(Image: Rohan Flick)
When QANTAS received their first Boeing 767 in 1985, Ronald Regan was the US President and Kirrily Zupp was starting high school. Over the ensuing 29 years the political landscape would change dramatically, but the 767 would remain a reliable constant across the world's air routes.
The aircraft would also become a central figure in the life of Kirrily Zupp. The daughter of a former RAAF and QANTAS pilot, she had aspired to fly for the ‘Flying Kangaroo’ since childhood. Given her chance in 1996, she first flew as a Second Officer on the Boeing 747-400 before the opportunity arose to upgrade to a First Officer on the 767 in the year 2000.
After 3 months of classrooms, simulators and theory training, she first flew the 767 in May. The flight was a series of circuits designated as ‘Base Training’ in which the most recent trainees were given their first taste of the 767. Without passengers on board it was an eye-opening introduction to the twin-engined Boeing and its stunning take-off performance. This was an impressive aspect of the 767 that would remain with Kirrily for the next 15 years.
(Image: Rohan Flick)
An Old Friend.
Those circuits were just the beginning. Over the decades, the QANTAS Boeing 767 fleet included ‘extended range’ -200s and -300s powered by both Rolls Royce and General Electric engines and rarely were they operated at their stellar performance limits. Consequently, it seemingly leapt into the sky and came to a halt easily with its brakes designed to stop a far more laden aircraft. These were just a couple of features that endeared the 767 to its crews as a ‘pilot’s aeroplane’ and yet it was equally enamoured by business and leisure travellers alike.
On a daily basis, Kirrily and her fellow crews would ply the domestic network across the length and breadth of Australia. Beyond the home shores there were also a range of international destinations with Asia featuring heavily. Hong Kong, Singapore, Manila, Narita, and Tapei were just some the ports with Kirrily also managing one flight to Bali. The ‘Bombay Shuttle’ operated between Singapore and Mumbai, while Honolulu was always a favoured transit. Closer to home, day trips to New Zealand and Noumea were regular occurrences while the night saw back-of-clock freighter services crossing the Tasman and the 767 filling yet another important role.
As well as places, people also featured heavily in Kirrily’s time on the 767. She shared the flight deck with a range of great crews over nearly fifteen years on the aircraft, but there were interesting folks in the cabin as well. Russell Crowe, Delta Goodrem, national leaders, television cast members and sports stars added to the interest of another day at the office. Surprisingly, even in the 21st century, celebrities and the general public alike still seemed particularly interested in the concept of a female airline pilot.
(Image: Bernie Proctor)
All good things...
Times change. Since Kirrily’s first circuits at Avalon in 2000 until 2014, the 767 fleet had covered many, many miles and delivered millions of passengers safely to their loved ones. In that time Kirrily had brought her own four little ‘passengers’ into the world and re-trained on the 767 each time that she returned to work. In many ways, the 767 had also become a part of her family.
Now the inevitable march of time had heralded the 767s retirement. 2014 had seen a number of the type retired and ferried to Victorville in the United States and the growing facility in Central Australia to await their varied fates. Kirrily had watched one such flight featured on ’60 Minutes’ but personally held a desire to fly the last commercial service. She was now the longest serving First Officer on the aircraft and hoped that her seniority would permit her to crew the final flight.
When the final flying rosters were released she was thrilled to see her name paired for the 767's farewell. The Pilot-in-Command was to be the QANTAS Head of Flying Operations, Captain Mike Galvin and two other First Officers, Joe Reitemann and Rohan Flick would assist the operation from the flight deck’s ‘jump seats’. In time the flight number was changed to the more appropriate QF767 and behind the scenes a good deal of organisation was underway to make the flight something special. The 767 had struck a chord with passengers over the years and now aviation enthusiasts lined up to book their seats on the final service. Among the passengers were two special names, Bob Bishop and Dave Macintyre. Both had recently retired after flying the 767 for many years and now they had bought tickets to say their own farewell to a trusted friend.
When the day arrived, Kirrily set off from home to fly the 767 for the final time and arrived at flight briefing well and truly early. For the penultimate sector from Sydney to Melbourne, Kirrily would be the flying pilot, while Mike would have the honour on the last flight. In the lead up to the day, Kirrily had been asked by a good many people how she felt about the retirement of the 767 and her final flight. As departure time now closed in, the emotions were mixed. There was a sense of sentimentality about saying goodbye to an aircraft that had featured so significantly in her career, but her greater focus was on making sure that the flight went well.
Arriving at the gate lounge at Sydney, there was already a buzz. A good many passengers had purchased tickets both to and from Melbourne and the excitement had already begun to brew. The crew were stopped and asked to have their photos taken or come in closer for a ‘selfie’. It was apparent that this wasn’t simply another flight.
(Image: Rohan Flick)
As Kirrily raised the 767’s nose into the air for the final time and navigated the way to Melbourne, the event was being recorded on the flight deck through a series of cameras. Familiar landscape slipped beneath the nose before VH-OGL, the ‘City of Wangaratta’ pitched into descent for the second last time. The scene was very familiar for the crew as they manoeuvred to land on Melbourne’s Runway 16 and despite the watching eyes of the Go-Pro cameras, she eased the wheels smoothly back to earth for the last time. That in itself was a great relief.
