Farewell to the Queen of the Skies

Qantas 747 taking off from Sydney Airport

It had to be Brighton. Almost nineteen years ago, less than two months after those aircraft crashed into the Twin Towers in New York, we set out on our first flight on a Qantas Boeing 747, the Queen of the Skies. It was not our first flight on a 747, that came a few years earlier on my very first overseas trip, but it was my first on a Qantas jumbo.

What made it extra special was that we were flying away on our honeymoon. After our wedding night at the Novotel Brighton Le Sands we sat by the beach and watched the aircraft fly across Botany Bay to and from Sydney Airport until it was our turn to leave.
Our flight to London lasted over twenty-four hours, longer than normal due to a four hour delay in the aircraft at our transit stop at Bangkok’s old Don Mueang Airport. Yet it seemed to pass so quickly and I felt sad to leave my seat when we finally arrived at Heathrow, so good was the experience on the Qantas 747.
So when it came time to choose a location to view this final flight of a Qantas 747 out of Australia I knew that it had to be where the story began.
I had been there for the last scheduled Qantas 747 international passenger flight into Australia and the farewell flights over Sydney and Canberra. Now it was time to say one last goodbye.
I park the car at Brighton Le Sands and walk along the beach up to the mouth of the Cooks River. The rocks are usually the haunt of fishermen, but today they are nowhere to be seen. Instead men, women and families dotted the isthmus, keeping socially distant but sociable all the same.
Across the other side of the river, by the old control tower, is an even greater crowd.
There is still time to wait before the scheduled 2 pm departure. The smallest of the quadjets, a tiny unmarked cargo BAe-146 puts its STOL capabilities on display as it rises up into the sky. I flew on a couple of them in rural Queensland.
Buzzing around above us, hovering, circling, dipping down then up again, are news helicopters filming the farewell. I watch a live feed on my phone.
It is obvious that QF7474 is not departing on schedule.
More aircraft land, take off, including the final iteration of the Boeing 747, the 747-8, for UPS. After today it is likely only freight versions of the 747 will grace Australian skies, though one can hope a passenger 747-8i will make a visit now and then as they have before.

Still we wait. Though most of us are sad to see the Qantas 747 leave, I think all of us out there spotting wish it would hurry up and go already.
Eventually there is movement on the flight apps and the live stream. A flash of red and white behind the bushes, then the arc of water cannon salute. Finally VH-OEJ, Wunala, appears. Like a fashion model on a runway, she stops for a pose in front of Shep’s Mound, then continued out along runway 16R jutting into Botany Bay.

I photograph, gaze through the binoculars, a wedding present from our best man. Suddenly I am on that aircraft, snuggling in to my new wife, feeling the thrill of adventure, the anticipation of the take-off.
But before she reaches the end she stops and turns.

Empty of passengers, does she only need a short take-off?
No, she taxis back, returns to the tree cover. OEJ returns to the northern end of the runway, slows. I track her on the flight radar app. She’s speeding up.

I had thought the plan was to take-off to the north, like all the other aircraft prior to OEJ. Instead I watch her race past the trees, the control tower and lift her nose into the sky.

I am overjoyed, this is what I dreamed of.
Wunala heads south shrinking, then turns curves in the distance back towards us, overflying Cronulla, the Georges River, then behind the Novotel, as if a nod back towards that wedding that started our relationship.

She roars low overhead, showing her belly, curves again out towards the Eastern and Northern Suburbs, then back towards the city, where she will perform against the famous landmarks of central Sydney.

I start heading back along the beach, it’s already getting late.
Then, turning back I see that the 747 has gone over the Harbour Bridge and is now heading back towards the coast. I spot her to the east, a small, but significant, red and white shape in the sky. I wish I was back at Cape Solander, watching her fly along the coastal cliffs, following the route of those Canberra flights that used to be so frequent, though never in such a large aircraft.
As I walk I watch as she speeds southwards until, finally, she disappears below the horizon, heading past Wollongong to say farewell to her sister, VH-OJA, at the HARS Air Museum.

And though I am sad that I shall never be able to see the uniquely shaped body of a 747 docked at an Australian airport or watch a Qantas 747 grace the skies carrying my dreams and memories along with it, I console myself that at least I too can greet VH-OJA, sit in those blue patterned seats that first carried me aloft on that first overseas adventure with Qantas.
Farewell to the Queen of the Skies and thank you for those memories.
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