50 Years Of History – The Qantas Boeing 747

An era is about to end as Qantas winds down its Boeing 747 fleet. The airline has just one left. Qantas has flown 65 of the jumbo jets since the first was delivered in October 1971. Technically, the Qantas 747 is not quite at fifty years yet, but let’s not quibble. It has been a long and successful run for the Queen of the Skies, arguably the finest long-haul aircraft ever made.

With just one Boeing 747 left, the era of the Qantas 747 is about to end. Photo: Jeremy via Wikimedia Commons

A deep dive into Qantas history

If you dive into Qantas history, you’ll find they’d been eyeballing the Boeing 747 well before 1971. The airline ordered four 747-238Bs in 1967 for US$85 million (that was an absolute bucketload of money back then). These were specially modified jumbos, giving the planes the capacity to fly from the United States west coast to Hawaii safely.

The first, VH-EBC, landed in Sydney in October 1971, the second, VH-EBD, just two months later. Over the following two years, VH-EBE and VH-EBF joined the Qantas fleet. The planes became a regular sight, island hopping their way across the Pacific, flying up to Asia, and doing the old school Singapore-Bombay-Bahrain-London run.

Throughout the mid to late seventies, Qantas invested significantly in the Boeing 747. It was arguably, the heyday of the jumbo jet. Qantas has an advertisement from that era. It’s got a very Charlie’s Angels feel to and captures the golden age of the aircraft. The present celebrity Qantas chef Neil Perry should take a good hard long look at the standard of catering on this plane.

Not all lobster and pavlova

But it wasn’t all lobster, rare roast beef, and pavlova. In late 1974, a Qantas 747 made a dash to Darwin to pick up 674 passengers after Cyclone Tracy destroyed the city on Christmas Eve. So began a bit of a tradition of Qantas 747s popping up in hotspots and rescuing people. Most recently, they were rescuing stranded Aussies after countries began closing down in March and April

By the end of the 1970s, Qantas was only operating 747s. Granted, Qantas was a much smaller airline back then. It exclusively flew international routes. That meant a big plane was often seen at some pretty small airports, Wellington and Port Moresby for example. It also meant that the fleet was stretched pretty thin. Look at a route map from the era and there’s a lot of destinations covered, but a Qantas flight might only touch down once a week and that flight was often part of a milk run.

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A couple of Pocket Rockets

In 1981, Qantas took delivery of its first Boeing 747-SP. The SP stands for ‘special performance’. It was shorter than the 747-200 and 300 models popular at the time, leading pilots to call it the “Stubby Puppy” or “Pocket Rocket.” Pilots loved the plane. It was like the Porsche of the skies.

The Qantas 747-SP. Photo: Qantas News Room

Captain Peter Probert said the SP “took off like a startled angel returning to heaven” with a phenomenal rate of climb. Qantas only ever had two of the type, and they were deployed across the wider network. According to Qantas history, one SP flight to Wellington carried passengers, one dog, 1.3 tonnes of hair dryers, and six million doses of sheep vaccine.

Nonstop flights 30 years before Project Sunrise research flights

In 1989, the first Boeing 747-400 entered the Qantas fleet. People talk these days about the nonstop Project Sunrise research flights between London and Sydney last year. There’s a misconception this was the first-ever nonstop flight between the two countries. It’s not. The August 1989 delivery flight of that first 747-400 was. I’m old enough to remember that flight. It was a fairly big deal at the time.

I remember that it was a big ask. The plane, VH-OJA Canberra made it, but it was aided by chance winds and helpful air traffic controllers who cleared airspace ahead of the plane so it could take the optimal route. Other pilots who had to detour slightly complained. The 747-400 landed in Sydney not quite on empty, but New Zealand would have been a struggle.

VH-OJA powering out of Sydney on its last flight. Photo: Damian Aiello via Wikimedia Commons

The Boeing 747-400 became the signature Qantas plane of the modern era. All up, Qantas has operated about 30 of them. By the 1990s, the Qantas fleet was diversifying. The airline merged with Australian Airlines, picked up smaller planes, went private, and had to be more selective about where they flew what.

Routes consolidated, cities drop off the network

The 747s kept on flying to the big cities in its network, but the aircraft dropped off the radar at smaller airports like Wellington. There was a lot of focus on Los Angeles. At one point, there were four or five 747-400 Qantas flights a day into LAX – all the eight flights, QF8, QF18, QF88, QF108. That was back in the good times after Pan Am collapsed, and Qantas had a stranglehold on the transpacific routes.

The advent of the 747-400 also saw the airports along the way drop off the Qantas network. The transpacific milk runs via Nadi and Papette disappeared. The 747-400 could jet from Singapore to London nonstop with a full payload, so Bombay and Bahrain dropped off the map. Harsh economic realities saw a swag of European cities drop off the Qantas network over the years – Rome, Athens, Amsterdam, Paris, Frankfurt, even that natty little fifth freedom route between London and Manchester.

Back when flying was fun

In recent years, the Qantas 747 dropped off the radar in Europe. A380s and 787-9s now fly the sole remaining service to London. The Qantas A380 isn’t a bad plane, but its upstairs bar is about as sexy as dentist’s waiting room Contrast that with the Captain Cook upper deck lounges in the 747s from the 1970s. I hear you could even have an inflight ciggy while downing a martini back then. If you had a ciggy on a Qantas plane today, you’d get arrested.

The upper deck Captain Cook Lounge from the 1970s era Qantas 747. Photo: Qantas News Room

Yesterday, Qantas sent its second last 747-400 off to Mojave via Los Angeles. Technically, they are not being retired; they are being stored. But the chances of the 747 flying again for Qantas is about as likely as them serving lobster again, or having proper martini glasses onboard. Nothing stays the same, but now more than ever, when flying looks like becoming a sterile, sanitized and service reduced experience, the Qantas 747 was a link to a time when flying was fun. It will be sorely missed.