In May this year, Australian Aviation published a story that became the biggest in our 40-year history, attracting a mind-boggling 80,000 views. It involved a TikTok user, Ashley Hall, who obtained footage from inside a Qantas 747 stored at a boneyard in the Californian desert. What she likely didn’t realise – that we were able to deduce from some nifty FlightAware research – was that the 747-400 in question had been sweltering in the desert, innards intact, for more than eight years.
Perhaps the reason the story did so well, I think now, was because aviation enthusiasts have a propensity to see what others consider as simply hulks of metal as something a bit more alive. Much like the Toys in Toy Story – who knows what they get up to when we’re not watching?
The unassuming VH-OJQ was the third of four 747-438 ordered by Qantas in 1991. Named City of Mandurah, it entered service the following year before enjoying 20 years of distinguished flying for Australia’s flag carrier. And now, here it was – she was! – 30 years on, forgotten by the world until a TikTok star with an iPhone turned up. Which got me thinking. We’d assumed Qantas’ 747s had all be given dignified burials but perhaps they hadn’t. Where are they? And can we track them down?
It transpires we can. While most boneyards heavily restrict access and most satellite images are too fuzzy, Google Earth and its Microsoft rival, Zoom Earth, regularly send aircraft with long lenses to snap most of the world, including off-limit plane storage facilities. As luck would have it, both seem to have updated recently with new photos. It means we can check in on the retired Queens of the Sky to see how they are doing. Luckily, Qantas’ 747s are easily identified by their unique red tail livery that swooshes across the fuselage (though, you have to be careful not to confuse them with Air Malta’s).
So here, we present the locations of – what we believe – is every Qantas 747 still alive (or sorts). And if you have any more information, please get in touch at [email protected] or comment below. We’ll be regularly updating this article as more information comes in from readers around the world.
Mojave Air and Space Port is located in the California desert, about 150 kilometres north of LA. First opened in 1935 as a rural airfield serving local gold miners, it’s grown into one of the world’s most notable boneyards. In total over the last decade, Qantas has sent nine 747-400s there, including five sold to General Electric in 2020: VH-OEE, VH-OEG, VH-OEH, VH-OEI and VH-OEJ (click the links to see the final flights). Prior to that, the flag carrier banished VH-OJI, VH-OJM and VH-OJO there in 2015,2017 and 2019 respectively.
What though of the more recent arrivals? Well, there’s no shortage of videos and information on the final 747 to land there – and Qantas’ final 747 – VH-OEJ. VH-OEJ’s journey to the boneyard began on 22 July 2020 when it departed Sydney as flight QF7474 on the first leg of its journey to LAX. After an emotional take-off to the tune of I Still Call Australia Home, first-leg captain Sharelle Quinn flew the aircraft over Sydney’s CBD, Harbour and beaches before heading to the HARS Museum, where she dipped its wings in a final salute to the first 747-400 housed at the attraction, VH-OJA.
“It’s been our pleasure to guide you through the skies safely and taking the #Queenoftheskies✈️through our airspace over the last decades.”?Listen to our air traffic controllers bidding farewell to the final @Qantas B747 flight departing Australia #747Farewell pic.twitter.com/LGTEwpnVV5
— AirservicesAustralia (@AirservicesNews) July 23, 2020
Then, unexpectedly, Quinn drew a 275-kilometre x 250-kilometre Qantas Kangaroo in the sky. Hundreds of thousands of Twitter and Instagram users shared Qantas’ official post of the stunt. When it finished, VH-OEJ climbed to cruising altitude and headed for Los Angeles, where it touched down at 1:23pm after 15 hours in the air.
— Qantas (@Qantas) July 22, 2020
The following Saturday, it completed its final journey to the boneyard, captured here by Twitter user Sam Chui.
— Sam Chui (@SamChuiPhotos) July 25, 2020
Unfortunately, neither Google or Zoom Earth is up to date enough to show us where they are. However, Pinterest user JC captured this image of six Qantas 747s in Mojave, likely to include all of VH-OEE, VH-OEG, VH-OEH, VH-OEI and VH-OEJ (the sixth, I suspect, travelled there from Tupelo, see below).
Victorville – technically known as the Southern California Logistics Airport – is located 90 miles northeast of LA, on the southwestern edge of the Mojave Desert. The site was the old home of George Air Force Base from 1941 to 1992 before being converted into arguably the world’s most famous boneyard. In the last decade, Qantas has sent eight of its 747s to Victorville, all in 2012 and 2013: VH-OJQ, VH-OJP, VH-OJO, VH-OJF, VH-OJE, VH-OJD, VH-OJC and VH-OJB.
