Being more of a night owl than an early bird, there needs to be a compelling reason for me to tumble out of bed before sunrise. Sunday 8th March was one of those days. The City of Canberra, the first Boeing 747-400 to be acquired by our national carrier Qantas, was due to land at the Illawarra Regional Airport at Albion Park, which is located south of Wollongong on the east coast of New South Wales.
The small airport, more accustomed to light aircraft and joy flights, is also home to the Historical Aircraft Restoration Society (HARS) who scored a major coup in being selected as the final destination for this much loved and highly celebrated ‘Flying Kangaroo’, retiring after twenty-five years of service.
All vantage areas around the airport were packed as thousands jostled to watch its arrival – scheduled for 0747 hours. (Actual touch down was 7:50am EDST). None of our photos do the event any justice, they are out of focus and the morning was a little foggy – almost from too high humidity – however I thought these two were humorous. If you look in the foreground, you will see the neon road sign warnings: “changed traffic conditions” and, “expect delays” – you reckon?
There are so many interesting facts associated with this aircraft:
It was just the twelfth Boeing 747-400 to be built out of a total of 694.
Covering a distance of 18,001 kilometres (11,185 mi) the City of Canberra holds the world record for the longest ever commercial flight – its delivery flight non-stop from London to Sydney in 20 hours, 9 minutes and 5 seconds in August 1989. Only sixteen passengers plus crew travelled on this flight, additional weight was stripped back and a special high density fuel was used. You can read much more about that here.
On its 13,833 flights, the aircraft has carried 4,094,568 passengers, covering almost 85 million kilometres, the equivalent to 110.2 return trips to the moon.
Its final flight, from Sydney to Albion Park, was completed in under fifteen minutes at an altitude of 4000-5000 feet. It is capable of flying up to 45,000 feet and usually cruises in the mid to high 30,000s.
It was the first 747-400 to land at the regional airport, and the four pilots, Captain Greg Matthews (Qantas’ manager of training), first officer Peter Hagley (747 technical pilot), second officer Michael East and Captain Ossie Miller (the 747 fleet captain) spent more than twenty-five hours in the Qantas simulator preparing to land on a runway only 1,819 metres (1.13 miles) long, compared to an average of 3,000 metres (1.86 miles) at Sydney Airport. After consultation with manufacturer Boeing, the tyre pressure on the 16-wheel main landing gear was reduced from a standard 208psi to 120psi to avoid damaging the runway. Take off weight was almost halved from a maximum 397,200kg to just 201,000kg. Only 20,000 kilograms of fuel were loaded, just enough for a second landing attempt or a return to Sydney if needed.
Excitement on the ground mounted as she was spotted approaching the airport at a speed of 132 knots, far lower than the usual 180 knots. The aircraft came in low and slow, right over the top of us, and touched down perfectly, a puff of smoke rising from the runway as she pulled up with metres to spare, and rolled on to reach the tug waiting at the end. With a wingspan of 64 metres, and this runway just 30 metres wide, the two outside engines hung over the runway’s edge, creating quite a spectacle.
There are many videos of the landing on youtube. The attached link gives a good idea to the build up, includes radio communication and has captured a great runway angle. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kmWE9KGYN6s
Bringing this aircraft to Wollongong is a crowning achievement for the hard working volunteers at HARS, and the Boeing 747 joins its growing collection of over forty aircraft types, including a Southern Cross replica, a PBY Catalina, a Douglas DC3, a DC4, a Lockheed P2 Neptune, a Super Constellation – the beloved “Connie”, a Vampire, a Sabre, a Mirage, and an F111.
For all those followers of this blog who are also aviation enthusiasts, if you are coming to Wollongong, make sure you leave time to visit this facility. Details here.