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A fond farewell to the Boeing 747

By: Dave Gunner

December 9, 2020

It all started with a phone call to Boeing. "I'm Richard Branson, will you sell me a 747?" That's how, in 1984, we got our first aircraft. Maiden Voyager. A jumbo jet. And so began our 36 year relationship with the aircraft they call the Queen of the Skies.

There was something about the 747 that captured the world’s imagination. Was it its shape? Its size? All those wheels? The fact it had an upstairs (going upstairs was always special)? Or was it that it still had a little sprinkle of that 70s glamour about it? Whatever it was, it was always a treat to see one waiting at the gate. A sight that proclaimed that you were heading off on big adventures and long haul journeys.

We’ve had thirty 747s in our fleet over the years and welcomed millions of customers onboard. Our customers loved flying on them, and our people loved working on them. Aircraft enthusiasts eulogise about their shape and classic lines. And yet we’re talking about an aircraft designed in the 1960s. It’s rare for a machine to have such longevity, and even rarer to garner such affection.

Saying our bye-byes to the Queen of the Skies

G-VIRG, Maiden Voyager. Our very first Boeing 747-200

After flying the Boeing 747 for 36 years, we welcomed our last ever customers onboard last week. Not for a flight, but for a celebration of the good times we’ve had onboard the Queen of the Skies. Over two days, at our Heathrow hangar, we created a unique VIP 747 pop up restaurant. Aircraft enthusiasts, VIPs and some internal staff competition winners were wined and dined onboard G-VROY, Pretty Woman. They got the chance to meet some of our engineers, cabin crew, ground staff and pilots who’ve worked on the aircraft. There were tours of the plane and glimpses into places you never get to see as a customer. Any day now, G-VROY, will depart Heathrow, and our fleet, for the last time. The last Boeing 747. They’ll be a few misty-eyed people at our airline that day, for sure.

Captain Zane Dunning being interviewed by Jerry of BigJetTV. You can see the full interview and follow the final departure of G-VROY from Heathrow on the BigJetTV Youtube channel

Captain Zane Dunning heads up the small team of pilots responsible for positioning our 747s on their final flight out of our fleet.

“During one of our visits to the aeroplane storage facility in the desert, being complete aviation geeks, we just had to visit an old 747!” said Zane. “It had been parked up for approximately 40 years. Still virtually intact, she even contained newspapers and magazines from the day she was decommissioned. It was literally taking a walk down memory lane. This gave me the idea to start leaving messages on board our retiring aircraft for future generations to see, honouring their history at Virgin Atlantic.  Maybe one day, another four year old child will visit these amazing aircraft and it will give them the same inspiration it gave me!”

It’s no secret that Zane is a massive Star Wars fan and had the honour of flying the Millenium Falcon on our celebration flight (with the immortal PA ‘punch it, Chewy’ as he opened the throttles at Gatwick)

Good bye Millennium Falcon! You will always be the coolest ship in the galaxy…

 

A young Richard sits on the flight deck of an early 747.

Flying facts – the Boeing 747

We started operations in June 1984 with just one leased second hand 747-200, G-VIRG, Maiden Voyager. The aircraft stayed with us until 2001 (but then went on to fly a few more years with Kabo Air in Nigeria)

We planned to retire the 747 from our fleet in late 2021 but announced in May this year their immediate retirement from commercial service in response to the Covid-19 pandemic

Our last 747 passenger flight was the VS608, a Covid-19 rescue flight, from Los Angeles to London Heathrow on 30 March 2020 operated by G-VROS.

Thirty 747s in total have graced our fleet over our 36 years of operations: fourteen 747-200 ‘Classics’, thirteen 747-400s and just one 747-100. The way you can tell the difference between the different models is by counting the windows on the upper deck. The 747-100 has 3 windows, the -200 has ten, and the -400 has 18.

The only 747-100 to join our fleet was G-VMIA, initially named Miami Maiden and later renamed Spirit of Sir Freddie in honour of Sir Freddie Laker.  G-VMIA was the oldest airframe we ever had, manufactured in 1970

G-VFAB

G-VFAB with the Spice Girls

G-VFAB with the Red Arrows

The superstar of the fleet has to be G-VFAB, Lady Penelope. This was the first 747-400 to join our fleet. She joined us in April 1994 and remained in service with us until September 2015. In 2005, for our 21st birthday, G-VFAB received a special livery. For that year only, the flying icon on the nose was replaced with a birthday badge. In 2007 she was renamed Spice One by the spice girls ahead of their European tour (they also opened our new check-in facility at Heathrow). Then in 2009, for our 25th Birthday, G-VFAB took part in a flypast with the Red Arrows display team at the Biggin Hill airshow.

