BIttersweet farewell for last Qantas 747

July 22, 2020
Qantas 747 farewell
The crew of the last Qantas 747 wave goodbye before heading o the US. Photo: Steve Creedy

And then there were none — the last Qantas Boeing 747 was USA-bound Wednesday afternoon after a touching ceremony celebrating the contribution to Australia by the “Queen of the skies” over almost half a century.

COVID-19 limited the crowd to about 150 people, mostly staff with a connection to the giant plane that changed the way Australians traveled and related to the world.

Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce, noting the bittersweet nature of the ceremony, said the aircraft had made the world smaller.

“As we got more and more capability on the 747s, and as Boeing worked with us, it became one-stop to Europe, it became non-stop into North America,’’ he said.

“It overcame the tyranny of distance that was, and continues to be, an issue for Australia. It allowed us to democratize air travel – airfares were unbelievably expensive before this.”

Qantas boss Alan Joyce joins other attendees in signing the plane. Photo: Steve Creedy.

The last Boeing 747-400, registration VH-OEJ and delivered in 2003, was backed out of a Sydney hangar at 2pm and departed with a cargo hold full of freight for Los Angeles and then California’s Mojave Desert.

The aircraft and the airline’s other 747-400ERs have been sold to General Electric because of the value of the engines.

SEE a superb video of Sydney Harbour from a Qantas 747.

It performed a flyby of Sydney Harbour, the city center and northern and eastern suburbs beaches before heading south for a low level overfly of Historical Aircraft Restoration Society’s (HARS) museum at Albion Park to dip its wings to Qantas’ first 747-400, VH-OJA, on exhibition there.

Qantas had always planned to retire the 747 as the four-engine giant succumbed to more fuel-efficient newcomers such as the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350.

It is a fate also facing its successor, the A380 superjumbo, which is ending production of the plane.  Qantas is consigning its fleet of 12 A380s to storage in the Mojave Desert and says they could be there for as long as three years.

The airline brought forward the 747 retirement by six months after the aviation industry was savaged by the COVID-19 pandemic and gave passengers an opportunity to say goodbye to the aircraft in sell-out joy flights from Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane.

Qantas took delivery of its first 747-200 in August 1971, as McDonald’s was opening in Australia Daddy Cool’s Eagle Rock topped the music charts.

The first flight of the City of Canberra was on September 17, 1971, from Sydney to Singapore via Melbourne with 55 first-class and 239 economy class passengers.

Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce with the 747 crew. Photo: Steve Creedy

The airline’s 65 jumbo jets flew over 3.6 billion kilometres over the half-century, the equivalent of 4700 return trips to the moon or 90,000 times around the world, and 250 million passengers.

Joyce said the first image of Australia for many immigrants was the Qantas crew on the 747 and the plane had an impact on the lives of millions of people.

He said the plane allowed the airline to innovate through with milestones such as the world’s first business class, galley carts and movies.

It had a shared history with Australia that had seen it involved in the nation’s highs, celebrations and biggest sporting successes. These included trips by the Queen, the Pope as well as a long list of pop stars and celebrities.

“But it was also there for the challenges, it was also there when things didn’t go so well,’’ he said. “And when Australians needed our help, this aircraft was the first aircraft – because of its reliability, because of its range – to help Australians in need,’’ he said.

A string of rescue missions included a record passenger load of 674 people evacuated after Darwin’s Cyclone Tracy in 1974 as well as evacuations after the 2002  Bali bombings, the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami and from Cairo after political unrest in 2011.

The final 747 rescue missions brought hundreds of stranded Australians home from COVID-19 epicenter Wuhan in February.

Qantas flew six versions of the plane and the range and capabilities increased over time to culminate in the 747-400ER used on longer routes such as Melbourne-Los Angeles.

The sporty 747-SP was the first model that allowed nonstop operations across the Pacific in 1984, a capability that was widened in 1989 with the arrival of the -400, which also allowed one-stop flights to Europe.

A new record was set when VH-OJA, the 747-400 housed at HARS, flew the first non-stop civil flight between England and Australia using a special high-density fuel and carrying a handful of passengers in August 1989. The record stood until broken in 2019 by a Qantas Dreamliner.

The big planes featured several liveries over the years, the most striking of which were the Aboriginal-themed Wunala Dreaming, launched in 1994, and Nalanji Dreaming (1995).

“It will be a bittersweet moment when the aircraft leaves,’’ Joyce said. “It will be bittersweet because of that place in history, because of what this aircraft has done to change the aviation industry, what it’s done to change Qantas and what it’s done to change Australia.

But it was also bittersweet because Qantas was heading into its next phase with “cautious optimism”.

“It is the toughest period we’ve ever had with COVID-19, it is the biggest crisis the aviation industry has ever, ever had,’’  he said. “But we know with that history, with that ability to overcome challenges, with the amazing history of the 747, with how it’s changed Australia, how it’s changed us, we know that spirit will get us through.”

Boeing’s new Australian chief, former politician Brendan Nelson, praised the airline for recognizing the importance of the aircraft to employees and the nation with the ceremony.

Nelson reminded the crowd of the history of 747 and the role Qantas and its engineers had played in the design of the aircraft, particularly its need to fly further and faster.

He said Qantas and the 747 had opened the “real and affordable prospect of travel to the rest of the world to the everyday Australian.”

“As Alan said, it democratized travel more than any other aircraft,’’ he said. “Qantas saw the 747 for what it could and would do. It would make flying from and to Australia accessible to everyone.”

This reporter can still remember walking across the tarmac at Perth Airport and staring up in awe at a 747 in the 1970s before boarding it for a return trip to London on a very reasonable $799 return fare.

READ: QANTAS 747 – a pictorial tribute.

And while the departure of VH-OEJ is an emotional milestone for those of us who flew at the back of the 747, sometimes stretched out on a row of empty seats, it is even sadder for those who flew the giant plane.

“I have flown this aircraft for 36 years and it has been an absolute privilege,’’ said Sharelle Quinn, who was the first Qantas female captain and who will command the final flight.

“It has been a wonderful part of our history, a truly ground-breaking aircraft and while we are sad to see our last one go, it’s time to hand over to the next generation of aircraft that are a lot more efficient.”

Here is the raw footage of the departure and flyby. The flyby at the end is spectacular.

Qantas Boeing 747 departing Sydney Airport for the final time

Qantas' last jumbo jet taking-off for the final time from an Australian airport. QF7474, with registration VH-OEJ, is flying from Sydney Airport to Los Angeles where the 'The Queen of the Skies' will be retired after almost 50 years of service. More Details: #Qantas747 #7NEWS

Posted by 7NEWS Sydney on Tuesday, 21 July 2020