Owen Zupp offers a behind-the-scenes look at the Qantas Rural Aid charity flight to the recently held Avalon Airshow.
Ahead, the ground crew waves his batons, easing the Boeing 747-400 to a slow and gentle halt. One by one, fuel flow is cut to the engines and the giant turbofan engines spool down. Outside a crowd has gathered to see the “Queen of the Skies”, while the view from the flight deck reveals multiple marquees and military hardware that includes F-22 Raptors and the RAAF’s new F-35 Lightning. The Qantas Rural Aid charity flight has arrived at the Australian International Air Show at Avalon.
With the twilight of the Qantas Boeing 747 quickly becoming a sunset, tickets on board the “Jumbo” flight to Avalon were always destined to be popular with aviation enthusiasts.
Consequently, when the limited number of 150 seats went on sale for the appropriate cost of $747, they were sold in a matter of hours. However, weeks before the tickets had even been released, preparations for the flight had been taking place.
At the helm of the event, Qantas’s head of flight operations (HOFO), Captain Mike Galvin had been busily drawing together the many threads needed to make the day happen. Airline operations are scheduled well in advance, so to find a “spare” airframe within the program to undertake the flight was no simple challenge. Even so, the aircraft was only one piece of the puzzle.
A detailed “run sheet” was prepared well in advance, meticulously outlining the timings involved and commencing the night before the flight. Every possible consideration, from security to catering, was given a time, place and responsible person to ensure that the event ran smoothly.
With Diesel providing the preflight entertainment, the Qantas domestic business lounge had to be transformed with furniture being moved and sound systems put in place. A small raised platform and Rural Aid banners rounded off the scene where TV personality, Michael Usher would direct proceedings as the master of ceremonies.
As the day grew closer, communications continued between the various departments, while the technical crew focused on the operational details and flight safety. The aim was to showcase the 747 with an arrival overhead the runway in front of the crowd before flying a visual circuit and landing. While a straightforward manoeuvre in itself, Avalon Airport had special airshow procedures in place and the timings were critical, requiring that the Boeing be on the ground before the airshow operations officially commenced.
Having volunteered to crew the flight, Captain Mark Kelly and First Officer Craig Allan set about honing the arrival procedure in the 747 simulator at the Qantas Jet Base, examining a series of options with due respect paid to safety, airspace restrictions and other operational constraints.
Through a combination of discussions, briefings and flight simulations, a scenario was devised to each of the arrival options – landing to the south on Runway 18, or the more likely profile of landing on Runway 36, given the forecast of Avalon’s hot, northerly breeze.
Even with each and every detail seemingly covered, the dynamic nature of airline operations led to an aircraft change at the eleventh hour from VH-OEB to VH-OJU. Additionally, the incredibly hot weather that was bearing down on Avalon had prompted the organisers to move the program forward into the cooler morning hours with an earlier finish.
This called for an even more heightened awareness of the departure schedule for all concerned, given the steadfast arrival deadline at Avalon. Once again, it was a hive of activity behind-the-scenes, but when the day dawned everything was in place and the Rural Aid flight was ready for take-off.
The sun was yet to peek its head above the horizon as the crew boarded the bus at Qantas’s Mascot headquarters.
Captain Kelly, with more than 35 years’ experience on the 747, had his wife and daughters accompanying him as the opportunity to fly his family on the Queen of the Skies for such a worthy cause was too good to pass up. The glow of iPads filled the bus in the pre-dawn light as the pilots reviewed the latest flight planning information and discussed the day ahead.
By the time they entered the lounge area in the domestic terminal, there was already a buzz of excitement among the passengers, who mingled with the crew as cameras intermittently flashed, capturing images of the transformed lounge.
Captain Galvin addressed the gathering, highlighting the importance of the cause the flight was to aid, thanking the entire crew for volunteering their time and the passengers for their support of Rural Aid. After Captain Galvin had finished, Michael Usher regained the floor and began to outline the day’s activities, including an auction that was to take place.
