Qantas Boeing 747-438 VH-OJA - Delivery Flight
by John McHarg
'Tis better to arrive than travel hopefully' ... (Robert Louis Stephenson, 1881)
In the P1 (PIC-Pilot in Command) seat was Captain David Massy-Greene, (hereafter referred to as DMG or David interchangeably) - the Qantas B744 Project Pilot.
In the First Officer’s seat was the P2, Captain Ray Heiniger, a Senior Check Captain, Management Pilot and also the Company’s Flight Operations Training Director. Behind DMG was Captain George Lindeman, also a senior Check Captain and Management Pilot with responsibility for the Company’s stable of Flight Simulators. Behind Ray Heiniger sat Captain Rob Greenop, also wearing a star on his epaulettes and sleeves to denote Captain, Management Pilot and Senior Check Captain. He was also the Qantas Director of Flight Standards and Safety.
Ken Davenport reported to Alan Terrell, General Manager Operations and it would be Alan that dropped the direct flight project in DMG’s 'In Tray' about 2 years before the aircraft’s delivery, which was the first of type to join the Qantas fleet.
Outside the August night had long surrendered to morning, as they sat some 30 feet above the Holding Point markings on Heathrow’s Runway 28 Right (RWY 28R). (Heathrow’s runways have since been re-designated 27R/09L and 27L/09R)
It wasn’t just the Gold Standard on the Flight Deck that made this moment special. The aircraft had been towed to this point by a British Airways tractor, from Terminal 3, accompanied by the mandatory flashing beacons – red at the airplane’s top and bottom centreline, and a couple of orange lights on the 'tug'. The airplane was drawing electrical and air conditioning power from its APU (Auxiliary Power Unit – a small jet engine buried in the plane’s tail. In this context 'small' is relative as the APU on this aircraft produced 1450 hp.
A large stylised white Kangaroo on a red field featured on the airplane’s vertical stabiliser and provided sufficient visual clue for the few hardy plane spotters that were hanging around on the northern perimeter fence to record 'Qantas' in their log books and tune to the LHR Arrivals Frequency on their scanners to monitor radio communications. Heathrow is a 'curfewed' airport and you need a pretty good reason to plan an arrival or departure between 11.00 pm and 6.00 am.
The time was about 8.30 am BST, and around the three Heathrow passenger terminals, the early departures were talking to Air Traffic and requesting their start clearances for RWY 28L, the more southerly of Heathrow's two runways. Flights from non-curfewed European airports and further afield were being allocated landing slots by ATC and those arriving a little later could probably expect to be directed to one of Heathrow’s Holding patterns, as LHR’s chronic daily congestion developed.
The next twenty hours or so would determine whether or not one of these four pilots would be talking to the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI - Assessor and Custodian of Aviation Records) to register the longest nonstop flight and highest sustained speed by a commercial jet airliner.
All four pilots held the appropriate FAI Sporting Licence, issued specifically for the flight, but it would most likely be DMG who reported the outcome as the flight’s Commander. The publishers of the Guinness Book of World Records might get a call too, somewhere down the track if everything went as planned.
The alternatives weren’t quite so attractive - a broken aircraft stranded somewhere between London and Australia’s east coast, a team of engineers positioning in to fix it and Tech Crew Scheduling assembling an appropriately qualified, replacement crew to fly it home. At this stage the destination weather was co-operating, but that would change during the flight, and bring its own freight of angst to the Flight Deck.
The planning for this flight had started two years previously, well after Qantas had placed an order for four of these new Boeing 747s. The project had engaged not only DMG’s entire attention, but had also been ably supported by staff in other Qantas Operations Departments, notably Ops Dispatch who would run successive Flight Plans as each saving was identified, to see whether the flight was feasible.
In one respect the 'cat was out of the bag' though that August morning. Peter Bennett, a Flight Planner in the Qantas Ops Dispatch Group on the 9th Floor of Admin Building 1 at Mascot, had the previously day prepared VH-OJAs Fuel Flight Plan (FFP) and transmitted it by telex to the Qantas Operations Department in Terminal 3 at London's Heathrow Airport.
This had gone to ATC offices across Europe, down through Asia, South East Asia, and Australia, and outlined the route VH-OJA was planning to fly that day and the next. It’s more than probable that a couple of airports in the ATS plan would have engaged the interest of Air Traffic Controllers right across the eastern hemisphere as they stood round their printers, looking at a Flight Plan that included some pretty unusual information.
Amongst other things there didn’t seem to be any landings planned between VH-OJAs departure from London at 0655Z (GMT) and its arrival in Sydney at 0258Z (12.58pm EST). And it’s not every day you see an Elapsed Time (EET) on a civilian airliner’s FP of 19 hours 53 minutes, nor an Endurance estimate of 20 hours 57 minutes.
