Qantas Boeing 747 jumbo jet retirement: Why we love planes so much

I was joking about the tears. When I posted a few photos last week from the farewell event Qantas held for its last ever Boeing 747, as the big bird set off towards the Mojave Desert, I mentioned with my tongue somewhere near my cheek that a few tears were probably shed as it taxied out to the runway.

No one cries about aeroplanes, right?

But then people agreed with me. They had been crying. Onlookers had blubbed, several times. Seeing that signature red tail with the white kangaroo, that unmistakable hulking silhouette of the 747 disappearing into the blue yonder, they had been overwhelmed with emotion.

People care about the 747. They really, truly care. Before the last one departed former crew and other dignitaries at the farewell event were invited to sign the bottom of the aircraft. They wrote things on the fuselage like, "You made my world better and brighter", and, "Forever Queen of the Skies".

Another former crew member was asked to write a poem about 747s that would be stored on board the rusting carcass for eternity. The poem contained lines like, "Soon your engines will fall silent…"

There's part of me that wants to think that's completely bonkers. This is a hunk of bolts and metal we're talking about, an empty shell, a vehicle for the ghosts of safety demonstrations past. It's a bus that flies. Why would anyone care so much about the last ratty old 747 finally making its way into the desert?

But then I thought about it a bit longer. I wondered if, possibly, this plane had made my world better and brighter as well. I wondered if I had memories tied to this thing. I wondered if I actually loved it too.

And… I do. I most definitely do. Some of my most cherished and powerful travel memories are tied up with this strange-looking plane with the bulbous head.

My most amazing childhood adventures involved the "jumbo jet". Maybe it was because my dad was a massive plane nerd, but he would always get excited when we were travelling on a 747, and he would get us kids pumped up about it as well.

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The sheer size of it. The four engines across impossibly broad wings. The internal staircase leading up to who even knew where? The cigarette-smoke-filled aisles that just went on and on and on.

We travelled to Europe and to the US a few times when I was a child, and on every journey part of the excitement of the holiday was the fact we were travelling on a jumbo. It's impossible to separate the holiday from the transport in my mind. It was all one big amazing adventure.

Ever since then I would always look for 747s on the runway when I was at an airport. I always knew when I was flying on one, too; this was an "event" aircraft. B737s, 767s, A320s, A330s – whatever. Entirely interchangeable. But a jumbo jet? You always knew when you were flying on a jumbo.

I eventually got to sit upstairs, once, too. My whole family did. It was an economy-class cabin, so not that special, but even then I was amazed that there were little storage compartments between the seat and the window. Incredible to be on the top deck.

I saw Antarctica from the window of a jumbo. Flying from Sydney to Johannesburg, I happened to be at the back of the darkened cabin, waiting to use the bathroom, when I peered out of the tiny window in the door and spotted ice caps, sheets of blinding white that could only be the beginning of the great southern continent.

The last time I ever flew in a 747 was special, too: I got upgraded to business class. It was a flight from Sydney to Los Angeles; the A380 we were supposed to have flown in was subbed out at the last minute for the old jumbo.

I was sitting back in economy when the crew manager came back and said he had recognised my name on the register, and offered to send me up the front. Incredible. Something that has never happened to me before or since. It wasn't fancy up there – this was an old plane with old facilities. But gee, what an ego-swelling luxury. (Craig, if you're reading this, a heartfelt thank you.)

I'm hardly alone in having these emotional ties to a hunk of fabric and metal. See all of the people who wrote poems or love letters for the last 747, or who shed actual tears when it departed. See all of the people who love reading stories about planes on this very website, who send aircraft-related yarns to the top of our "most-read" charts each year, the kind of people who, you assume, love spotting planes in the real world too, who love nothing more than flying on planes or even just thinking about doing so.

It is sad that the 747 fleet has been retired. Part of my personal travel history has been retired with it. And sooner or later my new favourite plane, the A380, will probably go the same way – it seems destined to have a much shorter shelf life.

I will be sad about that as well. And maybe that's reasonable.

Did you love flying in the 747? Do you have travel memories related to the jumbo jet? What is your favourite plane now?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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