with destruction.
"As we mentioned earlier, our accommodation was only a short walk from
the airfield so we used to do that walk twice a day. Crossing the runway
was an interesting aspect of each trip. The main entry road to the airport
is on one side of the runway and the aircraft was on the other side of
the runway. This entailed crossing the runway which was a bit of a shock
to us and the whole system was basically a railway boom gate on either
side of the runway. The boom gate was equipped with bells that rang when
the gate was in motion. You would walk up to it, if the boom gate was
down you wouldn't walk across the runway. If the boom gate was up you
would walk across the runway. It was as simple as that. It was a simple
system, there were no dead bodies in the middle of the runway so obviously
it worked and the locals got along with the system quite well. This boom
gate was remotely controlled by staff in the control tower. There were
occasions when the system did not work exactly as intended. On one occasion
we walked up to the boom gate, saw that the boom gate was up and saw an
aircraft on short final, so we used the best part of our discretion and
did not go across the runway. On that occasion the aircraft passed by,
the bells rang, the gates then came down and we laughed as the arriving
aircraft was well past our position by this time.
"As the rear beaching gear on the aircraft had collapsed, we borrowed
a five-ton jack from the airport fire service to level up the fuselage.
We did this and temporarily supported the fuselage on blocks of wood that
we found nearby. We then found that the entry hatch was much higher and
a little bit more difficult to get into. Fortunately an empty 44 gallon
drum solved that problem for us and we were able to clamber inside the
rear hatch after first climbing up on top of the 44 gallon drum.
"We began to search for something suitable to replace the rear beaching
gear in case the aircraft had to be moved at a later date. And of course
we knew that was going to be the case when we went over there. The aircraft
did have to be moved. Geoff and Doug were able to locate the rear axle
from a light truck at a wrecking yard, which we thought would do the job.
A friend of Doug's with a portable arc welder and generator did the required
welding for us. And after overcoming the language barrier by a combination
of hand signals, diagrams and pidgin English, a rear beaching gear was
eventually produced. We had to fabricate braces to pick up formers inside
the aircraft and make it reasonably secure so that we knew it could be
used for moving the aircraft.
"The engines had been removed and some of them were just sitting by themselves
on the tarmac. Some engines were in hermetically sealed transport containers.
There were from memory about six engines. We can't honestly remember the
exact number. This gave us the thought at the time of refitting the engines
and the propellers to the aircraft. Doug had the thought that re-fitting
the engines might make the aircraft look more complete. We spent a bit
of time surveying what engines and bits and pieces there were available,
and after a good bit of discussion we came to the conclusion there was
only enough bits and pieces to fit one engine and propeller. From that
we then decided that an aircraft with one engine and propeller is not
much better that an aircraft with no engines and propellers. Another major
factor in our decision was that there wasn't a great deal of engine mounts
and there was also a severe lack of bolts to hold the engines and everything
together. So unfortunately we decided not to do that. We think as time
transpired we are glad that we didn't because we would have run out of
time to do other things.
"From that we made a decision to paint as much of the aircraft as we could
to seal it from the weather and to prevent any further water leaks and
corrosion developing in the aircraft. So with the decision made, we hopped
into our little car and started snooping around for hardware stores. And
despite the interminable language barrier that we had we were able to
purchase some paint, some rollers, brushes and all the associated paraphernalia.
We don't know to this day what sort of paint it was, but it was red, and
we think that it was some sort of marine paint. As it was, we paid CPF45000
for one gallon of white spirit to thin the paint and clean brushes, rollers
and trays. So this made us look at the money terms. CPF45000 at the time
was about $45 Australian, so you can imagine the difficulties we had.
A gallon of turpentine was about $2.50 in Australia at the time. So that
gives you some sort of an indication of the amount of money that certain
things cost. We also found that trays and brushes were also very expensive.
And another thing that comes to mind is that a lot of the rollers and
brushes that we used were made by Sabco in Australia. Obviously we had
a bit of an export market there, we don't know whether they still even
make things today?
"With the amount of money that we were going through we decided to just
buy supplies as we needed them. Our finances suddenly meant a little more
to us really! We were operating with money out of our own pockets and
basically every second day we would tally up how much spending money we
had. Every morning as we went down through the airport terminal we would
check the exchange rate with the US dollar. Some days were good obviously
and others were bad so on the good days we sold our US dollars and on
the bad days we just kept our money in our pockets.
