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Final Qantas 747 turns back – to draw giant kangaroo in sky

July 23, 2020 Headline News 1 Comment Email Email

It took off 90 minutes late from Sydney Airport, but for thousands of people, including me, it was worth waiting by the sea to see the end of an aviation era – the final flight of the last Qantas Boeing 747 jumbo jet.

In a spectacular twist – which surprised aviation buffs viewing the flightpath on FlightRadar24 and other flight-tracking software – just as the plane was heading out across the Tasman Sea on its final flight to Los Angeles International Airport yesterday, it suddenly turned back towards Australia. This was maybe an hour into the flight and after the plane had made a scheduled low fly-over of Shellharbour Airport (Albion Park near Wollongong) and the Historical Aircraft Restoration Society (HARS) Aviation Museum there.

After flying away from Australia over the Pacific, the last remaining 747-400 in the Qantas fleet (registration VH-OEJ) made its unexpected about-turn late yesterday afternoon, swinging northwest and flying back across the Australian coastline over Taree NSW, causing speculation on Twitter about whether something had gone wrong.

Then the giant aircraft turned around again and headed out over the sea once more on its erratic and puzzling course.  Only when studying the flightpath did the intention become clear. The pilot, Qantas’s first female Captain, Sharelle Quinn, was drawing a giant Flying Kangaroo in the sky. And there it was: the biggest-ever version of the famous Qantas symbol! Although it was never visible in the sky, you can see it below, from flight-tracking software.

Its colossal aerial artwork completed, the plane, flying with flight number QF7474, resumed its flightpath to the USA and an eventual rendezvous with its last resting place in the Mojave Desert. The flight brought to an end five decades of history-making moments for Qantas and aviation in Australia.

Between 1971 and 1984, Qantas 747s carried the distinctive ‘ochre stripe’ livery. Source: Qantas

I watched the plane from Bells Point at the northern end of Austinmer Beach, Wollongong, with a few others who had assembled for the same purpose. We were there for a couple of hours. One of those present, Carl, turned out to be a former Qantas flight steward who had served on 747s and before that on 707s. He and his wife brought Champagne along for yesterday’s flypast.

Cameras and binoculars were deployed as the aircraft came into sight, flying low over the sea heading south for its scheduled salute to the HARS Aviation Museum. The sight of any large four-engine passenger plane in the sky at the moment creates surprise bordering on nostalgia.

As Qantas points out, the airline took delivery of its first 747 (a -200 series) in August 1971, the same year that William McMahon became Prime Minister, the first McDonald’s opened in Australia and Eagle Rock by Daddy Cool topped the music charts. The arrival of the 747 – and its economics – made international travel possible for millions of people for the first time.

A small group of aviation enthusiasts gathers yesterday at Bells Point at the northern end of Austinmer Beach, Wollongong, to see the 747 fly past. Photo: Peter Needham

The fleet of 747 aircraft not only carried generations of Australians on their first overseas adventures, they also offered a safe voyage for hundreds of thousands of migrant families who flew to their new life in Australia on board a ’roo-tailed jumbo jet.

Qantas 747s were at the forefront of a number of important milestones for the airline, including the first Business Class cabin of any airline in the world. The size, range and incredible reliability of the four-engined 747s meant they were used for numerous rescue missions: flying a record 674 passengers out of Darwin in the aftermath of Cyclone Tracy; evacuating Australians out of Cairo during political unrest in 2011 and flying medical supplies in and tourists home from the Maldives and Sri Lanka following the Boxing Day Tsunami in December 2004.

First Qantas 747 1970s interior – First Class upper deck lounge. Source: Qantas

The last rescue missions the 747 flew for Qantas were to bring hundreds of stranded Australians home from the Covid-19 epicentre of Wuhan in February this year.

Qantas brought forward the scheduled retirement of the fleet by six months after the Covid-19 pandemic decimated international travel globally.

Qantas Group chief executive Alan Joyce said the 747 changed the face of Australian aviation and ushered in a new era of lower fares and non-stop flights.

Giant artwork revealed on FlightRadar24! Flight QF7474 draws a vast Qantas Flying Kangaroo logo in the sky off the NSW coast before flying into history, never to return

“It’s hard to overstate the impact that the 747 had on aviation and a country as far away as Australia. It replaced the 707, which was a huge leap forward in itself but didn’t have the sheer size and scale to lower airfares the way the 747 did. That put international travel within reach of the average Australian and people jumped at the opportunity,” Joyce said.

