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The Queen of the Skies bids her final farewell

written by Adam Thorn | July 22, 2020
The final Qantas 747 departs Sydney for Los Angeles on 22 July 2020 (Australian Aviation)

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.

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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.

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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.

Farewell Photo Gallery

For more images of the Qantas 747 throughout the years, please browse through Australian Aviation photographer, Rob Finlayson’s collection here.

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28 Comments

  • Nathan Barnes

    says:

    I find this incredibly sad. The first time I ever flew internationally as a child was on a Qantas 747-400. It was an experience that ignited my absolute passion for aviation and in particular, the Queen of the Skies. Our wonderful flight attendant even got me into the cockpit during the flight which was almost overwhelming for a ten year old.
    The 747 remains one of the most elegant aircraft to ever grace the skies and it is deeply saddening to see their lives cut short by this pandemic with its resulting economic downturn.
    I know that the relentless march of time, technology and a change in how routes have evolved had rendered her mostly obsolete as a passenger airliner. But the acceleration of her demise feels too quick even though the economics of these decisions are easy to see.
    I will always miss that big, beautiful bird. And I consider myself privileged that I am able to say that I have flown in them. That she took me safely across a vast ocean and back again with what seems like an effortless manner.
    Farewell 747s, the world won’t be the same without you.

    • John NOBEL

      says:

      Thanks for the extensive coverage on Qantas Group retiring the 747.
      Love the Kangaroo pattern on the way out, hmm very Emirooted though.
      Definitely feeling nostaligic, as the 747 put an end to jetliners stopping every few hours, such as the DC8 I made my first intercontinental trip on.
      Never understood it skipping the 777.
      Though I also enjoyed the A340 much, as Airbus put it no middle seats in business class, four engines.
      One need only look at Seatguru, or cabin width of A380/ 747 vs say 787 to
      I note the comments on choosing 747 over supersonic, then again it seems Skytrax five star carriers are choosing experience over reliability over cost.
      Let’s see how Virgin Galactic goes?

  • Mark

    says:

    Sad to see the 747 go and as a passenger who flies economy , the 787 is a woeful replacement.

    • Bill Oreally

      says:

      Right you are Mark, there is nothing “dreamy” about the 787, just marketing hype. Give me a 747 or A380 any day or night of the week especially over the empty Pacific. The Bean Counter mentality at QF will now probably try get rid of the A380 despite it’s popularity with the economy flying customers. At least an decent A 350 is replacing the 747, but I refuse to fly B787, still too many hidden issues, hushed up.

      • John NOBEL

        says:

        Yeah, I note A330s are 2-4-2, JAL 787s are as well …
        Last time I was on a Jetstar 787 even business lite was 2 – 3 – 2, though I was on holidays so didn’t mind.
        Besides seat guru, Wiki shoes A380 cabin width is 5.6 to 5.9m or something and 3 – 4 – 3, 747 might have 3 – 4 – 3 I found the middle comfy for sleeping, :), or my daughters did!
        Let’s see if A350 ever join Emirooted!

  • so sad i saw it yesterday for the last time flying

  • Brian Doyle

    says:

    They forgot to mention the Qantas Boeing 747 Combi which was half passengers up the front of the plane and the back half carring cargo. I flew on it a few times to the USA in the late 70s and early 80s.

  • Viv

    says:

    The comment by Alan Joyce – 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’s wrong by several hundred. The greatest number of passengers ever carried by a commercial airliner is 1,088 or thereabouts (there are conflicting reports of the final count), by an El Al Boeing 747 during Operation Solomon, which involved the evacuation of Ethiopian Jews from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and started on 24 May 1991. This figure included two babies born on the flight.

    The operation to evacuate the Ethiopian Jews continued non-stop for 36 hours involving a total of 34 El Al jumbo jets and Hercules C-130s – with seats removed to accommodate the maximum number of passengers.

    While the record is uncontested, various contemporary reports cite slightly different passenger totals ranging from as low as 1,078 to as high as 1,122.

  • Craigy

    says:

    Apparently the 6 ERs’ have been sold and will not be retired to the Mojave Desert.

  • Linda Weaving

    says:

    Who is the fleet being sold to, does anyone know? I don’t see the 747 disappearing from just. Just being sold on to budget airlines and converted to freight planes.

  • Alan Joyce says that the evacuation of 674 people from Darwin following Cyclone Tracey set “the record for the maximum amount of people that have ever flown on the 747”. This is not correct. In May 1991 an El Al Boeing 747-200 carried 1086 people (1088 on arrival as two babies were born in flight) from Addis Ababa to Jerusalem during Operation Solomon when Ethiopian Jews were evacuated to Israel. The low body weight of these desperate people facilitated the uplift of this number.

