100 Years Of Qantas In The UK: The Boeing 747 Era

How the Boeing 747 transformed flying to Australia reducing journey times and enabling Australia to be reached with just one stop en route.

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Qantas Boeing 747 VH-EBA Seattle Test Flight Seattle 1971
Qantas Boeing 747 VH-EBA Seattle Test Flight Seattle 1971 (Image Credit: Qantas Airways)

On 16 November 2020, Qantas will mark 100 years since its incorporation as Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services Ltd.

In the first part of our series on Qantas in the UK, we looked at its early co-operation with Imperial Airways and BOAC. In part two we looked at how the Boeing 707 allowed Qantas to establish itself as a round-the-world airline.

It is no exaggeration to say that, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Boeing 747 transformed flying between Europe and Australia, enabling it to be ultimately reached with just one stop en route.

The Boeing 747B At Qantas

Qantas Boeing 747-238B “City Of Canberra”
Qantas Boeing 747-238B “City Of Canberra” (Image Credit: Qantas Airways)

Qantas’ first Boeing 747 aircraft was the 747B. This had the same dimensions as the first version 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 with a nautical theme and a rather lurid 1970s colour scheme!

Qantas Boeing 747 First Class Captain Cook Lounge, 1970s
Qantas Boeing 747 First Class Captain Cook Lounge, 1970s (Image Credit: Qantas Airways)

The economy cabin shows that the 1970s was certainly the decade that taste forgot.

Qantas Boeing 747 Economy Class Cabin, 1970s
Qantas Boeing 747 Economy Class Cabin, 1970s (Image Credit: Qantas Airways)

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.

Qantas, QF8 London Heathrow to Perth, March 1974
Qantas, QF8 London Heathrow to Perth, March 1974
Qantas, London Heathrow to Australia Services, March 1974
Qantas, London Heathrow to Australia Services, March 1974

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.

Qantas, London Heathrow to Australia Services, May 1977
Qantas, London Heathrow to Australia Services, May 1977
Qantas, London Heathrow to Darwin, Brisbane, June 1977
Qantas, London Heathrow to Darwin, Brisbane, June 1977

With many airlines such as British Airways and Singapore Airlines offering Boeing 747 services to Australia, they competed to offer the fastest services to Australia. Qantas claimed to offer the fastest service from London to Sydney of any airline.

Qantas, London Heathrow to Australia Services, October 1977
Qantas, London Heathrow to Australia Services, October 1977
Qantas, London Heathrow to Australia Services, January 1978
Qantas, London Heathrow to Australia Services, January 1978

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.

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.

Note how news reports refer to the possibility of non-stop flights to Australia by 1999!

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.

In total, Qantas operated 65 Boeing 747 aircraft including the 747-100, 747-200, 747-SP, 747-300, 747-400 and the 747-400ER.

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.

Qantas Boeing 747-438 Aircraft VH-OJB Wunala Dreaming Livery
Qantas Boeing 747-438 Aircraft VH-OJB Wunala Dreaming Livery (Image Credit: Qantas)

“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 Boeing 747-338 Aircraft VH-EBU Nalanji Livery
Qantas Boeing 747-338 Aircraft VH-EBU Nalanji Livery (Image Credit: Qantas)

Qantas 747 Incidents

Qantas has an excellent safety record. However, there have been incidents involving the 747.

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. 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 25 July 2008, a Qantas Boeing 747 en route from Hong Kong to Melbourne was made 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.

The End Of The Qantas 747 In London

At its peak, Qantas offered four daily Boeing 747 flights from London Heathrow. Two to Melbourne via Hong Kong and Singapore. Two to Sydney via Bangkok and Singapore.

These were expensive to operate. With schedules having to navigate night curfews in London and Australia, some aircraft would arrive at Heathrow in the early hours of the morning and sit idle until late evening.

In response to increased competition and rising losses in its International division, 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.

The retirement of the Boeing 747 was originally planned by the end of this year. This was accelerated by COVID-19. On Wednesday 22 July 2020, Qantas’ last Boeing 747, VH-OEJ, departed Sydney for Los Angeles under flight number QF7474.

Qantas’ first Boeing 747-438 aircraft, VH-OJA, resides at the Historical Aircraft Restoration Society at Illawarra Regional Airport, Shellharbour, New South Wales. Another Qantas Boeing 747–238 aircraft, VH-EBQ, “City of Bunbury” is based at the Qantas Founders Museum at Longreach.

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