Home Features Farewell, Boeing 747: Hop hop to the aeroplane graveyard

Farewell, Boeing 747: Hop hop to the aeroplane graveyard

Quantas 747 (screenshot)

Last Wednesday Qantas retired its last Boeing 747. Originally the farewell had been planned for the end of the year, but with the collapse of international travel, Qantas brought the date forward.

The plane – with a full load of passengers – had a grand send-off from Sydney Airport for its flight to Los Angeles. The really clever part is that off the coast of northern New South Wales the pilot tracked a flying kangaroo flight path and this was caught on flight tracking radar.

Over the years, I have travelled hundreds of thousands of kilometres on Qantas 747s and 747s of other airlines.

My first sight of a 747 was in 1970 when Pan Am started the 747 flights to London. At the time I was living in Wandsworth, South London, close to the River Thames and the flight path into Heathrow Airport followed the river. One of the first Pan Am 747 flights passed directly over me. At the time I couldn’t have realised just what a large part this plane would play in my life.

First flight

My first 747 flight was in 1974 when I flew British Airways to Hong Kong. A few weeks later, I boarded my first Qantas 747 flight – London to Singapore and then on to Sydney. I can still vividly remember the scruffy non-air-conditioned Paya Lebar airport in Singapore, the forerunner of the superb Changi.

Until the 1990s, the so-called “Kangaroo” route of London to Sydney was the sole domain of Qantas and British Airways. For many years they codeshared the route. I flew followed it many dozens of times – in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Up to 1991, Qantas 747 flights had to stop in Singapore and then Bahrain for fuel and a crew change on the plane to London.

The flight took close to 26 hours. The transit stop in Singapore was not so bad because Changi Airport was opened in 1981, but the Bahrain stop was awful. You had to disembark in a zombie-like state in the middle of the night and try to find an empty seat in a very tired lounge, surrounded by transit passengers fast asleep all over the floor.

In those distant days, there was only one in-flight entertainment option – a video film projected from an overhead device onto a pull-down screen. If you were lucky, there was a film for each leg, shown after the meal had been served. Often I had already seen the film at the cinema. You tried to listen to the audio through very primitive air-tube headphones. No individual video screens, no hundreds of channels of video options and no fall-back position of using your iPad.

Luxury arrives

In 1979, Qantas introduced Business Class which made the long flight more bearable. That is if you happened to be a Business Class passenger. But the vast improvement came in 1990 when the Boeing 747 400 with a stretched upper deck an extended range was introduced on the route, initially by Singapore Airlines. The 747 400 could fly Sydney to London with just one stop, so the Bahrain sleep-walking days were over and the flight time was cut by nearly three hours.

Qantas added more London flights in the 1990s and you had a choice of a stop in Singapore, Bangkok and, for a few years, Hong Kong en route to London.

Quantas 747 (screenshot)
Quantas 747 (screenshot)

However, the Middle Eastern airlines – Emirates, Etihad and Qatar – moved in on the route en masse in the 1990s. But that’s another story.

After a frantic week of meetings in the UK, and later Germany, there was something special about boarding a Qantas 747 in London or Frankfurt and being welcomed by a friendly Australian cabin crew. Even Singapore compensated for the lack of familiar Australian voices with exceptional service.

From 2001 to 2008, I was flying Sydney to Chicago very frequently. Initially, my American employer had a contract with United for their travel worldwide. Even in Business Class, or whatever they called it, flying United was not a pleasant experience, and I was so relieved when we switched to American in 2002. Since American didn’t fly to Australia, I got to use their partner for the 15-hour trans-Pacific leg. The partner just happened to be Qantas. Bliss.

In addition to Qantas, British Airways and Singapore Airlines 747s I have flown on 747s of Japan Airlines, Malaysia, Pan Am, United, American Airlines, Air France, China Air, South African Airways, Cathay Pacific, Thai and Alitalia.

Oddball 747s

There were two unusual derivatives of the 747. The first was the 747 SP – the special performance version, with extended range. This was a stubby 747 carrying much fewer passengers. Qantas had two and I seem to remember that I flew on one to Los Angeles or maybe it was San Francisco once. The SP could fly higher and faster than the standard 747. It could cross the Pacfic without refuelling whereas the pre-400 747s had to refuel in Hawaii on the way out and Fiji on the return leg. However, the SP was uneconomic to operate and Qantas eventually managed to sell their two examples.

South African Airways had quite a fleet of SPs which they operated on the London to J’Burg route and elsewhere during the apartheid era when they were limited in where they could stop to refuel. I flew on one from London to Johannesburg in 1974.

The other odd 747 was the Combi – half passenger and half cargo. The back of the plane was all cargo space and the front was for passengers. I flew on a Singapore Airlines Combi from Singapore to Athens way back and it was an odd sensation.

It’s really sad to see the 747 go. It was such a superb aircraft. Qantas kept their 747s longer than most other airlines but the last time I flew on a 747 was a Qantas flight from Sydney to Hong Kong in 2016. By that the time the interior of the aircraft was looking very tired. My return flight was on a very new Qantas A380 airbus and the contrast was marked.

The last Qantas 747 flew on from Los Angeles to the plane graveyard in the Mojave Desert on Friday where it will be scrapped. There is no demand for high-mileage 747s, even those once owned by Qantas. RIP, my trusty old 747.

You can find more from John Shingleton, at The Rolling Road. And on Instagram

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  1. I recall the first 747 flight into Heathrow well. I was working in Shaftesbury Avenue at the time and my colleagues all crammed into my office to see it come in on a flightpath over Tottenham Court Road. It looked enormous in comparison to everything else flying over that day.

