Thursday 16 November 2017 will be the 15th anniversary of arrival of the Qantas Founders Museum’s Boeing 747– 200 VH-EBQ in Longreach. To remember this exciting event, Museum member and former Qantas Senior Production Engineer, Bob Sprague, shared this story of the lead up to arrival of the Boeing 747 in Longreach.
“The reason for Qantas selecting the Boeing 747-238B, VH-EBQ, for donation to the museum is not well known. Having been deeply involved in the project I thought it is about time that many myths be dispelled about selecting EBQ.
In late 2001 David Forsyth who was head of Qantas Aircraft Operations (Flight Operations and Engineering) rang me saying did Longreach want a 747SP. Since that aircraft was due to fly out to the USA for “storage” the following day I said the notice was a bit short. But the seed was sown so to speak to donate a 747 to Longreach and in doing so provide what has become one of the biggest attractions at QFOM and one of the biggest artefacts in any museum in Australia.
I think I’m right in saying that donating an aircraft, and a bloody big one at that, was a “first” for Qantas. Qantas usually sold, returned or scrapped their aircraft at the end of their lives within the company. As the world aviation market was in a down turn Qantas had decided to retire a number of older 747s and that really meant they were to be scrapped as selling was not an option. The QFM Board was in favour of the donation so the next step was to make it happen.
The first question I asked was to the Aircraft Performance group –“can we land a 747 at Longreach?”. They did their calculations and said it was possible with some reservations. But I took that as a definite “yes” and so the project began. I drew up a budget for the exercise which covered everything I could think that we might need to do and added on a contingency to cover any unexpected costs. The budget was duly accepted and presented to the Qantas Board as a variation in the disposal programme and EBQ was nominated as the aircraft to be donated. With board approval, so began one of the biggest and most interesting projects I had been involved with during my time at Qantas. This project would involve just about every area within Qantas except for Ticket Sales. And I could have sold every seat on the plane if I had been allowed.
Longreach Council had to approve the placement of the aircraft on their property and we needed to be sure that it didn’t interfere with the operations at the airport once it was parked. It is a big object. The Council gave us the car park on the eastern side of the terminal building for the final resting place. A number of small hangars occupying the site had to be moved and concrete pads had to be constructed and a support mechanism installed so the aircraft wouldn’t move in the wind. 747s have been known to act like weather vanes in high winds because of the large fin. Boeing was asked for assistance on how this could be done but they told us they had never been asked how to permanently display a 747. Up until then they had only been involved with temporary anchoring of a 747 as the owners wanted to fly them at a later date. So, with the help of a civil engineering firm we developed a scheme to tie down the aircraft.
We also had to assemble a crew of engineers to install the support system as well as de-commission the aircraft. This exercise was a reverse aircraft recovery. So a team skilled in the maintenance of 747s was assembled under Jeff Swinson, a LAME with 747 and 767 knowledge. The unique support system designed by the civil engineers had to be installed by our engineers who had to learn how to build form work, mix concrete, drill holes and glue anchor bolts into the concrete to secure the aircraft and then start the de-commissioning process. I think we allowed ten days for the work.
A flight crew had to be organised and Captain Mike Fitzgerald, pilot in charge of the 747-200 fleet, nominated himself to fly the aircraft. To familiarise him with Longreach Airport I sent him up to Longreach in the cockpit jump seat on one of the many 737 charter flights used to generate income for QFOM. After that the crew trained in the simulator at Mascot using the taxiway at Avalon airport to emulate the runway at Longreach.
A 737 charter flight was arranged to bring dignitaries and visitors from Sydney for the arrival of EBQ. It also had to bring the engineers up to Longreach and the 747 aircrew back. Of course we needed an aircraft tractor to move the 747 once it had landed. That was a seven day round trip with the tractor only in Longreach for 24 hours. There was also a truck load of equipment needed for the engineers to carry out their work to park and de-commission EBQ over the ten days. Then of course we needed accommodation for everyone staying on in Longreach. The decommissioning in fact took longer than 10 days and a second team was sent to Longreach a little while later. All their names are engraved on a plate fixed to the cockpit door.
Qantas removed many items from the aircraft that were not required for the display. These were mainly safety equipment and galley items. The decommissioning required that the aircraft be made “safe” for public inspection and specific components were removed and returned to Sydney. In some cases replacement components were installed in their place. The aircraft data plates were removed effectively rendering EBQ a big aluminium building that closely resembles a Boeing 747. All the documentation from the flight deck was either given to the museum curator or returned to Sydney. The baton and handcuffs also located on the flight deck were returned to Qantas Security in Sydney.
The four engines and auxiliary power unit (APU located in the tail), that Qantas installed for the delivery flight were at the end of their useful lives and would need expensive overhauls if they were to be used in the future. In fact we ran the APU beyond its nominal life to keep the aircraft cool and to help consume fuel. De-fuelling the aircraft was the longest job. Draining some 4 tonnes of fuel from the aircraft, I recall, took about 4 days as it dribbled into drums to be disposed of.
While my part of the project was the placement and de-commissioning, Flight Operations worked out how to safely land the 747. They also planned some local flying prior to landing and what to do if they had to divert to Townsville should Longreach suddenly be unavailable. The team at QFOM were organising the official side of things, the arrival ceremony and celebration dinner.
As previously mentioned, by July 2002, EBQ was nominated as the most suitable candidate for Longreach. It had enough hours remaining before any major maintenance was due and could be available in the timeframe required. Much discussion was held with Engineering Planning, who scheduled the 747 flying, for a release date. We asked for early November saying the weather would be too hot any later. They said “no, late November was earliest we could have the plane”. So we compromised on 16 November, the company’s birthday. No-one realised the significance of that date.
EBQs last commercial flight was a Sydney-Perth-Sydney domestic service one week prior to its last flight to Longreach. In the week before departure EBQ received a lot of special attention from the engineering ground crews who were pleased that it wasn’t going to be scrapped. She arrived at her final resting place looking magnificent.
After a successful landing, an hour spent doing a 57-point turn at the northern end of the runway and taxiing to the terminal under her own power, EBQ was finally handed over to QFOM by the Chairman of Qantas, Margaret Jackson. Later that afternoon she was pushed back into her final resting place.
Oh, why was EBQ the ideal aircraft? No, it wasn’t “Q” for Queensland. Well, it so happened, it had the best paint of all the 747s we had to choose from. Two years previously it had returned from charter to Air Pacific and had undergone a full repaint in Qantas livery. Simple as that!