LONDON – As British Airways (BA) completes retirements of its Boeing 747 that were based in London Heathrow (LHR), Airways takes a look back at its history as more of the frames are destined for their end.

Around 18 airframes are still queued for their eventual retirement, with the following already retired:

Photo: British Airways

The Sprouting Seventies

The 1970s were when the 50-year relationship with the aircraft began, which was before the merger of the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) and British European Airways (BEA).

The start of that decade saw BOAC receive the first Boeing 747-100 variant, which was the next-step in long-haul air travel. The first hangar suitable for the aircraft type was built in March 1971 before receiving the aircraft officially in April.

G-AWNF (L.N. 111/MSN 19766), the first unit in the fleet, operated its first commercial flight from LHR to New York (JFK) around two weeks after delivery. It lived a healthy 30-years in service and followed the airline into BA as we know it today before being stored with Kabo Air (N9) as 5N-JJJ.

Following significant success within a four-year period on the type, the airline placed an order for four Boeing 747-200, powered by Rolls-Royce engines. By June 1976, the first two of the four aircraft were delivered to the airline.

Photo: AVSIM

The Electric Eighties

The 1980s were when the airline decided to dabble in using the aircraft for freighter operations. In October 1980, the first Boeing 747 Freighter, dubbed G-KILO (L.N.480/MSN 22306) was delivered to BA.

In 1981, two of the airline’s 747-100 were sold to Trans World Airlines (TW), before placing several of its newly delivered -200 aircraft into storage in the US and placed on sale due to the deepening recession of 1982.

Due to ongoing the economic downturn of ’82, the aircraft left the BA fleet and was sent to Cathay Pacific (CX) as VR-HVY and B-HVY, which featured some wet-leasing operations with the Royal Air Force before being sent to the scrap-heap in May 2008, living a total of 28 years.

Around three years later, once the economy recovered, BA placed its largest single aircraft order ever placed for 16 brand new 747-400 aircraft at list prices of $4.3m, with options for an additional 12 to replace its aging -100 aircraft.

By 1987, BA had acquired five miscellaneous Boeing 747 aircraft from British Caledonian (BR), which merged with the airline following negative financials from the carrier.

The Boeing 747-400 variants were delivered by 1989, and July saw the aircraft commence its first commercial flight, flying between LHR, Philadelphia (PHL) and Pittsburgh (PIT) using G-BNLC (L.N.734/MSN 23910).

Photo: Roberto Leiro

High-Life at the Start of the Nineties

As BA continued to receive more 747, the airline announced it would develop a £70m new aircraft engineering base in Cardiff (CWL), which is where we see some of the aircraft stored at the current moment. The CWL base was going to be used specifically to cater to the aircraft, creating around 1,200 jobs at the time.

Around a month after, in July 1990, BA then announced it ordered an additional 21 -400 aircraft, with options for 12 more aircraft, bringing the total order to 42. Such options were exercised around a year later, due to a £4.3bn order for 15 Boeing 777-200 aircraft, with 24 Boeing 747-400 included in the deal as well.

In March 1993, the airline decided to take a plunge into the Asian market with the launch of British Asia Airways (BR – using the same IATA code as British Caledonian) which launched for around eight years before ceasing operations in December 2001.

British Asia Airways targeted the likes of Taiwan (TPE) and other popular destinations across Asia at the time. But with that, came expansion and co-operative opportunities.

Photo: Roberto Leiro

The Mid-nineties

A year later, in August 1994, BA signed a co-operative deal with Australian carrier Qantas (QF) to ensure scheduling, sales and marketing on its 35 weekly 747 flights on what was known as “Kangaroo services”.

February 1998 came along and the airline bade farewell to four of its -400 aircraft, with an order for five 777-200 being the replacement for the aircraft. In August of that same year, more 777 were ordered by the airline, with orders for five firm 747 and seven options being cancelled as a result.

By September, the airline had begun to expand into Africa, particularly with Nigeria with a co-operating with Nigeria Airways (WT) using the aircraft to service Lagos (LOS) on a thrice-weekly basis. April 1999 saw the sales-based relationship with Boeing and the 747 come to an end as the 59th and final -400 was delivered to the airline.

Photo: Brandon Farris

The “Noughties” Era of Technology

Exploring the new era of onboard broadband using Connexion by Boeing saw a three-month internet trial begin with the airline and the manufacturer, enabling passengers to plug in their laptops from their seats, bringing in a new era of technology at the time.

May 2005 came along and at that period, countries around the world began the process of bidding for the upcoming 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games, with UK Prime Minister Tony Blair signing a 747 to support London’s bid to host the games.

On the technological front again, August 2006 saw the aircraft switch over to a new computerized maintenance system known as EWS. The -400 was the last aircraft to transfer to this system, offering more safety-based commitments to fliers who would use the aircraft.

Photo: Kochan Kleps

In November 2007, the first trial on using an aircraft at the brand new Terminal 5 was used in order to test out the baggage, cargo, catering, and fuelling operations.

By August 2008, the aircraft took centre-stage once again in taking the responsibility of flying home the British Olympic team after a successful stint at the Beijing Games sporting a gold nose cone and the message ‘Proud to bring our British heroes home’.

Photo: Kochan Kleps

The Last Decade of Prevalence

July 2015 came along, and the airline commenced works on 18 of its -400 aircraft to upgrade the cabin systems on board, including refurbishments of its interior, the addition of 16 extra Club World seats as well as new in-flight entertainment systems.

By September, the first refurbished aircraft departed on its first commercial flight down to JFK featuring at the time Panasonic in-flight entertainment, larger screens, and more content for fliers.

The 747 made another Olympic Games appearance in August 2016, returning back from Rio de Janeiro (GIG) on yet another gold-nosed aircraft with the name ‘VictoRIOus’, with the Paralympic Team returning back later in the month.

Photo of the lights onboard the 747. Photo: Roberto Leiro
Cabin of the BA 747. Photo: Roberto Leiro
IFE was a lot simpler back then. Photo: Roberto Leiro

2019 and Now

Last year, in coordination with the Royal Air Force Red Arrows, the 747 in the BOAC livery did a fly-past to celebrate 100 years of BA. And then, sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic came around. The airline announced in July of this year that the aircraft would be phased out early due to the significant drop in demand for business.

By August, the first aircraft, dubbed ‘Victor Delta’ (G-CIVD | L.N. 1048/MSN 27349) was sent to its final home of Castellon (CDT) for storage. This particular aircraft, offering the Oneworld Alliance color scheme, had flown over 115,000 hours across 13,300 flights, traveling 50 million miles.

Many of the frames offered the same in terms of usage, meaning that all Boeing 747 across the BA fleet had a busy and well-used life.

Photo: Luca Flores

The Future of the Royal Queen of the Skies

With 18 of the 31 units already retired, it is forecasted that the remaining 13 will be at their final homes by the beginning of next year, based on their current retirement patterns.

The history of the Boeing 747 in the BA fleet shows how much of a brilliantly useful asset the aircraft was, and this is something that will not be forgotten about.

Photo: Luca Flores

Catch’em while You Can

There is some level of hope that the 747 that were repainted as part of Centenary celebrations will not get torn into pieces for scrap. Initially, there were some rumours that the BOAC, Negus and Landor liveries would be preserved in the UK, but no official confirmation has been given for it.

But what we do know is this. COVID-19 has not just decimated the aviation industry; it has decimated an aircraft type that enthusiasts and those in the industry hoped to get just a few more years left of. This means that we must catch them while we can, before they become a sadly scarce unit.

Featured Image: British Airways Boeing 747-436 in the BOAC livery. Photo: Luca Flores