On Wednesday I stood on the rocks where the Cooks River meets Botany Bay and watched the last Qantas Boeing 747 sail off into the distance. For me it marked the end of a journey that began almost twenty-five years ago, for Qantas it was twice as long.

Nineteen years before I had sat by the bay with my wife of less than a day, eating wedding cake, chocolate coated strawberries and gelato as we watched the aircraft taking off and landing from Sydney Airport. In a few hours time we would join them, riding in our first Qantas 747 towards Bangkok, London and our honeymoon in Paris.

Back in those days the Qantas 747 aircraft lacked the personal on-demand entertainment systems of the current era. Instead movies were projected on the centre bulkheads and a few overhead screens. It meant that, like a cinema, everyone in the cabin enjoyed (or didn’t) the movie at the same time, a shared experience.

Spotters watching the last 747 in the Qantas fleet

Now, whether your newly wed wife watching Colin Firth in Bridget Jones’ Diary was a source of doubt at her decision making is something that you would have to ask her.

I don’t remember the meal, but I do recall the Dixie Cup ice cream runs. I remember descending into Don Mueang Airport, entranced by the lights and active nightlife of Bangkok, despite the late hour. The warmth and yellowed interior of the airport, the colourful souvenir stalls.

I didn’t even mind the four hour technical delay on the tarmac of Bangkok, fell asleep for half of it and watched a movie for the rest.

The remainder of the journey passed in a daze of the very strange One night at McCools on the screen and listening to music over audio system. Like a radio, you tuned into a channel and put up with the good and the bad. I used to like the relaxation channels a lot while flying, but appropriately on this flight they had my song on the playlist, one that has played during many significant events in my life.

The flight continued in darkness before the windows were opened once more over the mountains of Armenia. Then, as we descended over central London, sights of buildings and houses etched into my memory by years of British children’s television and books.

Twenty-six hours after our departure from Sydney Airport and it was time to step off the 747. Yet I was reluctant to leave. That’s how good that flight had been.

The light of the morning aboard a 747

My history with the 747 did not begin with that flight. Six years before I had taken my very first step out of Australia on board a Singapore Airlines jumbo jet. Five years after that, flights to Kuala Lumpur aboard a Malaysia Airlines 747, this one with tiny seatback screens, a new innovation then. How amusing then, on our tenth wedding anniversary to again fly a Malaysia Airlines 747 with those same screens, even if the underlying system had been (barely) upgraded.

I’ve also flown on British Airways, Cathay Pacific and KLM 747 aircraft and observed many other airlines from the outside. But it’s always the Qantas 747 journeys that have held my admiration.

From an unexpected aircraft substitution flying back from Christchurch and my very first photo from out of a plane window to numerous trips between Sydney and Tokyo Narita, even a short flight to Melbourne, flights on the 747 always seemed better.

When the Airbus A380 was first introduced to Qantas in 2008 it was thought this even more massive aircraft might displace the 747 as Queen of the Skies. I had my first opportunity to try the new Whale Jet in June 2009, flying from Sydney to Singapore.

Brand new interior. Nice seats. Spacious. Quiet. Pity about the windows being poor for photography and the huge wing that blocked your view.

The next night I had an onwards flight to London aboard a Qantas 747. I was suffering a crisis of confidence, missing my newborn baby, fearful of turbulence. A conversation with my wife made me feel a lot better, but there was a sense of trepidation as I stepped on board the Qantas aircraft.

We raced across the normally rough Bay of Bengal, skimming the clouds in the bright moonlight, a real sense of speed and power after the lethargic A380, taking the bumps like corrugations on a country road. I watched lightning flash over the snow covered peaks of Afghanistan, admired the Iranian city of Mashad glittering like a jewel in the night, watched sunrise across the marshlands around the Black Sea.

Sunrise over the Black Sea

The flight ended with another amazing entrance over London, the aicraft twisting and turning over the Thames in the pale orange and blue dawn skies, the cabin manager performing a running commentary of the famous sights below.

Back in 2009 Qantas served London via many more routes than at the beginning of 2020. You could fly there from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane via Singapore, Bangkok or Hong Kong. When I arrived at Heathrow’s Terminal 4 for the return flight home there were three Qantas 747 aircraft waiting in the midday light. This, along with Los Angeles, was their home away from home.

For a bit of variation, I had chosen the Hong Kong route back to Sydney. We crossed over Denmark, the withered environmental disaster of the Aral Sea, awoke to a flashing storm cloud mass over China, before curving over the islands off Hong Kong. Not the excitement of the old Kai Tak approach, which I have never experience, but a beautiful finish nonetheless.

My final leg home to Sydney was aboard VH-OJA. Unlike the other two more recently refurbished 747 aircraft, OJA retained the blue seats of our honeymoon flights, though now with personal screens installed. But the real show was outside the windows, explosions of lightning painting the clouds blue and white.

Newer aircraft, including later versions of the 747, are designed to give the impression of extra space in their interiors, with smooth curves and lockers that almost disappear into the ceiling. I think I prefer the blocky lines of the classic 747 and other aircraft of that era. Perhaps that just dates me, but they are a throwback to when flying was an adventure in itself and not just a journey to a destination.

Qantas 747
The distinctive front of a 747

Nothing spoke more to me of adventure than walking past the glass at Sydney’s International Terminal and seeing a 747 docked at the gate. The distinctive exterior profile of the 747, the leading hump with the cockpit on top, the seating all the way to the nose, the tapered curves of the front, the highly swept wings and, of course, the four engines.

There is something about the lines of the 747 that reminds me of classic cruise ships. I’ve never travelled on one, but once such vessels were the way that travellers journeyed between continents. It was the 747 more than any other aircraft that displaced them. At fifty years old, this is the aircraft that has defined international travel.

I even spent my fortieth birthday flying to Narita on a Qantas 747. It wasn’t much of a celebration though as I was sick with flight anxiety and overindulging in chocolate pancakes at the birthday lunch.

My final journey aboard the 747 was an unmemorable one back from Narita in April 2015, before Qantas switched over to Haneda Airport. If I had known that it would have been my last, perhaps I would have paid it more mind. Instead I found myself on A330, A350 and 787 aircraft. It is the last two that will likely largely replace the 747 with Qantas and other airlines.

My last 747 flight off the coast of Sydney

Fine aircraft though they may be, both with their own peculiarities, it is unlikely they will serve as long or be as memorable as the Boeing 747.

So when the chance came to say goodbye to the Qantas 747 I knew I had to take it. I watched the last scheduled Qantas international flight before the COVID-19 shutdown fly in from Chile to Sydney. I tried unsuccessfully to get tickets to the Qantas 747 farewell flights in Sydney and Canberra and watched both from the ground.

So there I stood on those rocks, watching VH-OEJ, Wunala, the final Qantas 747 in service, do its runway show, then take-off and loop over the city, watched her until she disappeared over the horizon.

And I took solace that a Qantas 747-400 remains in Australia. VH-OJA, that aircraft with the blue seats that I flew back from Hong Kong and probably other times as well, is preserved at HARS Aviation Museum. I look forward to ascending those steps, sitting in a seat once more and remembering the adventures we had together.

Farewell 747, Queen of the skies!

Selected links

Links to 747 related blog posts and trip reports I have published elsewhere.


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