2020 will be known for many things, but in the world of aviation it will be remembered for the year that brought an abrupt end to the Boeing 747.
At approximately 14:00 AEST on Wednesday 22 July 2020, a Qantas Boeing 747 VH-OEJ will depart Sydney for Los Angeles under flight number QF7474 as its last flight.
From Los Angeles, it complete a short hop to Mojave to join a number of Qantas Boeing 747s which have been in storage since the suspension of international flights.
It has been a long time since Qantas has operated scheduled international flights and even longer since Qantas Boeing 747s were seen at London Heathrow.
It’s no exaggeration to say the Boeing 747 fundamentally changed Qantas’ position in global aviation and how passengers travelled from Europe to Australia.
Qantas Before The Boeing 747
Before the Boeing 747 entered into service, Qantas was Australia’s self-styled “Round The World Airline”.
At its peak, with its fleet of Boeing 707 aircraft, Qantas offered no less than four different routings between the UK and Australia.
There was the “Kangaroo Route” which traced its origins to the 1930s. A typical routing with the Boeing 707 was London – Rome – Cairo – Karachi – Calcutta – Bangkok – Singapore – Darwin.
In 1959, Qantas also launched a westbound service to Sydney via New York, San Francisco, Honolulu and Fiji.
Five years later in 1964, Qantas added two additional routes. There was a relatively short-lived second westbound service to Sydney known as the “Fiesta route”. This called at Bermuda, Nassau, Mexico City, Acapulco, Tahiti and Fiji.
A second eastbound route called at either Athens or Istanbul, Tehran, New Delhi, Hong Kong (with the option of flying on to Tokyo) before reaching Australia.
The 747 changed everything. It enabled passengers to reach Australia with just two stops en-route from London.
Qantas’ first Boeing 747 aircraft was the 747B. This had the same dimensions as the first variant of the 747, but with a longer range and higher maximum take-off weight.
It had capacity for 356 passengers, with the galleys located below the main deck. In common with other airlines, there was a dedicated “Captain Cook” lounge for First Class passengers on the Upper Deck.
Qantas’ first Boeing 747 flight departed London Heathrow for Sydney via Bahrain and Singapore on Friday 26 November 1971. Flights initially operated twice weekly on Fridays and Sundays.
In March 1974, Qantas added a second one-stop service from London Heathrow to Perth via Mumbai with a journey time of around 20 hours.
In June 1977, Qantas added two-stop Boeing 747 services from London Heathrow to Darwin and a three-stop service to Brisbane and a promise of two stop services to Melbourne or Sydney every day of the week.
With many airlines such as BA and Singapore Airlines offering Boeing 747 services to Australia, airlines competed to offer the fastest services to Australian cities. Qantas claimed to offer the fastest service from London to Sydney of any airline.
One consequence of the increased size of the Boeing 747 is that it did allow airlines to introduce additional cabins. This included long-haul business class. Who was first to do this depends on who you ask. British Caledonian claims credit, but so did Qantas in 1979.
The Boeing 747 Special Performance
Qantas was one of a relatively small number of airlines to acquire the Boeing 747SP.
In 1981, Qantas acquired just two of the aircraft, under registrations VH-EAA and VH-EAB. Some 14 metres shorter than the Boeing 747-100, before the introduction of the Boeing 747-400, it had the longest range of any Boeing 747 aircraft. It was principally used by Qantas on routes to New Zealand, Asia, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Qantas Flies Non-Stop From London To Sydney
On 16 August 1989, under flight number QF7441, Qantas’ first Boeing 747-400 aircraft (VH-OJA City Of Canberra) flew non-stop from London to Sydney, as part of a circuitous delivery flight from Boeing to Qantas.
Only 23 people were on board the aircraft. Two tonnes of equipment, including galley equipment, were removed to save weight. Passengers’ bags travelled separately.
The aircraft flew with four pilots: Captain Ray Heiniger, Captain George Lindeman, Captain Rob Greerop and Captain David Massy-Greene.
This would be the only time Qantas would fly non-stop from London to Sydney until November 2019 when a Boeing 787-9 flew non-stop as part of Qantas research into ultra long-range flights.
