Old and new: Sydney to Canberra for a day

Yesterday was a pretty momentous day in Canberra with various politicians, including a couple of the independents who hold the balance of power, announcing that they were retiring at the next election. And we got a new PM as well. I swear that, despite being in Canberra yesterday, I had nothing to do with it.

No, I was busy hanging out with my colleagues doing real work. And catching Qantas Boeing 737-400s before they retire. These twenty year old aircraft are scheduled to be phased out of the fleet by early next year, to be replaced on this route by Boeing 737-800s and the no-longer produced but still younger (2000+) Boeing 717s.

Isn’t the latest and greatest the best? Well, I have a lot of memories of the 734 on the Sydney – Canberra route, along with a few others in Australia. My first flight out of Canberra, back in 1992, was with Ansett, likely a 737-300, but nobody flies those in Australia any more. But I did fly with Australian Airlines more than once and they used 734s. Then there was that flight into a storm front, which gave me a lot of confidence in this aircraft’s abilities.

So I decided to make this trip a farewell celebration of the 737-400.

Qantas Boeing 737-400

Fortunately, the 734 flights were competitive in pricing and almost as good in timing as the turboprop and Virgin offerings, so I was able to book them. With the kind of ferociously bad weather that the South Coast was experiencing, I was glad that I did.

With B and Alex staying at home for the day I caught a bus in the dark to Padstow station, then a train to the Domestic Terminal. As I had already checked in and received a boarding pass on my phone there was plenty of time to wander around and soak up the atmosphere of Terminal 3.


The terminal has undergone some interior renovations recently. The reds, greys and clean lines reflect those of its user projecting a smart, professional appearance. I like it.

Ghosts in the terminal

There was enough time for a small breakfast, taken while gazing across the tarmac towards the international terminal. Not long now, I remind myself, as a variety of aircraft taxi by or take-off or land in a spray of water.

Two Qantas buses

Then it is time to go to gate 1 to board my flight. There waits VH-TJR, or Cockatiel as she’s known. This Boeing 737-400 hatched on October 29, 1992 before joining Australian Airlines, who merged with Qantas a year later. Even in my nostalgic state I have to admit that she’s no looker, unlike some of the aircraft trundling to the gates or hangers around us. But it’s not all about appearance, it’s how she flies that counts and in that respect I have the utmost confidence in her.

Qantas Boeing 767-300

A Qantas Airbus A330-300 taxis behind our flight

I barely hear the boarding announcement, and so it seems, do many others as passengers just trickle through the gate instead of the usual big queue. My phone boarding pass has to go under the desk scanner and not the portable reader another gate attendant is using. I grab a pair of headphones, allegedly made by Chinese prison labour, as I enter, miss any newspapers that might be available.

View from the airbridge.

The aircraft quickly fills up until not a single seat is spare. I am at the left window seated in 16A, a little behind the wing. The hexagonally patterned grey seat covers are looking tired, the plastics of the interior yellowed. It’s dull and ageing, but there’s a solidity about the appearance that is reassuring.

Business class – what’s the point on this short flight?

Economy class

Eventually we taxi away from the bridge and out towards the northern end of the main runway. The number 787 is now synonymous with delays and as QF787 that’s what we experienced. The captain announces that we are eighth in the queue, behind international heavies and regional turboprops like Rex’s Saab 340s and a Fairchild Metroliner of Brindabella Airlines.

Brindabella Airlines Metroliner and Qantas 767-300

I plugged in the earphones and tried to find some reasonable music to listen to. The channel numbers did not correspond to those listed in the magazine and some were missing entirely. Eventually I settled on the classical channel.

There were light showers outside and I could see the wind sock raised. But there was also an opening of blue sky ahead and even a rainbow. I was more concerned that we would encounter the big weather system that had been battering the South Coast over the past couple of days.


As we raced into the air the sunlight breaking through the cloud shone of the wet surface of the parallel third runway and the sea surrounding it. We turned south across the Kurnell Peninsula and were soon feeling the bumps as we ascended through the clouds. Then we were above them and the seatbelt light was switched off, the aircraft still angled upwards, the ground obscured by white.

Concentric circles at the end of the runway

Kurnell Peninsula and the entrance to Botany Bay

Rising above the clouds

The two cabin crew members quickly began serving the snacks, a big chocolate biscuit and juice or water. After what seemed to be only five minutes eating time they began collecting the rubbish. With only 31 minutes flight time we are lucky to get anything.

Cabin service

Bikkies and juice

Then it is time to begin our descent. Suddenly the cloud opens up, I spot wind turbines and lo and behold my favourite sight of Lake George appears! It has obviously declined from its maximum but this wide shallow lake is still fuller than I have seen it in years.