"We needed to do some repairs to the fabric work on the control surfaces
of the aircraft as there were several holes. These were made presumably
by birds and also where inspection patches had come off over time. We
spent a bit of time cleaning bird nests out of these holes. Eventually
we cleaned all of the nests out and were ready to repair the holes. We
were able to make an initial approach to Jean-Francois Lejeune. He was
the President and Chief Pilot of Air Tahiti, a local charter operation,
and the owner of a bright yellow Cavalier P-51 Mustang. We watched him
do an engine run-up one day which was an interesting diversion at the
time. Jean-Francois was able to donate some fabric, dope and some adhesive
for the fabric repairs. When we picked up the materials we received a
lot of instructions in French about how to use them. Of course at the
time we had never done any fabric work. We knew the basic principles;
you lay it down, slap a bit of stuff on and walk away. That was what we
were looking at. So after all these instructions we looked at each other
with a vacant look on our faces and had no idea of what we were supposed
to do. We basically got it down to that we would put the adhesive on,
put the fabric down and put the dope on. And that was how we got our initial
training in fabric work. Of course our knowledge of fabric work has improved
"We began to paint the wing floats silver. Some of this was achieved with
the use of a human ladder because the ladder that we borrowed from the
fire service was full length and it was absolutely useless for doing something
that was an intermediate height from the ground.
"While we were concentrating on painting, Geoff and Mary began the task
of cleaning out the interior of the aircraft. It was very hot inside and
we achieved flow through ventilation within the aircraft by opening up
all the hatches and removing the astrodome. With the gentle breeze that
was blowing across the water every day it managed to cool it down quite
well. One thing about the cleaning out of the aircraft, when Geoff and
Mary were actually cleaning out the interior we borrowed a vacuum cleaner.
Of course we needed mains power to operate it, so Geoff went over to the
fire service, cap in hand and said; you wouldn't happen to have a portable
generator would you? Of course the next thing we knew Geoff and the
fire service were rolling back across the airstrip with this huge truck
and one of those big yellow generators. They started it up and stood there
for a while and Geoff went inside the aircraft and disappeared for a while.
Apparently, and we didn't know this until later on in the day, he had
plugged the vacuum cleaner in and it started making all sorts of nasty
smells so he turned it off straight away and then let the fire service
stand there for an extra half an hour thinking that he was doing some
good. The generator may not have been the correct voltage for the tiny
vacuum cleaner. While the fire service cooled their heels, Geoff and Mary
were physically cleaning some of the dirt and mess out of the aircraft.
"Just a bit of a personal comment on Geoff. He spent a lot of time in
Papua New Guinea and was quite fluent in Pidgin English and all this sort
of thing. When we actually got to Tahiti he had this mental block that
he was still in Papua New Guinea. Geoff would be trying to talk to the
locals in Pidgin English, and they didn't speak any English. So we ended
up further behind the eight ball as we were trying to bumble along with
English. At least Mike had some sort of basic schooling in high school
French and we could read signs, price tags and all that sort of thing.
So it was quite comical at times to see Geoff trying to communicate with
"We were beginning to know our way around the area by this time. We were
able to drive off in a hurry to buy supplies with some sort of confidence.
Occasionally, we traveled into town via the local bus called Le Truck
which is a free local service running up and down the esplanade of Tahiti.
Reading signs in French was also becoming easier. High school French did
eventually come in handy, although at the time it wasn't understood why
we had to study a foreign language.
"We bought some red primer as mentioned earlier. Red marine primer that
we used in an attempt to seal the skin lines on top of the aircraft. We
thought that by applying this we might be able to add a bit to the waterproofing
of the aircraft. It was a little bit moldy and musty inside and what we
were hoping to do was to extend the life of the aircraft a little bit
"While all this was happening, Douglas Pearson had arranged a radio interview
and he talked about our mission to save Le Bermuda flying boat.
The interview turned out to be very good publicity for us and we were
beginning to be recognised around the area. As a result of the radio interview,
local newspapers and TV crews visited us while we were working on the
aircraft. At least we had brought the aircraft to the attention of the
locals, which was part of our strategy to save Frigate Bird III.
"The red sealer that we put on the skin lines took forever to dry. The
slow drying of the paint was beginning to really slow us down. We were
painting various other parts around the aircraft while we were waiting
for it to dry. We were really beginning to get a little bit concerned
about the time period that we had left. We were on a strict time scale,
tickets had been booked and we knew exactly how long we had to stay.
"While we were waiting for the primer to dry, we decided to check for
corrosion on the wing flaps. We manually extended the flaps with a crank
handle in the engineer's compartment. Of course then we had to laboriously
wind them back up again. Gravity helped us on the way down and everything
went very well. Retracting the flaps required many turns of the small
crank handle. We began to paint the aircraft's fuselage and markings.
We couldn't wait for the red primer to dry as this was obviously going
to take far too long. To our knowledge it was probably still damp when
we started applying the white top-coat to the aircraft.