The scene at Melbourne Airport was incredible. As the crew emerged from the aerobridge and into the lounge area, they were met by a sea of people and flashing cameras. Media crews jostled for position and questions flew thick and fast. QANTAS had allowed a 2 hour transit between the flights and at this time it seemed that every minute would be needed. Aviation enthusiasts from around the country had descended on Melbourne to be a part of the final flight.
Mike, Kirrily, Joe and Rohan were asked to pose in a constant stream of photographs with smiling passengers and sign boarding passes and all manner of 767 memorabilia. Meanwhile Mike fielded the mainstream media’s questions about the aeroplane and what the day truly meant. The scene was more reminiscent of a celebrity’s hotel foyer than an airline terminal prior to boarding. Kirrily was very humbled by the attention being bestowed upon her. As she looked around at the sheer enthusiasm of the gathered crowd she was overwhelmed by the passion of the people for aviation and on this day, the 767. At that moment she felt extremely proud and privileged to be involved in QF767.
One More Time with Feeling.
Ultimately, the crew had to leave the passengers at the lounge and ready the aircraft, just as they had done many times before, but there was no mistaking that this time was special. For Kirrily, the thought kept surfacing that “this is the last time”. The last time to calculate take-off data, the last time to move this switch on the overhead panel, the last time to read this checklist. It was a familiar process tinged with finality.
Meanwhile in the cabin, the mood was one of excitement. Each passenger was greeted by a bag full of QANTAS mementoes including a specially printed T-shirt commemorating the final flight. The cabin crew further fostered the sense of celebration as QF767 pushed back to depart for the very last time. An arch of water cannons farewelled the flight at Melbourne, although their aim actually just missed the aircraft. Cameras lined the airfield perimeter as the Boeing lined up at the full length of Runway 16. The aeroplane obviously didn’t require the 3 kilometres to become airborne, but the use of the runway facilitated better access for the many cameras that were trained in the direction of QF767.
(Image: Seth Jaworski)
Under Mike’s steady hand the thrust levers advanced for the last time...and then they were away. Kirrily raised the landing gear upon Mike’s command and the Boeing roared into the sky before turning right and setting course northbound. Air Traffic Control bid them farewell and the final QANTAS 767 had officially departed.
The flight time to Sydney was only a little over an hour and yet a QANTAS engineer managed to squeeze in a marriage proposal. And receive an acceptance. The passengers were making the most of their last goodbye as the crew were cleared to descend off the coast of Sydney and overfly the city’s spectacular harbour. For nearly half an hour the 767 waved goodbye to Sydney, all the while being filmed by hovering helicopters and earthbound iPhones. By midnight the internet would be abuzz with thousands of images of the aircraft and its crew as social media transmitted and tweeted.
On the flight deck, the focus remained on keeping the operation safe amidst the excitement. Finally, the time had come to fly that last vector and intercept the final approach for the final time. As Mike configured the landing gear and flaps, Kirrily selected the levers and made the calls just as she had done thousands of time before. As in Melbourne, Air Traffic Control were as warm with their greetings as they were with their clearances. The runway now loomed large and the computer-generated voice of the Radio Altimeter counted down the final feet of flight. And then it was done. Mike rolled the 767 smoothly onto runway 16 Right as the spoilers deployed and the reverse thrust burst into life. Exiting the runway, Kirrily spoke to the surface movement controller as she ‘cleaned up’ the flaps and systems deployed for the last landing.
Approaching the parking bay, the water cannons sprayed their arch, creating a misty rainbow in the process. This time they found their mark and doused the 767 from flight deck to fin as she made her way to the gate. Park brake on, engines off, beacon off....it was done. Kirrily completed her checks twice, determined not to make an omission on this very last occasion. Then as the aircraft fell silent, she allowed herself to feel a little emotional for the first time as the aircraft and passengers had now safely arrived.
A New Beginning?
Mike made his way from the flight deck to individually farewell the passengers as Kirrily was left to contemplate the flight deck. She was going to miss the 767 and reflected how it could do just about anything. It could carry passengers or freight just about anywhere and still carry huge amounts of fuel. It was wonderful to handle and its performance was impressive to say the very least. Simply put, she loved flying the 767.
Looking up she could see her four children waving vigorously from within the terminal. She cracked the cockpit window open and waved backed; now they jumped up and down with excitement. Her kids raced to meet her when she finally arrived in the gate lounge and the cameras continued to click and capture the moment. Everywhere passengers gathered in their 767 ‘Final Flight’ T-Shirts and recounted details of the magic of that last service. More photographs, more autographs and still more interviews. Slowly the crowd dissipated and merged with other passengers about the terminal. On the ground, engineers moved around the tarmac in small groups looking at the flanks of the 767 like a racehorse recently retired.
(Image: Bernie Proctor)
Kirrily took her family down to see the 767 one last time before it was towed away from the gate. They were each introduced to ‘Captain Mike’ before they saw the flight deck first hand. Kirrily’s 5-year-old son was in awe of the sea of switches and lights. She explained to him that this was her aeroplane and that it had just flown it last flight. He paused, looked around and spoke, “Mum, I want to be a pilot. Tell me what every switch does.”
In 2014, Barack Obama was the US President and Hayden Zupp was about to start school.