Cloud clearing

Wind power!

Crossing Lake George

The other side of the lake

In the distance the snow capped Brindabellas are visible, but the skies over Canberra are clear. All those weather worries for nothing ! We soon land and pull up at the furthest of the glass airbridges. I don’t want to hurry off this aircraft, but I feel that I should get to work as soon as I can, so I quickly make my way out to the taxi rank. My jacket was removed in the warmth of the aircraft cabin but I feel no need for it out in the fresh Canberra air.




Time to leave

Looking back

My day is spent in the confines of offices, though thankfully they have views across Civic and out towards the still denuded Mount Stromlo and beyond to the mountains. It evokes memories of bushwalks so close to my house in Higgins back as a university student in Canberra.

It is rare for the whole team (minus one who is on a long overseas holiday) to be together, so we go out for after work drinks. I would normally book a return flight as early as possible, but I felt the need to allow as much time as possible with the rest of the team and my flight back to Sydney is not until 6.30 pm. One of my colleagues drives me back to the airport after the drinks.

He drops me off in front of a big banner advertising a free iPhone app from our employer as part of Canberra’s centenary celebrations. Unfortunately, the app hasn’t been released yet so the advertising is premature.

This is the first time I have seen Canberra International Airport in a near finished state and I am impressed. Water features glow with cycling colours in front of the tall glass entrance. It is bright and spacious, grand enough to befit the nation’s capital, though perhaps not its somewhat limited aviation status. Despite the International in its name there are no such scheduled services, only the odd international diplomatic flight to the Fairbairn RAAF base across the other side of the runway.

Drop off point


Looking back towards the drop-off point

Sculpture and departures

Departures prior to security

Again I have checked in using my mobile phone, so I pass straight through security. The food and retail options appear quite limited: a newsagent and a couple of coffee shops. Apparently there are a couple of other cafes elsewhere. There is another advert for our app on a moving billboard in front of the Qantas lounge. I decide to keep my single lounge pass for another day and try to photograph some of the action outside, but the sloping windows reflect too much interior light.

More sculpture in departures

Shiny paths

Looking towards the shops

Near Gate 11

The aircraft returning me to Sydney tonight is none other than Cockatiel again. I get the same aircraft a lot lately, but in this case I am not particularly fussed. We board the aircraft and I notice the Qantas 737-800 with the Wallabies versus British and Irish Lions rugby union team decals is parked next to us.

Cockatiel again

Bring it on

I have the bad habit of sitting in the row behind my ticketed seat and I do it again tonight. But in my changing seats the other person seated in my correct row realises she should be in the one behind. I, and the man opposite me, end up each with three seats to ourselves: The aircraft is not as packed as on the way up.

Welcome onboard



I’m early on board

Cabin entertainment

We taxi to the northern end of the runway, colourful lights marking out the pattern of the airport. We take off towards the south, passing the amber and white swirls of suburban Canberra before the lights disappear beneath grey clouds.

The cabin is darkened for take-off

Taxi please!

Lights of Canberra

Once the seatbelt lights are switched off the crew begin serving snacks. This time it’s a silverside panini. It tastes a little dry but is surprisingly filling. I get another juice, while many others are going for beers or miniature bottles of wine. The man opposite me is given packs of pretzels instead of a roll.

Silverside, horseradish, mayonnaise, cheese panini

As I sit in this cosy cabin, darkness outside, I feel like I could be flight any long distance tonight. It’s not a widebody aircraft, but the more angular decor, the greys and faded plastic remind me of the aircraft’s larger siblings, 767s and 747s.

The rapid collection of wrappers and scraps soon dispels that cruising notion as we prepare for descent. I wonder if we’ll follow the path of those aircraft we see on our way home at night and pass over the Sutherland Shire. Maybe I will see my house, but with all the cloud outside it’s hard to tell.

No, we are swinging up north and then looping around for a southerly landing tonight. Once the cloud thins out Sydney’s city lights seem to go on forever and I don’t know where we are until we cross the Parramatta River. Dark grey tendrils of cloud above the amber lights give the scene a mysterious, almost hellish, appearance.

Soft clouds

Sydney lights

Landing soon

Then we are skipping over the Alexandria canal, the Ikea at Tempe, the container yards, for a hard landing on the main runway. The harsh airport lights reflect in the sheen of the wet tarmac as we trundle towards our gate, red and white Qantas tails queuing in front of their jetbase.

Terminal 2 – Jetstar (and Virgin)


Qantas domestic lineup

It is time to say goodbye to Cockatiel and the other 737-400s. Maybe I’ll fly them again before they leave the fleet, maybe not. But I’ll thank them for the service and hope that their 737-800 and 717 replacements give the same level of comfort and service in future.

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