The comment 'RECORD BREAKING ATTEMPT' was a dead give-away though and the request to copy all AIREPS (Air Reports) to Qantas Ops in Sydney also indicated that there was a higher than normal level of interest in this flight’s progress. Though Sydney’s Weather (Wx) was still forecast as being 'OK' the plan also indicated that the little town of Cowra in NSW and about 240 kms West of Sydney was central to the way the crew had to manage the final stages of the flight.
Cowra was the absolute latest that the crew could choose to divert to an alternative airport as beyond this waypoint they were committed to a landing at Sydney.
At around 0835 BST, after the tanks had been topped up again to the point where Shell’s special fuel started to dribble from the vents at the extremities of each wing, they were ready to start engines. This venting had been expected and there was an airport Rescue/Firefighting vehicle standing by to disperse the spillage.
The Captain had run through his briefing to his 3 co-pilots which also including Boeing’s Training Captain Chet Chester, while they were in Qantas Ops Dispatch office. While there they had participated in a small ceremony to mark the occasion and the record attempt. A thick pencil, normally the preserve of the Loadsheet Officers presenting a very marginal trim, had been used. Ken Davenport had asked that it be used for the formalities to facilitate 'thick' decision making. Nice to know the Executive pilots reposed such confidence in those making the attempt. Once they embarked, there’d be no idle chatter - all conversation must relate to the operation and the flight.
When VH-OJA arrived at the Runway 28R holding point the ground crew confirmed that the flight crew had engaged the aircraft’s parking brake and it was indeed 'on'. Once parked facing Runway 28R, the Captain called for the Before Start Check-list to be completed. This is always read out by the F/O (Ray in the case) as a series of 'challenges' to the only other crew member directly involved as pilot on the Flight Deck - David himself. The Boeing 747-400 was developed as a 2 pilot airplane and right now Rob Greenop and George Lindeman were supernumerary crew, that is, observers only.
Once completed, the P2 will announce 'Before start check-list complete' and on this occasion the PIC (Pilot in Command, also P1) would opt to go straight to the actual engine start sequence of 4 - 3 - 2 - 1 with the command - 'Start 4'.
At the Captain’s request, the F/O (or P2 - Second Pilot - only the RAAF uses abbreviations more creatively) will inform the ground crew on the tarmac via the inter-phone, of their intention to start engines, beginning with number 4. The crew chief will have a good look round to make sure that the area is clear and will respond 'Cleared to start.'
There had been some apprehension about how the special fuel supplied by Shell would 'go' at startup, unwarranted as it turned out. At the Captain’s command of 'Start 4', Ray reached up with his left hand to the overhead panel and pulled the Number 4 engine start switch with the response 'Starting 4'. All eyes watched closely the N3 gauge for the Number 4 engine as it was turned over by the compressed air supplied by the APU. As N3 passed 25% the P1 moved the Fuel Control switch on the central console aft of the thrust levers to 'Run' and the N3 RPM continued to climb as the signature 'rumble' of the RB211 echoed across the tarmac, to stabilise at 62%. (N3 is the designation given to the third of three compressors at the front of the engine and operates at a higher pressure that the other two that are further forward)
Once Number 4 engine is stable at 62% N3, the PIC will call 'Start 3' and so it goes. Easy huh? All you need is a plane, compressed air, electrical power, some Jet A-1, a spirit of adventure and you’re away! A preparedness to spend some time in a Corrective Institution might also be beneficial.
The process was repeated three more times, without a problem or incident. Someone started the flight deck’s stopwatch when the last, Number 1 engine was stable. Rolls Royce mandated 3 minutes minimum warm-up time for its -524G engines. Must be a British thing - my old sidebasher Morris Minor took about 3 minutes to warm-up.
While they were waiting for engine Number 1s minimum 3 minute 'warm-up' at Idle, the Captain thanked the BA engineers, who walked away from VH-OJA with one of them holding aloft the steering lockout pin which would have been removed from the nosewheel for the tow from T3 anyway. The consequences of accidentally leaving this pin in the NLG (Nose Landing Gear) are too embarrassing to contemplate so most Captains have developed their own little 'Fail-Safe' mechanisms.
Bad for morale all round if it is accidentally left in! The end result is that there is no gear retraction, therefore a dump of over 70 tonnes of very expensive fuel is required to meet Maximum Landing Weight restrictions, land again, lose face and above all those pretty little Gold Stars.
David’s system involved his insistence on the pin’s removal while he watched during his 'walkaround' inspection. If for any reason it was necessary to leave the pins fitted until later in the pre-departure process, David would arrange for the dispatching Engineer to lay all 5 pins with their corresponding flags extended on the tarmac underneath his flight deck window. A lot of hard work by a small group of staff and crew 'in the know' had been invested in this moment, as they all waited for the last of the engines to complete its warmup. With the jet rocking gently in the slight crosswind the crew had a few moments to reflect upon their arrival at this point in time.