“This aircraft was well ahead of its time and extremely capable. Engineers and cabin crew loved working on them and pilots loved flying them. So did passengers. They have carved out a very special place in aviation history and I know they’ll be greatly missed by a lot of people, including me.

The kangaroo-shaped flightpath of QF7474 yesterday shows up vividly in this screenshot from FlightAware.com

“Time has overtaken the 747 and we now have a much more fuel efficient aircraft with even better range in our fleet, such as the 787 Dreamliner that we use on Perth-London and hopefully before too long, the Airbus A350 for our Project Sunrise flights non-stop to New York and London,” Joyce added.

Qantas has flown six different types of the 747, with Boeing increasing the aircraft’s size, range and capability over the years with the advent of new technology and engine types.

Captain Quinn said the aircraft has a very special place in the hearts of not just Qantas staff, but aviation enthusiasts and travellers alike.

“I have flown this aircraft for 36 years and it has been an absolute privilege”, she said.

“From the Pope to pop stars, our 747’s have carried over 250 million people safely to their destinations. Over the decades, it’s also swooped in on a number of occasions to save Aussies stranded far from home.”

Captain Quinn added, “It has been a wonderful part of our history, a truly groundbreaking 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.”

Captain Quinn and crew will fly the 747 to Los Angeles with a full cargo hold of freight before its final sector to the Mojave.

VH-OEJ performed a flyby of Sydney Harbour, CBD and northern and eastern suburbs beaches as well as a low-level overfly of HARS Museum (Albion Park) where it dipped the wings in a final farewell to Qantas’ first 747-400, VH-OJA, which is preserved there.

The aircraft then headed out over the Pacific Ocean, as the sun set on a 50-year love affair with Australians and their beloved Queen of The Skies.

Fast Facts

Flight number:              QF7474

Aircraft registration:      VH-OEJ

Aircraft name:               Wunala

Year delivered:             2003 (30th July)

  • The first Qantas 747-238 was VH-EBA, named City of Canberra and the first ever Qantas 747 flight was on 17 September 1971 from Sydney to Singapore (via Melbourne), carrying 55 first class and 239 economy passengers.
  • In almost 50 years of service, the Qantas Boeing 747 fleet of aircraft has flown over 3.6 billion kilometres, the equivalent of 4700 return trips to the moon or 90,000 times around the world.
  • Qantas operated a total number of 65 747 aircraft including the 747-100, 747-200, 747-SP, 747-300, 747-400 and the 747-400ER and each had specific capabilities such as increased thrust engines and increased take-off weight to allow longer range operations.
  • The 747-SP was the first 747 model that allowed non-stop operations across the Pacific in 1984 which meant travellers no longer had to “hop” their way across the Pacific and could fly from Australia to the west coast of the US non-stop. The 747-400 which Qantas operated from 1989 opened up the US west coast cities non-stop, and one-stop to European capitals.
  • In 1979, Qantas became the first airline to operate an all Boeing 747 fleet.
  • The 747 also broke records, including in 1989 when Qantas crew flew a world first non-stop commercial flight from London to Sydney in 20 hours and nine minutes. That thirty-year record was only broken in 2019 when Qantas operated a 787 Dreamliner London-Sydney direct in 19 hours and 19 minutes.
  • The Qantas 747-200, -300 & -400 models had a fifth engine pod capability that could carry an additional engine on commercial flights, a capability that was used extensively in early days of the 747-200 when engine reliability required engines to be shipped to all parts of the world. Improved engine reliability of the 747-400 and 747-400ER made this capability redundant.

Written by Peter Needham

Currently there is "1 comment" on this Article:

  1. Roger Fairfax says:

    I have many fond memories of the B747 aircraft as I had opportunity of working in Engineering Facilities, the small band of Qantas staff that provided the infrastructure for its acceptance into the Qantas Jet Base at Mascot. I had opportunity to fly in the cockpit out of Honolulu and later on in the same flight, in the cockpit into Vancouvre. Captain Ken Davenport arranged it unbeknown to me for a favour I did for him and his wife. He has just became the Director of Flight operations. A beautiful aircraft and one that brings me many happy memories between 1971 and 1991 during my 34 years in Qantas. I was retrenched with 3,500 other employees in 1991.

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