Digital memories of our first flight to San Francisco

By: Dave Gunner

May 17, 2019

Jeremy Sutton is a digital artist who was onboard our very first flight to San Francisco. This is his story.

A historic day

Twenty five years ago today, we took off to fly to San Francisco for the very first time. For us, it was a historic and memorable day. Our customers were were welcomed onboard by Richard who was joined by his family, and the usual gathering of celebrities, journos and travel writers that come along on these press trips. During the flight, live music was supplied by Clarence Clemons, the legendary sax player from Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. 

Clarence Clemons and Jeremy’s digital painting of him

Introducing digital art

Also onboard that day was Jeremy Sutton, a Brit who had moved to San Francisco to work in the tech sector some years earlier. The flight would prove to be something of a turning point in his life. A physicist by trade, he’d settled in the heart of Silicon Valley, been introduced to the exciting new art medium of digital paint (his hobby was drawing portraits of people), but early in 1994 he was at a bit of a crossroads having recently got his Green Card and then, shortly afterwards, been laid off from his job. When Jeremy read about the entrepreneur bringing his young airline to San Francisco, he had an idea. He’d always enjoyed drawing and was fascinated by the new and burgeoning world of digital art that he was exploring. Spotting an opportunity, he wrote to Richard on a whim to ask him if he could create a digital portrait of him when he landed in San Fran. The response from our PR team was an invite to fly to London, spend the weekend with Richard, then fly back home on the inaugural flight where he could draw digital paintings of Richard and some of the guests onboard. The idea brought the pioneering spirits of Virgin Atlantic and Silicon Valley together perfectly. Before setting off, Jeremy talked to Apple and somehow managed to persuade them to lend him their latest prototype before it went on sale (imagine that now). It was the mighty PowerBook 150 laptop, a predecessor to today’s MacBooks. This was teamed with an early Wacom tablet and software called Fractal Design Painter X2 (sold on two floppy disks at 1.4mb each). 

The PR stunt. Richard escapes from Alcatraz

“San Francisco was always on our list of great cities of the world that we wanted to fly to, so it’s a very proud moment for the airline finally to be launching this service”. Richard Branson, 17th May 1994

Twenty five years on, Jeremy reflects on the flight that changed his life. “For me personally and professionally it was of great significance. The inaugural launched my professional career as a digital artist.

”The whole thing was a huge success. Digital painting was something very  experimental, and Richard was clearly fascinated by this new form of art, so much so that he invited Jeremy back a month later for our 10th birthday party the old London City Hall on the south bank of the Thames. Since then Jeremy’s long and successful career and his craft has benefited from advances in software and hardware. He uses the latest iPad Pro instead of the PowerBook and has also branched out into developing fields such as AR and VR 3D painting, always exploring new artistic possibilities and technologies like gesture-driven ‘air painting’ and even a form of eye painting controlled by eye-tracking and blinking.

Richard watches Jeremy paint a guest at the Kidlington party

Also onboard the flight were San Francisco twins and local celebrities Marian and Vivian Brown (seen here at the Oxfordshire party). Jeremy remembers talking to them on the flight and afterwards laughing with them about the experience whenever he saw them out and about in the city.

One of the pilots on the inaugural was Chris Thomson who remembers the flight as a grand occasion and a wonderful trip. He also recalls meeting the twins. “On that flight, two famous old lady twins were invited by Richard to be VIP passengers”. Says Chris. “About 15 years later I saw one of the twins while out walking about down route in San Fran. I asked if she remembered that trip and told her I was one of the pilots, she remembered it well and was very thankful to have been part of the Virgin Atlantic inaugural flight.”

We’re really grateful to Jeremy for sharing his memories from that amazing trip and can’t wait to see where his art takes him next. Find out more about his art or take one of his online courses on his website You can also see more of the paintings he made on that flight 25 years ago here


Dave Gunner

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

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