As the project had gathered momentum and feasibility, so the numbers involved had needed to grow too, but it was still pretty much 'off the radar' for Company staff at large, although back in Australia the flight’s objectives had been presented to the media at a Press Conference, on 15th August. A similar presentation to the British media had taken place on Tuesday 15th August with David as both 'star' and sacrificial lamb.
The Qantas Manager for UK and Ireland, Rodney Robson, was also there to ease the pressure on a very nervous pilot.
PanAm and Iran Air had consulted with Boeing on the 'specs' and the discussions yielded an aircraft with looks that only a mother could love. Forty eight feet shorter than the standard Boeing 747 it could get into and out of short runways with a decent payload where its larger siblings would struggle. The shorter fuselage imposed modifications in the plane’s empennage (the control surfaces at the tail) to give the elevators and rudder more authority.
It wasn’t pretty but it took passengers and crew significantly higher, faster and further than the 747-100 and 200 series could. In doing so it introduced another set of problems for airlines and crew, who were being expected now to fly long sectors in cabins pressurised with very dry air. There was also a suggestion that Polar cruising at FL450 could expose the crew and passengers to increased solar radiation, particularly during periods of 'solar maximums'.
At the time Qantas first started thinking about having a crack at the distance record, another airline’s SP already held the record - 8872 nm in 17 hours 22 minutes. This was achieved with the help of an average 36 knot tailwind throughout the flight and the plane’s fuel capacity was 'fudged' with the use of a huge rubber fuel bladder, holding 2000 USGs, in Compartment 2.
And so the SP project hovered at the margins of a few pilo'ts thinking, as events caught up and then overtook the original proposal. In the early 1980s sales of Boeing's so called 'Classics' (the -200 and -300 Series Jumbos) faltered alarmingly, to the point that Boeing conducted a major review into their customer's needs for their next generation of airliners. These ideas crystallised into 5 main themes: better engines, better range, enhanced cabin layouts, enhanced technology throughout and a 10% improvement in operating costs. This resulted in the development of the 'Advanced Series 300' aircraft. By 1985 this project and its name had 'morphed' into the B747-400, with Northwest becoming the launch customer.
Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa and British Airways had put money on the table and signed commitments for the new aircraft, and they were soon followed by United Airlines, Japan Airlines and Air France.
Straight off the showroom floor and fitted with Rolls Royce Derby's RB211-524G engines, the type offered a range of about 8000 nm, well short of the 9700 nm needed for the LHR-SYD trip and any attempt would probably mean having to land and park the jet at Balgo Hill in central Western Australia (S 20 08.9 E 127 58.4) with its 1600m of compacted gravel runway. Not the outcome Qantas was looking for and an invoice from the airfield owner for $4400 for landing fees assessed at $20/tonne wouldn’t help either.
Still the notion persisted as it was kicked around over coffees, lunches and staff barbecues. Then someone had an 'Eureka moment' - if 8000 nm was the range fully laden, what could be wrung out of it if it was flown fully fitted out but empty?
Captain David Massy-Greene, appointed B744 (Airline talk for a B747-400 series aircraft) Project Pilot kept the pot simmering while he talked to other Executive Pilots and desk bound Managers. They agreed to the need for secrecy, as they continued to look at ways of 'tweaking' the performance to give them what they needed.
The flight’s parameters were set and included the requirement that the plane be flown pretty much as if she was going into service the day after she arrived in Sydney. Seats were fitted throughout the three cabins as were the toilets and Galleys (although only the forward galley was pretty much as it should be, and only doors 1L and 1R had life rafts fitted inside their 'bustles')
For take-off, all passengers were seated in Zones A and B due their proximity to the 2 'armable' doors. Downstairs, each of the 4 'mechanised' compartments would have installed the power drive rollers that allowed ULD’s (Unit Load Devices) to be driven into the hold, to the position they were to be loaded. All ULD locks were removed to save weight, as was the netting that separated the two netted areas within Compartment 5.
They agreed that the flight should carry about 20 passengers, including staff who had been involved throughout the B744 acquisition process and planning for the flight. Boeing had been on board, also in some secrecy, from the beginning and three of their employees toiled manfully on the project’s behalf, from their offices at Renton, outside Seattle. They would also lend one of their Training Pilots, Chet Chester to the project, for the flight itself, which was normal practice anyway for the delivery of a new type to its customers.
As with any new aircraft being built, extraordinary controls are exercised over the construction materials and ultimately the weight of the finished product, so the final 'avoirdupois' of VH-OJA was known to the last 1 kilo. Not bad tolerances for an artefact that would be towed off the assembly line floor weighing about 160 tonnes!
