Farewell Old Friend - The Boeing 727 Retires
by Gordon Reid
On December 31, 1992, Australian Airlines operated its last scheduled service with the Boeing 727, thus bringing to an end a period of operation which spanned some 28 years.
The Boeing 727 introduced domestic jet operations to Australia in November 1964, when it entered service with the two major domestic airlines of the time: Trans Australia Airlines (TAA) and Ansett-ANA. Under the Australian Government’s ‘Two Airline Policy’ it was mandatory that when TAA and Ansett sought to purchase a new aircraft they both selected the same type and ordered the same number of units.
The main competitor for the 727 was the de Havilland DH-121 Trident. Although considerable pressure was put on the two Australian airlines to order the British type, both selected the 727 after thorough technical evaluations. On November 19, 1962 Trans Australia Airlines received government approval to order the Boeing tri-jet and on the following February 8, the Australian National Airlines Commission, acting on behalf of TAA, signed a contract for two 727-100s. Under the Boeing system of allocating a different dash number for each customer, TAA was given the number ‘76’ for its aircraft.
Trans-Australia Airlines had come close to operating two types of jet aircraft before the 727. In the early days of its development TAA had considered the Avro Canada CF-102 jetliner on a trial basis as a freighter, while in the late 1950s TAA had sought Australian Government approval to import two Sud Aviation Caravelles. Permission had been denied and instead TAA ordered the turboprop-powered Lockheed Electra.
The Boeing 727 had been launched on December 05, 1960 with orders from Eastern and United Airlines for 40 aircraft each. Later orders followed from Lufthansa, American and Trans World. Although showing interest in the 727 both TAA and Ansett-ANA required an aircraft with more range for their transcontinental routes. It was only when Boeing raised the maximum (taxi) gross weight of the 727 from 153,000 lb (69,400 kg) to 161,000 lb (73,000 kg) and increased the fuel capacity of the aircraft that the Australian airlines were prepared to place orders.
(Boeing frequently used Maximum Taxi Weights as published gross weights for the various models of 727 and these are quoted here. Maximum brake release weight is normally 500 lb (230 kg) less and the Maximum Flight Weight (ie MTOW) is 1,000 lb (455 kg) less. The last two 727-76s for TAA had a MTOW of 169,000 lb (76,600 kg). All the 727-276 Advanced aircraft had a MTOW of 190,000 lb (86,190 kg) although the final two had slightly higher empty weights and less fuel. The ‘Advanced’ tag was strictly a Boeing marketing name, and does not appear on the Type Certificate.)
Several years later this process was followed with the 727-200, which was launched by Boeing in August 1965. The 727-200 stretched the fuselage of the Dash 100 by some 20 feet (6 metres); however it merely traded range for payload and as such was not acceptable to TAA and Ansett. Once again it was the Australian operators who pushed Boeing into development of a higher gross weight aircraft, which became known as the Boeing 727-200 Advanced. The introduction of this new variant of the 727-200 for the Australian domestic market resulted in new life being breathed into the 727 production line.
The first Boeing 727-76 for Trans-Australia Airlines was the 72nd aircraft off the production line at Boeing’s Renton facility in Seattle and registered as VH-TJA, was rolled out on July 24, 1964. Later named James Cook, VH-TJA made its first flight from Renton on August 25. Under the command of Capt. D. A. Winch (Flight Superintendent Training) and Capt. K. J. Fox (Boeing 727 Flight Captain), Juliet Alpha was ferried from Seattle to Melbourne via San Francisco, Honolulu, Canton Island and Nadi. It is interesting to note that it was not until delivery of its sixth and last 727-76 (VH-TJF) that TAA eliminated the technical fuel stop on the US West Coast and ferried aircraft direct from Seattle to the Hawaiian Islands.
On October 16, 1964 VH-TJA in company with Ansett-ANA’s first 727-77 (VH-RME) arrived over Melbourne, which was the headquarters to both airlines. Ansett-ANA had previously won the toss of the coin which allowed its aircraft to land first. Both 727s made several passes over the city before landing at Essendon Airport, heralding a new age in Australian domestic air travel.
Trans-Australia marketed its aircraft as the ‘727 whispering T-Jet’, advertising it as the most advanced pure-jet of its type and the quietest jet in the world. The ‘T-Jet’ name was, according to the publicity brochures, ‘chosen to distinguish TAA’s 727 from those built for other airlines. The ‘T’ stands for TAA. The ‘T’ also symbolises the high T-shape tail of the 727, the silhouette of all modern day jet aircraft.’
