Farewell, Queen: I watched British Airways’ 747s leave Heathrow for the last time
The news broke in July: British Airways would retire all of its Boeing 747s three years earlier than expected. The announcement brought an end to the chance of any further passenger flights. One by one, the aircraft were sent off to retirement — until only two remained at Heathrow.
Thursday morning, I was at a gloomy and grey London Heathrow Airport, ready to bid farewell to BA’s final two Queen of the Skies. The final two BA 747-400s left at Heathrow, G-CIVY and G-CIVB, were headed for St Athan in Wales, and Kemble in Gloucestershire, respectively.
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It wasn’t my first glimpse of the two aircraft in the past 24 hours. In true AvGeek style, I went to find them both parked up late Wednesday night to say an emotional goodbye — alone and in the dark and rain.
As Thursday morning rolled around, AvGeeks turned out en masse to experience the final farewell for themselves. Friends communicated between different sides of the airfield, all vying for the best position to see the two superjumbos.
Initially, I was watching from the Renaissance Hotel at the airport, with a perfect view of the northern runway.
British Airways had planned a simultaneous westerly departure of both aircraft on the two Heathrow runways. Each then had a separate route to its destination, with a contingency plan in case of diversion, shown on these pictures by the dotted line. This was particularly important for the arrival at Kemble Airport, as this would be a visual approach only, and bad conditions could scupper the chances of a successful landing.
Thursday’s simultaneous departure was always subject to weather conditions, and true to form, the British weather forced the airline to make a number of last-minute changes.
At around 5:30 a.m., BA made the decision that the simultaneous takeoff would indeed happen, but as the aircraft were being pushed back after 8 a.m., the weather took a turn.
Rain started to fall heavily and visibility dropped. At 8:17 a.m., word came in from BA that the simultaneous takeoff was canceled and both aircraft would depart from runway 27R heading off to the west.
Just seven minutes later — at 8:24 a.m. — a dual runway takeoff was once again approved. But with the weather continuing to cause issues, at 8:35 a.m., we were back to a single-runway departure — and this decision was final. The aircraft were to take off from 27R, one after the other.
At 8:40 a.m., G-CIVB, painted in the airline’s Negus retro livery, which entered service on Feb. 15, 1994, lined up first. After a surprisingly short sprint down the runway, as both aircraft were light without the usual full load of fuel, cargo and passengers, she took to the skies.
Moments later, G-CIVY, painted in the airline’s current Chatham Dockyard livery, which first entered service on Sept. 29, 1998, taxied to the top of runway 27R and followed in its sister’s path.
For those of you that were watching me live on Cuppa TPG, you’ll know what happened next. (And if you missed it, you can watch the playback now on the TPG U.K. Instagram account.) I made a mad dash out of the hotel, into my car and drove around the eastern end perimeter of the airfield to the southern side. I pulled up on the famous spotting street Myrtle Avenue and joined another horde of AvGeeks on the grassy field right at the top of runway 27L.
I made it just in time to catch G-CIVY conduct a flypast at 500 feet over Heathrow’s southern runway, conducting a purposeful missed approach for the crowds as a final goodbye.
Both aircraft made it safely to their intended destinations. After its flypast, G-CIVY had a rather easy straight run over to Wales.
On the other hand, G-CIVB had a harder time making its approach into Kemble, likely due to weather conditions. This 747 was forced to enter a holding pattern, looping the area numerous times before finally landing 1 hour and 31 minutes after departure, according to FlightRadar24.
It was a sad morning that closed the door on another great icon of the aviation world — especially in the United Kingdom and its flagship airline. And whilst the weather came out to reinforce the sadness, this day was inevitable.
While the coronavirus pandemic forbid BA from doing any final commercial flights for super-fans, admirers joined on the ground to give the final Queens a memorable send-off.