A couple of the project team spent days poring over historical winds and weather data for the route, while others looked at tracks that would yield the best results in distance, economy and favourable winds. The Rolls Royce RB211 engines were a variable that needed to be nailed down, so someone pretty high up the food chain in Qantas Sydney talked to someone pretty high up in the food chain at Rolls Royce in Derby about the quality of the engines that would be mated to VH-OJA’s airframe.
Rolls Royce agreed to 'do whatever was possible' to deliver the four best engines from the factory. I wonder whether a similar phone call was made to Rolls Royce regarding the suite of Trent 900 engines that would be fitted to the first Qantas Ainbus A380 VH-OQA, that has just returned to Sydney after its lengthy repairs in Singapore. (For more information regarding the repairs to this aircraft please click 'HERE')
With options drying up on the weight saving processes, the team members looked elsewhere. The original evaluations had been based on Great Circle tracks between the major waypoints en route. This had produced a total distance of 9,505 nautical miles. The Great Circle option was ruled out as the pilots didn’t believe they could obtain Overflight Clearances for these tracks given the congestion around some of the waypoints. They looked instead at using established point-to-point airways. This added another 120nm to the distance demands of the project.
In the background, Boeing advised that VH-OJA (she was actually registered as N6064P during production and test flying) rollout would be pushed back to August 1989, historically the time the crew could expect to encounter the strongest contrary winds. The search continued for greater parsimony with the fuel usage.
In flight the cabin atmosphere and air conditioning is supplied by air 'bled' from the engines in the fan and compressor stages, before it gets cooked in the combustion chambers. This 'bleed' air drives air the conditioning packs sited under the fuselage and the heat exchangers 'dump' the hot air overboard through three large vaned exhausts. You’ll know if you accidentally walked through the outfall while the aircraft was on the ground! They obviously run pretty much continuously on the ground, keeping the cabin fresh for passengers, and until the engines pick up the load, they are driven by the APU (Auxiliary Power Unit) embedded in the tail.
In flight, they found that by shutting down 2 of the 3 units the air-conditioning load that would be removed from the engines would produce an increase in range of around 0.5%. The degradation expected through the use of only the one pack wasn’t expected to be a major issue with only 30 odd souls on board. What was a worry though, was how the single airconditioning pack would perform, holding cabin pressure up at FL450 (45,000 feet) where they expected to spend some time. The single pack did in fact work just fine with the load at 45,100 feet.
In flight, Drag is the enemy of Thrust and can be managed to a small extent by decisions the crew make in their use of the plane’s control surfaces, that is, the flaps, elevators, spoilers and the horizontal stabiliser. Much of it is simply a product of the plane’s shape, and can’t be influenced. In normal circumstances all large transports, in fact all non military airplanes, are operated in a more or less nose heavy condition. This is built into the plane’s design and also the procedures that dictate how it should be operated. It’s much easier to recover an airplane, after an upset, if it’s heading for the ground nose first. Naturally, it's much harder if it’s reversing towards the planet. They don’t encourage it and that’s why commercial airliners were never fitted rear view mirrors!
Another important reason for keeping the C of G forward is to maintain the airplane in a state of longitudinal stability where, if disturbed, it will tend to return to its prior state. As the C of G moves aft, it approaches and passes a point of 'Neutral Stability', aft of which the aircraft becomes unstable and if disturbed from its path, will continue to diverge.
On the opposite side of the coin 'drag' is also the handmaiden of 'lift'. Plenty of 'negative' lift at the horizontal stabiliser equals lots of 'drag'. If you load the plane to minimise the mandatory nose heaviness, then you don’t need extreme stabiliser trim settings to compensate, and there’s much less drag produced, ergo the engines aren’t working as hard to fight against the drag, and this saved effort can be diverted to mileage.
Boeing’s new plane was the first out of the factory to offer airlines the option of carrying up to 10 tonnes of fuel, an extra 75 minutes flying at high level, in the horizontal stabiliser. Obviously the planned flight had to have that fuel on board, and the crew realised it could serve a dual function. At some point later in the flight it could be used to produce noise, smoke and thrust, but until that point was reached, it could be used as ballast. This would mean less extreme stabiliser trim settings, therefore less drag and hence more range!
More numbers were crunched and it seemed this suggestion added a further 0.4% to VH-OJAs range. They looked also at her water supply as one reservoir supplies both drinking water and the miserly quantity (6 fl oz or about 180 ml) of water required by the vacuum flushing toilet system installed throughout the cabin. They were closing in on the range requirements.
The Brakes Release Weight for VH-OJA (that is her all up weight at the moment she started her takeoff roll) would be significantly below the maximum value set by Boeing , as she would be carrying no real passenger load, cargo or mail remember. It would still be round 358,000 kgs (the maximum value was 394,600 kgs) and of that figure, a staggering 183.5 tonnes or slightly more than her Zero Fuel Weight would comprise fuel.
