Qantas flight QF7879 might have smashed the record books for the world’s longest passenger flight by a commercial airline for both distance and duration, but there’s much more to this moment in aviation history than practical facts. This is a story that embodies the spirit of human endeavor to explore new frontiers.
Thanks to aviators and adventurers willing to take a leap into unchartered territories, things have come a long way since 1919 when the world’s first flight from London to Australia touched down in Darwin 28 days later. One hundred years on, and what a tribute to those early pioneers for a Boeing 787 Dreamliner to cover 17,800 kilometers (about 11,060 miles) non-stop from London to Sydney in 19 hours and 19 minutes – a neat numerical synergy with that first flight in 1919.
The second of three Qantas research flights touched down in Sydney on 15 November, to coincide with the launch of the airline’s centenary celebrations. It wasn’t the first non-stop flight connecting the two far flung cities. In 1989 a brand-new Qantas Boeing 747-400 VH-OJA flew non-stop spending 20 hours and 9 minutes in the air. There were some stark differences though. To enable the 747, named Longreach, to cover the distance, its interior was completely stripped out to make the aircraft as light as possible. Despite this, its fuel tanks were brimming over to ensure the four-engine beauty could go the distance. It even had to be towed to the runway to save fuel consumption from taxiing the short distance.
Compare this with the twin-engine Boeing 787 that wasn’t stripped out, carried 50 passengers and crew, took off with room left in the tanks, and still had 6,300kg of fuel (one hour and 45 minutes flying time) left on arrival. This goes to show how far we’ve come in a relatively short space of time. The most recent flight operated with about 50% less fuel than its 1989 comparison.
Some things haven’t changed. In a fitting tribute, the new Dreamliner is also named Longreach. More impressive and inspiring, the pioneering ethos of the airline and crew remains un-wavered.
I met the Qantas team just before they embarked on the flight that was sure to be a personal career highlight. From the CEO, Alan Joyce, to the flight crew, cabin crew, scientists ready to test the limits of passenger air travel, and communications team, there was an infectious air of anticipation and togetherness as these lucky individuals prepared for a flight that people like me can only dream of being part of (one day!).
Not only did this remind me of my love for aviation and true connection to fellow lovers of the sky, it was a poignant reminder of what can be achieved when there’s a goal that’s only achievable with a team effort. In a world where just 5% of all pilots are female (shocking in the 21st Century), it was fantastic to see that 50% of the four-strong flight crew were women. It was even more fantastic to witness that, rightly so, any so called ‘differences’ between individuals were irrelevant. This dream team was on a mission to get from A to B safely, enjoy it, and make history together.
Here are my favourite facts from this extraordinary flight that might just lead to ultra long-haul becoming the new ordinary.
“Project Sunrise” was named after the sun and the stars
QF7879 was the second of three research flights being conducted by Qantas to explore the feasibility of non-stop flights covering such a long distance both from a passenger and airline perspective. The initiative is called “Project Sunrise” after the airline’s “double sunrise” flights between Australia and the UK that took place during the Second World War. The flights remained airborne long enough to see two sunrises. Singapore was the hub for all Australia-UK flights, so when it fell in 1942, Qantas improvised and re-routed, resulting in a 30-hour flight (with stops) that spanned the Indian Ocean between Perth and Colombo in today’s Sri Lanka.
Not only were crew and passengers in the air for so long that they saw the sun rise twice, pilots had to operate in total radio silence, with only the stars to find their way. The flights were under constant threat of attack, but Qantas managed to keep the airlink between Australia and the UK going without one single incident. Passengers were awarded with a certificate for joining the “Rare and Secret Order of the Double Sunrise”, and all on board flight QF7879 got their certificates too.
Five GoPros in the flight deck and roasted chicken macaroni soup for breakfast
This was no ordinary flight. Some serious scientific research was taking place which delved into the sleep cycles and alertness of pilots and cabin crew during extended flight duties, and the impact of jet lag, including examining how this pesky side effect of travel can be reduced.
