50 Years of Qantas Leadership in Jet Services
28 July 2009
Australian travellers joined the jet-set era 50 years ago when Qantas flight EM774 departed Sydney Airport at 3.35pm on 29 July 1959, bound for Nadi, Honolulu and San Francisco. The sleek, silver and white fuselage of the Boeing 707 jet created history as Qantas became the first airline in the world to operate commercial passenger jet services across the Pacific. Qantas also was the first airline based outside the USA to operate the new passenger jet.
The four-engine aircraft introduced radical new technology, slashing travel times by almost half and reducing the tyranny of distance for international travellers.
The media soon coined the term 'jet-setter' to describe the international social group of wealthy travellers who met regularly and partied at destinations not generally available to ordinary folk.
On 27 October 1959, Qantas notched up another first by introducing the B707 jets on the Kangaroo route between Australia and London.
These flights provided a link in London to create round-world jet services from Australia to the UK, eastbound via Asia and the Middle-East and westbound across the Pacific and the Atlantic.
The B707 replaced propeller-driven, piston-engine aircraft, including the Lockheed Super Constellation L1049 "Connies", and revolutionised commercial aviation with new levels of passenger comfort.
The journey time on the Kangaroo route between Australia and the UK was slashed to 33 hours compared with about 63 hours in the "Connies."
By contrast, the first overseas Qantas services in 1935 took 12 days for the same journey. Today's A380 aircraft take about 23 hours.
The B707 jet set numerous sector flying records around the world - and Qantas created several. The first B707 delivered to Qantas from Boeing in Seattle, on 2 July 1959, VH-EBB, set three civil speed records for the sectors:
San Francisco - Honolulu flying time of 4 hrs:49 mins
Honolulu - Nadi flying time of 6 hrs:34 mins
Nadi - Sydney flying time of 4 hrs:47 mins
The inaugural passenger service by VH-EBC, City of Canberra, on 29 July completed the journey to San Francisco in a record time of 14 hours 57 minutes.
In Australia, a Qantas B707 training flight broke the Sydney-Melbourne record on 6 July 1959 with a flying time of 56 minutes - the previous record was 65 minutes.
While the L1049 and the B707 both had pressurised cabins, the operation of the internal-combustion, piston engine on the Constellation limited its altitude to 20,000 feet (6,096m) and cruising speed to 335 mph (539 kph), often in turbulent conditions.
By contrast, the turbo-jet engine of the B707 enabled still-air cruising at 550 mph (885 kph) at altitudes between 35,000 feet and 40,000 feet (10,668 - 12,192m).
Commencing in 1959, Qantas jets pioneered new standards of passenger comfort in both First and Tourist class cabins for international flights.
A promotional brochure of the time boasts: "There is little or no vibration in a 707 cruising at an effortless 550 mph and noise is reduced to a minimum. "Air travellers can quickly appreciate these advantages. Conversation with fellow passengers is easy; food and drinks no longer have to be balanced precariously; babies sleep undisturbed - and the whole atmosphere is pleasant and restful." The brochure made another interesting claim: "A typical itinerary of a 707 passenger could read….breakfast in London; luncheon in New York; supper in San Francisco. In fact, with the crossing of the international date line, it's quite possible to fly from Sunday into Monday and back to Sunday again!"
New air fare structures, including lower cost options, were introduced with the B707, bringing the prospect of overseas travel to a wider audience than in previous decades.
Qantas Super Constellations were capable of carrying 64 passengers, in a two-class configuration, First and Tourist. The early B707s could accommodate 24 First Class and 60 Tourist Class seats or 120 in an all-tourist class configuration.
Qantas added a distinctly Australian flavour inside the B707 cabins - wall panels were patterned with exquisitely-drawn Australian wildflowers.
Dome-shaped aisle lights could be controlled in colour to parallel the natural light outside - from white daylight through rosy dawn, sunset or deep velvet-blue. The lights were studded with a star pattern "representative of a portion of the sky over Sydney at 8pm in June!"
The B707 offered "twice the window area; at least two windows to every row of seats, allowing even the aisle passenger a window view of their own. Neat shades replaced curtains to diffuse light."