Fuel, its energy characteristics, weight and volume would be the final make or break factor in achieving the flight’s objectives. Fuel is pumped on board in litres, and the maximum uplift is determined by the volume available in the 8 fuel tanks. If they could find a way to make the fuel heavier for a given volume, i.e change its density, then that would translate to 'more bang for their buck' so to speak, and the finite amount of fuel delivered to VH-OJA could carry her further.
Commercial jets burn a fuel called Jet A-1. It’s basically kerosene to which a cocktail of chemicals has been added to provide secondary safety coverage, like corrosion inhibitors, bacterial inhibitors, anti-oxidants and anti freezing agents.
Jet A-1 fuel is less dense than water, i.e. it floats, and normally has a Specific Gravity (SG) of about 0.8, so it’s about 80% the density of H2O. One option was to have the fuel delivered to the plane chilled. This would increase its density slightly, but 60000 US gallons was going to need a big fridge. Too hard.
They then looked at using a military fraction, JP-10, which is used in air breathing rockets. It was very dense compared to Jet-A1, so they ran it by Boeing. The Boeing engineers gulped, took a couple of deep breaths and advised that apart from the fact that the wing structures simply weren’t robust enough to contain this kind of weight, they’d also need to add outrigger wheels to each wing, like the B-52 bomber to keep the wing tips off the ground. Not a good look!
The engineers advised they could gain a theoretical 500 US gallons by over-filling the tanks to the point where the surplus fuel started to vent overboard via the built-in drains. This would require isolating the volumetric shut off valves and could be done. In fact they knew of one airline that did it on a pretty regular basis.
Each time they made a breakthrough, however small, they ran a couple of Flight Plans through Flight Ops’ computer. They were closing in, but were not quite there. Fuel density and the plane’s actual performance in flight, in relation to the promised design specifications, remained the only two variables.
Peter Brookes, the Company’s Fuel Manager, was brought into the circle. Secret handshakes were exchanged and pledges of silence demanded and supplied. Peter started phoning round Europe’s major suppliers of aviation fuel. For some, 60,000 US gallons of a special 'brew' was too little, yet for others it was too much. Most didn’t even have access to the 'feed stock' they would need to start the cracking process. The prices quoted were the stuff of nightmares too, and would have needed the GDP of some small countries to cover the invoice. Well maybe not quite but it wasn’t going to be cheap.
Peter continued his lonely mission, while Boeing had confirmed that VH-OJA, the 12th aircraft off the 747-400 production line would be ready for delivery on Wednesday 9th August 1989. The project group reckoned they’d need about 30 days to prepare, send and recover the overflight requests to the various countries along OJAs route. This process happens anyway twice a year, when the world’s airlines change their schedules. For Qantas it was generally delegated to the local offices in the country concerned or where the company wasn't represented, to a regional centre.
This time, because of the secrecy surrounding the project, the process was centralised to Sydney. The 11th Floor of Admin Building 1 at Mascot was no place for the dyspeptic or faint hearted now.
And then a breakthrough. The Shell Company, Germany agreed to manufacture the fuel in West Germany, where they held supplies of the right 'feed stock'.
'Great!' said Peter. 'How do we get it to London?' asked the Shell representatives. 'Tankers!' replied Peter Brookes. 'Not with ours you don’t, they’re all in use!' retorted Shell. A search started for a fleet of alternative tankers, and in the finish they sourced and used 9 smaller vehicles.
David Massy-Greene had by this stage departed Sydney for the handover of VH-OJA at Seattle. Telstra Execs or OTC as it then was, were all smiling. Phone revenues were through the roof and heading north, thanks to the Qantas 'secret' plans and the need to finalise everything by phone, not only the handover of a brand new and very expensive asset, but also the acquisition and delivery of 60,000 US gallons of Shell’s new witches’ brew.
One afternoon, Peter Brookes took a call from Shell, confirming they had refined the fuel but in two batches, which wouldn’t mix unless agitated. 'What should we do?' said Shell. 'Agitate it!' replied Peter Brookes. The solution to this problem was solved when they tracked down a couple of railway fuel tankers, rinsed them out (it was probably a bit more complicated than that) part filled each of them with pre-determined quantities of the two batches of fuel and shunted them backwards and forwards in a local marshalling yard before decanting them into the waiting road tankers. In passing Shell also mentioned that the fuel they’d produced also showed a startlingly low freezing point - minus 70°C - and would that be OK? Shell said they could probably crank it down a bit lower if necessary.