Following its arrival, VH-TJA was used to operate a series of route proving flights around the TAA network, then entered revenue service as TN534 on November 2 from Melbourne to Sydney.
As the six 727s were delivered, TAA retired Douglas DC-4, DC-6B and Viscount equipment. Initially TAA’s first jet was used for operations on the high-density east coast trunk routes connecting Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane as well as on the transcontinental services from Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide to Perth. In May 1967 the 727 replaced the Electra on TAA’s daily service from Sydney and Brisbane to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea. Other overseas ports regularly served by the three-holers were Christchurch, New Zealand, and Christmas & Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean.
In total the TAA / Australian 727 fleet flew over 746,000 hours and carried in excess of 52.5 million passengers in its 28 years of operation. During that time the airline experienced only one incident worthy of note. On January 29, 1971 VH-TJA was operating flight TN592 from Sydney to Perth. Cleared for departure on Runway 16 at Sydney, the underside of VH-TJA hit the top of the fin of a CP Air DC-8-63 (CF-CPQ) which had failed to clear the active runway after landing. Although the 727 was badly damaged, its crew successfully nursed the aircraft back to Sydney. Major repairs to TJA were carried out in Sydney and Melbourne and this resulted in the aircraft being out of service until April 10.
The Boeing 727-76 flew its last commercial passenger service for TAA on January 29, 1980, when VH-TJB operated TN2806 from Launceston to Melbourne. This was not to be the last flight by a 727-76 in TAA colors however, as VH-TJB which had a special camera mounted in the tail of the aircraft, was then used by the airline’s publicity department to operate a series of flights around Australia.
The first TAA 727-76 to be withdrawn from service was VH-TJA, the original aircraft, which operated its last flight on February 14, 1976. In just over 11 years service, VH-TJA had flown 37,643 hours and completed 28,013 cycles. Placed in storage at Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport, the aircraft became the first of three TAA 727-76s to be purchased by Compania Interamericana SA Panama, a division of the Miami-based International Air Leases (IAL). On November 11, VH-TJA departed Melbourne on ferry to Miami via Brisbane, Pago Pago, Hilo and San Diego, and the following month (now registered N91891) entered service with Air Florida. The other two Dash 100s were sold to IAL’s subsidiary company (VH-TJB & VH-TJC) were both operated by LANICA. In contrast to these aircraft, the three other 76s were sold for conversion to executive transports.
Towards the end of 1978, it became evident that TAA was planning to withdraw its remaining four Boeing 727-76s. With this in mind your writer, who was then working in TAA Operations Control, set his sights on achieving a few last flights. However, even with the assistance of inside information, this proved to be a daunting task. The first -76 planned for retirement was VH-TJF, due for withdrawal in February 1979 in a one-for-one swap with the newly delivered 727-276 VH-TBO. But on January 15, a full two weeks before -TBO was due in the country, some airline planner in his wisdom decided to retire VH-TJF at short notice. So that one was out with three to go.
With VH-TJF retired early, it was then decided that VH-TJD would be the aircraft to swap with VH-TBO. Therefore, on the evening of February 5, I boarded VH-TJD at Melbourne to fly to Launceston and return on TN599/546, its last planned commitment. Before departure I checked with Operations and Maintenance and was assured that everything was progressing to plan for VH-TBO to enter service the following morning. The crew operating VH-TJD that evening were informed that TN599/546 was the aircraft’s last commitment for TAA and as a result I received an invitation to travel on the flightdeck.
All went well until the return trip when inbound to Melbourne we called the company only to be advised that VH-TBO was still not serviceable and that VH-TJD would therefore be flying the following day. Because of my rostered work schedule, I was unable to be on board for its ‘last flight’.
Fortunately, this was not the end for VH-TJD as on March 09, much to my delight, it returned to service. On March 31 VH-TJD was again planned to operate its final flight for TAA. This time it was on a mid-afternoon service from Melbourne to Hobart and return. I could hardly believe my luck as I was rostered off and, even better, here was a aircraft operating its last flight in civilised hours.
With a ticket to Tasmania in hand, I turned up at the gate only to find another aircraft had been substituted on the flight. Meanwhile, a quick search found VH-TJD parked at an adjacent gate loading passengers for a service to Brisbane. All records were broken as I purchased a ticket for Brisbane and raced to board the flight.
Once again I managed to secure a seat on the flightdeck as I wanted to find out from the crew what the plans now were for VH-TJD and its last day with TAA. I was not at all impressed when informed that on arrival in Brisbane, 'Juliet Delta' would sit there for several hours before returning to Melbourne at midnight on a southbound service via Sydney. From my knowledge of TAA schedules I knew that on arrival in Brisbane the 727 would share the tarmac with another -76 operating a through service from Townsville to Melbourne. With the crew briefed on the reason for my flight on VH-TJD, I had them request an aircraft change on company frequency and this was granted, thus allowing 'Juliet Delta' to return to Melbourne on the earlier service.