A return trip to Bali flying business class with Qantas, a two-hour private flight simulator session and items from the interior of the recently retired 747, VH-OJM were among the items up for grabs. And as Diesel readied to take the stage, Captains Kelly and Galvin and their crew slipped away to finalise the operational aspects of the flight.
— Buy a Bale of Hay (@buyabale) March 1, 2019
In the briefing room, Captain Kelly and First Officer Allan agreed upon a fuel load, before Captain Galvin phoned it through to Load Control. Captain Kelly then addressed the Cabin Crew, who had all donated their time to operate the flight. He emphasised the importance of safety on a flight that was undoubtedly full of excitement and a little different to the long sectors that the 747 normally undertook. He also highlighted that while the arrival may seem different, it was nothing out of the ordinary – it was simply a visual circuit.
With the final details submitted and the crew briefed, the minutes were counting down. While the passengers were busy bidding and enjoying the entertainment, the crew made its way through the terminal to the farthest domestic gate and the lone bay that could accommodate the expanse of the 747. There they found VH-OJU, refueling hose attached, but otherwise at the ready for the flight South.
Departing @qantas 1360 heading down to the 2019 Avalon Airshow with a group of aviation enthusiasts – flights, entry and lunch (and more) for $747! Seen taxiing in some lovely light after crossing at ‘Foxtrot’ along ‘Alfa’ and airborne 34L @SydneyAirport in less than ideal light! pic.twitter.com/pncBxPSjaA
— aussiepomm (@aussiepomm) March 2, 2019
On the flight deck, the priorities and procedures remained the same. Checklists, briefings and panel scans flowed, only interrupted by the occasional question, or visit by a camera crew. Each time, the crew carefully retraced their steps and recommenced their procedures to ensure the interruption did not result in an oversight.
By now the upper deck passengers were boarding and hum of discussion filtered subtly onto the flight deck. The time for departure was closing in and the fuel still had to be loaded entirely. The critical nature of the timing was not assisted by Sydney’s winds either, requiring a long taxi to depart off Runway 34 Left and requiring a series of turns before the 747 was even pointing towards Avalon. The aim was to touchdown twenty minutes before the 0900 deadline and with every minute that passed, it was looking more difficult. And then the refueling was completed.
The final paperwork was signed off and the final ground staff disembarked. Doors closed, pushed back and engines started, the 747 was cleared to taxi. Photographers were perched on Shep’s Mound as QF1360 passed by and it was apparent from the first transmission that air traffic control (ATC) was aware of the nature of the flight and the importance of its arrival time into Avalon.
With the cabin secure and the checklists complete, VH-OJU lined up on the runway and shortly after Captain Kelly raised its nosewheel into the air, allowing the graceful airframe to take flight.
The morning sun provided the backdrop to a spectacular view of Sydney Harbour as the 747 made a left turn to the west and ATC let them know they would clear them to the south as soon as possible, which they did within minutes. With the course set, Captain Kelly increased the speed for the climb and cruise, deciding to fly at a lower level than planned to further reduce the flight time.
Low cloud filled the valleys in the Southern Highlands before Canberra poked its head through a layer of stratus. The crew busily programmed the Flight Management Computer (FMC) with the expected arrival and briefed the descent, approach and landing, just as they had done in the simulator in the days preceding the flight. As expected, the weather was hot and windy and favouring Runway 36 at Avalon.
To offer the crowd a view of the four-engined legend and still meet the stringent timeline, the plan was to arrive at Avalon from the north as if flying an approach to Runway 18, albeit higher than the profile needed to land. On reaching the runway, Captain Kelly would turn right to position the aircraft parallel to the runway complex on a left down wind leg, before completing the circuit to land on Runway 36. It was a manoeuvre they had rehearsed, and that ATC was anticipating when they cleared QF1360 to commence descent.
