Ode to the jumbo

Richard Green

Sunday Mail - Travel/Escape - - FLIGHTS -

As the first Qan­tas Boe­ing 747-400 jumbo re­tires, re­calls the

plane that changed long-haul travel.

ODAY is a poignant mo­ment in Aus­tralian avi­a­tion his­tory – the last flight of Qan­tas Boe­ing 747-400 “Jumbo Jet” reg­is­tered VHOJA. Af­ter 26 years’ ser­vice, the air­craft will fly from Syd­ney to Illawarra and into re­tire­ment.

It’s sig­nif­i­cant as the first Boe­ing 747-400 se­ries flown by Qan­tas and the first to in­clude the fa­mous “Lon­greach” tag, so the His­toric Air­craft Restora­tion So­ci­ety plans to put it on public dis­play. It also grabbed head­lines on its de­liv­ery flight in 1989, when it set a world record for the long­est flight of a com­mer­cial jet – a non-stop slog be­tween Lon­don and Syd­ney of 29 hours and nine min­utes.

Since then this par­tic­u­lar jumbo has car­ried 4,094,568 pas­sen­gers and flown the equiv­a­lent of 110 re­turn trips to the moon. That’s a fairly nor­mal life for a hard­work­ing Qan­tas jumbo, but its re­tire­ment sig­nals that this ven­er­a­ble air­craft type, too, is ap­proach­ing the end of its days.

When the world’s first “wide- bod­ied” air­craft en­tered ser­vice in 1970 the jumbo was wider, longer and flew fur­ther than any other pas­sen­ger plane. But de­spite the man­u­fac­ture of im­proved new mod­els over the years, Cathay Pa­cific, Ja­pan Air­lines, Sin­ga­pore Air­lines, Air New Zealand and many oth­ers, have al­ready said fond farewells to their last jumbo jets. The fi­nal flights them­selves have been ac­com­pa­nied by cham­pagne send-offs, on­board TV crews and moist-eyed plane spot­ters cling­ing to perime­ter fences.

Why the fuss? No one seems to no­tice when other air­craft types bow out but there was some­thing dif­fer­ent about the jumbo jet. Even peo­ple who wouldn’t know an Air­bus from a dou­ble-decker bus knew when they were on a Boe­ing 747.

Chances are most of us can re­mem­ber our first flight in one. Mine was cross­ing from Lon­don to Los An­ge­les when I was five years old, clutch­ing a plas­tic red suit­case that my grand­mother had packed with toys. The Pan Am jumbo’s nose looked whale-like as it nudged to­wards the de­par­ture gate at Heathrow.

Much of the im­pact came from its size – the 747s were so much big­ger than the Boe­ing 727s or DC-8s be­fore them. Board a 727 and you’d walk down a jetty into a cramped fuse­lage with a sin­gle aisle and three seats ei­ther side. But jum­bos were so high off the ground that old-style jet­ties in­clined up­wards to the doors, and en­ter­ing the cabin re­vealed not one but two aisles – and the seats num­bered an as­ton­ish­ing 10 across.

The stair­case led to the up­per deck bub­ble – per­haps avi­a­tion’s most iconic shape. The up­per deck wasn’t de­signed for aes­thetic rea­sons, though. The plan was to move the pi­lot and his in­stru­ments out of the way to make room for cargo. A hinged nose sec­tion would mean bulkier freight could be front-loaded straight into the main deck. But Pan Am, the first buyer, had its eyes firmly on trans­port­ing pas­sen­gers and pres­sured Boe­ing to ex­tend the bub­ble for use as a lounge.

Most lounges were up in the bub­ble, but some were at the front, and oth­ers even at the rear for econ­omy pas­sen­gers. Wher­ever they were, the lounges and bars that flour­ished in the early ’70s were in­vari­ably psy­che­delic in decor. Qan­tas’s Cap­tain’s Club lounges had an­tique-map table­tops and nau­ti­cal wood­work and Amer­i­can Air­lines even had a pi­ano bar com­plete with a Wurl­itzer for sin­ga­longs.

Wher­ever you were sit­ting though, the jum­bos were big and safe and smooth through the air. This partly ex­plains how Boe­ing wound up sell­ing 1500 of the 65-tonne gi­ants. They tweaked them over the years, of course: the 747-SP was short­ened by 14m to en­able it to fly fur­ther and the “Combi” had seats in the front half and cargo at the back. Most suc­cess­ful and nu­mer­ous, though, were the stretched up­per-deck ver­sions where the bub­ble elon­gated as far as the wing – the 747-300 and the 747400 as flown for­merly by Ansett and still by Qan­tas.

The lat­est and last ver­sion was the 747-8, but only a few dozen air­craft have been sold and the trend is clear. Qan­tas, BA, United, Delta and oth­ers are re­tir­ing them in favour of twinengine planes and the “Su­per Jumbo” Air­bus A380 – both cheaper to run per pas­sen­ger.

No need to rush for a hanky just yet, though, as jum­bos will be fly­ing for a cou­ple of decades to come. But the next time you see the fa­mous bub­ble, you might give a nod to a trust­wor­thy fly­ing ma­chine that’s trans­ported us around the world for more than 45 years.

Pic­tures:

FLY­ING FRIEND: (from top) A Boe­ing 747-400 comes in to land; Qan­tas pi­lots af­ter fly­ing VH OJA on the his­toric long­est non-stop com­mer­cial flight in 1989; and the familiar nose of a jumbo.

Alamy, iStock

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