In a fitting retirement for its oldest Boeing 747-400 aircraft, if all goes to plan Qantas flight QF7474 is due to land at 7:47am on Sunday at the Illawarra Regional Airport near Wollongong, NSW.
Four highly experienced Qantas pilots have already spent more than 25 hours in a flight simulator preparing for the tight landing, with Captain Greg Matthews - the pilot in command on the day - having also scoped out the final approach path in a far smaller Piper Cherokee.
The 747-400 can normally fly for up to 16 hours - and in fact, this very aircraft once set a record for the world's longest commercial flight for the longest ever commercial flight, non-stop from London to Sydney in 20 hours, 9 minutes and 5 seconds in August 1989. Its last flight was from Johannesburg to Sydney on January 14, after which the final crew signed their names on an internal wall.
The final flight of VH-OJA from Sydney Airport to Wollongong is expected to be far, far shorter - just over 15 minutes. Then, it will be placed on display at the Historical Aircraft Restoration Society (HARS), which is home the largest collection of both flying and static heritage aircraft in Australia, including an old Qantas Lockheed Super Constellation.
Qantas is hoping for good weather on the day, as the runway needs to be dry to reduce braking time and the aircraft can land in only one direction, from the north, which has the longest runway. The aircraft will carry 25,400 litres of fuel, versus the maximum of 217,000 litres. It will have four pilots, partly so that one can spend the entire flight focused on being the radio operator, communicating with the ground.
The four pilots, led by Captain Matthews, who is Qantas's manager of training and checking for the 747 also include first officer Peter Hagley, a 747 technical pilot, second officer Michael East and Captain Ossie Miller, the 747 fleet captain. Second officer East was chosen for the job in part because he learned to fly in the Illawarra and used to be a flying instructor based at Albion Park. In total, the pilots on board have more than 50,000 flying hours between them.
There will be no passengers on board, and the entire operation has been carefully supervised by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority.
The four pilots expect to push back from Sydney Airport's domestic terminal between 7am and 7:10am and to then take off from runway 16. They will then head out toward the coast, keeping an altitude of around 4000 feet throughout the flight before reaching a five nautical mile approach path to the airport.
The airspace around VH-OJA will be restricted to keep away light and spectator aircraft for the visual approach and to avoid other aircraft getting trapped in the 747's wake turbulence. From 6am, the main runway will close. By 7am, the cross-runway will be closed.
VH-OJA will approach the airport at a speed of 132 knots, which is far lower than the usual 180 knots due to its lower than normal weight. The pilots will then aim to land 1135 feet into the runway because they need to ensure the tail of the aircraft doesn't end up in the grass.
The longest runway at Albion Park is just 1819 metres with a width of just 30 metres. Typically, a 747 lands on much longer runways that are 45 metres wide. In this case, outboard engines 1 and 4 will overhang the grass after the landing. To avoid damaging the runway, which is typically used by light aircraft, VH-OJA will reduce the tyre pressure to 120 pounds per square inch from the typical 208. In addition, taxiways at the airport will be fitted with Tuff Track matting to ensure they can handle the extra weight.
Roads near the airport will be closed at the time of landing to ensure that drivers don't get distracted by the 747's landing and cause accidents as a result. Local residents have also been warned about the landing.
Qantas will have a ground support team in place, along with a 747 capable tug to tow the aircraft to its final resting place in front of a HARS hangar after the landing. There, three of the four engines will be removed because there is still enough life in them to be used on other Qantas aircraft. Eventually, as Qantas has more 747 engines that are at the end of their life available, they will be sent down to Albion Park and fitted on VH-OJA.
The aircraft will be placed on display in top condition. The livery has received a coating of Permaguard protector to ensure it preserves the full colouring in the sun. The airline has also fully cleaned the inside and outside of the aircraft. It has also removed the potable water and galley carts, so the latter can be used on its other 747s.
VH-OJA is the first retired 747-400 to be preserved on display. Typically, when aircraft are retired Qantas sends them to the Californian desert where they are sold or scrapped for parts. But it does have an earlier version 747-200 aircraft on display at Longreach, Queensland, which has a runway of a similar length.
There are no plans for VH-OJA to ever fly again, but if Qantas did decide there was some need to move the aircraft, the length of the runway at Albion Park is long enough for the aircraft to take off again, so long as it was made light enough.