The four pilots on board were filmed by five GoPros fitted inside the flight deck, and wore EEG (electroencephalogram) brain monitoring equipment for the duration of the flight to track brain activity and monitor alertness during their “on” times and quality of sleep during their “rest” periods. Urine samples from before, during and after the flight will track melatonin levels, and the amount of light entering the pilots’ eyes was recorded by a wearable device place between their eyes and chest.
Passengers followed a strict regime of when to eat, sleep and be active, with the aim of getting their body on destination time as quickly as possible. This involved having roasted chicken macaroni soup for breakfast (well, breakfast UK time and supper down under time), and settling down for sleep soon after take-off early morning from London.
Exercise and reaction tests formed part of the inflight studies, and passengers participated in group stretching and games similar the “Whack a Mole” on iPads.
It will be fascintaing to hear the complete findings, but this comment courtesy of Monash researcher Tracey Sletten is an interesting takeaway: “It is all about the light. The timing of day that you get light exposure and the intensity of that light is going to help you with your jet lag more than anything else.”
There’s demand for ‘ultra long-haul’ flights
You might wonder why Qantas is putting so much effort into exploring ultra long non-stop flights. The airline’s CEO, Alan Joyce says the answer is “simple”: “Australia is very far away from everywhere. We have so many ultra long haul flights [already]. When you think of the distances we travel — already Perth to London is a 17-hour flight, Sydney to Dallas is 16, Santiago is over 14 hours, then we have services direct to London from Sydney that could be 21 hours… Paris, Frankfurt, Cape Town, Rio de Janeiro… We could justify a significant fleet that makes that economical.”
In terms of demand, perhaps most telling is the consistently high passenger loads on the direct London to Perth route. Flights operate at 95% capacity most days compared with an average load factor of 75% on other well performing routes, and tickets sell at a 20-30% premium. This paints a picture that passengers are willing to pay the price to cut out the stop over.
What it will take to get non-stop London – Sydney, and Sydney – New York permanently on the map?
It’s not as simple as saying, “yes, let’s do it now.” Qantas will need to work with regulatory bodies to get approval for the extra-long flying time. This includes agreeing pilot and crew working arrangements, and other regulations associated with the routes.
The first step will be an announcement from Qantas by the end of this year (2019) confirming whether they’ll go ahead with making the flights a reality for the general public. If the green light is given, Boeing and Airbus will continue to battle it out for this sought-after gig. Joyce says it’s neck to neck between the A350 and 777X.
A grand welcome into service for the flight’s plane
When brand new planes are collected from the aircraft manufacturer, they usually fly empty to their new home. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner flew from Boeing’s Everett Factory just outside Seattle, before making the short hop to Los Angeles International Airport, and then onto London’s Heathrow. On Thursday 14th November, 2019, just two days after leaving the Boeing factory, the plane took to the skies from London at 6.09am for its history making flight to the other side of the world.
Geopolitcal shifts – the sky is a reflection of earth
The difference in the routes taken by the 747 flight in 1989, and 2019’s QF7879 shows just how much what’s happening on the ground impacts the flight patterns of the many thousands of planes flying above us 24/7. Qantas sought special permission to fly a course not normally taken, travelling over 11 countries including England, Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan, China, Philippines and Indonesia before crossing the Australian coast near Darwin, tracking across the country before landing into Sydney.
The spirit of Australia is live and kicking
It’s infectious when you’re surrounded by pride and patriotism, and this was evident from the welcome given by over a 1000 people, including the Australian Prime Minister when Longreach touched down in Sydney at 12.28pm local time on Friday 15th November, 2019. This is testimony to airlines being so much more than an air transport service. A flag carrier represents its country around the world, and it was brilliant to see the flying kangaroo igniting so much pride.
Shout out to the crew of QF7879
Without doubt, my personal highlight was meeting the crew of this historic flight. During my 16 years working in and around aviation, I’ve worked with talented airline teams, but I was struck by the crew’s pride and passion. This flight wasn’t just about breaking records. This flight was about the power of teamwork and human curiosity.