November 27, 2019
Last week we said goodbye to Tinker Belle, also known as G-VBIG, one of our Boeing 747s. For our people who’d worked on and flown the aircraft, and for many of our customers, it was an emotional moment.
For Charlie Gould, one of our certifying engineers, the final departure of Tinker Belle had special significance. In June 1996, Charlie had the honour of collecting this aircraft from the Boeing factory in Seattle, and then signing it on to the British register. Now he was back on the flight deck for Tinker Belle’s last flight, signing the tech log for her final journey.
Charlie should have retired earlier this year but decided to hang on for a few months to mark a couple of important milestones. On the 5th of September it was exactly fifty years since he started as an apprentice at Hawker Siddley, a British aircraft manufacturing company. He went on to work at British Caledonian Airways, followed by a short spell at BA, before joining our own engineering division when it formed in 1989. The second milestone was the retirement of G-VBIG.
G-VBIG’s final flight departed Gatwick on Friday 22 November. Once the aircraft was handed over to pilots Captain John Neyland and Captain Karl Wort, Charlie ‘manned the headphones’ for her last ever push back. As he watched on, ‘his aircraft’ started her taxi to the runway for the final time, for the short hop down to her final resting place at St Athan, an ex-military airfield in Wales.
“The flight went very smoothly, despite the poor weather at St Athan, largely due to the amazing support from all areas of the business” said Captain John Neyland who flew the aircraft. “The low cloud base and driving rain almost meant that we weren’t able to land but the weather cleared just in time for our approach. It was quite emotional after landing as we sat on the runway with the engines shut down for the last time and made the last entry in the tech log. Tinkerbell would fly no more”.
It’s a strange idea, having an emotional attachment to a machine, until you consider all the years our engineers have spent with these aircraft. They’ve invested so much of their lives into looking after these complex machines and spent so many hours tending to them so they’re always in tip top shape. During the lifetime of an aircraft they get to know every nut and bolt. Each aircraft develops its own character and all have their own stories to tell.
Stepping onboard G-VBIG just before she departed for St Athan, Tinker Belle looked and felt the same as she would on any normal passenger service. The TV screens were on, the aircraft had been cleaned and was in great shape. Knowing she was heading to the scrapyard felt odd, and a little sad.
The love for Tinker Belle on our social media channels and internal forums has been huge. Many people remember her as the aircraft they boarded for special journeys and dream holidays. The name Tinker Belle resonated with many more, especially families who flew her to Orlando and Disneyland. Plenty of our crew fondly remember flying on G-VBIG too, as for many she was the first aircraft they worked on.
“It’s so sad to hear Tinker Belle has gone,” said Teresa Wilson, a member of our cabin crew. “I met my husband John on G-VBIG on the VS21 from Heathrow to Washington in April 2001. Then this summer she brought us (husband and two girls) back from Orlando. My little girls were so excited to finally travel on the plane that mummy and daddy met on. G-VBIG holds a special place in my heart.”
The life of an aircraft is determined by many factors. How many pressurisation cycles they go through. How many landings they make. Some components have lifespans measured in time or distance travelled. Ultimately, like so much, it comes down to money. The 747s are not as efficient as newer aircraft; this affects their market value and sooner or later, as happened with G-VBIG, the value of the aircraft becomes less than the cost of its next big maintenance input.
The end of an aircraft’s life is a more than just an emotional wrench, it’s a huge amount of work for our aircraft assets team. They’ve been working on this for about a year, making sure all the processes are in place. The paperwork, which can fill a small room, needs to be in order so that any parts due to be refurbished and sold have the correct provenance. Negotiations take place, and our procurement team need to be satisfied that the aircraft will be dealt with responsibly. Any company involved will need to comply with our sustainable supplier policies. Lots of legal work needs to be completed before the flight can depart.
Shortly after arriving at St Athan, our engineers spend time with Tinker Belle removing parts. We then remove of all our logos and branding. When everything’s ready, she’ll be handed over to aircraft salvage experts KP Aviation and eCube, who’ll recycle any parts that have a value before (sob) cutting up the airframe and salvaging the aluminium.
Once in the hands of eCube, G-VBIG will have all the remaining fuel removed, then be stripped of all reusable components. This includes everything from doors to window blinds, which are photographed, inspected and refurbished if needed, before having their part numbers and serial numbers logged. They can then go in to stock for reselling. In a few months time the process will reach its natural conclusion when the wings, the fuselage, and the shell of the aircraft are broken down for recycling. You can see a timelapse of the eCube dismantling process on a smaller Airbus aircraft in this video
eCube are members of the Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association (AFRA) – there, you learned something – they’re the trade body for the aircraft ‘end of life’ industry and promote the safe and sustainable disposal and management of aircraft. eCube operate to the highest environmental standards which means they ensure safe disposal of waste products and impressively re-used or recycle, on average, 90% of the incoming aircraft by weight.
Nothing lasts forever, not even Tinker Belle, who’s finally reached the end of her globetrotting, memory making, high flying career. If that makes you sad, know that before we hand her over to the salvage company we’ll be keeping a few parts as spares for our remaining 747 fleet. These include the evacuation slides, the undercarriage and three of the engines (the fourth is nearing the end of its serviceable life). So bits of her will still fly on until we retire the rest of the fleet in a couple of years time (that’s going to be extra emotional!) Until then, we can all hang on to the memories created on this giant of the sky.