By Bob Schulman
Aviation pioneer Harold George Gatty would have been happy this summer.
Known in the early days of flying as “the prince of navigators,” Gatty was the guy who helped steer the famous pilot/stuntman Wiley Post on his historic flight around the world in 1931. The flight took 8 days, 15 hours and 51 minutes – busting the earlier record of 21 days set by Germany's Graf Zeppelin airship. Gatty, who hailed from Australia, went on to set up the South Pacific operations of Pan Am.
After World War II he moved to Fiji, where he bought a little island called Katafanga and briefly ran a coconut farm there – until he got the itch to get back to flying. He scratched it by starting an airline to hop around some of the South Pacific archipelago's 330 islands.
It took off from Fiji's main island of Viti Levu on Sept. 1, 1951. Boldly sporting the livery of Fiji Airways, the new carrier's flagship was a British-made Dragon Rapide biplane seating seven passengers.
Gatty died of a stroke six years later, but his airline island-hopped around for another 14 years before making a move into the big time of air travel. That came when a number of neighboring countries along with some of their airlines invested in Fiji Airways to turn it into a South Pacific regional carrier. Of course it had to have a new name, so in 1971 Fiji Airways took the loftier tag of Air Pacific.
(Later on the other investors bailed out, leaving Fiji as the majority shareholder in the airline.)
Fast-forward to 2013, and the carrier's brand returned to its roots: On June 24, passengers winging it to the South Pacific said bula (hello or welcome) to Fiji Airways again. And ni sa moce (goodbye) to Air Pacific.
Like it did in its eary days, the re-branded airline still hops around a number of Fijian islands, but its mainstream markets now blanket the Pacific. Look at the Fiji Airways (www.fijiairways.com) route map, and you'll see nonstop lines to the Fijian hub at Nadi International Airport on Viti Levu from Los Angeles, Honolulu and Hong Kong as well as from key points in Australia, New Zealand and other neighboring nations.
From the tiny Dragon Rapides, Fiji Airways' flagship is now the brand new Airbus A330-200, seating 24 passengers in “Tabua” (business) class and 249 in “Pacific Voyager” (economy) class. What's more, the seats on the aircraft offer the latest advances in comfort and in-flight entertainment systems, both in business class and economy.
The A330s sport classic Fijian “masi” symbols, an ancient art form said to depict the spirit of the nation and its culture. Featured on the tail of the aircraft is a masi centerpiece called a “teteva” in which various parts of the design mean things like spiritual values, people working together and “the love that the airline has for Fiji and all the customers it is privileged to serve.”
Fiji Airways' fleet plan calls for three new A330s for its longer routes (two are already in service with the third slated for delivery in November), replacing two larger Boeing 747s. Shorter routes continue to be scheduled with Boeing 737 jets, and a number of smaller prop-jets operated by Pacific Sun, a subsidiary of Fiji Airways, serve inter-island commuter routes.
What would Harold Gatty have thought of all this, particularly now that the airline is back under the name he cooked up for it six decades ago? Chances are, aviation old-timers agree, he'd be as proud as he was on the day his “baby” first took off into the blue skies over Fiji in 1951.
By the way, Gatty's old Katafanga Island (www.katafangaisland.com) is for sale. It's yours for just $25 million, complete with private villas, a golf course and the island's own air strip.
Images courtesy of Fiji Airways.
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