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11 August 2022

Opinion from Adrian Leopard & Co

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The Virus That Killed the Jumbo Jet? How modern aviation is moving forward.
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The Virus That Killed the Jumbo Jet? How modern aviation is moving forward.

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Today’s aviation is certainly in a real pickle.

Perhaps something a little lighter today than wholesale Covid in these most distressing of times.

I’ve just watched a very moving BBC documentary called “The Virus That Killed The Jumbo Jet”, and concede to being somewhat surprised by the affection that the British public appear to have towards this so called “Queen of the Skies”. The retirement of Concorde I could understand; it was unique and most of all it was British (at least half of it was, I’m not sure which half!). But the venerable 747 was once amongst the most popular airliners in the world, and was American through and through (the first BA examples didn’t even have Rolls-Royce engines; they came later).

However, the virus did not kill the 747. It brought its pension date forward a few years, but the writing was already on the wall. Covid or no Covid the Jumbo was going to go. In truth the 747 has been killed by the long haul twin, which is perhaps 30-50% more efficient than a Jumbo. We covered this in great detail in an earlier blog.

BA’s 747s are, in terms of contemporary civil aviation, geriatric. The first examples (series -136 aircraft) entered service with one of BA’s predecessors, BOAC, in April 1970. These were followed in 1977 by a fleet of Rolls-Royce powered examples (series -236), and a lone pure freighter with a hinged nose section (series -236F), appropriately registered G-KILO, joined the fleet briefly 1980-81 before BA got out of the main-deck cargo business.

All these 747 variants have long since departed the BA fleet. The aircraft that have just been retired are series -436 aircraft, deliveries of which began in July 1989. The final two, as you saw on many of last week’s news bulletins, departed Heathrow for the last time on Thursday. It was planned to carry out a synchronised take off, respectively on Runways 27 Right and 27 Left, but the weather was dreadful and they departed for their last flights, in sequence, on 27R. Such a shame.

G-CIVB (Victor Bravo) was delivered in February 1994, making her almost 28-years old. This is significantly beyond the expected service life of a modern jet. Her sister, G-CIVY (Victor Yankee) is a sprightly youngster at just over 22-years of age!

Since 1970 BA have operated a total of 110 747s over the three variants.

Last Thursday Bravo Yankee was flown to St Athan in South Wales for the attention of eCube Solutions Ltd. Victor Bravo went to Kemble in the Cotswolds and Air Salvage Ltd. Both companies specialise in ‘parting out’ retired airliners, basically a posh term for scrapping. Ordinarily many of the components can be removed and re-cycled to use on aircraft still in service. But these aircraft are so old, and globally are being withdrawn from service with such haste, that the value of VY and VB lies purely in their scrap.

So, the virus has not killed off the Jumbo as such, and whilst sad, we really shouldn’t be surprised to see them go. However, across the Channel in Paris, something that really is an eye opener to the changes afoot in the present epoch of civil aviation has just taken place, entirely without fanfare. Once again, Covid is not the direct causation, it was going to happen anyway in 2022, but it has been brought forward to June 26 last, because of the virus. Air France has retired its entire fleet of 12 Airbus A380 Super Jumbos.

Air France’s A380 represented a very young fleet. It received its first late in 2009, making it little more than ten years old, and received the last of its order in 2014. Ergo an airliner that is just six years old has been retired and will be scrapped (there is zero second hand demand for these aircraft) because it is uneconomic to run by contemporary standards. Air France’s decision is all the more shocking because the A380 is ostensibly a French aircraft; certainly it has a pan-European pedigree but there is no doubt that Airbus is a French led organisation. For France’s flag carrier, to concede that a French product is in essence a failure, speaks volumes for just how the A380, conceived in a different era, does not fit in to the present day use of smaller (but still huge) twin engined long haul jets.

Air France are not alone. Singapore Airlines, the A380 launch customer, are scrapping their older examples (and at just 13-years old the term is a relative one!). The world’s largest A380 customer, Emirates, without whom the whole project would have been a catastrophe, is retiring older examples as it takes delivery of newer aircraft of the type. Production will cease next year after a production run of just 242 (747 production 1,558). The project is believed to have cost Airbus $25 billion. It will not come even close to washing its face!

Meanwhile, last January, a brand new A380 rolled off the production line in Toulouse, destined to fly for Japan’s All Nippon Airways. It cost $445m. To date, it is yet to fly commercially and is laid- up in Tokyo. This, of course, is a direct result of Covid but one can but wonder if passenger numbers will recover sufficiently, within a reasonable time scale, or if at all, for this Goliath to enter revenue service before ANA conclude that it is not a project worth pursuing?

My brief in setting down these words was “how do [I] feel the [aviation] industry is poised for the future?”. Gosh, I haven’t a clue. Does anyone?  But one thing is absolutely certain, it won’t involve large, four engined passenger jets!

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You probably saw the footage on the news of the last two BA 747s disappearing into the murk at Heathrow last Thursday. To see Victor Bravo’s last landing, at Kemble, go here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ber9O46eSD8

It’s quite spectacular given the amount of standing water thrown up as the engines spooled one last time for reverse thrust. It also drew quite a crowd – I won’t mention social distancing; perish the thought! As someone who’s had the honour to drive this most docile gentle giant, it certainly brought a tear to my eye. Just a little one :-)

Postscript: I understand that Victor Bravo will be preserved at Kemble, and not parted out. That’s nice. It has to be tempered however with the news that there are plans afoot to develop the Kemble airfield site as a “Garden Village”.  Not so nice (from an aviation perspective).

A few explanations for the uninitiated. The aircraft wears the BA “Negus” (after the studio that designed it) livery from the 1970s. It is a trend these days for airlines to paint at least one aircraft in a fleet in a ‘retro’ livery. 

“Speedbird” is BA’s R/T callsign. The ‘trip number’ “400” is obviously a reference to it being the last flight of a BA 747-400.

Kemble, once home of the Red Arrows, does not have licensed air traffic controllers nor certified metrological observers (standard for private airfields). Thus you won’t hear the term “clear to land” and the weather is described as an “unofficial” observation. 

 Capt J W H Quayle 15-10-20

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