The lowest OAT (Outside Air Temperature) that David had seen in his flying career had been -69°C and the crew didn’t believe they’d see temperatures much below -40°C, so they thanked Shell, and asked them to ship the fuel as is. I suppose you can ship something by road? The flight was now more 'on' than 'off'.
The Overflight Clearance Requests all went out from the office of the Manager Navigation Services, Tony Bourne, to the appropriate National authorities of the countries to be overflown and all came back 'green'.
The flight, in its final form would involve transiting the airspace of the following countries and taking directions from the National Air Traffic Control Authority of each country. The proposed route was: Belgium - Germany - Austria - Yugoslavia (as it then was) - Bulgaria - Turkey - Iran - United Arab Emirates - Oman - India - Sri Lanka and from the Cocos Islands onwards Australia.
The Air Traffic Controllers were unfailingly helpful and polite, and invariably wished the crew well when handing them off to the next Area Controller. While in German Airspace, the crew overheard an exchange between a DanAir Douglas DC-9 who advised they were 'long haul' from Luton to Heraklion in Crete, and why couldn’t they have FL330? The Area Controller advised the Flight Level had already been allocated to a flight 'going a little further than you'!
One variable was left and as yet no one could supply the answer. How would VH-OJA perform? She conducted herself flawlessly on the flight from Boeing Field in Seattle to London.The Performance Engineers ran the numbers through their primitive laptops on arrival and found their new child had performed 1% better than the delivery specs.
The crew and passengers approved for the trip numbered 23. The five Tech crew were:
Captains David Massy-Greene (P1 or PIC)
As the 16th approached the early fears about en route winds were realised, they had hoped for an overall average tailwind of about 20kts, but the forecasts warned that 14 kts was the best they could expect. On a positive note Sydney’s fickle winter weather was forecast to be fine.
A day or so prior their departure, David spent time on the phone talking to senior Air Traffic Controllers in Heathrow’s Tower, and London Approach about what the crew could expect at 06.55Z (0755 BST) on Wednesday morning. Given the requirement to top off VH-OJAs tanks before engine start and the need to have all four engines running and stable for at least 3 minutes prior to brake release, London Tower agreed to take the aircraft out of the queue at RWY 28 Left (which would be allocated for Departures on Wednesday) and offer instead a slot on RWY 28R between arriving flights.
This was welcomed as it removed a lot of the time pressures associated with holding up a queue of impatient aircraft, while they completed their pre departure checks. David thanked them, told them to expect the ATS Plan from Sydney sometime Tuesday, and to give him a call at the hotel or care of Qantas Ops if the plan raised any issues that needed clarifying.
There wasn’t much more to be done. The inevitable paperwork needed to be completed and everyone probably wanted time to go through their notes and the operating manuals again. A final briefing and a drink on Tuesday evening with those members of the project that were handy and a toast to 'a problem free trip' and a happy ending occured before everyone headed off to bed to await the 0400 wake-up call on Wednesday morning.
The Tower responded with 'Qantas 741, cleared for take-off two eight right - maintain runway heading and call London Approach on 119 decimal 725 airborne. Good luck and don’t forget to write!'
The PIC (Pilot in Command, David Massy-Greene) advanced the thrust levers to help VH-OJ’s wheels breakaway, and she entered the runway. Ahead lay 12 thousand feet of runway, to the right the perimeter fence and the Bath Road, already congested with commuter traffic, whilst to the left were the lights of Terminal 1 and behind them, to the east, a sky full of promise, or so they hoped.
This takeoff would not be 'de-rated'. De-rating is a technique designed to prolong the maintenance intervals between engine overhauls and involves selecting something less than full thrust for the departure, obviously depending on other factors such as the plane’s weight, ambient temperatures, runway length, gradient and conditions etc. Counter-intuitively, it actually uses more fuel than a take-off achieved at maximum power settings.
Once David had signalled his intentions to the four RB211’s by advancing the four thrust levers to the stops, the Autothrottle and FADEC systems (Full Authority Digital Engine Control) trimmed the four throttles so that each engine is producing the same amount of noise and thrust as its neighbours. At 80 knots, the Auto-throttle having set the thrust levers to their optimal position is disengaged and they won’t be touched until after airborne, but will be immediately accessible to the crew in case of an abandoned take-off.
Unlike earlier 747s David would only use the 'tiller' (a little knobby affair down on the cockpit’s side wall near his left knee) to line up. Once the aircraft started to accelerate all steering from start to breaking ground, would be done with his feet on the rudder pedals. Something like Michael Flatley, but with a bit more riding on the outcome.
All good as they passed 100 knots, and at around 160 knots on Ray’s call of 'Rotate' David eased back the control yoke, and VH-OJAs wheels lifted off the runway. She broke ground with a couple of thousand feet of unused runway still ahead of her. The old pilot’s maxim of 'Pull stick back - trees get smaller, push stick forward - trees get bigger' seemed to hold up well enough as she climbed straight ahead before rolling into the first of several left hand turns that would ultimately put her overhead Dover, eastbound, before her hand-off to Belgian ATC.
