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Goodbye Queen Of The Skies

by Nancy Jackson BALPA Media and Communications Officer

There has always been something special about climbing the steps of the Queen Of The Skies. Like many people born in the late 70’s, my earliest experiences of air travel are inextricably linked with the Jumbo. My dad was a 747 pilot and as such many of our ‘holidays’ were actually accompanying him on his work trips. I remember being awestruck as we climbed the steps of the huge aircraft… so much bigger than anything else at the time.

With four engines, upper deck and sheer size, the Jumbo has always been impressive and I, like many travellers of the last 50 years, will treasure memories of going upstairs to visit the flight deck (in the days when that was allowed) to meet the pilots and see where the real action took place.


Today I live close to Heathrow Airport and I have regularly seen Jumbo Jets thundering over-head emblazoned in BA colours. But shortly after 8.30am BST today, British Airways’ last two Heathrow-based Boeing 747 aircraft departed from the airport on their final flight with more than 18,000 people watching via a live stream online.

It was time to say goodbye to BA’s Jumbos after half a century of proud service, in which the aircraft helped change global aviation and allow more people to travel to more destinations than any other aircraft.

Today there are modern, efficient aircraft to fill the void left by the majestic 747. But while it is not a complete surprise, (the fleet was due to be retired in 2024), their final departure today will no doubt be met with sadness by the people who travelled on board and admired the aircraft, as well as those who had the privilege of piloting it. These BALPA members have shared their memories of their time at the controls of the Queen Of The Skies:

Captain Martin Drake

One does not really appreciate the size of a 747 until you actually walk around one during a pre-departure inspection. It was the first aircraft that I had flown that I could walk under the fuselage without either having to stoop or hitting my head. It is also quite daunting when sitting in one of the pilots’ seats.
Like my first solo, I have never forgotten my first flight in the jumbo. LHR-JFK, it was a flight of firsts. First transatlantic flight, first negotiating with the American ATC and first visit to New York.

JFK is an airfield that has its challenges. The runways look very short when you are landing with the cockpit several stories high. The taxiways are very narrow and the terminal very tight.  ‘You really want me to park this in that unbelievably small space?!’

I flew the 747-400 for just under 20 years. The aircraft never failed to amaze me. Turbulence was taken in its stride. Challenging airfields, Mexico City,  Hong Kong, San Diego and of course JFK needed careful planning but the aircraft always flew as desired, the outcome was never in doubt.

Even when events did not go quite right, the technical design of the systems meant there was always a back-up system to keep things safe. I always had confidence in its ability to get to an airfield safely.

The Queen Of The Skies is probably the last of the breed of aircraft with the pilots designed into its operation. We flew the machine rather than operated it. It has been a true privilege to command such an airplane and I for one will regret its passing.

Captain Dave Smith

His memories of flying the 747 are included in this TV report:

Captain Chris Hammond

I remember being a young(ish) First Officer with BOAC/BA when the first Pan Am 747 service to London Heathrow arrived. I wasn’t at work, but put my uniform on and went for a look. You could, in those days. Just a chap in a hut guarding the barrier to the apron. A cheery wave was the only security. ‘Clipper Young America’ stood in front of me. Or rather, mostly ABOVE me. I was flying the 707 at the time, and that was classed as a ‘Big Jet’. The go-to book in those days of earlyish jet flight was ‘Handling the Big Jets’, by DP Davies. He had to modify his tome after this genuinely BIG jet came onto the scene. Size-wise it really is something else.

Pilot training was different because of its size. When I converted onto it, the instructors emphasised that on landing, the wheels might be an inch from the ground, but the guy that’s flying it is looking at the runway from the equivalent of a third floor bedroom window. The nose wheel when you are steering it on the ground is a tennis court behind your hand on the tiller. When turning 180 degrees on a narrow runway it’s a heart-stopping experience as the pilot can only see grass when he begins the final turn.

It rapidly acquired descriptive nicknames – Jumbo, of course, ‘Fat Albert’, ‘The Aluminium Overcast’. Latterly with the advent of the 400 series it was called the ‘Video Nasty’, mainly by the lovers of the older, analogue versions, of which I was one. The -400 was an entirely new aeroplane. It had entirely digital flight systems, and although it wasn’t fly-by-wire, it might as well have been. Thoroughly computerised, with a brand-new efficient wing, extra tanks in the tail for ultra-long range, and a stretched upper deck. New, bigger fan engines that spawned the huge fans on today’s long-range twins, this was a plane to take long haul flying into the 21st century.

It is still by no means ‘out of date’. The press call it a ‘white elephant’ or a ‘gas guzzler’, yet it’s engines are the same as the big twins that dominate the market, just with smaller fans. It’s problem, as it is sent into premature front-line retirement, is that it was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Just as a generation before, the much-loved (by passengers – if not it’s airport neighbours) Vickers VC 10 met a premature commercial end with the 1979 oil crisis, this time an entirely unrelated crisis has brought a premature end to frontline passenger services on the 747. The phasing out had already begun with some of the older -400 series aircraft sent to the Jumbo knackers yard. As they have become due for very costly major overhaul, one by one, BA have been retiring them instead. Now, with the travel industry looking unlikely to need the capacity the Jumbos provide for at least, if they’re very lucky, another 3-5 years, then the retirement that the whole fleet would have been due for by then has been brought forward.

The Jumbo, like the VC10, will continue to serve in various peripheral capacities for a few more years yet. Air Force One, freighting, specialist launch vehicles, and so on will mean the familiar shape will still be seen in the skies, but today, a very significant door closes.