This now gave Brisbane the problem of the through load from Townsville to Melbourne; however the passengers would be deplaning in Brisbane anyway while I am sure there were no complaints from the baggage handlers when they were told of the historical reason behind the aircraft switch!
Finally success, a I rode south on VH-TJD operating TN463 from Brisbane to Melbourne on what was to prove to be its last service for TAA. So one out of two with two to go.
On May 28, VH-TJB was to be withdrawn from service after operating Melbourne-Hobart-Melbourne. The main problem here was that the Hobart to Melbourne sector was a freight service and no passengers were allowed to be on board. As this was to be the final flight, I therefore requested and was granted approval to travel as a crew member. Southbound out of Melbourne I introduced myself to the crew and, once again, received an invitation to travel on the flightdeck. En route, the captain had me relate the story of TAA and the Boeing 727 to the passengers over the aircraft's PA system. After loading freight at Hobart we taxied for departure but - you guessed it - the last flight was not going to be that easy.
'Juliet Bravo' was not yet ready for retirement, so back to the ramp we went where the engineers pronounced the aircraft unserviceable. An unscheduled night was then spent in Hobart before I returned to Melbourne the following morning - late for work - on sistership VH-TJE. Later that day VH-TJB found its way back to Melbourne where it was promptly returned to service and, in fact, became the last of its type to operate for TAA.
June 4 found me in the terminal at Melbourne waiting for VH-TJE to arrive from Sydney. All looked in order as I had the afternoon off work, had my ticket, and here was 'Juliet Echo' taxiing in to operate its last commitment for TAA from Melbourne to Canberra and return. But once again the plan fell apart as 'Juliet Echo' was declared unserviceable upon arrival and retreated to the hangar for the remainder of the day. I never achieved the last flight on VH-TJE. In fact, few would have had the patience. On July 15, the aircraft was scheduled to operate its last passenger flight on an early morning service from Sydney to Melbourne. Perhaps the 727 knew something was in the wind as it eventually operated the service, but some ten hours late! So the score now was one out of three with one to go.
Come January 29, 1980 and at the last big day had arrived. The last scheduled passenger flight of the last Trans-Australia Airlines Boeing 727-76. At center stage was VH-TJB with a final commitment for TN599/2806 from Melbourne to Launceston and return. Learning from previous experiences, I decided to cover all eventualities and stick with 'Juliet Bravo' for most of that afternoon. Leaving Melbourne, I flew up to Sydney where I picked up the aircraft which was scheduled to operate first to Canberra before going on to Melbourne and Launceston. By being on the aircraft inbound to Melbourne I felt that I had all bases covered should anything unplanned happen.
As it turned out, VH-TJB behaved itself impeccably. The Boeing tri-jet taxied out at Launceston on schedule at 2040 for Melbourne with 32 passengers and eight crew on board. We were airborne off runway 32 at 2045 and climbed to FL290; and at 2135 VH-TJB touched down on Melbourne’s Runway 27 and we had engines off at Gate 2 at 2141.
So that was the end of the line for the Boeing 7237-76 and its passenger service with Trans-Australia Airlines. It also gave me a chance to relax for a few years while I waited for the last flight of the last TN DC-9-32, but then that’s another story!
Between June 1983 and August 1989, Trans-Australia / Australian Cargo leased a specialised 727 freighter to operate its four-weekly return freight service on the transcontinental route from Perth to Melbourne. The first aircraft used was a 727-25(F) of Bloodstock Air Services of Perth, Western Australia. This former Eastern Airlines aircraft (N8119N) arrived in Melbourne from Miami on March 12, 1983. Subsequently registered VH-LAP the 727 operated its first commercial service for TAA Air Cargo on June 09, 1983 as TN2340 from Melbourne to Perth.
Bloodstock had been formed to uplift livestock between Australia and New Zealand and from Australia to various points in South East Asia. During its short stay in Australia, however, the 727 mainly operated for TAA Cargo with the aircraft flown by TAA crews. By March the following year Bloodstock was experiencing financial problems and on the 30th, VH-LAP operated its last flight (TN2340 Melbourne-Perth) for TAA. Financial control of the aircraft was then taken over by Ansett Transport Industries who, on April 16, ferried VH-LAP from Perth to Melbourne. The Boeing remained in Melbourne until November 25 when, as ‘Ansett One’, it departed on return to the United States.
