We’ve witnessed another moment in Australian aviation history with the departure of the last QANTAS 747 from our shores.
Flight QF7474, the Boeing 747-438(ER) VH-OEJ, departed Sydney (SYD) for Los Angeles (LAX) at 15.28 (3.28pm) Wednesday 22nd July 2020. From there, it flew on to its final resting place in the Mojave Desert (MHV). The hot dry climate of this “boneyard” in California gives the planes a longer life while in storage, but it is a sad day for all concerned.
When Qantas originally took delivery of VH-OEJ in 2003, it was named “Wunala Dreaming” and painted in an Aboriginal motif titled “Wunala (Kangaroo) Dreaming”, which was an amazing feast of movable indigenous art that could be seen around the world. I think most of the images on the internet are copyright, but you can find them by typing “Wunala dreaming artwork” into your favourite browser.
It was repainted in 2012 back to standard fleet colours.
Qantas took delivery of its first “Jumbo Jet” in 1971, a 747-200 registered VH-EBA. Then in 1989 Qantas made history with its first 747-400 non-stop flight between London and Sydney. That one, VH-OJA, The City of Canberra, now rests at the Historical Restoration Aircraft Society (HARS) near Wollongong. Its arrival made history as the shortest flight of a 747, and I wrote about that here.
“The Kangaroo Route” is an official trade-mark of QANTAS, referring to the flight stages from Australia to the United Kingdom mimicking the hopping of a kangaroo, and the term dates back to its earliest passenger flights. Rather the hub-and-spoke system of today, forcing passengers to transit en-route, my first international flight in 1978 was completed in a 747 flying Sydney – Singapore – Bombay – Dubai – London.
Qantas announced the retirement of its 747 fleet at the end of June 2020, officially ending a fifty year era which saw this much-loved aircraft overcome the tyranny of distance. Its capacity made air travel affordable for the average punter. In 1978 I paid A$1300 for a return ticket, which was eight weeks of my gross pay. Today it is no struggle to get a ticket for A$2000 which is around three weeks of the average gross pay. No Aussie backpacker ever talks about the previous preferred way of getting to the UK – taking a ship, or driving a Kombi Van overland through Afghanistan and other exotic places, after putting it on a ship from Darwin to Singapore.
People the world over would be familiar with QANTAS’ distinctive red and white livery with the hopping kangaroo on the tail, and to celebrate, the crew of this flight flew an equally distinctive flight path over Sydney. Watching on Flight Radar, we were confused at first, never, never imagining what surprise they had in store.
Qantas’ first female Captain, Sharelle Quinn, led the flight team which included First Officer (co-pilot) Quin Ledden, Second Officer Owen Zupp, and Captains Gregory Fitzgerald, Ewen Cameron and Owen Weaver. These last two flew the plane out of LAX to MHV.
A friend of mine, a retired Qantas engineer, has vivid memories of meeting Captain Quinn in her early training days. In 1984, when she first began, Captain Quinn faced outdated resistance from some of her male colleagues. Prior to that time, like so many male-dominated industries, one of the arguments against employing women was run on strength. Whether any female pilot did have the strength to fly a 707, which my friend says was physically demanding, especially if one engine failed and hard rudder was called for.
However, the 747, being fully boosted, was different. According to Captain Quinn it was nicknamed ‘the gentleman’s aeroplane’ because it flew so smoothly (ABC News). That’s not to say it was a walk in the park (in my opinion). The 747 is a massive aircraft, with four engines, sixteen huge main wheels, and two passenger decks. That’s a lot of aircraft to taxi around a terminal, and a lot of momentum once it’s airborne at full throttle.
Anyway, back to my friend’s story. After Captain Quinn’s ground school she progressed to the B747 simulators where he first met her doing her Second Officer Flight Engineer relief training. Second Officers were trained to give Flight Engineers a rest during cruise flight.
The trainers had received training also – of the cultural variety: how to work with women.
A simulator session usually begins with a technical quizz. Pleasingly, Sharelle’s answers were to a high standard.
And then it was into the simulator. Captain Quinn is not a tall woman, and he couldn’t see her from his flight engineer instructor’s position. All that was visible was her ponytail hanging over the back of her seat, and a hand reaching up to controls. “This could be interesting,” he thought.
Well, she surprised him. She knew her stuff. Which proves the quote by Canadian feminist, Charlotte Whitton – one that I often had to draw on in my days in the shipping industry: “Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good.” (there’s more to that quote, but I’ll let you look it up for yourselves).
My friend has the good grace to acknowledge that those early female pilots had a lot of extra pressure on them, and today, as he was telling me about watching the crew pull off that amazing flight sequence, I could tell he had a sense of pride and fulfilment in the knowledge that he had played a role in training Captain Quinn all those years back.
There is so much poignancy in the 747 story. As my friend adds, when it came to the B747-400 aircraft, the Flight Engineer’s position was no longer required due to digital modernisation of the flight deck. The older B747-338 aircraft were gradually retired . . . and so was he.
And it transpires that SO Owen Zupp is also a published author and blogger, and you can read his touching account of arriving at the boneyard here.
Wunala completed a flyby of Sydney Harbour and a low-level overfly of HARS, which took it right over our balcony. I got a reasonable video, but nothing to match others you can find on the internet.
Here are two stand-outs as they include the conversations between Air Traffic Control and the pilots in the cockpit. If you only have time to watch one, naturally I recommend the first, which is the departure from Sydney. The second is the departure from Los Angeles.
AND STOP THE PRESSES !!!
JUST AS I WAS ABOUT TO HIT “PUBLISH” MY FRIEND SENT THIS LINK. IT IS FOOTAGE PUBLISHED BY S/O ZUPP, TAKEN FROM INSIDE THE COCKPIT ON THE LEG FROM LAX TO MHV.
There is a final touching moment at the end where each of four people get to shut an engine down. See the action just below the throttles.