The Boeing 747-400, once the mainstay of long-haul airline operations for over two decades, became iconic for many reasons. But one particular example not only set records during her career in airline service but also remains one of the best-preserved examples of the type today.
Open to the public and a true icon of Australian aviation, I recently visited a New South Wales air museum where this particular aircraft spends her retirement, allowing visitors to experience a real piece of aviation history.
Located approximately 80 miles (128 km) south of Sydney on the main coastal highway heading towards the resort town of Batemans Bay lies Albion Park. At first glance, the town itself may not offer much to the passing tourist traveling south to the picturesque beaches of southern New South Wales. However, there lies a hidden gem within its boundaries.
At the local Shellharbour Airport (IATA WOL, ICAO YSHL), also known as Illawarra Regional Airport, located just on the northern outskirts of Albion Park and shared with the larger nearby town of Woolongong, can be found a true piece of Australian (as well as world) aviation heritage.
This quiet regional airport (which offers flights to Melbourne and Brisbane via Link Airways) is also the home of the HARS Museum (Historical Aircraft Restoration Society). And it is at HARS that one can find the first Boeing 747-400 delivered to Qantas in 1989.
Registered VH-OJA (serial number 24354) and named ‘City of Canberra’, the aircraft towers over its fellow exhibits, still resplendent in its easily identifiable white and red ‘flying kangaroo’ Qantas livery that it has continued to be displayed in since its retirement and subsequent acquisition by HARS in March 2015.
The City of Canberra in her glory days, landing in Australia for the first time. Photo: YSSYguy via Wikimedia
A brief history of VH-OJA
‘City of Canberra’ was the first of an initial order of four Boeing 747-400s (or -438 using the Qantas customer designator of ’38’) made by Qantas on March 2nd, 1987. The manufacturer delivered the plane to the Sydney-based airline in August 1989.
According to Planespotters.net, the airline had previously operated a total of 22 Boeing 747-200s, six -300s, and two of the long-range, shortened fuselage Boeing 747-SP before the arrival in the fleet of Boeing’s latest variant of its hugely successful widebody airliner.
The aircraft first rolled off the Boeing production line at Everett (Paine Field) near Seattle in February 1989. Powered by four Rolls-Royce RB211-524G2 powerplants, the plane was the 12th airframe of the new variant to be produced.
The aircraft first took to the air under the Boeing test registration N6064P on July 3rd, 1989, and its Australian registration of VH-OJA (along with its allocated name of ‘City of Canberra’) was applied on August 11th of that year.
Proudly named after the capital city of Australia, the aircraft first flew in 1989. Photo: YSSYGuy via Wikimedia Commons
Following customer acceptance flights to Las Vegas (where Qantas executives formally accepted the plane) and then to Vancouver, the aircraft returned to Everett to be prepared for its formal delivery flight to its new home in Sydney, Australia.
However, the airline had planned something rather special for the delivery flight of this new addition to its fleet. With its new long-range capabilities, the airline decided it would fly the London to Sydney segment of its delivery flight in one single hop, thereby setting a new record for the world’s longest flight by a commercial airliner in terms of distance flown.
Historic Delivery Flight – Part One
On August 13th, 1989, the aircraft, under the guidance of senior Qantas Captain David Massy-Greene, departed Everett on the first leg of its delivery flight, initially flying to London Heathrow Airport (LHR) before embarking on the onward leg to Sydney three days later.
To promote the extended range of the new variant, Qantas has decided to make the London-Sydney leg a promotional event. With the word ‘Longreach‘ emblazoned on the forward section of each side of the fuselage, the plan was to fly the second leg nonstop, using a unique blend of aviation fuel to enable the flight to cover the 10,573 miles (17,016 kilometers) without the need for a refueling stopover.
The Longreach slogan was convenient but also apt, as it happens to be the name of the town in Queensland where the airline was first incorporated in November 1920.
