JANE FRYER visits the 'aviation abattoir' as Boeing 747 retires

Touchdown in the jumbo boneyard: As the coronavirus pandemic forces the Boeing 747 into early retirement, JANE FRYER visits the ‘aviation abattoir’ where the Queen of the Skies is being laid to rest after half a century of glorious service

  • After 23 years of loyal service, this is likely to be the very last flight for G-CIVO
  • Planes are stripped of anything of value at Air Salvage International (ASI)
  • There are already 13 747s languishing there, of which seven are BA jets 

Just after 2pm, a vast, 300-tonne British Airways 747 looms into sight over Cotswold Airport. Her curves gleam in the sunlight. Her liveried tail fin glows. As she approaches the runway, landing gear down, a ripple of excitement passes through the clutch of plane-spotters poised beyond the perimeter fence.

But there are no faces at the windows of this plane. No passengers at all. No luggage, no stewards, just two pilots who will have to return home today by other means.

Because after 23 years of loyal service, more than 100,000 flying hours and 50 million miles, this is likely to be the very last flight for G-CIVO. Like more than 800 planes before, her destiny is Air Salvage International (ASI) — an aviation abattoir at the Gloucestershire airport, where planes are stripped of anything of value, shorn of wings and fins, broken up and eventually crushed to almost nothing.

G-CIVO’s career is over. The minute she hits the ground, she’ll taxi to a holding area where expertly trained engineers will start the intricate task of removing her four enormous Rolls-Royce engines. She’ll be in good company. There are already 13 747s languishing here, of which seven are BA jets. (Another arrived a week ago and has already had two of her four engines removed.)

Mark Gregory, owner of Air Salvage International Limited, at the Cotswold Airport near Cirencester, who has been tasked with helping British Airways with the retirement of their fleet of 747 aircraft

More are expected. At Heathrow, at least five now-obsolete BA jumbos are parked in a sad line outside Vanguard House.

British Airways has been in crisis for months thanks to Covid-19. Bookings went off a cliff in April and May, causing the company to announce more than 13,000 job cuts and predict it would take until at least 2023 for passenger demand to recover to 2019 levels.

Last week, BA owner IAG announced that onerous Covid travel restrictions have now forced the company to cut operations between October and December by 60 per cent compared to last year.

And in a joint letter with other British carriers to the Prime Minister, IAG chairman Willie Walsh warned that Britain’s draconian quarantine restrictions were putting us behind international competitors and could cost the economy £60 billion.

The 747s, meanwhile, received their death sentence in July, when BA announced early retirement for its entire 31-strong fleet. Instead of soaring across the Atlantic at 600mph, the jets were to be sent for storage and scrapping.

Some were destined for similar graveyard facilities in Spain, others to Scotland, a few to Wales and at least nine — probably more — earmarked for the Cotswolds and the expert care of Mark Gregory, the softly spoken and very charming founder and owner of ASI.

Here in Gloucestershire, the weekly parking bill for a single plane is about £1,400

‘The original plan was that we’d remove the key parts from a few to be used to keep the remaining 747s airborne,’ says Gregory.

‘But now they’re all going. Some will probably be converted for cargo. So we’re taking the engines off and looking after them while BA works out what to do next.’

The options don’t look very cheery. All around us are doomed planes from myriad airlines in varying levels of destruction.

A Boeing 717 from Turkmenistan Airlines has had its engines removed, nose chopped off, wings clipped, tail fins removed. It is just seven years old.

‘Most planes are worth more in spare parts than they are in the air,’ says Gregory, a former airline mechanic who set up the company 24 years ago after buying a wrecked 748 turboprop with his £12,000 redundancy payment from Dan-Air, breaking up the aircraft and making a nice return.

All that is left of a Jet2 liner are the front few feet of the fuselage. The cockpit is a trail of ripped cables, the crew area behind is a jumble of lagging cables and just one liveried locker — once home to the equipment used during safety briefings — is left clinging to the fuselage. Yasser Arafat’s old JetStar is parked nearby. Inside, it remains eerily as it was when the former chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation last flew in it — cream leather seats, plush carpets, gold-rimmed crockery, but now dust everywhere.

Of course, the demise of the 747 was always coming. Four-engined planes are out of fashion now everyone prefers the mid-sized jets, and the plan was to phase them out over the next two years.

But BA’s Queen of the Skies certainly did her bit.

‘She’s a beautiful airship, the real workhorse of the skies. All of these planes will have flown at least 10,000 hours and paid for themselves twice over,’ says Gregory. (Like ships, planes are always female to those who work with them.)

