It’s 1989 and a Boeing 747-438 – what most of us call a jumbo jet – rumbles down Runway 28 Right at London’s Heathrow Airport, picking up speed until it’s able to take off. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about that since Boeing 747s have already been in service for nearly 20 years. But this is no ordinary flight. In fact, it’s a highly secret test of the airliner’s capabilities.
The senior pilot on the Qantas flight, Captain David Massy-Green, has a very special mission. He plans to fly the plane, named City of Canberra, non-stop to Sydney, Australia – a distance of some 10,500 miles. There’s just one problem with that. The 747’s official range is not much more than 9,000 miles. So Massey-Green is trying to achieve a theoretical impossibility.
However, Massey-Green has not taken leave of his senses. Using the latest fuel technology, and carrying far fewer passengers and less kitchen equipment than usual, the captain and his crew believe they can make it all the way to Sydney. Co-pilot Ray Heiniger radios Heathrow air traffic control for take-off clearance. With typical British insouciance, the control tower responds with the message “Good luck and don’t forget to write!” The plane is soon in the sky.
But how could the 747 make it to Sydney given its documented range? As we’ve indicated, the answer lay mostly in the properties of the 200-plus tons of aviation fuel stowed in the plane’s tanks. Oil company Shell had developed a special formula with increased power production. To mix it, the company had hauled it up and down railroad tracks until it was just right. And that innovative fuel, plus the firm’s desire to be non-stop pioneers, were the reasons for the secrecy surrounding the flight.
Co-pilot Heiniger told the Australian Broadcasting Company in 2019, “We had to keep it secret because we had a lot of other people who probably would’ve tried the same adventure if they thought of it.” And precisely 20 hours, nine minutes and five seconds after take-off, the 747 touched down at Sydney Airport. Despite that 1989 feat, commercial non-stop London-to-Sydney flights don’t yet exist. But Qantas hopes to introduce just such a service in 2022, with a 20-hour flight time.