Departing the Qantas Mascot headquarters at 0530 on a Sunday morning would not normally be something I’d get too excited about. It was certainly early, but the early rise today was an exception as I was about to witness aviation history.
The first 747-400 to be delivered to Qantas in 1989, VH-OJA, was today on her retirement flight and soon to be living out her days peacefully displayed at the regional Illawarra Airport near Wollongong, New South Wales.
On 16 August 1989, OJA set a new world record for the longest commercial delivery flight, flying non-stop between London and Sydney, Australia in 20hrs and 9 min. To add to this accolade, the aircraft now has one of the shortest flights ever recorded for a 747, with a flight time to Illawarra Airport of just 15 minutes.
The well-travelled jumbo jet was donated by Qantas to HARS - the Historical Aircraft Restoration Society. Operated by a group of dedicated volunteers made up of retired engineers, pilots and aviation enthusiasts, HARS is responsible for the preservation and restoration of the many aircraft in its collection in the museum on the airport grounds.
As our media bus passed through Wollongong towards Illawarra, the traffic was beginning to slow. Approaching the airport, the streets were becoming more like car parks with bridges weighed down with throngs of people eager to capture a glimpse of the incoming aircraft.
The airport perimeter overflowed with crowds who had camped out to experience the historic day and who were now pushed tight against the fence line. There was a distinct buzz in the air as word of the plane’s impending arrival spread.
We shuffled to the edge of the runway apron for our front row seats, cameras poised at the ready. In the distance a small silhouette from the east was gracefully gliding towards the Illawarra Airport runway. Its slow decent was calculated over several months with careful planning by Qantas, airport officials and several agencies, including CASA.
In preparation for the flight, each pilot went through 25 hours of simulator training for the delicate approach and landing on the narrow runway. With a shorter and more narrow runway than the 747 is used to, this was a one chance landing with total precision required.
Our focus soon turned towards the end of the runway as 'City of Canberra' slowly glided her way back to land for her final landing. This graceful lady of the sky was enjoying her last air time. As she made contact with the earth, a trail of smoke billowed in the air as the super jumbo’s wheels touched down for the last time with a text book landing.
Cheers and applause echoed from the thousands who had gathered to witness the event. Pulling to a stop at the end of the runway, a tug was attached to push the giant aircraft to her final resting position on the main apron.
Captain wave for arrival of #VH-OJA for #QFfarewellOJA at #Illawarra #airport #avgeek #avporn #aviation #qantas #qantas747 @qantas A photo posted by tj747 (@tj747) on
On the outside, the plane was primed with a special protective layer to preserve the outer skin and paint. For the interior, the only items removed from the cockpit and cabin were the Qantas Flight Operations manual, the galley carts and fresh flowers from the premium cabin lavatories. All else will remain as it was, including the seats in all cabin classes.
City of Canberra will be on display at HARS next to an impressive line-up of historic aircraft, including a Lockheed Super Constellation, Catalina, Douglas DC3 and DC4 and a Desert Storm US Army Cobra.
Over the past few years, Qantas has been gradually retiring its older B747s. Nine of the newer jumbos, the last of which was delivered in 2003, have been refurbished with new interiors similar to the Qantas A380 interiors and will continue flying for several more years.
Since 2008' the Qantas Group has taken delivery of almost 150 new aircraft, lowering its fleet age to an average of just over seven years, which in airline terms is quite young. .
Qantas Chief Executive Officer Alan Joyce said donating the aircraft to HARS museum will provide not only a great tourist attraction for the Illawarra region, but also an opportunity to preserve an important piece of Qantas and aviation history. “Having graced the pages of the record books, revolutionised air travel for Australians, marked a huge technical feat for Qantas and carried millions of passengers on their global adventures and home again, our 747-400 ‘City of Canberra’ is very deserving of a graceful retirement as the star attraction at one of Australia’s most prestigious aviation museums,” said Mr Joyce.
“As she takes her rightful place in aviation’s hall of fame at HARS we’ll be reminded of her lasting legacy as a great aviation pioneer, a legacy that continues to inspire and drive Qantas’ spirit of innovation and world class airmanship and engineering today.”
Bob De La Hunty, President of the Historical Aircraft Restoration Society, said HARS was honoured to receive the jumbo gift from Qantas and excited to have such an icon as part of its collection. “Our members will be very proud to look after VH-OJA, particularly as so many of them have been part of the Qantas family too. We look forward to preserving this piece of Qantas history for future generations and have our sights on building another hanger for it.”
Shellharbour Mayor, Marianne Saliba said, “It is a fantastic opportunity for the community to have this aircraft positioned near the northern entrance to our city – a signpost for the initiative and drive of our residents, particularly the outstanding efforts of HARS in preserving such a broad scope of aviation. I commend everyone involved in the safe arrival of the aircraft and look forward to seeing the flow on effects to our city and business community.”
Qantas Boeing 747-400 VH-OJA facts:
- 3 years in service
- 13,833 flights (excluding the final delivery flight)
- 106,154 flight hours
- 4,094,568 passengers carried
- 85 million kilometres flown – equivalent to 110.2 return trips to the moon
- First Qantas 747-400
- Delivered 11 August 1989
- Longest distance non-stop flight between London and Sydney
- All Qantas 747’s were named ‘Longreach’ as a tribute to Qantas birthplace and the long range of the aircraft.
Qantas fleet facts:
- First 747 delivered in 1971; last in 2003
- 65 B747’s have been operated
- Between 1979-1985 Qantas was an all 747 airline
- Currently Qantas have 297 aircraft across the Qantas Group
- Average fleet age of 7.2 years
- Currently operating 12 B747s; 9 configured to A380 standard and staying in the fleet past 2016