Ode to the jumbo
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.
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.