Qantas, 1989: The first non-stop flight from Britain to Australia

Damien Aiello, CC BY-SA 4.0

Thirty-three years ago today, in August 1989, Qantas’s new flagship Boeing 747-400 achieved a new milestone in aviation history, flying non-stop between London, England and Sydney, Australia.

The record-breaking flight gave the world a glimpse into the future of ultra-long-haul travel, flying further than any commercial aircraft had ever flown before.

Registered VH-OJA and named ‘City of Canberra’, the state of the art 747-400 was the 12th -400 produced and was accepted by Qantas on August 11, 1989.

The -400 became the bestselling of the Boeing ‘Jumbo’ series with 694 built. Qantas operated 31 of the type between 1989 and their retirement in 2015. The Boeing 747-400 remains one of the most iconic and admired aircraft in history.

The one-off delivery flight was aiming to achieve what no other airliner in history had: to fly non-stop from London to Sydney.

At a distance of 18,001 km, the journey would take around 20 hours and required several modifications including the use of high-density fuel to increase the total fuel capacity.

The flight departed with just 23 people on board, including the crew and specially selected passengers. The galleys were stripped of non-essential equipment to reduce weight and the aircraft was towed to the runway at Heathrow to conserve fuel.

Unusually, the Qantas 747 cruised at its service ceiling of 45,000 ft – for maximum fuel efficiency – and after 20 hours and nine minutes the City of Canberra landed at Sydney, breaking the record for the longest non-stop flight by a commercial aircraft. This would stand for another four years before the Airbus A340-200 bested the record.

It would be another three decades before Qantas began operating scheduled non-stop services connecting Britain and Australia. Today, it uses the latest generation Boeing 787-9 aircraft which is capable of flying 14,498 km with 236 passengers.

Qantas is also pursuing further non-stop ultra-long-haul projects with the future addition of the Airbus A350 aircraft to its fleet for Qantas’s Project Sunrise, aiming to connect cities in Australia with New York, Paris and London non-stop.

The City of Canberra Boeing 747 went on to fly for more than 25 years, on 13,833 flights and a total distance of 85 million km before retirement in 2015.

The aircraft is now on display at Shellharbour Airport in New South Wales, Australia at the HARS Aviation Museum having been saved from the scrapyard. 

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