Australian flag carrier Qantas is storing the remaining five Boeing 747 from their fleet this weekend. Due to the coronavirus crisis and worldwide grounding of Qantas international flying, the last six Qantas 747s will be going to storage and face uncertainty whether it will return to flying.
Of all the aircraft retirements, there was never going to be one as significant as the last Qantas 747. Qantas, celebrating their centenary this year, has been flying international since before WW2 and was operating round the world (by flying to London via Asia/Europe and via the Pacific, San Francisco and New York) with 707s by 1959 (the transatlantic leg ended in the early 1970s). However the fares were out of the reach of everyone but captains of industry, movie stars and diplomats. Everyone else went by ship until the dawning of the age of the jumbo.
When Qantas’ first 747-238B was delivered to Sydney in 1971 it plugged Australia, the most distant of all continents, into the world map at last. Generations of Australians big overseas trips were on a Qantas 747, discovering neighbouring Asia and turning Singapore and Hong Kong into Aussie cities by association. Double decker bus tours of Europe – getting drunk in Munich and getting high in Amsterdam. In England’s capital of London, Earls Court became known to Brits and Aussies alike as Kangaroo Valley. Later, Australia's cultural focus widened to include California. All of this was because of the 747.
Qantas’ first 747-400, nicknamed Longreach (not only for the range of the new bird but Qantas’ founding town in remote outback Queensland), flew the then-world’s longest flight, from London to Sydney, on August 17th 1988, arriving over the harbour with a couple of hours of fuel still on tap. Farewell 3am fuel stops in the Persian Gulf, hello fourteen hour nonstop sectors; such as Singapore to London and Sydney to Los Angeles.
The last Qantas 747 flight to London was in 2010 and to California was San Francisco in early December 2019, squeezed out by the A380 and B787. After that, the Queen Of The Skies was supposed to enjoy an eighteen month victory lap on the Johannesburg, Tokyo and Santiago runs; followed by the biggest farewell party the aviation world has ever seen.
Alas, the toll of coronavirus COVID-19 has brought a halt to almost all air traffic worldwide; with a ground stop expected to last months. When global mass transit kick starts again, however, one of the great combinations, Qantas and the 747, will be missing at Kingsford-Smith and destinations on three other continents.
Qantas is planning the retirement of their B747 fleet at the end of 2020. It is uncertain how the COVID-19 will play out and there may be a risk to see these beloved 747 not returning to service from storage, which I hope not the case.
Sam Chui has fond memories of photographing many Qantas B747 at Sydney during his college years. Here is a photo tribute to Qantas B747 from his collection.