Qantas Boeing 747 jumbo jet retirement: Veteran pilot says goodbye to 'Queen of the skies'

Captain Mark Kelly has timed his retirement to perfection. The veteran Qantas pilot made a career out of flying the Boeing 747 aircraft, fondly dubbed the "Queen of the Skies".

But after 36 years of flying the jumbo jet that revolutionised aviation, Mr Kelly this week landed the plane for the final time after a farewell joy flight for the 747's dedicated fans. On Wednesday the plane will be sent to the Mojave Desert plane "boneyard" in California.

The 63-year-old Sydneysider said he felt proud to fly the farewell flight for the 747, an aircraft he has flown his entire career at Qantas. But he was emotional too when leaving the cockpit for the final time.

"On departure we had a water cannon salute. I have a sneaking suspicion some of that water had found its way into my eye."

As passengers disembarked, Mr Kelly said he "sat up in the flight deck for a good hour or so, and I'd still be there if I hadn't been dragged away".

Always destined for the skies, Mr Kelly acquired his pilot's licence at age 17 in Melbourne before he even was allowed to drive a car. He entered the military and flew F-111 fighter jets before switching to Qantas in 1984. He flew several versions of the 747 over his nearly four decades of service.

Some of his most exhilarating memories involve flying to the old Hong Kong airport, renowned for its steep descent beside apartment buildings where pilots could see washing hanging on the line and passengers could wave to residents. Mr Kelly remembers the driving rain and turbulence from the nearby mountains which made the "stick and rudder" landing with the older aircraft even trickier.

"There seemed to be a typhoon every time I flew in," he said.

"Just prior [to landing] you had to turn around 50 degrees to the right to line up on the runway. Then you had just 200 feet (61 metres) to straighten and land.


"You had no time to get it wrong."

Another career highlight was taking a two-year leave of absence in 2008 to embark on the "fascinating" mission of becoming the Saudi royal family's private pilot. Mr Kelly remembers gold-plated toilets on board, red carpet welcomes wherever they went, and landing on airstrips not designed for 747 jumbos.

The plane is so beloved because of how it transformed the world, and the jet still triggers feelings of nostalgia for many former passengers.

"Going back 50 years, the 747 opened up aviation to the general public," Mr Kelly said. "It brought down costs and allowed us to travel long distances. I'm sure so many Baby Boomers recall their first flight going overseas on a 747. When they were coming home they'd get on in London and hear the 'G'day mate' from the captain -- just hearing that Australian accent made them feel at home."

The future for big planes is bleak as the aviation industry limps through the COVID-19 pandemic. The crisis is likely to hasten the existing trend of airlines moving to smaller, more efficient aircraft. On Friday, British Airways, the largest remaining operator of 747s, revealed its jumbo fleet would be retired immediately.

As the 747 is mothballed, Mr Kelly thinks the Airbus A380 superjumbo's days are numbered too. Qantas says its A380s will be parked for at least three years, but there's no guarantee the huge aircraft will return to the skies.

"Big airplanes that burn so much fuel are probably not where the future lies," Mr Kelly said. "Qantas is in a wonderful position with its smaller aircraft - the 787 and hopefully one day the A350. While there may still be a place in the world for the A380, my view is it won't be there forever."

While Mr Kelly's retirement aligned nicely with the 747's removal from Qantas's fleet, he feels for his friends who remain. Pilots are highly skilled with specialised training and during good times get to cruise the globe at 36,000 feet. But they are vulnerable in a downturn when their narrow expertise becomes a handicap.

"For my colleagues it's a really tough time. We're highly specialised and highly prized with our skills to fly aircraft of all types. You can't take that skill and move to something else easily. It's so specific, the skillset as a pilot," he said. "People say 'what am I going to do now?' You look around and there's very little."

From personal experience Mr Kelly knows a bit about this uncertainty, having seen several major crises during his career, including the September 11 attacks, the collapse of Ansett, the SARS pandemic and the global financial crisis.

But for all the doom and gloom 2020 has brought, he remains optimistic about the industry's future.

"When we experienced 9/11, did we ever think people would want to travel again? [And] the SARS crisis back in Hong Kong when people were concerned about close proximity. People have short memories. Once there is a vaccine that pent up demand for people, Australians, to get out there and join the world will return.

"There are happy landings out the other side."

As for life in retirement, Mr Kelly still hopes to contribute to aviation but for now he's looking forward to family time and making up for all those lost years spent in airports and hotels.

"My wife Alex said I've spent more time with the Queen of the Skies than with her, so it might be time to make amends to her."

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