And so it went. Still relatively heavy, the crew opted to cruise initially at FL330, as they were 'handed off' to successive National ATC Authorities at airspace boundaries as their track tended South East. These authorities were unfailingly courteous and helpful, and invariably wished them well for the outcome.
The airplane was happy enough flying itself as the crew members, watching fuel flow and fuel quantity remaining gauges, completed endless endurance calculations. There were tentative smiles all round as they realised conditions were slightly more favourable than planned for or forecast and they were 'banking' fuel.
While in Persian Airspace and talking to the Area Controllers in Teheran, Rob and George 'spelled' David and Ray in the cockpit to allow them to stretch their legs and get some rest. Towards the end of their break, George called David back to the Flight deck. Once there George advised him that he’d just realised he’d left his passport, traveller’s cheques and other documents in the safe in his room and he couldn’t possibly continue without them. Would David consider a turnback or failing that, a diversion to Teheran to allow him to catch a flight back to London Heathrow Airport? After a moments silence, pregnant with possibilities, everyone had a good laugh.
For the sector across the Arabian Sea to the tip of India and Colombo (CMB) headwinds had been forecast but they and their calculations were unsettled when they found the contrary winds to be significantly stronger than forecast, and they started making 'withdrawals' from their fuel reserves account.
An hour or so out from CMB they would have tuned their Nav radios to the Ratmalana NDB (a radio beacon), and as they passed overhead the transmitter, watched as the needle on their ADF swung through 1800 and listened as CMB Approach wished them well on the long overwater sector to Cocos. VH-OJA turned slightly right onto her new heading of about 1400 as the crew tuned another of their Nav radios to Cocos’s VOR/DME and prepared for the 3 hours plus flight over the central Indian Ocean.
Enroute to Cocos with VH-OJA lighter by another 40,000 kgs or so, they climbed to FL410, and the winds smiled upon them again.
But half a world away Sydney’s fickle spring weather was turning to custard. Aviation Weather Services provide airmen with a cornucopia of information, not only about what they can expect en route in the form of a ROFOR (Route Forecast) but also what the weather’s expected to be for their arrival at their nominated destination and alternate airports. These latter are Terminal Area Forecasts (TAFORs or just TAFs) and Trend Type Forecasts (TTFs). TAFs are generally valid for 24 hours or a nominated period but can be updated with a TAF AMD if there’s significant changes in forecasted weather expected within the forecast period.
The TTF is probably a more immediate assessment of a destination's weather (Wx) as it’s issued hourly, and forecasts the conditions for the next 3 hours. Right now, Sydney’s TTF read something like (the bold bits):
TTF FM 0200 (FROM 0200Z OR 1200EST) 34018G35KT (Wind north westerly 18knots, gusting 35kts) 6000 (visibility reducing to 6kms) SHRA (in showers and rain) BKN030 BKN 120 (two cloud layers, 3000’ and 12000’)
The only comfort they could take from the news was that Melbourne and Adelaide’s weather was still OK and no holding was required should they opt to divert there. They were also receiving a bit of a 'leg up' from the actual winds which were more favourable than predicted. For the moment all they could do was continue.
As they approached Carnarvon, on Australia’s west coast, their DME counted down the distance to landfall, and the ADF needle pointed straight ahead over the nose. They climbed again to a flight level approaching that used by Concorde, and close to the jet’s service ceiling, 45, 10 feet, and watched the cabin pressure gauges to see how the single air-conditioning pack would cope. No problems there. One less thing to worry about.
From Carnarvon they would track for Meekatharra, then Woomera, to IBELA (a reporting point) then Sydney
As the DF agreed that such a change might be possible there was a flash of actinic light outside the building’s windows followed a nano second later by a violent thunderclap. The DF exclaimed 'What the **** was that?'
The DFO calmly replied, 'What - I didn’t hear anything!' suggesting the whole thing was a figment of the DF’s imagination.
About 140 nms west of Sydney and still at FL451, they reached the point where the FMS (Flight Management System) calculated they should commence their descent. The FMS directed the Autothrottle to retard the thrust levers to flight idle, and the descent to Sydney began. Fuel margins were OK and without the TS in the TTF they were fireproof in procedural terms.
Sydney’s longest runway, Runway 16R, that runs immediately east of the International Terminal, was allocated for the landing which would take place in scuddy low cloud and rain showers. North of Sydney and at a more civilised altitude (FLs become Altitude around 1000 feet AGL) David allowed the aircraft to fly herself onto the Approach using the Auto-Pilot. When they had reached Pymble she was 'established' about 10 nms north of the runway’s threshold.