Google Earth’s images are from Victorville were taken long after all three arrived, on 10 March last year. We’ve found two – both of which are likely to have been sat in the desert for at least seven years.
And of course, we know one of the two is the aircraft toured by the TikTok user, VH-OJQ. Qantas took delivery of the aircraft on 20 July 1992, and while the footage has been subsequently removed, we still have photos of it that we captured, which shows the inside largely intact, if not hugely damaged.
Tupelo Regional Airport is a public-use airport located six kilometres west of Tupelo, a city in Lee County, Mississippi. Qantas sent one 747 here in 2019, VH-OEB. Named Phillip Island, The GE-powered VH-OEB was the last 747 that had Qantas’s old first-class seats in the nose, with the remaining 747-400s and -400ERs having been reconfigured with a three-class layout comprising business, premium economy and economy. It was built for Asiana in 1993 and acquired by Qantas in 1998.
We can’t find any trace of its fuselage on either Google or Zoom Earth, but thankfully, we do know VH-OEB made the trip in one piece, with Tupelo posting this picture on the day it landed. YouTube user HD Melbourne Aviation has captured this video of it, during happier times, landing in Melbourne YMML. The YouTube user speculates it could have continued onward to Victorville, making it the ‘sixth’ 747 pictured above.
San Bernardino International Airport is situated three kilometres east of downtown San Bernardino and 60 100km from LAX. Qantas sent one 747 here in 2019, VH-OEF, and we can find no trace of it. Yet despite its death coming with little fanfare, this was arguably Qantas most significant 747. Qantas was the only airline to order a true passenger version of the -400ER variant, which some speculate was built at the request of Qantas. The 747-400ER was the same size as the usual 747-400 but had the option of one or two extra 12,300-litre fuel tanks as well as larger tyres. The upshot of which was to allow Qantas to be able to fly new routes such as Melbourne – Los Angeles, and Dallas – Brisbane, as well as making existing ones more profitable.
The Pinal County Airpark is located in Marana, Arizona, north-west of Tucson. Qantas sent one aircraft here, VH-OJG, back in 2012. Unsurprisingly therefore, we can’t find any signs of it, and the hopes it had a dignified demise are ominous. Pinal Airpark bans photography of many of its planes because, according to airplaneboneyards.com, many “are missing engines or other recognisable parts, and some of the owners or operators of those aircraft have asked that people not take pictures because the planes are not in a good condition”.
The five-runway Moses Lake Grant County International Airport boasts one of the largest airfields in the US, and is utilised for both military and commercial test flights. Qantas sent one of its 747s here, VH-OJU, in 2019. And we’ve found it!
Australian Aviation reported at the time how the then-19-year-old aircraft, which came out of the Boeing production line in January 2000, had its final commercial flight in Qantas colours on Sunday, 13 October 2019, when it operated the QF99 from Sydney to Los Angeles.
It was a sad afternoon @SydneyAirport today, as @Qantas B747-400 VH-OJU departed on her final commercial flight. VH-OJU is the last of the Rolls Royce powered QF B744s, serving Qantas for 19 years & 9 months, while completing over 90,000 flights, and 70 million kilometres ✈️?? pic.twitter.com/gvjQkObYEW
— 16Right Media (@16right_media) October 13, 2019
The flight was a celebration with Qantas making all 364 business, premium economy and economy seats available for frequent flyer points redemptions when it announced the date of the flight in August as part of the airline’s “points plane” concept.
— JT Genter (@JTGenter) October 13, 2019
Perhaps in recognition of the number of people on board who had made a point of being on VH-OJU’s swansong performance, the announcements over the tannoy from pilots and cabin crew providing plenty of information on the history of the aircraft, the proposed route to Los Angeles and details about the takeoff weight out of Sydney.
Also, the pilots alerted passengers to the moment VH-OJU Lord Howe Island flew over its island namesake, about 684 kilometres east of Sydney.
Some 13 hours after departure, and following some dinner, rest and breakfast over the course of the flight, VH-OJU touched down at Los Angeles International Airport at a little after 12:00pm local time and taxied its way to a remote stand on the western side of the airfield.
So long, VH-OJU! This @BoeingAirplanes 747-400 @Qantas landed at LAX, operating her final revenue flight, #QF99 from SYD. After 19 years, 70 million km, 92,000+ hours flown & 2.5 million pax carried, this 747 will be retired. Video: Lixander Rubalcava. @ghimlay @flightradar24 pic.twitter.com/kZWPurXkuA
— Aeronews (@AeronewsGlobal) October 13, 2019
It then continued onto Moses Lake two days’ later.