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Qantas 747-400: Record Breaker

Qantas 747-400: Record Breaker

Ever since Keith and Ross Smith’s triumph in 1919, the England-Australia record has been considered the pinnacle of achievement in Australian aviation record-breaking. In 1989, the delivery flight of Qantas Airways’ first Boeing 747-438, VH-OJA “City of Canberra”, presented the airline with an opportunity to claim the record for the first ever non-stop civil flight between the two countries. In the first of a three part series, John McHarg explains the ins-and-outs of this remarkable achievement.

 There was no shortage of bullion on the flight deck of QF7441 that August morning. All four crew members were Management Pilots and thus entitled to wear a small star on their shoulder slides and sleeves, and three also Senior Check Captains which put them pretty much at the apogee of their profession.

All up, there was nearly enough gold braid on board to warrant a Service Weight Adjustment to the flight’s loadsheet.

There was probably about 55,000 hours in the four logbooks belonging to the four Qantas pilots. They were all in shirtsleeves except George Lindeman, who habitually favoured long sleeves.

In the P1 (PIC-Pilot in Command) seat was Captain David Massy-Greene, (hereafter DMG or David interchangeably) – B744 (Boeing 747-400) Project Pilot. In the First Officer’s chair 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 Qantas’s Director of Flight Standards and Safety.

The B744 acquisition and its entry into service, had been given to David by the Director of Flight Ops, Ken Davenport, and this project would consume all David’s attention and energies until the aircraft’s arrival Sydney, and beyond.

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 two years before the first aircraft’s delivery.

Outside, the August night had long surrendered to morning, as they sat, 30 feet above the Holding Point markings on London 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 aeroplane’s top and bottom centreline, and a couple of orange lights on the “tug”. The aeroplane 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 – the APU on this aeroplane produced 1450 HP.)

A large stylised white Kangaroo, on a red field featured on the aeroplane’s vertical stabiliser, and provided sufficient visual clue for the few hardy plane spotters hanging on the northern perimeter fence, to record “Qantas” in their log books and tune to the LHR Arrivals Frequency on their scanners.

Heathrow is a “curfewed” airfield, and you need a pretty good reason to plan an arrival or departure between 11.00pm and 6.00am. The time was about 8.30am BST, and around Heathrow’s three terminals, the early departures were talking to Air Traffic and requesting their start clearances for RWY 28L, the more southerly of LHR’s two runways.

Flights from un-curfewed European airfields 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 jetliner.

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. The alternatives weren’t quite so attractive – a broken aeroplane 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 ago, well after Qantas had placed an order for four of these new Boeings. The project had engaged not only DMG’s entire attention, but had also been ably supported by staff in other Ops Departments, notably Ops Dispatch who’d 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 Qantas’s Ops Dispatch Group on the 9th Floor of Admin Building 1 at Mascot, had the day previously prepared OJA’s Fuel Flight Plan (FFP) and had transmitted it by telex to Qantas’s Operations Department in Terminal 3 at LHR.

This document ran to about 16 pages and each of the three copies on the flight deck that morning was about five metres long.

Later, at around midnight of the 16th August, Peter had prepared and transmitted, via ICAO’s AFTN network, OJA’s ATS (Air Traffic Services) Flight plan. This had gone to ATC offices across Europe, down through Asia and SE Asia, and Australia, and outlined the route OJA was planned to fly that day and the next. It’s more than probable that a couple of fields 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 landing planned between OJA’s departure London at 0655Z (GMT) and its arrival 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” is a dead give-away though, and the request to copy all AIREPS (Air Reports) to Qantas Ops in Sydney, also indicates there was a higher than normal level of interest in this flight’s progress.

Though Sydney’s Weather was still forecast OK, the plan also indicated that the little town of Cowra in NSW and about 240 kilometres 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 – beyond Cowra 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 a LHR RFF (Rescue/Fire fighting) vehicle standing by to disperse the spillage.

