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.
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
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
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.
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.
Various 747s were renamed over the years:
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!
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
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.
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