As a replacement for VH-LAP, TAA leased a 727-77C (C2-RN7) from Air Nauru. Originally built for Ansett Airlines (as VH-RMS), the 727 entered service with TAA Air cargo on April 17, 1984, operating TN2240 from Melbourne to Perth. In March 1987, the 727 was flown to Christchurch for overhaul by Air New Zealand and while there was registered VH-TBS. Flights continued for Australian Air Cargo until August 24, 1989. Upon arrival in Perth from Melbourne, the 727 was grounded as a result of the Australian airlines pilots’ dispute.
The 727-276 Arrives
On December 9, 1970 TAA placed an order with Boeing for four 727-200 Advanced aircraft and the first (VH-TBG) arrived at Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport on December 11, 1972. Under the command of Capt. F. Fischer (Flight Manager Training & Development) and Capt. E.C. Clark (Flight Captain Development), VH-TBG was ferried from Seattle to Melbourne via Hilo, Pago Pago and Brisbane. TAA operated its and Australia’s first 727-200 service on January 7, 1973 when VH-TBG flew from Melbourne to Sydney as TN436. A total of 12 727-200s were eventually acquired by TAA with the last delivery (VH-TBR) in September 1980.
Several aircraft were leased in and out. On July 26, 1976 VH-TBL departed Melbourne for Teheran via Perth, Cocos Island, Colombo and Karachi, on a twelve-month wet lease to Iran Air. In March 1984, TAA dry-leased two of its Airbus A300B4-203s (VH-TAA & VH-TAB) to Condor Flugdienst (as D-IATA & D-IATB respectively). To cover the resultant loss of capacity, TAA in turn leased a 727-277 (VH-RMZ) from Ansett for six months which entered service on May 2 operating TN414 from Melbourne to Sydney. During the 1989 pilot dispute, Australian Airlines wet-leased two 727-200s from Dan-Air.
Unlike the Boeing 727-100 fleet, Australia found that buyers for the Dash 276 aircraft were hard to come by. The Aeron Aviation Corporation in the US bought two and the first (VH-TBK) left Melbourne on December 5, 1986, for Lasham, England via Darwin, Singapore, Madras, Bahrain, Athens and London Gatwick. On arrival at Lasham it was leased by Aeron to Dan-Air Services with whom it later entered service as G-BNNI. The second Aeron 727 (VH-TBL) was leased to an Icelandic operator.
Spares dealer The Memphis Group, based in Memphis, Tennessee, purchased three -276s with the first (VH-TBH) delivered ex Melbourne on June 8, 1991, bound for Greenwood, Mississippi, via Nadi, Pago Pago, Honolulu and San Diego’s Brown Field.
During the latter part of last year, Australian Airlines withdrew the remainder of its 727-276 fleet from service and placed the aircraft in storage at Melbourne. In March this year the seven remaining aircraft (including the Air Vanuatu 727) were sold to US-based Extex International, a company with ties to Frank Lorenzo, for lease to Aeroejecutivo of Monterey, Mexico. On March 24, VH-TBR departed Melbourne on delivery to Fort Worth’s Meacham Field via Nadi, Apia, Honolulu and Las Vagas. The remainder of the 727-276s are due for delivery at monthly intervals.
The final day of operation for the 727 service was Thursday, New Year’s Eve. Bert Hinkler (VH-TBR), under the command of General Manager Flight Operations, Capt. T. D. Wiltshire, was planned to operate TN28/39/466/403 Melbourne - Adelaide - Melbourne - Sydney - Melbourne. The send-off was in style. At Melbourne Airport, Gate Lounge 8 was decorated with balloons and streamers. On display were 727 models and associated memorabilia and staff sold commemorative shirts. CAA fire tenders gave the traditional farewell water salute on departure from Adelaide and Melbourne and on arrival into Sydney. Crowds of well wishers and media were on hand at all ports to bid farewell to the Boeing 727.
Passengers checking in at Sydney Airport for the final flight to Melbourne were given a special certificate signed by Capt. Wiltshire advising them of the historical nature of the flight. In the boarding lounge, champagne and cake was available to all. On all sectors during the final day, Capt. Wiltshire made special PA announcements telling passengers of the story of the Boeing 727 and TN. No fewer than 80 of the 129 passengers travelling on the last service (including, of course, the writer) were TN staffers and on arrival in Melbourne they joined a special reception that was held to say good-bye to what has been one of the best-loved types to be operated by Trans-Australia / Australian Airlines.
This article has been reproduced with the author's permission.
It was originally featured in 'Airliners' magazine, the Fall 1993 Issue.