In 1971, Qantas took the biggest gamble in its history and spent $135 million – or around $1.5 billion in today’s money – on purchasing four Boeing 747s. “At the time,” explained chief executive Alan Joyce, “people thought supersonic travel was the way of the future.”
Today, almost 50 years on, that purchase looks set to be remembered as the shrewdest in Australian aviation history.
On Wednesday though, Qantas finally said goodbye to the very last of its active 747s, when VH-OEJ departed Sydney Airport for Los Angeles, before heading to its final resting place in the Mojave Desert.
Australian Aviation, along with 150 lucky Qantas employees, was privileged enough to be there for the Queen of the Skies’ final farewell.
Attendees were invited to sign the underside of the aircraft, before Joyce took to the stage to deliver a tribute to the aircraft the airline still considers its own.
“The 747 changed world aviation, changed Qantas and changed Australia,” said Joyce. “It’s an aircraft with an amazing history, an aircraft that has really made a difference to a lot of people.”
Speaking at the unassuming Hangar 96 at Sydney Airport, Joyce explained how it was Qantas’ engineers who helped design the original model, and how the ‘Jumbo Jet’ was the first aircraft to allow Australians to explore the world – and for the world to explore Australia.
It drove down prices and meant that ordinary Aussies could get to Europe with just one stopover, and then North America with none.
“Airfares were unbelievably expensive,” said Joyce. “Now, hundreds of millions of people can travel when they couldn’t before.” He pointed out, too, its unique role in rescuing Australians in times of national crisis.
In 1974, he said, the aircraft evacuated 674 Australians out of Darwin when Cyclone Tracy wreaked its havoc.
“It’s still the record for the maximum amount of people that have ever flown on the 747,” he said. “Kids were strapped to their parents in seats. But the aircraft was there to make sure they got out that Christmas.
“After the Bali bomb in 2002, the first 747 went in after 24 hours and eight more 747s followed. It was there in 2004, too, in Sri Lanka and the Maldives when the Boxing Day Tsunami hit and also brought in badly needed medical supplies into those destinations. And it was there in 2011 when the Arab Spring meant Aussies were in danger in Cairo.”
In fact, the last rescue mission saw the 747 bring hundreds of stranded citizens home from the COVID-19 epicentre of Wuhan in February this year.
QF7474 finally departed at 3:28pm, with Qantas’ first female captain, Sharelle Quinn, leading the team. “I have flown this aircraft for 36 years and it has been an absolute privilege,” she told reporters.
After an emotional take-off to the tune of I Still Call Australia Home, the 17-year-old Boeing 747-438 flew over Sydney’s CBD, Harbour and beaches before heading to the HARS Museum, where it dipped its wings in a final salute to the first 747-400 housed at the attraction, VH-OJA.
Then, unexpectedly, Quinn drew the Qantas Kangaroo in the sky as the aircraft headed off to its final resting place in the Mojave Desert, via a quick freight drop off in Los Angeles.
Today, there are thought to be only 30 747 passenger jets left in service globally and 132 in storage.
According to data provider Cerium, freighters account for more than 90 per cent of the aircraft flying.
In the past few months alone, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and KLM have all announced plans to fast-forward the retirement of their 747s, with BA, the holder of the largest fleet, thought not to be planning any farewell at all.
As part of the Qantas ceremony, first officer Geoff Cowell – who estimates he has logged more than 12,500 hours in the 747’s cockpit – wrote a poem that will be left in the logbook of OEJ when it arrives in the Mojave Desert.
Benediction For A Queen
Aircraft are just metal constructs, assembled on a factory floor
But to the lucky few who fly you, you are always so much more
When you joined us, newly gleaming, latest in a noble line
Your majesty and grace impressed us, now had come your time to shine
Quickly logging mileage, countless wishes granted on the way
Thrilling, everyone who flew you. Hoping you would always stay
Icecaps, oceans, deserts, forests. You have overflow them all
Borne your subjects safely onwards, your reputation standing tall
They were times some pilots cursed you, purge to say it, but it’s true
If you humbled them, the reason was because they disrespected you
You have met our every challenge, explorer of the highest skies
Surpassing all who came before you, unrivalled in your pilots’ eyes
Soon, your engines will fall silent, your time has come to finally rest
As you prepare to go and leave us, we say, thank you. You’ve been the best.
QUEEN OF THE SKIES FACTS
- The first Qantas 747-238 was VH-EBA, named City of Canberra and the first ever Qantas 747 flight was on 17 September 1971 from Sydney to Singapore (via Melbourne), carrying 55 first class and 239 economy passengers.
- In almost 50 years of service, the Qantas Boeing 747 fleet of aircraft has flown over 3.6 billion kilometres, the equivalent of 4,700 return trips to the moon or 90,000 times around the world.
- Qantas operated a total number of 65 747 aircraft, including the 747-100, 747-200, 747-SP, 747-300, 747-400 and the 747-400ER, and each had specific capabilities such as increased thrust engines and increased take-off weight to allow longer range operations.
- The 747-SP was the first 747 model that allowed non-stop operations across the Pacific in 1984, which meant travellers no longer had to “hop” their way across the Pacific and could fly from Australia to the west coast of the US non-stop. The 747-400, which Qantas operated from 1989, opened up the US west coast cities non-stop, and one-stop to European capitals.
- In 1979, Qantas became the first airline to operate an all Boeing 747 fleet.
- The 747 also broke records, including in 1989 when Qantas crew flew a world first non-stop commercial flight from London to Sydney in 20 hours and nine minutes. That 30-year record was only broken in 2019 when Qantas operated a 787 Dreamliner London-Sydney direct in 19 hours and 19 minutes.
- The Qantas 747-200, -300 and -400 models had a fifth engine pod capability that could carry an additional engine on commercial flights, a capability that was used extensively in early days of the 747-200 when engine reliability required engines to be shipped to all parts of the world. Improved engine reliability of the 747-400 and 747-400ER made this capability redundant.