Qantas have made no secret of their intention to retire the Boeing 747-400 by the end of 2020, however the shakeup of COVID-19 has resulted in their retirement being brought forward by approximately five months. This made many wonder if there would be any acknowledgement of their retirement at all, with the final scheduled 747 flight at the time arriving from Santiago at the end of March just after Australia’s international borders were locked down.
The signs soon became clear that they weren’t going to be sticking around to ride out the year:
- VH-OEG left Sydney on the 9th April, arriving in the Mojave Desert on the 10th April
- VH-OEH left Sydney on the 19th May, arriving in the Mojave Desert on the 20th May
- VH-OEI left Sydney on the 3rd June, arriving in the Mojave Desert on the 4th June
- VH-OEE left Sydney on the 16th June, arriving in the Mojave Desert on the 17th June
This had just left VH-OEJ “Wunala” as the last 747-400 standing in the Qantas fleet. On the 6th July, Qantas announced it would operate three one-hour “farewell jumbo joy flights” departing from Sydney, Canberra and Brisbane in response to an overwhelming amount of interest from staff and customers wanting to experience the aircraft one final time. After the farewell flights, the aircraft would then depart Sydney at 2pm on the 22nd July for the Mojave Desert. The Aviation Studio managed to secure seats onboard the Brisbane and Canberra flights, and was on the ground for the final departure of the 747 from Australian soil. This was truly going to be a historic moment for Australia and Qantas, with the airline having operated the Boeing 747 for nearly 50 years; half of the airline’s age.
Qantas’ History with the Boeing 747
Qantas has operated 65 different Boeing 747s since 1971. Qantas started with Boeing 747-200s which replaced the existing Boeing 707 fleet. They acquired two Boeing 747SPs in 1981 specifically for flights to Wellington, and were then used on non-stop flights between Sydney and Los Angeles.
Six Boeing 747-300s were delivered in 1984, featuring an extended upper deck, and used through until 2008. Their first Boeing 747-400, VH-OJA, was delivered in 1989 and flew a record breaking non-stop flight from London to Sydney in just over 20 hours. This aircraft is now retired and is preserved at the Historical Aircraft Restoration Society (HARS).
Qantas was also unique in that was the only airline that operated the Boeing 747-400ER variant. Six units, including VH-OEJ, were operated by the airline to allow for non-stop flights with full loads between Melbourne and Los Angeles year-round. A range boost of 805 km or payload addition of 6,800 kg is granted by this higher weight variant which is achieved via structural modifications and modified landing gear. This rare variant made it the envy of many aviation enthusiasts around the world.
Purchasing tickets for the Qantas 747 Farewell
Tickets for the 747 Farewell Flights were $400AUD for economy class, and $747AUD for business class. Premium economy was reserved for Qantas staff. With the seating limited due to COVID-19 social distancing restrictions (all middle seats were blocked), this meant that tickets would sell out quick.
We were on the Qantas website the moment the tickets went on sale, and all were reported to sell out within minutes. From then, it was just a matter of waiting until we could all fly on the Qantas 747 one last time.
Having bid farewell to its last regular Qantas 747 service in early 2019 (BNE-LAX), the excitement in the air to see one in Brisbane’s skies again was palpable. We met up for coffee prior to heading to the terminal to watch the 747 arrive from Sydney on it’s ferry flight as QF6160.
Check in was not the standard process we all know and love. Qantas had something special in mind. We would receive our boarding passes at the Qantas Club, a gift bag and a special reception! Being a special flight, there were many people from the local aviation community there, so we just mingled until it got close to boarding time.
Before too long, the final boarding call for a Qantas 747 in Brisbane was made. To comply with social distancing regulations, boarding was announced in groups of rows.
The changes to how Qantas flies during the times of COVID-19 were immediately noted. They now hand out Fly Well packs on boarding, containing a face mask and other items intended to reduce the risk of transmission and alleviate passenger anxieties. Typical food and drink service is now replaced by a snack bag containing everything you will need for the flight.