  • John G

    says:

    Re: “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,” I don’t recall QF ever having operated a -100 series. I have worked for QF in Airport operations from 1964 – 1997.

    • Brian Kelleher

      says:

      Registration was VH EEI. It was leased for a short time in the late 80’s. Can’t recall who the original operator was – may have been TWA. Was definitely the lowest performer I ever flew.

  • Bernie

    says:

    Yep, sad to see them go. I flew on OJA just after she completed her record breaking flight from London when we boarded a Sydney-Melbourne flight during the pilots strike. May have been the first revenue service for a B747-400. Very exciting after hopping off B747-300 from London and expecting to fly Hercules! I agree with Mark re the B787. Flew to Singapore on Jetstar 787 and it squeaked and rattled its way there. B747 and B727 where rock solid aircraft.

  • AlanH

    says:

    At least the freighter versions will still gracefully descend and depart from our majors for many years to come.

  • Evan

    says:

    The 1970s was still a time to savour international Economy travel. 747s and DC10s had plenty of legroom, crockery, and good food (and you could smoke… heeheehee).

  • Jay

    says:

    It is incredibly sad – beyond words – to see the end of the 747 with Qantas. It is as much an icon of the company, most peoples thoughts of Qantas are associated with a 747 of some type. Back in their prime, Qantas truly opened the world up to Australians and others around the world with the various ports that were served. Every time there was an important mission – a rescue flight, a sightseeing flight, or other special flights the 747 has shone above all other aircraft in Qantas’ history (in my opinion). Think Cyclone Tracy, Antarctic flights, Captains Choice tours, the 2004 Asian Tsunami, subbing for other flights or upgrading other flights – the list goes on. Though aviation and other aircraft of this modern time are still a fantastic achievement, all major airports that handled it won’t be the same without it – in particular Sydney. In fact after all these years, I can’t imagine Sydney without the Qantas 747s, as I can’t imagine Heathrow without the BA 747s. The world without the (passenger) 747, is like the world without the Sun. I am extremely grateful that I got to both fly and work on the 747 during my lifetime, and to the upcoming generation, they have missed an irreplaceable time in aviation history. For now the only thing to keep us going is the satisfaction that many of the 747 Freighters may live on for years to come. May all forms of the 747 live on in hearts, minds and memories. Embrace the photos, video, articles, models and memorabilia.

  • kdghk

    says:

    I’m pretty sure that record of 674 people on a flight was smashed quite a long time ago as 1088 flew on a El Al 747 evacuation flight in 1991.

  • Anton

    says:

    It is sad to see the Boeing 747 leave the fleet for Qantas. It was supposed to be retire at the end of the year but you didn’t tell us in time that the Boeing 747 was retiring 6 months early. RIP the Queen of the Skies.

  • Anton

    says:

    It is sad to see the Boeing 747 leave the fleet for Qantas. It was supposed to be retire at the end of the year but you didn’t tell us in time that the Boeing 747 was retiring 6 months early. RIP the Queen of the Skies. We will no longer see you in the skies.

  • Alan Joyce said that the evacuation of 674 people from Darwin in 1974 on boards a Qantas 747-200 set “the record for the maximum amount of people that have ever flown on the 747”.  This is not correct. In May 1991 an El Al 747-200 flew 1086 people (1088 on arrival as two babies were born in flight) from Addis Ababa to Jerusalem when Operation Solomon evacuated Ethiopian Jews to Israel.  The low body weight of these desperate people facilitated the uplift of this number.

    • Ed

      says:

      I think you’ll find QANTAS CEO, Alan Joyce, mentioned a record for a QANTAS Boeing 747.

  • Adrian P

    says:

    In five years time will there be enough A380s with the passing of the 747

  • Alan Corner

    says:

    I flew on this very aircraft in February to Santiago in Chile it was a wonderful flight and the crew were magnificent we had the pleasure of being up front in business class. We came back on a 787 there was no comparison the Jumbo was the best ever.

  • Mac Carter

    says:

    I can recall the observing in the flesh first Qantas B 747 arriving in Queensland, I was a Gold Coast resident at the time. It overflew Brisbane and Gold Coast at low enough altitude for those of us on the ground to observe the graceful lines of this magnificent aircraft.
    Very sad at their retirement.

  • Lee

    says:

    No, effort other aircraft leaves the ground in the gentle, effortless, secure manner of the 747. Not the A380, not the 787 or A350. The only thing that comes close is the 777-300.

  • Alan Pace

    says:

    Lest we all get caught up in this fake grief and hand wringing, I recall when Ansett 747 3’s were a thing & that qantars happily dispatched with help from prominent nsw persons, not forgetting Australian (remember A300B4’s?) and said name (Australian) should be the new name for that indecent monica of the airline based in qld..

  • Alan Pace

    says:

    I’ve been censored. attributed wrong name

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