Twin galleys were a big feature on Qantas 707s commencing in 1959 - each was larger than previous aircraft types - and could produce 84 individual meal servings of traditional Qantas standard.
Other innovations included "a coffee maker which produces 12 cups of coffee every three minutes and a food trolley which makes the serving of meals much easier, allowing cabin staff more time for the distinctive personal service which has won them fame throughout the world."
The first jets also offered customers "five deluxe toilet rooms; two forward and three aft, featuring new plastic materials, stainless steel fittings and large illuminated mirrors."
The initial Qantas B707s had four Pratt & Whitney JT3C-6 turbine engines that represented a huge breakthrough in simplicity from the complexities of the 18-cylinder turbo-compounded, piston engines of then existing aircraft types.
To prepare for the B707, Qantas spent millions of dollars constructing new hangars, an engine overhaul shop, a jet test cell, purchasing new equipment and parts and training pilots and cabin crew, maintenance engineers and ground staff, including three extra trained nurses enabling a 24-hour on-call service!
One dramatic change involved the location of "spare" engines to handle unscheduled engine changes enroute between Sydney and London. With the piston-engine Constellations, Qantas ensured there was access to one spare engine at every stopover port on the route, either one of the company's own engines or one borrowed from another carrier.
Following this precedent, three spare Pratt & Whitney engines were positioned at three key ports outside Australia. These were withdrawn after one year when none had been used!
The B707 had another unique character - it was designed so that operators could temporarily fit a spare engine as a "fifth pod", between the No2. engine and the fuselage, enabling any "passing B707" to ship a complete spare engine to a stranded aircraft!
In 1960, Pratt & Whitney introduced an evolutionary updated modification to the earlier engines - a turbofan known as JT3D-1 which differed by having a large fan, powered by the engine turbines, at the front of the power plant.
Like an enclosed, many-bladed propeller, the fan pushed air back past the engine as well as through it - as a result the engine combined the good features of both the turbo propeller and the turbojet.
Combined with other design modifications by Boeing, the aircraft now offered increased take-off and cruise thrust; reduced fuel burn of 15 percent; increased cruising speed; reduced take-off distance by 2,000 feet (610 metres) and overall reduced operating costs.
The first seven Qantas B707s which had been delivered with the earlier-model JT3 engines - and designated B707-138 - were flown to Seattle and modified by Boeing.
Commencing with the eight delivery, VH-EBH City of Darwin, delivered on 6 August 1961, the remaining five on order arrived in Sydney with the turbofan engine and the designation -138B.
Qantas marketing took advantage of the new technology and created a clever advertising campaign to promote the much-improved engine as the V-jet (from Vannus, the Latin for fan.) Initially, the livery of the first seven B707s featured red and white "Qantas colours" on the upper fuselage above a shiny, metal under-wing area. The tail fin incorporated the then-used corporate, "winged flying kangaroo" logo above the word Qantas and the aircraft registration. Above the window line, the fuselage proudly proclaimed "Australia's Overseas Airline QANTAS".
Another, slightly-altered livery was used for a short period until September 1961 when the V-jet on the tail fin was incorporated progressively into a revised external look. This included altered fuselage wording - Qantas Australia's overseas airline - followed by the Australian flag and the registration towards the rear door. With the delivery of the larger, B707-338s in 1965, another slight variation occurred, including the addition of the word "Qantas" above the V-jet wording on the tail fin.
Commencing March 1968, the B707 fleet acquired another look - a bold, new "thicker, squatter and longer" fuselage type font, eliminating "Overseas Airline" leaving ''Australia" in dark blue lettering. The Australian flag and the flying winged kangaroo symbol remained.
Soon customers began asking to book flights on the big Qantas V-jets! Qantas operated a total of 13 138Bs through until they were phased out in 1969.
A larger version, the B707-338C, was introduced into the fleet from 1963. Qantas operated 21 of these - the sole remaining model, VH-EAG, named Alice Springs, flew the final scheduled B707 service, from Auckland to Sydney on 25 March, 1979.
The aircraft was one of several sold to the RAAF for the Government VIP fleet and withdrawn from service in February 2001 - other former Qantas 707s were used by the RAAF until June last year.