  2. Vivid recollections of the enormous 747 part-fuselage on display inside Waterloo Station in 1970 … it was raised above the concourse.

  3. I was five in 1974 – and even during my more mobile years I never managed to fly on one. That said, this is one plane that well and truly recovered the R&D costs of building it given its longevity, and for that you have to take your hat off to it.

  4. My last 747 flight was a return from the LHSA meeting in Wetzlar with Lufthansa.
    The plane was in new condition and I wondered if Boeing was still building them as freighters and Lufthansa was able to buy them new.
    My last flight with United was the same trip, Sydney to Chicage , on a 787 as the Nikon Historical Society had its meeting there. Round the world flights with Lufthansa are priced the same as the Kangaroo route.
    The older American pilot came into the Business class cabin to make his announcement which is normally done from the cockpit.
    The last 747 flight flew over our house on its flight around Sydney Harbour last Wednesday and our normally quiet street was crowded with people with phones recording the ver low flying plane.
    He introduced himself, Randy I think he said, then proceeded to apologise for his age and assure us that we would be flown by the co-pilot who was much younger and ex USAF.
    He continued in this way and was applauded by the passengers. Never done in QANTAS pilots are very serious about their position.


    • Phillip, the last version of the 747 is the 747-800 which is longer than the 400. It has been produced in cargo and passenger versions but has been a commercial failure. Lufthansa were, I believe, the only customer for the passenger version so it’s very likely that the new Lufthansa 747 you flew on was one of these.

  5. Thanks for a wonderful reminder of the 747. You mention Chicago – sometime you will have to tell me why you were there.

    My most memorable recollection of flying 747 was flying “home” to England’s from Chicago. I was in Economy Chicken Hutch on BA, but asked at the check in if there was anything further forward (meaning in Economy) as all I had was carry on. The check in lady did her “Meet the Parents” impersonation and handed me my boarding pass.

    It was a strange high number so I just thought it was payback karma time. Got on the plane and walked as far back as I could. I couldn’t find my seat number! The stewardess at the back of the plane told me I had to go through the heads at the back as I had a peddling seat…

    Then she told me to rush forward to the stairs and go up to Business Class. I had never been Business Class on a 747 but being upstairs felt like magic, more so than flying 1st Class a few years later.

    Sometimes you just have to ask and magic happens…

    • Le Chef, I regularly flew to Chicago when I set up and then ran Harley-Davidson’s sales company for Australia and New Zealand from 2002 to 2008.
      The very long flight to Chicago via LA with the interminable immigration lines was bad enough but I then had to take an American Eagle puddle jumper for the 30 minute flight to Milwaukee. I soon found out that in winter this flight was regularly cancelled and “rescheduled ” for the next morning. Finding yourself at O’Hare Airport on a bitterly cold Sunday afternoon with your luggage-containing all your warm clothes (it was of course high summer in Australia)-marooned somewhere in the airport ready for the rescheduled morning flight was not a good experience so after this had happened to me twice I switched to having a car pick me up and drive me to Milwaukee. They were very long days.

      • Depressing! ORD is not exactly full of inspiring locations to relax or eat. The journey to Milwaukee by car in winter is no fun either. I would regularly have to go to meetings at a brewery just across the street from where you were. The saving grace was to visit the Mars Cheese Castle on the return journey.

  6. Back in the 80s a friend’s dad worked at PanAm in Delhi. My memories from that time were of the American magazines he brought home, scarce or very expensive those days in India, after they were replaced by the new editions on board the aircraft. And he’d distribute them out to us kids to read and return. Each one came in its PanAm jacket, with the famous globe logo. Those were my first encounters with US News and World Report, the US editions of Newsweek and Time, Esquire and GQ… What lovely times! Some years later PanAm closed its doors in Delhi.

  7. My first experience of a 747 was in 1974, only having experienced three commercial flights before I had to fly from Frankfurt to Munich and was expecting a Viscount or something small. I went down the airbridge and thought I was in another waiting area and then it dawned on me I was in a 747 – it was the flight from New York to Munich with stopover in Frankfurt, That was when they did not cram the plane with seats. The upper deck business lounge on BA was great, when I was lucky enough to be upgraded to, which did happen in Mumbai a few times ten years ago. I don’t think frequent flyers matter to any airline these days.

    • i flew on 747s in my early business days. They were much better than anything I got stuck on later. I feel flying has become like taking the bus so I only fly if I have to now. I am 6’3” and can barely walk when I get off the plane due to not being able to move in the current increasingly tight seat spacing.

  8. This is very sad to see the end of the 747. I remember well my first flight on a 747 at the age of 12, with my family on our first trip to Europe. We flew Pan Am, with the first leg to London from Chicago. Over the years, I flew on 747’s many times, usually from Chicago to Frankfurt to go to Photokina or visiting family in Germany. Lufthansa was always a wonderful experience. I also flew the 747 from LA to Auckland, New Zealand in 1996.

    My most memorable flight was in April 1986, from Chicago to Frankfurt, for a dealer Leica Schule in Wetzlar. This was just after the US had bombed Gadaffi in Libya in retaliation for the Berlin Disco Bombing. Many people cancelled their flight in fear. My attitude was it was a free trip to Leica and Germany, and I’ll be damned to cancel! Well, I was a lot younger in those days! Anyway, when I boarded the plane, there was a very short line for boarding. I asked the flight attendant where I should sit. The response was “Anywhere you like, there are only ten passengers on board”! I stretched out on the seats in the middle section of coach, and made it into a sort of bed. It was a very strange feeling flying on a plane as big as a 747 across the Atlantic with only a handful of people on board!


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