Unveiling the iconic logo | How a WWII fighter pilot helped the Flying Fijians find their wings

Dan Lobendahn the former Flying Fijian holds the picture of the late Joe Levula at his office in Lami. Picture: ATU RASEA

One of the great thrills of my life was discovering, when I went to work for the Fiji Rugby Union in 2001, that my boss was Pio Bosco Tikoisuva.

I had just turned nine years old in 1977 when I listened to Pio’s exploits as Fiji captain organising the defeat of the British Lions, on a tinny radio at the Mocambo Hotel while my mother was having her hair done.

We had a huge in-tray of issues to tackle when we started work together.

But one of the things that Pio was insistent about was that we try to find a compelling name that captured the identity of the Fiji 15s team. Everyone knew the All Blacks, Wallabies and Springboks.

There was Manu Samoa, Tonga had the Ikale Tahi and, my gosh, even Papua New Guinea were the Kumuls. After almost one hundred years of rugby, we were still just Fiji. Part of this was that I knew Pio had a very particular vision of how he wanted Fiji teams to play.

Although he respected the huge strides made under Brad Johnston, who coached Fiji between 1996 and 1999, I knew he felt that our natural game was an expansive, running one.

Not the sort of ten-man rugby that he felt had become the default under Johnston.

Also not having a specific brand or intellectual property, meant it was incredibly challenging to police those unscrupulous retailers who would print a black coconut-tree outline and the word Fiji onto any old raggedy T- shirt and jersey and rip off locals and tourists alike.

Or the ‘namu sponsors’, as we would call them, who would do the same thing in newspaper and TV adverts, pretending to consumers they were supporting rugby in Fiji when they were just leeching off us.

So, Pio and I would have regular, painful brain scrapes where we tried our best to come up with something, anything. There were many weird rabbit-holes that we got stuck down, as we mined everything from Fiji’s flora and fauna to the supernatural. Beer may or may not have helped the process.

When inspiration finally came, the Flying Fijians ‘light bulb moment’ came from a very unexpected place. Taking up the job at the FRU, my wife Vanessa and I had relocated from Hong Kong to Suva with our young son Jack.

We had found a place to rent by looking online and that place was the Tamavua residence of the late John Scott, the Red Cross director who had been a key intermediary in the desperate parliamentary hostage crisis set off by George Speight’s 2000 attempted coup.

John and his partner had been murdered in early July 2001 and we moved in six weeks later. John’s younger brother Owen visited us on several occasions at the home he had grown up in as he worked on writing Deep Beyond The Reef (Penguin NZ), part tribute to his brother but also part family history.

Through Owen, we came to learn a small part of his family’s history stretching back to the 1870s when John and Owen’s great, great grandfather arrived as a missionary. Sir Maurice Scott – John and Owen’s father – had served as chairman and then president of the FRU for a record 21 years.

That was a golden era, best remembered for Fiji’s first breakthrough appearances in the northern hemisphere: the 22-28 loss against an uncapped Wales side in 1964 and the 1970 tour of England, including the Gosforth demolition of the Barbarians, the majority of whom, playing in the British Lions a year later, would triumph in New Zealand. John and Owen’s relationship with their father had been more than a little complicated.

On one level Sir Maurice was a brilliant man: for many years Fiji’s leading criminal barrister, a member of Parliament and, later, Speaker of the Legislative Council, he was outrageous and wickedly charismatic.

Paying tribute to him after his death, one-time The Fiji Times editor Sir Len Usher said with some understatement that Sir Maurice had “a nice wit, irreverent sometimes and occasionally a little earthy, but always stimulating”.

But Sir Maurice could be a nasty piece of work, a tyrant and bully to those who deserved better. At one stage Sir Maurice’s first wife, mother of John and Owen, lived in the downstairs section of the same Tamavua property where his second wife lived upstairs.

Sir Maurice’s second wife was the widow of Harold Gatty the founder of Fiji Airways – another Flying Fijian.

By chance at dinner with us one night, Owen mentioned that his father had served as a pilot officer in the Royal Air Force during World War II. He shared with us a picture of his father standing in front of his Hurricane fighter which had stencilled “The Flying Fijian” on the side.

According to a 1976 obituary in Pacific Islands Monthly, to get into the RAF Sir Maurice had to “do a little pruning of his age” and needed two attempts to pass the medical.

Sir Maurice Scott’s Hurricane – The Flying Fijian. Syria 1943. Picture: Supplied

The first one he had failed, having come straight by taxi from an all-night wedding reception. Owen’s picture is also held in the archives of the Imperial War Museum. Almost invisible in the photo is the expression “Maleka Jan” marked out in white paint above the iTaukei face.

It means good luck apparently. The designation SLR shows it was a Special Long-Range Hurricane.

The IWM credits the photo as having been taken in 1943 in Syria.

In January 1945, Sir Maurice was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the third-highest military decoration awarded to officers for “an act or acts of valour, courage or devotion to duty while flying in active operations against the enemy”.

The citation particularly acknowledges that three times his plane was shredded by enemy fire and he still managed to nurse the aircraft home safely. That dinner and seeing the photo was the very first time I heard the words Flying and Fijian together.

But even then, the penny had not dropped. Thankfully, it would a day later when I met with Dan Lobendahn, the owner of two petrol stations affiliated with BP Oil, then sponsors of the FRU.

Lobendahn had won three Test caps for Fiji in the mid-1970s and was part of the famous Nadroga provincial side that dominated local rugby for the best of a decade, holding the Farebrother for nine seasons.

Dan was running a little late so, as I waited inside his office, I looked up at the mounted photos of his playing career in the 1970s and various rugby memorabilia. Over the door to his office, though, was one image that really took my breath away: a 50- inch framed photo of big-striding Josefa Levula taken on the 1951 tour to New Zealand.

Levula’s two tries helped Fiji beat the Maori 21-14 at Athletic Park. It was in that split second that the name on the side of Sir Maurice’s fighter fused in my mind with the Fijian flying up the wing at warp speed.

The full brilliance of the logo was only realised once Dominic Sansom, the country’s preeminent designer and graphic artist, had worked his production magic. Firstly in Dan’s framed photo, Levula was running from right to left, the wrong way as far as the eye is concerned.

Dominic reversed this to the format we now know. It is Levula’s image that is the central feature of the original Flying Fijian logo: in the way that his jaw is set, his eyes are ablaze, and he’s galloping hard up the field, you can quite believe the New Zealand Herald reporter who wrote: “(Levula’s) high-stepping action was allied to an aggressive temperament, and many a Caucasian face pales at the thunderous approach of a menacing figure whose eyes burned like the light of an express train.”

Levula’s name continues to appear on the inside collar of the Test jerseys that the Fiji team wears during this RWC as well as a representation of his Flying Fijian running style which started it all.

And there’s one final detail in this story that I am pretty sure I have got right. When Sir Maurice died his pallbearers for the funeral service at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Suva in June 1976 were a mix of former servicemen and then-members of the Fiji 15s team.

I always had it in my mind that one of those pallbearers that day was Pio Bosco Tikoisuva himself. One Flying Fijian to another.

‘Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’ We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.’ Ulysses, Alfred Lord Tennyson.

• CHARLIE CHARTERS is a former rugby union official and sports marketing executive turned thriller writer whose debut book Bolt Action was published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2010.

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