Retrospective: Qantas' first Boeing 747 jumbo jet

By David Flynn, October 15 2017
Retrospective: Qantas' first Boeing 747 jumbo jet

As Qantas takes delivery of its first Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, we look back to the debut of another all-new and game-changing member of the fleet: the airline’s first Boeing 747, in September 1971. With thanks to Qantas, here’s the story of that delivery flight – the day the Flying Kangaroo met the majestic jumbo jet.

September 1971: The big bird dropped through the cold air over Sydney’s inner suburbs and began its final landing approach. Lower and lower until the upturned faces of people hurrying to work could be seen quite plainly.

Sixteen tyres touched the still damp north-south runway of Sydney’s Kingsford Smith Airport and the aircraft ran on. Gently, the two nose wheels came down too and the huge jumbo shuddered as the revered thrust of the engines brought it to a halt. 

The first Qantas 747B in its brand new livery with signature ochre band had finally reached home and the 8,500 mile delivery flight of VH-EBA, the City of Canberra was over. 

It had all begun some 52 hours earlier in Seattle Washington - the birthplace of Boeing Jumbo jets and many other commercial aircraft.

It would be the first 747B for Qantas and Australia and it marked the beginning of a complete refurbishment of the Qantas ‘look’. 

For Qantas Friday the 13th of August 1971 was a day of good omen as the City of Canberra was prepared for its first International flight from Seattle-Tacoma Airport and about 170 official guests, pressmen and staff were checked in. 

It was the first real test for Qantas in handling the wide body, high capacity jet. 

At 10.19am the Qantas 747B was pushed out and a short while later took off for San Francisco - the first leg of its journey to Australia. 

Cruising at 33,000 feet at 575 miles an hour the City of Canberra sailed over the high peaks of America’s north-west. This was the first time the aircraft had ever been fully exposed to public scrutiny and for many of the guests it was the first time they had ever been on a 747. 

Customers wandered about the aircraft at their leisure; peering into every nook and cranny inside the enormous cabin, others trying every one of the seven channels of the inflight music and entertainment system and a few just sitting back in their armchairs in awe at the size and comfort of the aircraft. 

There were some who took it a little more in their stride. For among the official guests were E.H (Tex) Bouillioun, Group Vice President, Commercial Airplane Group of the Boeing Company and Brice Torell, President of Pratt and Whitney Aircraft. It was the unique Captain Cook Lounge (the first of the large 747B lounges) that attracted the greatest attention and admiration:

After one hour and 41 minutes of flying, Captain Bruce Fawcett, Qantas Assistant Flight Superintendent Training, landed the aircraft at San Francisco International Airport. It was to be a brief refuelling stop before the 747B took off for Honolulu. 

On this 4 hour 37 minute sector it was the cabin crew’s turn to test their years of planning for this occasion. One hundred and eighty seven customers were waiting for lunch and in an operation notable for its smoothness, piping hot turkey and lamb dinners emerged from the two galleys - one of them tucked away in the hold under the economy cabin. 

Post lunch entertainment brought another first with the showing of the first inflight movie on an Australian jetliner and the sardonic humour of Walter Matheau in “A New Leaf” kept the passengers amused for the remainder of the flight. 

At 4pm Honolulu time, the aircraft touched down in Hawaii where everyone was greeted by hula girls, a band and sweet smelling floral leis. It was time for rest and it would be 33 hours before the flight was resumed.

In the early hours of Monday morning the City of Canberra was off again for the most exciting part of the entire delivery flight. 

A non-stop flight from Honolulu to Sydney meant an enormous quantity of fuel was loaded aboard – 151 tonnes to carry the aircraft over 5,176 statute miles. The weight of fuel alone was more than the weight of a fully laden Boeing 707 V-Jet. 

Everyone aboard was informed that as the aircraft took off it would become the heaviest civil aircraft ever to take off from Honolulu weighing in at346 tonnes. 

For 9 hours and 43 minutes the City of Canberra flew onwards, battling 135 miles per hour headwinds while passengers watched another movie and slept. It was burning off its fuel at the rate of 1.4 tonnes an hour and as the load decreased, the aircraft climbed from 28,000 to 35,000 feet. 

At 7:10am it crossed the eastern coast of Australia and was joined by two escort aircraft flying in close formation and circled Sydney to display the latest addition to the fleet of Australia’s own international airline and its brand new livery. 

At 7:40am the City of Canberra landed and on-board the passengers spontaneously applauded a superb touchdown. The flight was over and Qantas had brought the 747B to Australia marking a significant change to long haul flying and the beginning of a new brand identity for Qantas. 

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David Flynn is the Editor-in-Chief of Executive Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.

