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SFT Stories: Captain Mark Kelly and the Boeing 747 ‘Queen of the Skies’

Captain Mark Kelly in front of B747 VH-OEJ for its Brisbane farewell flight

After 36 years of navigating the skies as a Qantas pilot, my final flight with the Boeing 747, affectionately known as the 'Queen of the Skies' was nothing short of bittersweet. I landed the aircraft for the final time after a farewell joy flight for the 747's dedicated fans feeling proud yet emotional. On departure we had a water cannon salute and I have a sneaking suspicion some of that water may have found its way into my eye. As passengers disembarked, I sat in the flight deck for a good hour, and it took some persuasion to make me leave!


The culmination of my commercial aviation career was a testament to a lifelong love affair with the sky. It all began when I earned my pilot's licence at the age of 17 in Melbourne, before I had even driven a car. From there, I ventured into the military, flying F-111 fighter jets amongst various other aircraft, before transitioning to Qantas in 1984. Over the years, I've had the privilege of piloting several different versions of the 747.

Boeing 747 'Queen of the Skies' taking off
Captain Mark Kelly and B747 VH-OJS taking off on its farewell flight.

Among those memories, some stand out quite vividly. Flying into the old Hong Kong airport remains a highlight. It was renowned for its steep descent beside buildings, where pilots could see washing hanging on the line and passengers could wave to residents. The driving rain and turbulence from the nearby mountains made the stick and rudder landing with the older aircraft even trickier. There seemed to be a typhoon every time I flew in! Just prior to landing you had to turn around 50° to the right to line up on the runway, then you had just 200 feet to straighten up and land. You had no time to get it wrong.


Another chapter of my career saw me embarking on a unique journey as the private pilot for the Saudi royal family. I witnessed opulence beyond imagination, from gold-plated toilets to red-carpet welcomes at every destination. Yet, amidst the grandeur, there were challenges - such as landing on airstrips extremely ill-suited to the size of a 747!

Mark Kelly standing in front of a B747 in the snow in New York
Captain Mark Kelly in New York getting ready to dig out his B747 from the snow.

The Boeing 747 holds a special place in the hearts of many, not only for its role in revolutionising air travel, but also for the nostalgia it evokes. It symbolises an era of accessibility, bringing distant destinations within reach for travellers around the globe. For me, it's a testament to the transformative power of aviation, one that resonates deeply with those who have journeyed aboard its expansive frame. I'm sure many recall their first flight going overseas on a 747. When they were coming home, they'd get on in London and hear the ‘G'day mate’ from the captain and just hearing that Australian accent made them feel at home.

Looking ahead, the future of large aircraft appears uncertain. Airlines are increasingly turning to smaller, more fuel-efficient planes, signalling a shift away from the era of the jumbo jet. While the A380 superjumbo may still have a place in aviation, in my opinion, its longevity seems precarious in the face of evolving industry dynamics.

Flight deck of B747of VH-OEJ for its final flight


As I reflect on my career, I can't help but empathise with my colleagues who continue to navigate the uncertainties of the aviation industry. Pilots, with their specialised skills, honed over years of training, face unique challenges during periods of downturn such as we experienced with the Covid pandemic.


Life beyond the 747 cockpit has given me the opportunity to explore new horizons, not least reigniting a love of general aviation here at Sydney Flight Training. I take great pleasure in being able to share my experience with those who wish to listen and take my role as mentor and instructor seriously. Combining my role at SFT with that of a more present husband and father has given me the opportunity to make amends for the countless hours spent aloft with the beautiful 'Queen of the Skies'.


If you missed the two previous instalments of Mark Kelly's 'SFT Stories' series be sure to take some time to read them and discover what a fascinating and varied aviation career Mark has enjoyed: SFT Stories: Captain Mark Kelly and the DHC-4 Caribou SFT Stories: Captain Mark Kelly and the F-111C Fighter Jet


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