"We began to consider the possibilities of storing the aircraft temporarily
in Tahiti. Doug made some inquiries and was able to organise meetings
with the local authorities and museum people, with the possibility of
storing the aircraft at the Gaugin Museum. Geoff and Doug were the main
negotiators in these talks and we tagged along just for moral support.
Unfortunately, the museum officials requested that we provide funding
to move and restore the aircraft for display at the museum, and that funding
was simply not available. Therefore nothing came of our negotiations to
store the aircraft in Tahiti. So we were still left with the problem of
trying to fund the transport of the aircraft back to Australia.
"We had painted most of the fuselage and began to touch up the marking
F-OBIP and the French flag on the sides of the fuselage and the aircraft
began to look almost serviceable with the paint work that we were applying
"During the three weeks we were in Tahiti we only had one day off to go
sight-seeing. Doug took us for a drive about eighty miles around the island.
We looked at ancient temples, waterfalls and caves. The excursion was
all very exciting and included our first chance to drive on the wrong
side of the road. The holiday part of our trip started and ended on that
one day. We needed a break by that stage as we had been working pretty
much flat out, from early morning to late afternoon. Sleeping in the evenings
was also a little bit difficult because it was warm, humid and of course
you would wake up in the morning freezing cold because you couldn't go
to bed with anything on top of you. You would wake up at four o'clock
in the morning, freezing. So we had short nights and long days and we
were well and truly looking forward to our one day of holiday.
"On the 17th of February, which was the Chinese New Year, we had a combination
thank you for our efforts and birthday party for Mike rolled into one.
Doug had organised an evening meal at a posh restaurant called La Chaumiere
half way up the mountain overlooking Papeete. He presented us all with
signed and illustrated copies of the book Flight Path South Pacific
in appreciation of our efforts. The drive up to the restaurant was very
interesting. The road was narrow, very, very windy going up the side of
a cliff and apparently it was constructed by the Foreign Legionnaires.
"We finally ran out of time! We were still working on the aircraft on
the morning we had to leave. We were not able to finish all of the painting
and one section of the upper right rear fuselage still looked a little
bit tatty. But what we had done looked really good. We hoped that it was
enough to make the aircraft look like it was worth saving. We took a long,
last look around the aircraft, closed the hatches and locked up. We then
returned to the unit where we cleaned up and finished packing for the
"We left Tahiti one day before Geoff and Mary. We returned to Sydney via
Auckland on a UTA DC-8. Geoff and Mary were leaving the following day
to travel via Vila on a brand new DC-10.
"When we departed that morning, as we taxied out we could see Frigate
Bird as we rolled past. We lined up for take-off and during the take-off
roll she flashed past just before the aircraft rotated. During the left
turn on to course after take-off we could still see Frigate Bird
out the window. Pointing in our direction, it's a very nice looking aircraft
from a distance, when viewed from an aircraft actually. When the DC-8
rolled onto heading we lost sight of her for good and that's the last
we saw of her.
"When we arrived in Sydney we hired a car after many, many hassles. After
we managed to get out of the airport, we decided to drive out to Camden
Airport and have a bit of a look at the Catalina Frigate Bird II.
We believe we hold some sort of a record for being inside Frigate Bird
III and Frigate Bird II within a twenty-four hour period. I
don't think there would be too many people who could lay claim to that.
"We left Tahiti not knowing the ultimate fate of the aircraft, or not
knowing where we would end up in relation to the aircraft. When we came
back to Brisbane, we gave a report to the Queensland Air Museum and ultimately
the decision was made that we would not be able to transport the aircraft
to Australia. For us, losing the aircraft was very disappointing, after
having gone over there and done the work we thought had to be done, but
that's the way it worked out."
Since QAM first became involved with the aircraft, there had been frequent
contact between QAM and the French Embassy who in turn contacted the authorities
in Tahiti. An approach was made to the Australian Government who advised
that they did not have a ship coming from Tahiti to Australia. QAM had
obtained a quote of $25,000 to transport the Sandringham to Australia
and although this doesn't sound much today, it was an insurmountable obstacle
to an impoverished organisation in the seventies.
Around this time, the Musée de l'Air in Paris expressed renewed interest
in the Sandringham even though they had earlier decided that they could
not transport the aeroplane to France. It is understood that their initial
investigations began not long after the Sandringham was withdrawn from
service. In the absence of any official support from Australia, QAM reluctantly
relinquished ownership to the Musée de l'Air, disappointed but comforted
by the knowledge that QAM's efforts had at least saved the aeroplane from
destruction. The Sandringham was later transported successfully to France
where it was restored and placed on display at the Musée de l'Air at Le
Bourget Airport in Paris. Unfortunately the aircraft was later severely
damaged in a storm and repairs are still in progress at the time of writing