Having had a day on the ground in London following its flight across the North Atlantic, VH-OJA was prepared for its record-breaking flight. On the morning of August 16th, 1989, the aircraft and a skeleton crew were towed to the end of the runway before starting its engines and embarking on its (then) world record-breaking flight.
At 08:35, the aircraft’s fuel tanks were topped off (to the extent that excess fuel dripped from the vents at the end of the wings), the engines were started in turn, and the heavy aircraft lumbered down runway 27L at Heathrow as QF7441 at the start of its epic voyage.
After a flight of 20 hours and 9 minutes in the air, the aircraft touched down at Sydney’s Kingsford Smith Airport on August 17th, 1989. The flight plan subsequently showed that the fuel load would have only allowed a total flight time of 20 hours and 47minutes, leaving little room for error.
This flight became the longest delivery flight of a commercial airliner ever until it was superseded to the title by a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER delivery from Everett to Kuala Lumpur in 1993, flying a distance of 12,455 miles (20,044 kilometers). Incidentally, the longest commercial flight in terms of duration also belongs to a Qantas aircraft, as I recently reported.
A life of sterling service
Upon arrival in Sydney, the aircraft underwent a series of entry into service checks at the airline’s Jet Base at Sydney airport before operating its first revenue service to Melbourne as QF28 on September 6th, 1989. Its first international commercial service was from Sydney to Auckland, operating as flight QF43 the following day.
After 25 years and four months of outstanding service to the carrier, Qantas finally retired the aircraft in January 2015. Indeed, Qantas was the only airline the plane had flown for its entire career. The final passenger flight operated by the aircraft was from Johannesburg to Sydney as QF64 on January 13th, 2015.
During its flying career, the aircraft logged a total of 13,833 flights, carried 4,094,568 passengers, and had flown nearly 51 million miles (85 million kilometers) – the equivalent of 110 return trips to the moon.
Preservation of the historic aircraft
After protracted discussions leading up to its retirement from commercial service, Qantas and HARS came to an agreement whereby the aircraft would be flown to HARS’ site in Albion Park, where museum staff, along with a number of present and former Qantas employees, would preserve the plane and put it on display to the public.
HARS formally acquired ‘City of Canberra’ on March 8th, 2015, as a gift from Qantas. The donation of the plane to HARS effectively saved the aircraft. Until then, the airline had planned to fly VH-OJA to the aircraft desert storage facility in Victorville, California. Here, its fate would have followed several of its Qantas 747-400 sisterships (of which there were 30 in all), where it would have likely been parted out and eventually scrapped.
Following the donation being agreed upon and accepted, arrangements were put in place to ferry VH-OJA to its new retirement home, just a short hop from Sydney, which had been its home for the last 26 years. The flight was several months in the planning, including the pilots spending more than 25 hours in a flight simulator in preparation.
The aircraft was a gift from Qantas to HARS. Photo: Luke Peters / Simple Flying
Historic Delivery Flight – Part Two
The official handover of ownership from Qantas to HARS was made on March 14th, 2015, whereby the restoration company became the sole owner of ‘City of Canberra’. Ohe the morning of March 8th, 2015, VH-OJA taxied out at Sydney Airport for the last time, watched by hundreds of Qantas employees as she made her way out to the departure runway.
Boeing 747-400 ‘City of Canberra’ seen blasting off from Sydney for its last ever flight to HARS in Albion Park. Photo: Damien Aiello via Wikimedia Commons
At 07:36, the crew advanced the throttles for the last time, and VH-OJA, being light with minimal fuel onboard, lept into the sky and headed south to its new home. The final flight for VH-OJA from Sydney to Illawarra Regional Airport was just under 12 minutes duration, the shortest delivery flight by a Qantas 747 and said to be possibly the shortest delivery flight of a commercial airliner in history.
