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.
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.
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.
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.
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.