Qantas’ fleet of Boeing 747-400 aircraft were named Longreach, the location in Australia where the airline commenced operations.
Qantas would continue to take delivery of Boeing 747-400ER aircraft until 2003, leaving the average age of its last aircraft at around 17 years.
Special Boeing 747 Liveries
Qantas has for many years worked with Indigenous owned studio Balarinji to honour Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians through special aircraft liveries and other projects.
These have included two Boeing 747 liveries.
The livery “Wunula Dreaming” featured on two Boeing 747-400 aircraft, VH-OJB from 1994 to 2003 and VH-OEJ from 2003 to 2011.
Inspired by the natural colours of Australia, Wunala Dreaming of the Yanyuwa people from the Gulf of Carpentaria is intended to celebrate the reproduction of all living things in the continuing harmony of nature’s seasons.
“Nalanji” meaning “Our Place” was a celebration of the balance and harmony of nature in Australia and reflected the lush colour palette of tropical Australia. This livery appeared on a Boeing 747-300 aircraft, VH-EBU, from 1995 until its retirement in 2005.
Qantas 747 Incidents
Qantas does of course have an excellent safety record. However, there have been some incidents involving the 747, none of which were fatal:
In one of Qantas’ most significant incidents, on 23 September 1999, a Qantas Boeing 747 overshot the runway on landing at Bangkok from Sydney during severe weather. All passengers and crew evacuated safely from the aircraft. However, the aircraft sustained significant damage which required substantial repairs. On the following day, the aircraft could be seen lying on its belly with its landing gear collapsed. An investigation attributed the incident to multiple causes including a failure to perform a “go around” and poor communication between the First Officer and Captain.
On 2 July 2003, five passengers were injured after a fire in the landing gear of a Qantas Boeing 747 forced an emergency evacuation of 347 passengers from the aircraft. It had arrived in Sydney from Frankfurt via Singapore. The aircraft had landed without incident. On taxing to the gate a member of ground staff spotted smoke from one of the brakes, alerting the captain who ordered an immediate evacuation.
On 25 July 2008, a Qantas Boeing 747 en route from Hong Kong to Melbourne was forced to make an emergency landing in Manila aircraft after a mid-air explosion ruptured the aircraft fuselage. An investigation found that the rupture was caused by an exploding oxygen cylinder in the cargo hold. No passengers or crew were injured.
On 5 November 2010, a Qantas Boeing 747 had to make an emergency landing shortly after departure from Singapore Changi airport after passengers heard a loud bang and spotted fire from the back of one of its engines.
The End Of The Qantas 747 In London
By the late 1990s, Qantas was the dominant airline carrying international passengers to Australia.
At its peak, Qantas offered twice Boeing 747 daily services to Melbourne via Hong Kong and Singapore, and to Sydney via Bangkok and Singapore.
These were expensive to operate. With schedules having to navigate night curfews in London and Australia, there were long periods of aircraft downtime in London. Some aircraft would arrive in the early hours of the morning and sit idle until late evening. Qantas could not compete against Emirates which offered one-stop connections in Dubai between an ever increasing number of European and Australian cities.
Qantas’ share of Australia – UK traffic fell from 34.4% in 2001 to just over 25.5% in 2012. At the same time, Emirates’ share grew from 4.6% to 21.2%.
In response, and after introducing the Airbus A380 to Melbourne and Sydney via Singapore, Qantas cut its last remaining Boeing 747 flights from London to Australia and also suspended its only other flight from mainland Europe, Frankfurt-Sydney, from April 2013.
Prior to COVID-19 grounding international flights, with just six remaining aircraft, Qantas continued to operate Boeing 747s between Australia and cities such as Honolulu, Johannesburg, Los Angeles, Santiago and Tokyo Haneda. Their retirement was originally planned by the end of December 2020.
For Qantas, its future is not only operating more efficient twin-engine aircraft in common with other airlines, but also ultra long-range flights from Australia to Europe and the US that secure a competitive advantage over rival hub airlines.