The Captain had run through his Briefing to his three co-pilots including Boeing’s Training Captain Chet Chester, while they were in Qantas’s 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 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 they arrived at the Runway 28R holding point, they would confirm with the ground crew that on the Flight Deck, the plane’s parking brake had been selected “Brakes – Parked”

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 -400 was developed as a two-pilot aeroplane and right now Rob Greenop and George Lindeman were supernumerary crew – 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, in the sequence 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 four. The crew chief will have a good look round to make sure the area’s clear, and will respond “Cleared to start”

There’d been some apprehension about how the special fuel supplied by Shell would “go” at start – up, unwarranted as it turned out.

At the Captain’s command, “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 will watch closely the N3 gauge for Number 4 engine, as it’s turned by compressed air supplied by the APU, and as N3 passed 25 per cent the P1 will move the Fuel Control switch on the central console aft of the thrust levers, to “Run” and the N3 RPM should continue to climb with the signature “rumble” of the RB211 and stabilise at 62 per cent.  (N3 is the designation of the third of three compressors at the front of the engine and operates at a higher pressure that the other two, further forward). Once Number 4 is stable at 62 per cent, 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, and 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 problem or incident. Someone started the flight deck’s stopwatch when the last, Number 1 engine, was stable. Rolls Royce mandated three minutes minimum warm-up time for its -524G engines. Must be a British thing – my old side-basher Morris Minor took about 3 minutes to warm-up, too.

While they’re waiting for Number 1’s minimum three minutes at Idle, the Captain thanked the BA engineers, who walked away from OJA, one of them holding aloft the steering lockout pin which would have been removed 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’s accidentally left in – no gear retraction  … dump over 70 tonnes of very expensive fuel to meet Maximum Landing Weight restrictions … land again … lose face and Gold Stars.

David’s system involved his insistence on the pin’s removal while he watched during his “walk-around”.

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 five pins, “flag” 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 warm-up, and the jet rocked gently in the slight crosswind.

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 the Company’s staff at large, although back in Australia the flight’s objectives had been presented to the media at a Press Conference, on the 15th August.

A similar presentation to the British media took place on Tuesday 15th August, with David as both “star” and sacrificial lamb. Qantas’s Manager UK and Ireland, Rodney Robson, was also there to ease the pressure on a very nervous pilot.

The concept had its genesis in the mid 80’s with a plan to take one of Qantas’s B747 SP’s, then the longest ranged commercial aircraft in anyone’s stable, and fly it non-stop from London to Sydney. Boeing had developed its SP (Special Performance) as an option for airlines looking for equipment that would satisfy the twin demands of range, and smaller cabin than the standard Jumbo off the showroom floor. Pan Am and Iran Air had consulted with Boeing on the “specs” and the discussions yielded an aeroplane with looks that only a mother could love. Forty eight feet shorter than the standard 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 -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, and there was also a suggestion that Polar cruising at FL450 exposed 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 – 8872nm’s 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 USG’s, in Compartment 2. And so the SP project hovered at the margins of a few pilots’ thinking, as events caught up and then overtook the original proposal.

In the early 1980’s sales of Boeing’s so called “Classics” (-200 and -300 Series Jumbos) faltered alarmingly, to the point that Boeing conducted a major review into their customers’ needs for their next generation of aeroplanes. These ideas crystallised into five main themes: better engines, better range, enhanced Cabin, enhanced technology throughout and a 10 per cent improvement in operating costs. And so they started development of the “Advanced Series 300” aircraft.

By 1985, this project and name had “morphed” into the B747-400, with Northwest the launch customer. Cathay Pacific, Singapore, KLM, Lufthansa and BA, put money on the table and signed commitments. They were followed soon after by United, JAL, 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 8000nm, well short of the 9700nm’s 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 a Eureka moment – if 8,000 nautical miles was the range fully laden, what could be wrung out of it if it was flown fully fitted out, but empty? Answer – 9,000 nautical miles. Suddenly it didn’t look quite so far-fetched.

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 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 two “armable” doors. Downstairs, each of the four “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’d 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’d 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 aeroplane’s being built, extraordinary controls are exercised over the construction materials and ultimately the weight of the finished product, so the final “avoirdupois” of OJA was known to the last one kilo. Not bad tolerances for an artefact that would be towed off the assembly line floor weighing about 160 tonnes!

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