Late in July, Australia farewelled its “Queen of the Skies”, marking the end of one of the most significant chapters in our aviation history.
After nearly 50 years as one of the cornerstones of the Qantas fleet, the airline’s last 747 jumbo jet officially embarked on its final flight to the US, for retirement in California’s Mojave Desert.
But it didn’t leave without one final message for Australians.
Qantas flight QF7474, a Boeing 747-400, took off from Sydney Airport bound for Los Angeles shortly before 3.30pm on July 22. Dozens gathered to wave goodbye, writing messages on the plane’s body and reading tributes.
After takeoff, the aircraft completed a winding loop above Sydney’s suburbs. There was time for one last flourish over Sydney’s skyline – drawing Qantas’ flying kangaroo with its flight path – and then it was gone.
Qantas’ last jumbo jet taking-off for the final time from an Australian airport. QF7474, with registration VH-OEJ, is flying from @SydneyAirport to @flyLAXairport where the ‘The Queen of the Skies’ will be retired after almost 50 years of service. #F7474 https://t.co/5QtIMpQdLA
— 7NEWS Sydney (@7NewsSydney) July 22, 2020
Qantas CEO Alan Joyce told the gathered crowd earlier that the airline was bidding farewell to an aircraft that fundamentally changed Australia’s connectivity to the world.
“They have made the world smaller … It overcame the tyranny of distance that was and continued to be an issue for Australia,” Mr Joyce said.
The flight’s co-pilot, Greg Fitzgerald, told ABC Breakfast the flight represented the loss of one of the country’s great icons.
“Everybody in Australia, everybody in the world knows the shape of the 747,” Mr Fitzgerald said on the morning of the final flight.
“It’s like Aeroplane Jelly and Vegemite – it’s always been there. We don’t know life without the 747.”
The arrival of the Boeing 747 in 1971 – the same year William McMahon became prime minister and Australia welcomed its first McDonald’s – made international travel economically possible for millions of people.
Their size, range and reliability also meant the 747s were used for rescue missions after disasters. One helped to fly more than 670 passengers out of Darwin in the immediate aftermath of Cyclone Tracy in 1974.
The fleet also assisted during the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, and more recently featured in returning hundreds of Australians stranded in the coronavirus epicentre of Wuhan in February.
However, with the financial turmoil the world’s airlines face from the COVID pandemic, the 747 had outlived its usefulness not just for Qantas, but also other international carriers, including British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and KLM. And retirement, as for many such workhorses, is far from graceful.
Shortly after arriving at LAX about 2.15pm on July 22 (local time), it was to be carted to the Mojave Desert to join others fleets of yesteryear, and stripped for parts.
Mr Joyce said the 747 fleet had ushered in a new era of lower fares and non-stop flights.
“It’s hard to overstate the impact the 747 had on aviation and a country as far away as Australia,” Mr Joyce said on Wednesday.
“This aircraft was well ahead of its time and extremely capable.
“But 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.”
The revolutionary Dreamliner has helped facilitate non-stop flights from Perth to London. Soon, Qantas expects the Airbus A350 will be used in its non-stop Project Sunrise flights to New York and London.
The airline’s first female captain, Sharelle Quinn, who is in command of the final flight, said it had been an “absolute privilege” to fly the aircraft for 36 years.
“It has been a wonderful part of our history, a truly ground-breaking 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,” Ms Quinn said.