10 Mar 2011

Total posts 527

It was truly the golden age of flying and an era when Qantas was setting milestones. What a glorious time it would have been to luxuriate in the lounge inside the bump of a 747. Lovely!

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

29 Nov 2013

Total posts 476

It has quite a history and amazingly still seems to be in service in Libya. The aircraft history is detailed here.

31 Mar 2014

Total posts 377

I can't believe it is still flying! Poor plane

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

29 Nov 2013

Total posts 476

Poor plane or poor passengers...

It's had some time sitting around though - I've not had a chance to compare the op-hours but yeah, the lady must be getting tired...

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

09 Feb 2015

Total posts 371

It has stated on your link the aircraft has been scraped. What an aircraft to keep flying for that long. Quality engineering.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

05 Jun 2014

Total posts 210

Something isn't,right about the fuel part. Needs 151tonnes for a HNL-SYD but burnsit at 1.4tonnes per hour. I don't think it took 104 hours to get from HNL-SYD. Anyway that would be a mighty efficient plane if it was 1.4 tonnes per hour. Perhaps 14???

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

29 Nov 2013

Total posts 476

Probably a typo - David is in the US so maybe he meant 15.1 tonnes and 10.4 hours...Not sure if Qantas had their standard safety fuel amount policy in place at that time but 15+ tonnes for a 10+hr flight would leave 1+ tonnes in reserve which would be close SOP

Awesome story!  Loved the pics, especially the shaggers-pad upstairs.  Very shagadelic. And of course the crew carving a roast of some sort on the trolley in the aisle.  Hilarious.  Times certainly have changed considerably. Excellent story.

26 Jul 2016

Total posts 5

In 1979 when I was 8 years old I flew Qantas SYD-HNL and LHR-BAH-SIN-SYD with my parents as part of a RTW trip. First class on the 747B. I remember the Captain's Club lounge at SYD (I think you could invite friends who weren't even flying in for a drink - no security back then). Also the colourful fabric seats and the piped music with the uncomfortable plastic tube headphones. If you put your ear next to the armrest you could actually hear the music coming out of the headphone socket! On overnight flights pax used to rush upstairs as soon as the seat belt sign was switched off and grab one of the sofas at the rear of the lounge to use as a bed. And of course the famous Qantas roast beef they used to carve for you at your seat.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

28 Oct 2011

Total posts 468

The Captain's Club lounge was landside - before immigration. That's why non-travellers could go in with you. And tiny, compared with today's lounges.


Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

23 Sep 2017

Total posts 162

I wonder if any new civil aircraft can ever have the impact of the 747 launch. It was in its day quite momentous - a true trailblazer.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

28 Jul 2016

Total posts 108

Hopefully a 797 will do that. It would revolutionise the market. Long skinny routes are the future, we are just waiting for that plane to make that future a reality.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

18 Feb 2015

Total posts 122

Love to see more quality pictures of the seats in all cabins

Jetstar Airways - Qantas Frequent Flyer

18 Oct 2017

Total posts 1

An amazing aircraft. Love the photos - thanks for sharing markpk. One of a kind the 747 and I'm lucky enough to be heading off soon on one and on the upper deck. If only it was still as glamorous as these photos show.

23 Sep 2015

Total posts 47

My first ever flight was on a Qantas 742 back in 1974 going to LHR (via I think Perth, Bombay and somewhere else) with my parents. Fast-forward 39yrs later and I took my second and what may probably be my last flight on a jumbo to LAX and JFK. Flew earlier this year back to LHR on an A388 and 777W - would have much preferred the new style interior on the old bird...

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

20 Oct 2017

Total posts 4

It would be nice to have one of the new Dreamliners painted in this old livery.

23 Sep 2015

Total posts 47

Or maybe one of 'Dreaming' colour schemes? Then we could have a Dreaming Dreamliner...

Emirates Airlines - Skywards

19 Jul 2014

Total posts 29

It was quite wonderful working the lounge on the upper deck, looking after the flight deck and pax enjoying a get to know you moment, some became very friendly with each other indeed.

Economy at that time was confirgered 3x4x2, very comfortable considering today's arrangement. The lower lobe as the galley on the lower deck was called, was at times a great place to grab a nap, rather that sitting a crew rest seat, ie EYC seat outside the galley. Many wonderful hours were spent on those beautiful flying machines.

Thai Airways International - Royal Orchid Plus

13 Jan 2017

Total posts 31

As moecat said above - would be great to see photos of the different cabin and seat layouts from this early QF bird

Also - the article mentions two aircraft escorting the final approach in to Sydney - what were they?? (aviation nerd trivia question)

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