Four-engined planes are out of fashion now everyone prefers the mid-sized jets, and the plan was to phase them out over the next two years. Pictured: Jane Fryer at the Cotswold Airport

‘They’ve had a good life, but now it’s time.’

Pre-Covid, about 98 per cent of a plane could be recycled — far more than a car — everything from the engines, which fetch up to £1.5 million each, to the interiors, including galley fittings, which are often snapped up by other operators.

The captains’ seats and even their dinner tray tables (worth up to £15,000 a pop) are deployed to other jets. Flight management boxes are sold on for up to £150,000.

The doors — front and over-wing exits — are sliced out and sent off to be used by flight attendant training companies.

The flight decks are chopped off and sold to simulator firms. Some wrecks are bought by film companies for special effects. The Star Wars franchise used one. The Dutch secret service used another for a training operation.

Some of the Rolls-Royce engines end up in Scotland, adapted for power generation.

Even the fuel is syphoned off, treated and used for domestic household heating.

Throughout the process, human reminders pop up — pens, mobile phones dropped between seats, a wallet lost by a captain and returned two years later.

Once Gregory and his team discovered a consignment of cocaine worth about £3 million, hidden in the rear loo. ‘They told us not to touch it next time in case it was explosives.’

Finally, after weeks of work, only the aluminium fuselage will be left. Unfit for aviation use, it is crushed down in an hour or so and sent off to a tin-can factory.

For a 747, the whole process takes around ten weeks, with about 500 parts to be recycled.

‘I do feel sad when they arrive,’ says Gregory. ‘Until the moment we start taking them apart, and then we just want to get rid of them quickly.’

While ASI also does aeroplane maintenance, barely 5 per cent of planes that fly in ever fly out again. But on the rare occasions they do, the 45-strong staff cheer them as they leave. You’d think work for ASI would be busier than ever — G-CIVO was their second BA 747 in three days — but along with everything else, Covid has shattered demand for the expensive component parts.

What has sprung up, though, is a flourishing (if less lucrative) market for 747 memorabilia, thanks to the great love felt by so many for this plane.

Gregory has been inundated with hundreds of requests — some from the usual plane spotters and collectors, but more and more from BA staffers past and present, desperate for a memento.

‘They want everything — control columns, interphones, seats, even sections of the fuselage,’ he says. One chap enquired after an entire plane — to park and turn into a cafe in his back garden.

What has sprung up, though, is a flourishing (if less lucrative) market for 747 memorabilia, thanks to the great love felt by so many for this plane. Pictured: Jane Fryer at the Cotswold Airport

So could anyone buy their very own 747? Could I?

‘Yes! You could probably get one for between £250,000 and £350,000, but you wouldn’t be able to fly it out without the engines,’ he says.

‘With the engines they’re worth about £1 million. And you’d have to have somewhere to put it.’

Any parking space would need to be — at the very least — 200ft x 200ft.

Here in Gloucestershire, the weekly parking bill for a single plane is about £1,400.

But Gregory reckons the major airports charge four or five times that. No wonder all the 747s are being shipped out to pasture. Perhaps the real surprise is just how long this majestic plane has lasted.

Designed by American engineer Joe Sutter 51 years ago, it first flew for BA — or BOAC as it was known then — in April 1970 and has been airborne ever since. Some of the cargo 747s still in the air are 45 years old.

‘How many things can you say that of?’ asks Gregory. ‘Designed 51 years ago and still in operation with very little modification. It’s amazing.’

In a letter to staff back in August, BA chief executive Alex Cruz wrote: ‘If these were normal times, we would be celebrating the retirement of the Queen of the Skies with a great deal of noise, including special commemorative flights and colleague events.’

Instead, they’ve been quietly flown out, one by one, to the knacker’s yard, to the distress of many who worked on them.

Anne Tyson, 55, was among six former 747 BA cabin crew — all redundant as of this summer — who made a private pilgrimage to Cotswold Airport last month to say a proper goodbye.

‘To see them like this was terrible — of course we cared. I cried a lot. We all did,’ she says.

‘These planes kept me safe for years all around the world. I loved them. I loved their curves, their size, the feeling of being home every time you boarded.’

‘But after 31 years of working on them, I had a sense of closure.’

Anne insists she is one of the lucky ones. Because it turns out that among the groups of plane spotters hovering outside the airport each week are a good spattering of former BA staffers, peering forlornly through the perimeter fence as their beloved planes are dismantled.

‘It’s as if they’ve come to look at their favourite pets, and I completely understand it,’ says Anne. ‘After so much joy, so much fun, we were all made redundant together.’

Life is well and truly over for British Airways’s Queen of the Skies, and what a crying shame this majestic plane had to have such an ignominious end. 

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