Watched by thousands of spectators up early and lined up around the airport to watch her arrival, Captains Greg Matthews and Ossie Miller planted VH-OJA down on Illawarra’s runway at 07:48, completing the 59 nautical miles (94 kilometers) flight in just under 12 minutes.
With rounds of applause emanating from the gathered crowds welcoming the huge new resident to their tiny airport, the crew shut down the Rolls-Royce engines for the final time, turned off all the hydraulic and electrical systems, and put VH-OJA into her retirement in the competent hands of HARS.
A new lease of life on display
VH-OJA now dominates the landscape around the airport where she resides, her red and white tail with its iconic ‘flying kangaroo’ logo visible from the surrounding neighborhoods. She sits right outside the main visitors’ entrance to the HARS museum, making her unavoidable to spot.
The museum is open from 09:30 until 15:30 each day. Knowledgeable guides offer tours of the museum exhibits throughout opening hours in small groups, the highlight for many will be a walk-through tour of VH-OJA.
The aircrfat is open for tours daily. Photo: Luke Peters / Simple Flying
During the tour, visitors get to walk from nose to tail on the main deck and also visit the upper deck, which is laid out in complete business class configuration, and the flight deck. Also included is a sneak peek of the crew rest area, located above the main cabin at the rear under the tail.
All sections of the passenger cabin can be toured on your visit. Photo: Luke Peters / Simple Flying
General admission to the museum includes the standard tour of VH-OJA, where visitors spend around 20-25 minutes looking onboard and around the aircraft. Walking around the underside of the port wing, the particularly observant visitor will notice an additional pylon inboard of the existing number two engine, which was once used to transport a spare engine to a stricken Qantas 747 stuck in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Only the more knowledgeable visitor will know what this was used for. Photo: Luke Peters / Simple Flying
For an additional fee, additional extended tours are available, where visitors can visit other parts of the aircraft, such as the cargo belly compartments, or even wing walks, where one can walk out along the wing to the winglets – a unique experience for those seeking something a little extra from their visit.
The tour guides, many of whom are former Qantas employees, provide additional interesting background on the aircraft and its service career, as well as the two historic delivery flights the aircraft made in that time. Indeed further exhibits in the HARS building add an additional dimension to the overall experience, making a day out at HARS highly recommended.
You can take a unique walk along the wing of this 747-400. Photo: Luke Peters / Simple Flying
The museum has a host of other exhibits, including both static aircraft and those that still fly. This includes the first DC-3 that flew for Trans Australia Airlines and a Fokker F27 that saw service with Ansett when it operated as Australia’s second national carrier.
On the day of my visit, those present were treated to the aural and visual spectacle of a shakedown flight of the world’s last remaining airworthy Lockheed Constellation (VH-EAG) following winter maintenance with HARS at the airport.
Welcome onboard the first Qantas Boeing 747-400. Photo: Luke Peters / Simple Flying
More history is coming to HARS
If the thought of clambering all over a former Qantas Boeing 747-400 is not enough to whet your appetite and enough for you to pencil in a trip to HARS on your next trip down under, then the museum has other plans that will surely sway you.
In 2017, the famous Hollywood actor and all-around aviation enthusiast John Travolta gifted his prized Boeing 707-138 to HARS to join VH-OJA and become a static display at the museum. This aircraft itself is a former Qantas machine.
It flew with the airline as VH-EBM and is something of a rarity as it is one of only 13 of the shorter variant 707-100 built by Boeing to a specification specifically required by Qantas for hot, short-field performance.
Another of the type, VH-XBA (formerly VH-EBA, coincidentally also named ‘City of Canberra’) resides at the Qantas Founders’ Museum located in Longreach, Queensland, standing alongside VH-EBQ, one of the airline’s original Boeing 747-200s.
Travolta’s beautiful aircraft is being prepared in the USA, and the museum hopes that it will be ready for its ferry flight across the Pacific Ocean sometime in 2023. Watch this space!
Source: HARS, Planespotters.net