A virgin beauty bids farewell

I remember the first time laid eyes upon her. I was at Epping in northern Sydney when I heard her passing overhead. As is my wont I gazed upwards and was immediately confused. Four engines, a red tail, was that a white body as well? A Qantas 747, common in our skies?

Something wasn’t right. She was too slim, the engines painted red and the body shone… silver?

It troubled me for a while and I looked at the paths of aircraft that had flown overhead at that time.

A Virgin Atlantic Airbus A340-600.

Now, I am not normal planespotter, whatever that definition of normal may be. Oh, I know the different types, though not the subtle variations, care mainly for registrations inasmuch as they impact on the quality of what lies inside. But there was something about that Virgin Atlantic aircraft that captured my heart.

I subsequently noticed her whenever she appeared before me. We would be driving to the train station early in the morning and sometimes there she was silently gliding across the steel grey sky on her way into Sydney Airport.

She would be there waiting along General Holmes Drive, sparkling in the afternoon sunlight as we drove past Sydney Airport or as we ascended on a different flight.

And when we played in the park by the foreshore of Botany Bay I could not help but gaze as she rolled along the runway and up into the skies against a backdrop of the Sydney CBD on her way to Hong Kong and London.

Her long willowy frame, petite pointed nose and silvery skin were the embodiment of aviation elegance. It was not just the aircraft, for no other A346 matched her attraction, it was the whole package.

In some ways that is a surprise, for its local cousins, Virgin Blue and its Virgin Australia rebranding, have always struck me as one of the ugliest liveries in the sky.

But there is another kind of beauty. For just as the form of a mountain landscape may attract a longing glance, so too, in my eyes, may beauty be found in function. A dirty factory, a working port, a commuter train. All these may not be outwardly beautiful but they might hold stories, achievements, complexity inside.

And so it is with aircraft too. For all the elegance of the Virgin Atlantic A340-600, it is not the aircraft that I hold dearest in my heart, for that belongs to the Qantas 747-400s that have taken me on so many adventures.

Despite that, it was always my favourite to admire from the ground.

I have never seen the inside of a Virgin Atlantic A346. I’ve been on a Thai Airways A346 and that was a wonderful flight with a friendly crew and colourful interior. I doubt if the interior is anywhere near as nice on Virgin. Let’s face it, most aircraft look pretty much the same inside in economy, the A346 is really just a longer version of the ubiquitous Airbus A330s that I’ve caught so often. But maybe the service would be special, maybe the food, the entertainment or something personal and intangible that I cannot guess at.

Of the five times we passed through Hong Kong none were ever on Virgin Atlantic. It was always a transit to somewhere else, but never London, which is the only other place they flew from there.

Now I doubt I’ll ever fly with them. For today was the last flight of Virgin Atlantic from Sydney. Now their mortal enemy British Airways is the only European carrier left flying to Australia. I could still fly them from elsewhere in the world, but I doubt if I will. It wouldn’t be the same from anywhere else, the magic would be gone. The daydreams are always along the rocky outcrop that is the runway in Botany Bay, the pass across the city, the slow ascent over Epping where I first saw her.

There were hugs at the check in desks as old colleagues said goodbye, then, as if a steady stream of farewell tears, a salute from two fire engines as the aircraft made its last taxi to the runway. Then one final perfect goodbye from the most elegant bird in the sky as it receded into memory.

And I finished writing this at 3.46 pm. How appropriate.

Taking off in front of the city
Heading north along the main runway at Sydney

From my office balcony

Taking off from the East-West runway

Check in on the last day

The last time you will see these screens in Sydney

Boarding on the final day

Video of final departure taken from the Qantas Heritage Museum.