Our early 747s had a space at the back of the ‘bubble’ on the upper deck that is similar to todays A350 loft.

Cosmic Girl (747-400 G-VWOW) retired from our fleet in 2015 but she still flies the Virgin flag, She’s now with Virgin Orbital (registration N744VG). Still carrying the name Cosmic Girl she’ll be used as the mothership for the air-launch stage of the smallsat orbital launch vehicle, the LauncherOne You can read more about Cosmic Girl on this blog post 

One of our 747-400s, G-VHOT Tubular Belle flew our historic relief flight into Iraq in May 2003, delivering 60 tonnes of much needed medical aid into the country.   That flight was captained by Mike Abu Nayla, who we believe at the point of his retirement last year held the world record for the most 747 hours flown by any pilot – nobody has come forward and challenged this yet! This blog post tells Mike’s extraordinary story.

In 2008, G-VAST took part in a Top Gear stunt with Richard Hammond

Various 747s were renamed over the years:

  • G-VMIA Initially named Miami Maiden, renamed Spirit of Sir Freddie
  • G-VTOP Virginia Plain (briefly renamed Austin Powered in 2000)
  • G-VROS Initially English Rose later renamed Forever Young
  • Most recently G-VLIP Initially Hot Lips, renamed The Falcon

Five of our 747-400s were initially destined to join Alitalia new from Boeing, but Alitalia ended up not taking them, so we snapped them up and they flew with signage in the toilets in English and Italian!

747 memories from our people

When I started my Virgin career in 1994, the 747 was my first aircraft to fly on to Miami we only had the classics back then. Who could forget MIA with the underfloor galley ..the spiral staircase to the Elite seats upstairs and let’s talk TV screens with one remote to change the channels? Here I am with the first-ever seatback TVs and me how times have changed but I Wouldn’t Trade my memories for anything. The iconic Jumbo you will be so missed – Dawn Turner, cabin crew

When I was an apprentice, one of my first ever tasks whilst I was training to become an aircraft engineer was to replace a rudder ratio actuator on the 747-400.

An iconic moment for me, as I also realised on that day, I wasn’t too keen on heights!  Matthew Frain, technician

I have so many memories of the 747. In my 16.5yrs of flying on these aircraft, my absolute FAVOURITE thing is the noise it makes on takeoff, it is so unique and makes me smile every time. – Sue, Cabin Crew

Who cries about Aeroplanes – right? But tongue in cheek, there will be quite a few tears shed when the last Virgin Jumbo taxies out towards the runway to fly high away into the blue skies. Hot Lips will mark the end of a wonderful era of the most beautiful aircraft for VAA. I will be there to bid goodbye to my most favourite aircraft – the beautiful Queen of the Skies. – Prashant Patel, material supplies

To discover more about the history of the 747 and read pilot Karl Wort’s views on flying the aircraft visit our 747 50th birthday blog post

The Boeing 747 changed history and made travel cheaper and more accessible for everyone. It has become something of an icon and found a place in the hearts of travellers and aircraft enthusiasts alike.

Terry Wogan interviews Richard just after he started Virgin Atlantic in 1984

If our 747s could talk, they’d have a few stories to tell. So many happy memories. Trips of a lifetime. Life changing moments. The places they took us, the onboard celebrations, the people we met along the way.

As our last 747 departs, we know that replacing them are the next generation of airliners. The very latest Boeing 787 and Airbus A350s, and soon, the Airbus A330 NEO. These modern, sophisticated, quiet and green jets are the worthy successors of the 747.

So that’s it. Farewell to the Queen of the Skies. A massive part of our story. Flying off into the sunset. The end of an era. Thanks for all the memories.


You can follow the last ever departure of our 747 from Heathrow by keeping an eye on our social media channels. We are also planning on live streaming the departure live with Jerry from BigJetTV

Dave Gunner

Dave Gunner

I love telling the story of our people, our planes, our places and our planet through Ruby Blog.

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