MIAMI – As we all know, the coronavirus pandemic has had a major impact on every industry globally. No industry has felt it more than the Aviation sector. Airline’s globally have been making changes to their fleets as part of restructuring efforts.

One global airline that has been making changes to its fleet is Virgin Atlantic (VS). It has retired all of its quad jet aircrafts. Namely, the Airbus A340-600 and the more famously known Boeing 747-400 Queen of the Skies (QOTS).

We will focus on the Boeing 747-400 QOTS, an iconic aircraft that has been with VS since 1984, entering service to New York. The Boeing 747 fleet at Virgin was supposed to be retired in the final few months of 2021. However, due to the pandemic, VS announced their retirement in May last year.

We wanted to find out what flying the VS Boeing 747 was really like. So we reached out to Training Captain Zane Dunning who has been a Pilot with VS for over 18 years.

Virgin Atlantic’s first Boeing 747 G-VIRG back in 1984. Photo: VS


CB: Hi Zane! Thanks for taking part in this interview. It’s an honor to have you here! Would you please start by introducing yourself.

ZD: Hi I’m Zane, I’m a training Captain on the Boeing 747 at Virgin Atlantic and I’m currently leading our 747 Pilot exit delivery team.

CB: Could you tell readers information on where you started your commercial aviation career?

ZD: I started off at Air UK at Leeds-Bradford Airport where I cut my teeth flying turbo props (Fokker 50) and the Fokker 100. I then flew for Monarch on the Boeing 757 before I finally joined Virgin Atlantic on the Boeing 747, happy days!

Training Captain Zane Dunning aboard G-VROY

CB: What do you think of the 747 and what does it mean to Virgin Atlantic from an operational perspective?

ZD: To me the 747 has always been the best aircraft ever built, a lifelong ambition and an absolute privilege to fly. When it was first designed back in 1953, it was three times bigger than any commercial aircraft. It was the only aircraft that had three wing spars, it had four main landing gears where only two were necessary, all main systems are duplicated four times and of course there were four huge engines, making it one of the safest aircraft in the sky.

I believe it to be the ‘people’ aircraft because it revolutionized air travel, making it affordable for everyone at a time when it was only affordable for a privileged minority. That ethos continued at Virgin Atlantic but offering something alternative and cool, kind of akin to the passenger who drank a flaming sambuca instead of a glass of wine. I think an airlines’ fleet choice is crucial to its success so the 747 was the perfect fit for Virgin Atlantic.

The aircraft could go anywhere, take off and land at any airport, in any weather, and did it with style and grace whilst putting smiles on faces wherever she went. And she did all this whilst carrying 456 passengers along with all their luggage and freight, without even breaking out in a sweat!

For every conceivable question, proposition, challenge the airline would ask of the 747, the answer would always be yes, no problem! So I suspect for Sir Richard it would have been an easy decision choosing the 747 back in 1984.

Left: Training Captain Zane Dunning. Center: Captain Carl Biltcliffe. Right: Captain Mark Thacker. Taking G-VROY across to KMZJ via Las Vegas

CB: Fantastic! Whats your favorite destination within the Virgin Atlantic network so far?

ZD: Favorite destination? I would have to say is San Francisco, with its quirky feel, colorful people, there’s no other place like it. No matter how many times you go, there’s always somewhere new to visit or experience. It never fails to disappoint.

CB: So Zane, What’s it like being able to lead the exit team for this iconic aircraft?

ZD: It’s exciting and humbling at the same time. We get to fly these amazing aircraft one last time to some very interesting airfields. Most of the aircraft are going to an airfield called Marana (KMZJ) which is in the middle of the Arizona desert.

It has small runway, less than half the length we are used to, that’s 2000ft high, with no approach aids, no air traffic control, and no lights or guidance, yet the 747 takes all these challenges in her stride. The 747 will always have a special place in our hearts so it’s sad to see her go.

Pinal Airpark (IATA: MZJ, ICAO: KMZJ, FAA LID: MZJ) is a county-owned, public-use airport located 8 miles (7.0 nmi; 13 km) northwest of the central business district of Marana, in Pinal County, Arizona, United States. Its primary function serves as a boneyard for civilian commercial aircraft, where the area’s dry desert climate mitigates corrosion of the aircraft. It is the largest commercial aircraft storage and heavy maintenance facility in the world.

CB: Whats your favourite element of flying?

ZD: Good question. To be honest there isn’t a part I don’t like, I simply LOVE flying aeroplanes and I get a lot of pleasure in training people and playing a small part in their journeys, helping them realize the same dreams I have always had.

CB: What’s the next step in your flying career with the departure of the 747?

ZD: I feel very lucky to still be working during this pandemic and I’m very grateful to be retrained onto the 787 dreamliner in the New Year. Having previous Boeing experience means a short course so I’ll have my work cut out for me.

Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747-41R G-VXLG arriving into Manchester Airport. Photo: Thomas Saunders.

CB: Fantastic!, is there anything else you like to add?

ZD: Whilst it’s sad to see this amazing aircraft retire, she has paved the way for a fleet of modern aircraft that can carry the baton for aviation well into the future.

CB: Finally, what would you say to anyone who’s thinking of starting a career flying aircrafts?

ZD: Despite the hard times the industry is currently facing, it’s an awesome career. You really need to be determined though, it’s not for the fainthearted.

You don’t need to be a member of Mensa, but you will need to be able to quickly absorb a lot of information in a short time period. It’s hard work, there’s no fast elevator, you have to take the stairs but it’s so worth it.  For those who are interested my answer is always “Go for it!”

Airways would like to thank Captain Zane Dunning and Virgin Atlantic for their continued support and professionalism in these very challenging times and for allowing us to interview Zane, who’s just as passionate about the Boeing 747 as we are!

Featured image: Ruby Tuesday G-VXLG arriving into Tel Aviv. Photo: Yochai Mossi