Qantas entered the jet era 60 years ago on July 29 1959 when a Boeing 707-138 took off from Sydney bound for San Francisco.
The Australian carrier was the first outside the United States to fly the 707 and received the first of seven 707-138s in July 1959, some nine months after launch customer Pan American Airways began commercial operations with the type.
The inaugural Sydney-Nadi-Honolulu-San Francisco flight was operated by 707-138 VH-EBC City of Canberra.
Figures from the Qantas website showed flight EM774 completed the journey in a then-record 14 hours and 57 minutes.
Such was the success of the four-engined 707 – powered by Pratt & Whitney JT3 powerplants – that Qantas extended the San Francisco service to London via New York several months later.
VIDEO: A look at the events around Qantas’s inaugural flight from Sydney to San Francisco in 1959 with the Boeing 707 from the Classic Airliners and Vintage Pop Culture YouTube channel.
And by October, the 707 was being used on the Kangaroo Route between Australia and the United Kingdom, via Asia. This cut travel time between the two countries to about 33 hours, close to half the 63 hours it took in the Super Constellation.
There was also a capacity increase.
The Qantas website noted the Super Constellation could carry 64 passengers in First and Tourist class. However, the airline’s early 707s had 24 seats in First and 64 in Tourist class for a total 88, or 120 seats in a single-class layout.
In total, Qantas operated seven 707-138s with the JT3 engines. The seven were then upgraded with an updated JT3D-1 engine and had a new designation 707-138B. The airline would eventually have 13 707-138Bs, as well 21 of the larger 707-338C variant.
VIDEO: A look at Boeing 707 flights between London and Sydney from the British Pathé YouTube channel.
Qantas’s 707’s connection to Apollo 11
Passengers on a 707 got a chance to witness history on July 24 1969, when those on board flight QF596 flying from Brisbane to San Francisco were able to see the return of Apollo 11, following the historic Moon landing only a few days earlier.
According to a post on Qantas’s Roo Tales website, Captain Frank Brown flew the aircraft about “450 kilometres parallel to the Apollo’s re-entry path, giving everyone onboard a front row seat to watch the spacecraft enter the Earth’s atmosphere”.
“For a worldwide radio audience Captain Brown described seeing two separate lights as the service module broke up and the command module continued to fall steadily to earth – the first visual confirmation that the astronauts had made it back,” the post said.
Meanwhile, Trevor Hiscock, a 12-year-old passenger on the flight, said his eyes “felt as big as the portal windows I looked out of”.
“All of a sudden a green and another red ball (similar to the look of a flare) zoomed by whilst descending gradually . . . they were vectoring away, not sharply, from a parallel course with us.”
Passengers on the flight, which had its departure time pushed back two hours to coincide with the return of Apollo 11, received a special meal full of references to the Moon landing, as well as a commemorative certificate.
Qantas ended 707 flights in March 1979. A number of aircraft went on to fly with the Royal Australian Air Force, as well as other carriers.
While VH-EBC ushered in Qantas’s arrival in the jet era in 1959, the Australian carrier’s first jet aircraft was 707-138B VH-EBA. That aircraft was placed on display with the Qantas Founders Museum in June 2007.
It was a far more grim ending for VH-EBC however. The aircraft was destroyed in an accident at Vancouver Airport in February 1968 when in service with Canadian Pacific Airways. The aircraft overran the runway and crashed into a building, killing two people and injuring 18 others.
Over the six decades since that milestone day, Qantas has gone on to fly a range of Boeing aircraft beyond the 707, including the 747, 717, 737, 767 and 787.
Australia looks set to welcome back another former Qantas 707 later in 2019, when the Historical Aviation Restoration Society (HARS) ferries 707-138B N707JT belonging to actor John Travolta from the United States to Albion Park south of Sydney.
Travolta said in May 2017 he was donating the aircraft to HARS.
As VH-EBM and named City of Launceston the 707 was delivered to Qantas in September 1964 and stayed with the airline until 1968. After a brief stint with Braniff Airlines the 707 was converted with a corporate jet interior in the 1970s. Travolta acquired the aircraft in 1998.
VIDEO: In 2009, Qantas produced a video outlining 50 years of jet services that is on its YouTube channel.