Project Sunrise: the battle to fly non-stop to any city in the world

The inaugural non-stop service between London and Perth launched to much fanfare last month, but the 8,991-mile flight is just the beginning.

Qantas, which operated the route, the first direct connection between the UK and Australia, has already begun plotting its next move, a revolution that will see the world grow even smaller: Project Sunrise.

The project is named after the Double Sunrise flights flown by Qantas in the Second World War

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What is Project Sunrise?

So-named as a nod to the famed Double Sunrise flights flown by the Australian carrier across the Indian Ocean during the Second World War, when passengers would witness two dawns from the cabin, Alan Joyce, Qantas CEO, has described his airline’s ambitions as “the antidote to the tyranny of distance”.

Qantas has challenged Airbus and Boeing, the world’s two behemoths of aircraft manufacture, to develop a plane capable of flying anywhere in the world from anywhere else, ushering in a new era of ultra long-haul travel.

Being an Australian carrier, the routes targeted by Project Sunrise all start Down Under. But Qantas is keen for services to be able to reach the likes of London and Paris not just from Western Australia, ie. Perth, but from Sydney and Melbourne on the east coast by 2022.

Cape Town, New York and Rio de Janeiro, have all been highlighted by Qantas, too, as possible destinations.

Broadly speaking, it would make most of the world reachable non-stop from anywhere else, as long as airlines see the commercial potential.

“This is a last frontier in global aviation,” said Alan Joyce, who has written to Boeing and Airbus.

“The biggest challenge is not just to fly the distance. We have aircraft that can do that already. The challenge is flying the distance with a full load of passengers, their luggage, as well as freight. We know the Dreamliner is capable of that on a 17-hour trip. But to extend the flight to 21 hours will take some extensive research and innovative thinking.

“The aircraft we choose will be a core element of our international fleet for a long time. That’s why we want an aircraft that can give us the same operational efficiencies whether it flies Sydney to London or Sydney to Hong Kong.”

How are Boeing and Airbus getting on?

Well. Both manufacturers have dedicated teams working on the development.

On Monday next week, weather permitting, the Airbus A350ULR will take off on its first flight.

Singapore Airline will fly the A350ULR to New York

Singapore Airline will fly the A350ULR to New York

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Airbus

All going well, the plane will enter service later this year with Singapore Airlines who have seven of the A350ULRs on order to use on a non-stop route between Singapore and New York, a 9,521-mile schlep that would shoot to the top of the table as the world’s longest commercial flight, 500-odd miles further than the current number one, Qatar Airways’ Doha-Auckland service.

The 19-hour flight is two hours longer than the London-Perth service, flown on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Developing a plane to fly these routes is not just about mechanics, airlines need to consider cost, capacity and fuel to ensure the distance is worth the expense.

At the time of announcing the Singapore-New York route, airline CEO Goh Choon Phong said: “We are pleased Airbus was able to offer the right aircraft to do so in a commercially viable manner.”

Similarly, Airbus told Telegraph Travel that its A350ULR could fly London to Sydney today, but that the Toulouse-based manufacturer is “working with Qantas to meet its requirements for range, comfort and efficiency for its Sunrise challenge”. 

In February, Alan Joyce said Qantas was meeting with Boeing and Airbus to discuss requirements for the aircraft. It is understood Qantas want an aircraft capable of carrying 300 passengers. It is not yet clear how many passengers an A350ULR could carry, while the Dreamliner on the London-Perth route carries 236.

Boeing will pit its 777-8x against the A350ULR.

Boeing is developing the 777x

Boeing is developing the 777x

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Boeing

The American manufacturer describes the 777-8x as “the largest and most efficient twin-engine jet in the world, unmatched in every aspect of performance”.

Still under development but expected to begin test flights next year, the 777x-8 is listed as having a range of 8,700 nautical miles, which as it stands would rank shorter in range than its Airbus rival.

Boeing’s vice president of marketing Randy Tinseth said in February: “We can’t build one aeroplane for one airline and compromise the aircraft for the major markets.

“We’ll figure out something, I’m confident.”

How did Qantas used to fly from Australia to the UK?

The Kangaroo Route has a proud history, beginning in 1935 when the route took 12 days in a tiny De Havilland 86. Passengers touched down on four different continents, enjoying stops in Singapore, Baghdad and Crete, to name a few, along the way. It also involved a train from Brindisi to Paris, which is – frankly – cheating.

In 1947, the journey time was reduced to four days, with the Kangaroo Route’s hops growing larger. In a Lockheed Constellation, Qantas took travellers on a 55-hour, six-stop odyssey across the world.

By the Seventies, the Australian airline was flying on 747s, typically stopping at Singapore and Bahrain on the way to the UK.

In 1989, Qantas flew the first (and only) non-stop passenger flight from London to Sydney on a Boeing 747, breaking a world distance record.

What were the Catalinas?

In 1943 Qantas, the British Air Ministry and BOAC, which became part of British Airways in 1974, agreed a plan to re-establish an air link between Australia and the UK, cut off by advancing Japanese forces.

The flights from Perth to what was then Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, the longest, non-stop passenger flights ever attempted, were on-board any of five Catalina flying boats.

Taking up to 32 hours, with departure times scheduled to ensure it was dark when flying over Japanese-occupied territory, passengers and crew would witness two sunrises during the flight. Having to maintain radio silence, pilots had only basic equipment and the stars to navigate by.

A Catalina flying boat, of the kind that would have flown the Double Sunrise flights

A Catalina flying boat, of the kind that would have flown the Double Sunrise flights

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Getty

The weight of fuel limited the Catalina’s load to only three passengers and 69kg of diplomatic and armed forces mail. The aircraft were so heavy with fuel on take-off that the failure of one engine in the first 10 hours of flight would have made a ditching inevitable. This never happened.

The flights took place between 1943 and 1945, ceasing after 271 crossings of the Indian Ocean, carrying 648 passengers and totting up nearly one million miles.

The Rare and Secret Order of the Double Sunrise was an illustrated certificate awarded to passengers to attest they had been airborne for more than 24 hours.

At the end of the war the five Indian Ocean Catalinas were scuttled at sea under the lend-lease agreement with the US Government. It was, in the words of Qantas founder Hudson Fysh “a dismal fate for these splendid boats which for two long years saw us through our most hazardous operation ever without accident or mishap of any kind”.

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