Flying with the Jackson 5: Exploring classic Boeing 707 and 747 aircraft
There is a faded photo in an album taken at Heathrow Airport in the 1970s.
I was leaving London after working in that great city.
There we were in the departure lounge, a bunch of mates … some I knew from back in Australia and others I had met on my travels. One had even come over from Amsterdam for the weekend.
I can remember walking across the tarmac to the plane – a Boeing 707 – and up the steps. At that time the Boeing 747 jumbo jets were new to the skies and only being used on the major routes.
I had decided to return to Australia by the Caribbean, Mexico, Tahiti and Fiji.
At the head of the steps leading up to the rear door of the plane I was greeted by a Qantas hostess: “Glad you could make it,’’ she said laconically, “we’ve been waiting for you.’’
You knew then what it was like to be an Australian away from home, that sense of humour and welcoming manner.
How times have changed. You wouldn’t be allowed that luxury of late arrival these days.
Those memories leapt off the page of the photo album during a tour of the Qantas Founders Museum at Longreach in Outback Queensland. Almost at the other side of the world from London yet the original home of the airline.
As Qantas draws near to its 100 years of service in 2019, it is fascinating to get up close with some of the planes that have made it such a well-known international brand.
Especially the Boeing 707 which meant so much to not only my own journey but of so many other international travellers.
And a 707 still had that feel about it of going on an adventure, something that has been diminished by the advent of larger capacity planes.
At Longreach you can be part of a jet tour, a 90-minute adventure that takes you behind the scenes on the museum’s two jet aircraft, the Boeing 747 and 707.
Some of the first things we learn are that black box flight recorders can be red or orange in colour and the air circulates through the cabin of a jet airliner every two and half minutes.
They are just a couple of more obscure facts you learn on the tour that also takes in the Catalina Flying Boat and how it conquered the Indian Ocean.
The jet tour is separate from the museum general admission and starts at the 747 with a walk – around and over, inside and out.
The 747 was a gift to the museum in 1979 and standing at three storeys high it is the highest building in Longreach, volunteer guide Grant Bunter tells me as he directs our group underneath the plane.
With a 900kmh cruising speed and radar range of 500km, it revolutionised international aircraft travel with its increased seating capacity which in turn led to better fare economy.
Each Qantas 747 completes about 19,000 flights. It has 18 wheels that make about 190 landings before they are replaced.
When flying at 34,000 ft the outside temperature is minus 54 degrees and life expectancy is about 2.5seconds without oxygen.
Planes talk in feet, not metric, Grant explains, and air-conditioning circulates fresh air throughout the cabin every 2.5 minutes. This flies in the face of the commonly held myth of simply recycling the same cabin air for the entire flight.
Exhaust gases from the engines reach 600 degrees and the 206,000 litres of aviation kerosene needed to fill the tanks costs about $450,000.
There are 900 controls in the flight deck and the planes were built at a cost of $200million in 1979. Yet the pilots loved these planes, Grant says.
With 35 in a group, Qantas Founders Museum conducts seven or eight tours a day in peak season.
Outside, you’ll discover the secrets of the engines, undercarriage and wings, inside, you’ll learn how to arm the doors, sit in the first class cabin, check out the top deck and have a peek at the flight deck and crew rest area. And Longreach is one of the few places in the world you can stand inside the intake of an engine.
Black boxes are an Australian invention. It got the name while the designer was explaining the system and was reported as a little black magic box of tricks.
The slide safety raft is also an Australian invention, like the air approach guidance or Traffic Collision Avoidance System.
Upstairs on the 747 was the Captain Cook lounge for first class passengers who were served complimentary champagne.
An add-on is the 747 Wing Walk that takes an extra 45-60minute personalised tour, for no more than six people.
It consists entirely of features not included on the standard Jet Tour and showcases parts of the 747 that larger groups cannot access. This includes the rear pressure bulkhead and horizontal stabiliser assembly, beyond the pressurised part of the fuselage.
You’ll also inspect the cargo hold underneath the main cabin.
The Boeing 707-138B is an aircraft like no other. And Qantas had the first Boeing airliner sold outside of the United States.
After its days with Qantas, VH-EBA was converted to a luxury charter jet to the rich and famous and also as the personal jet of a Saudi Prince.
Still sporting the luxury interior, you get to see how the other half lived; checking out the fine timber, crystal, and gold plated fittings. The aircraft is one of only four 138B’s remaining in existence.
The plane I returned home from London on in the 1970s was VH-EAI. Little wonder I was keen to get a fresh photo at Longreach to book-end my association with it.
And to sit on board and reminisce for a moment … window seat on the port side and just behind the wing.
The 707 was the first jet registered in Australia. That was in 1959 and one of a fleet of 13.
The first plane was always named City of Canberra as a form of respect as the Federal Government owned Qantas then, even though in 1959 Canberra was yet to become a city.
The most famous clients to lease the plane were the Jackson 5 who took it on their victory tour, one of five tours by the music group.
“Michael loved it,’’ Grant whispers to me, “yet the jet noise was excessive.’’
Apparently British Airspace bought it and left it to be scrapped at the estuary of the Thames River.
A team of retired Qantas engineers led by Peter Elliott decided that the aircraft would fly home again to Australia to be put on display at Longreach.
This was the most complex restoration of a classic airliner ever undertaken involving 15,000 man-hours. Over a six-month period engineers and spare parts were shuttled back and forth between England and Australia.
In Orlando, Florida, the team was greeted by Hollywood star John Travolta who owns another of Qantas’s 707-138s and has been a worthy ambassador for the airline.
For me, back on the ground again, there was one other plane to look over – the distinctive Douglas DC3.
A workhorse during World War II as a cargo plane, the DC3 was not just very important for flying on. The reliability and adaptability of it showed you could make profit from air flights and not just rely on mail services.
As a result, it allowed Qantas to grow in line with demand.
The museum shows how Qantas started from small beginnings in Outback Queensland and how it became the airline it is today.
(The writer was a guest of Queensland Rail and Outback Queensland Tourism.)
Qantas Founders Museum: Sir Hudson Fysh Drive, Longreach, Qld 4730
Phone (07) 4658 3737
Opening hours: 9am to 5pm daily, except Christmas Day and Boxing Day.