As she crossed Airport Drive, the road that skirts Sydney Kingsford Smith Airport on the northern perimeter, watchers in the Terminal and around the Qantas Jet Base would have seen her creating her own little cloud formations as she flew through the saturated air which condensed in the low pressure areas above both her wings. As it was the crew on VH-OJAs flight deck during the descent and approach, they would have seen something on their instrument panel they’d probably prefer to miss. As the aircraft slowed after they selected 30 degrees of flaps, the 'AFT FUEL PUMP' messages displayed for all four main tanks (each main tank was feeding its own engine). This means that the remaining fuel in each tank had sloshed forward and had uncovered the aft boost pumps.
Another warning, more commonly seen on the flight deck of my Cessna 172 and also accompanied by a warning chime, was displayed on approach - 'FUEL QTY LOW' - to indicate that the fuel remaining in any main tank was less than 900 kgs. Luckily the approach was routine and these warnings could be safely ignored in the very short term.
At 1419EST or 0419Z,VH- OJA 'City of Canberra' returned to earth, some 20 hours 9 minutes and 5 seconds after her Goodyears left London Heathrow Airport's RWY 28R.
David got to do lots of post-flight interviews with the Press. He also phone FAI with the details and the Guinness people and claimed two FAI records in Sub Class C-1t - Distance sans escale (Distance without a stop) and Vitesse sur parcurs reconnu (Speed over a recognised Course).
He relinquished the first to Suzanna Darcey-Henneman and her crew during Boeing’s promotion of its new B777-200LR in November 2005, which flew the long way round from Hong Kong to London's Heathrow Airport, a distance of 11,664 nms, but the second still stands.
Passengers and other Crew on board VH-OJA's record breaking flight were:
Passengers: Jack Davenport (QF Vice-Chairman), Mrs. Sheila Davenport, Neil Tazewell (QF Base Servicing), John Hewitt (QF Base Servicing), Jim Clarke (QF Performance Engineering), Captain Ray Seaver (CAA FOI), Captain Jack Hobbs (CAA FOI), Jim Earls (Shell UK), David Wicks (RR Director of Marketing), Tom Ballantine (Sydney Morning Herald), Mike Cottee (QF Senior Media Relations Officer), David Rowley (QF Media Relations), Doug Weller (Australian Broadcast Corporation), Jack Gucker (Boeing Everett Plant General Manager), Bert Welliver (Boeing Engineering/Systems Integration expert), and Bill Raker (Boeing Performance Engineering).
Ray Seaver was an ex Qantas pilot, now Examiner of Airmen for Australia’s Department of Aviation. So was Jack Hobbs who came from BA and SQ and also used to open the batting for England didn’t he?
In the early 1970s a 'DMG' was a Second Officer on a two year basing in London. The author was completing a similar posting as STO (Senior Traffic Officer) Europe. No-one understands, even now, the hardships and privations we endured daily to secure our Company’s future. While there, the Regional Airports Manager Europe, was a bloke called Lew Eagle.
When Lew introduced himself, the conversation went something like this....
True story. Trust me.
My thanks to Captains David Massey-Greene and Rob Greenop.
This piece was based extensively on a presentation made by David Massey-Greene to the South Australian Police Club at one of their 360 odd Monday lunches. This lunch was a 'sell-out' like their many others, and the list of guest speakers reads like a 'Who's Who of Australian life' over the last 40 years.
Sir Edward 'Weary' Dunlop, Gough Whitlam, Sir Mark Oliphant, John Gorton, Sir Zelman Cowan, Bob Hawke, Bill Hayden and Alexander Downer have all appeared, by invitation, at the Club.
David also contributed to the piece's construction with advice and suggestions regarding the technical elements of this story (and others that I have written) and supplied photographs from his own records to include in the tale.
Cliff Viertel, also a retired Captain, helped me track them down and suggested a small but important change to the text.
Sadly, George Lindeman has left us and was fondly remembered by all who contributed to this story.
Bob Smith of Aussieairliners (www.aussieairliners.org) and Neil Louis (ex Qantas) have opened up their archives to me. I know companies that would kill to have storage and retrieval systems like theirs.
Eric Favelle, a retired Qantas engineer, helped with some of the technical stuff.
Pappy Phillips, an old Qantas Traffic friend who took the M/s to the Heritage Collection, risking scorn and odium, to see whether they’d be interested in adding it to their archive.
Adrian Redmond, meteorologist, forecaster and an old friend and colleague from RAAF Pearce who tidied up the Sydney TTF for me.
Lawrie Moules, designer of so many Qantas Manual Balance Charts and weigher of so many Qantas aircraft over the years was generous with his advice and material.
And to the photographers, as noted, who kindly allowed me to use their images.
John McHarg - April / May 2012