As the destination grew ever closer and the aircraft lower, the surrounding scenery was a poignant reminder of the cause behind the flight. In every direction the landscape was brown, creek beds were little more than clay and the heat seemed to rise up from the parched earth. As the 747’s shadow clipped across the ground it seemed to offer the only relief from the harsh rays of the sun. The drought was hitting hard and those on the land deserved all the assistance that could be offered.
As the runway loomed ahead, Captain Kelly called for First Officer Allan to lower a stage of flap as he eased the jet’s nose down. Reaching 1,500 feet, he levelled the 747, moved slightly right of the runway centerline before continuing into a right turn as planned. Below the crowd pointed and cameras clicked and the queue to the airshow was already winding on for what seemed kilometres.
The crew’s focus alternated between configuring the aircraft, monitoring the instruments and flying the visual approach with “eyes outside”. Rolling onto “final”, with landing gear and flaps extended and checklists complete, the 747 was cleared to land. As the radio altimeter counted down the feet, Captain Kelly eased back on the control column and thrust levers to lower the Boeing smoothly onto the runway. Lowering the nosewheel, reverse thrust was deployed to idle. The time was 0939.
Needing to turn around at the far end of the runway, the 747 rolled out, smoothly decelerating before backtracking in front of an enthusiastic crowd line. As the aircraft exited the runway and moved towards her parking space, the crowd moved with her and the admiration for the “Queen of the Skies” was plain to see.
A Special Day
From before the first passenger had arrived that morning, Qantas’s public relations manager Amanda Bolger had been a driving force of enthusiasm. Enroute to Avalon she had seen to the passengers, the media and the range of activities taking place in the cabin on the relatively short flight. Once the aircraft had parked, she was steering the passengers toward the flight deck where one by one they were given rare access to the flight deck of the Boeing 747.
Some wore T-shirts they had made specifically for the day, while others related their past experiences on the 747. Young and old, they excitedly took photos and tried on the Captain’s hat for size, as the crew answered questions and listened intently. At the end of the queue, flight attendants took their turn “up front” with some peeking out of the overhead escape hatch at the sea of aircraft and people that surrounded them.
When it was time to leave the aircraft, the airshow lay ahead, but only after more photos were taken beside VH-OJU and many more stories were related.
From roaring military hardware to tumbling aerobatics, the skies were filled with aircraft great and small. The heat was unrelenting, and the wind threw the dust about, but that was the sideshow and it was tolerable to witness what was taking place overhead.
For the privileged passengers of the Qantas Rural Aid Charity Flight, they still had one more appointment as the air show drew to a close in the afternoon and the crowds filed out the gate. Renumbered as QF1361, the sector home to Sydney still remained.
A little more subdued after an extraordinary day, the passengers filed onto VH-OJU for the return flight with the crew having boarded some time earlier to ready the aircraft. Once again, the planning, the briefing, the checklists and procedures were conducted methodically to ready the 747.
Outside, numerous light aircraft and the occasional military machine departed Avalon as the 747’s four engines came to life and the aircraft prepared to taxi. This time the long taxi was a backtrack down Runway 36 past the remaining crowd members who had stayed to say farewell. Lined up on Runway 36, the thrust levers were advanced again and as the aircraft lifted in to the skies, the white marquees and grey military tail fins became a blur before they finally fell way from the climbing 747.
A Flight with a Heart
From its conception to its conclusion, the Qantas Rural Aid Charity Flight was so much more than just another sector. Born of the concept of helping our people on the land, it was facilitated by the generosity of Qantas and executed by a team of volunteers, on the ground an in the air. It offered those with a passion for aviation a unique opportunity to bond with a special aircraft before it slips from our skies.
In dollar terms, the flight raised an incredible $138,000 for Rural Aid but it also raised awareness of our farmers’ plight. It saw the crew donating time and skill to do what they love and for a small band of enthusiasts to share their love of a classic aircraft in the pursuit of a worthy cause.
Long before Captain Kelly raised the nosewheel, this was more than just another flight for all concerned. This was a flight with heart.
For more information about Rural Aid, go to the organisation’s website.
— Qantas (@Qantas) March 20, 2019