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Qantas Retires Its Last 747 With A Dash Of Sky Art

Australia's Qantas Airways has retired its last Boeing 747 with a flourish.

With six pilots and no passengers aboard for the final flight from Sydney, QF7474's flight path sketched out a giant Qantas kangaroo logo off the east coast of Australia. It then headed across the Pacific to the Mojave Air and Space Port in the California desert, a commercial aviation boneyard, where it will be stripped for parts.

The airline had expected to retire the venerable airliner model at the end of the year, but the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit hard for airlines, forced them to move up the timetable.

Last week, the Australian carrier announced that it was shutting down all of its international routes until March 2021 due to the steep drop in traffic resulting from COVID-19.

The jetliner has already been retired by U.S. carriers – by the end of 2017, United Airlines and Delta Airlines had both stopped flying their passenger versions. British Airways announced the retirement of its fleet of 31 747s last week.

The four-engine 747, with its distinctive "hump" originally to accommodate a first-class lounge, began flying with airlines in 1969 and quickly became an icon — gaining favor for its ability to carry upwards of 366 passengers in relative luxury on long-haul flights.

More than 1,500 747s have been built since then in multiple configurations, including a bevy of passenger variations and cargo freighters. The plane was even used to transport NASA's Space Shuttle.

It wasn't until 2007, when the first giant Airbus A380 went into service, that the 747 "Jumbo Jet" was finally eclipsed.

Qantas put its first 747 in service in 1971.

Qantas' first Boeing 747B, the Jumbo Jet, named the "City of Canberra" arriving in Sydney from the U.S. on Aug. 16, 1971.
Fairfax Media Archives / Fairfax Media via Getty Images
Fairfax Media via Getty Images
Qantas' first Boeing 747B, the Jumbo Jet, named the "City of Canberra" arriving in Sydney from the U.S. on Aug. 16, 1971.

Qantas Chief Executive Alan Joyce told a gathering of people in a hanger for the sendoff that the jetliner "overcame the tyranny of distance that was and continues to be an issue for Australia."

Owen Zupp, one of the six pilots aboard QF7474, told Reuters it would be "a memory that we can look back on with great pride."

"It is significant not just for Qantas' history, but aviation," he said.

Another pilot on the flight, Greg Fitzgerald, said that the shape of the 747 is something "everybody in the world knows." Before takeoff on Wednesday, he told ABC Radio: "It's like Aeroplane Jelly and Vegemite - it's always been there. We don't know life without the 747 in the skies."

The 747, which is still being produced, mainly as a freighter, was eventually outclassed for fuel economy by the newest generation of jetliners, such as the Airbus A350 and Boeing's own more recent models.

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Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.