SYDNEY (REUTERS) - Qantas Airways Ltd's last Boeing 747 jet drew a kangaroo tail in the sky off the Australian coast as it began its final flight to retirement in the Mojave Desert on Wednesday (July 22), ending the model's almost half a century of service at the carrier.
Mr Owen Zupp, one of the six pilots on board the final flight, brought forward by several months because of the coronavirus pandemic, said he would reflect once his team had delivered the plane safely to the United States.
"Once that is done I think it will be a memory that we can look back on with great pride," Mr Zupp told Reuters. "It is significant not just for Qantas' history but aviation."
Qantas Chief Executive Alan Joyce, who signed the plane before it took off from Sydney Airport, said the model had helped make international travel more affordable for Australians.
"It overcame the tyranny of distance that was and continued to be an issue for Australia," he told a gathering in a hangar for the send-off.
Ironically, the reason for the plane's early departure was also the reason for the small crowd of 150. Thousands had been expected to attend a farewell initially planned for the end of the year.
Qantas 747s carried more than 250 million people in almost half a century of service, including Queen Elizabeth II and every Australian Olympic team since 1984. Qantas was once the world's only airline with an all 747 fleet.
The four-engine plane with less favourable economics than newer-generation 787s and Airbus SE A350s had fallen out of favour even before the coronavirus pandemic but Qantas, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and KLM have hastened retirement plans due to the lack of international travel demand.
Qantas has grounded most international flights until at least July 2021 due to Australian government travel restrictions.
Boeing, which has in recent years been manufacturing the latest version of the 747 primarily as a freighter, and its suppliers signalled the end of the plane when they set the final number of parts it would need for the programme at least a year ago.
There are only 30 747 passenger jets left in service globally and 132 in storage, according to aviation data provider Cirium, with freighters accounting for 93 per cent of the type still flying.
Joyce said Qantas had sold five of its 747s to General Electric Co. The final jet will deliver a load of freight to Los Angeles before flying on to the Mojave.
Mr Vincent Chu, 29, was among a crowd gathered near the airport to watch the plane leave: "I just wanted to give it a final send-off, so to speak."