We were soon pushing back and starting up our engines before taxiing under a water cannon salute, courtesy of the Aviation Rescue & Fire Fighting (ARFF) service.
We taxied past the popular plane spotting location at the Acacia Street loop road, which was packed with people eager to see the Queen of the Skies one last time. After holding at the end of Runway 19L for an extended period to give way to an emergency helicopter, we heard the four GE CF6s roar to takeoff thrust to take us into the blue skies above.
Our flight path initially took us over the Brisbane CBD for two circuits, before heading south over the Gold Coast, and then back north over Moreton Island. We then tracked toward Brisbane Airport, flying over the new parallel runway before circling to land back on Runway 19L.
During the flight, we were handed final flight certificates, as well as a special coaster. These were definitely mementos to keep for the history books!
As per Qantas’s email earlier in this report, we were never going to disembark at the terminal. Brisbane is home to Qantas heavy maintenance for the vast Airbus A330 and Boeing 737 fleets. We therefore got to disembark via the rear door at their main hangar, Hangar 3, for a final farewell celebration with Qantas staff. This was quite an unusual experience you would never get as a regular passenger!
More snacks were provided, courtesy of Qantas, before the passengers boarded a shuttle bus to take them back to the domestic terminal, officially ending their Qantas 747 experience. For us, however, it was not over. We still had the Canberra flight to cover, as well as the final departure out of Sydney!
Canberra’s farewell followed that similar to Brisbane’s, with a pre-boarding congregation and the same goodies handed out. Canberra’s scenic trip took Wunala and her passengers over the nation’s capital, and then up to the Snowy Mountains for stunning views of Australia’s alpine region. The significance of this flight was that it was the final Qantas 747 passenger journey. It was safe to say that emotions were running high.
The conclusion of the Canberra flight meant that Qantas 747’s near-50 year history of carrying fare-paying passengers had officially come to an end.
One Final Flight
Wednesday 22nd July 2020 will forever go down in history as a day when people paused what they were doing to farewell an Australian icon. The 747 had carried millions of people over the years to destinations far and wide, and it was only fitting that it received such a send off.
The day began with a company event at the Qantas Mascot campus, where staff could sign the belly of the 747 and forever mark their name upon an aircraft that has been their office for decades. At 2pm, it was time for the aircraft to embark on its final voyage across the Pacific to the Mojave Desert, via Los Angeles (for final end-of-life preparations and another Qantas event for local staff).
To allow everyone to see her one final time, the 747 taxied past Shep’s Mound, before heading back to the Runway 16R threshold for her takeoff roll as callsign “QANTAS 7474”.
Rocketing into Botany Bay, the 747 did a loop over Sydney Airport before heading into Sydney Harbour for a couple of low-level passes. It was at this moment that Sydney Air Traffic Control bid their farewell.
She then headed down to the HARS for a flyover, paying tribute to the first 747-400 in the Qantas fleet, VH-OJA. This was particularly touching as OJA’s radios were re-activated to communicate with the crew of OEJ.
After the flyover of HARS, Wunala then set course for the US, and covered a bit of sky art on the way, in the form of a kangaroo! This was not expected by many people, and it’s safe to say this art blew the internet up. Hundreds of thousands of shares were recorded across social media apps.
She was captured on the other side of the Pacific by a variety of YouTubers, who were all as used to seeing the Qantas 747 at LAX as we were in Australia.
VH-OEJ, along with some of her her sisterships, has been sold to General Electric. GE have not yet confirmed what they intend on doing with the aircraft. As airlines globally wind down their 747 operations, it’s becoming much harder to book a seat on the jumbo jet. However, cargo operations with the 747 are expected to continue for the years to come.
It was a great experience for us to be involved with the final celebrations for this superb member of the Qantas fleet. It’s great that, amidst a pandemic, Qantas could offer such a great and bittersweet send-off for this much-adored aircraft.
Long has she reigned.