5 February 2023

The Antonov and 6 other cool planes that have landed at Canberra Airport

| James Coleman
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A gigantic Antonov AN-124 Ruslan transport aircraft

The Antonov AN-124 taking off into the sunrise at 6 am, 18 January 2023. Photo: Darren Boaden.

It was the talk of the town in January. And not just because it was January and not much else was happening in Canberra yet.

The Antonov AN-124 isn’t the largest aircraft in the skies – the Airbus A380 takes that cake – but it is the largest dedicated commercial and military transporter in service. And one was at the Canberra Airport from 16 to 18 January, en route to Darwin and then the Middle East. Photos and videos captured by plane spotters flooded social media for several days.

You can read the full story here, but it’s time we got our flying goggles all misty and looked back at what other cool planes have landed here in the past.

A Boeing EA-18G Growler plane. Photo: Megan Kennedy.

Boeing EA-18G Growler

On 31 March 2021, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) celebrated 100 years of service. And no birthday of that number would be complete without a gratuitous flyover of the capital city.

As many as 60 military aircraft took off from the Canberra Airport for a circuit over Parliament House and Lake Burley Griffin, including two of our Boeing EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft.

These specialise in messing up a broad range of military electronic systems. Twelve entered service in 2017 alongside our existing Super Hornet fleet. One had to be withdrawn due to an engine fire in 2018, but a replacement was ordered early last year. The first publicly advertised ‘flying’ visit of an RAAF Growler to Canberra was on 30 April 2018.

Qantas plane

The last QANTAS Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet at Canberra Airport. Photo: Todd Milton.

The last QANTAS 747

Kevan Brown remembers this one. The self-confessed aviation buff and plane spotter was one of only a few to receive an invitation to catch a flight onboard the last so-called ‘Queen of the Skies’ from Canberra Airport at 12 pm on 17 July 2020.

“I remember coming pretty low over Red Hill and past Telstra Tower before landing to a double water-cannon salute from the firefighters,” he says.

“There was lots of emotional cheering on landing.”

Qantas took delivery of its first Boeing 747 ‘Jumbo Jet’ in August 1971, a 747B christened ‘City of Canberra’, followed by many more. The model went on to hold the world record for the longest non-stop commercial flight for 31 years after one completed a 1989 flight from London to Sydney in 20 hours and nine minutes. The 747 also hosted aviation’s first ‘Business Class’.

view from aircraft over the wing

On board, the last QANTAS Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet flight from Canberra. Photo: Kevan Brown.

By 2020, however, Qantas announced a program of events to farewell its last remaining 747 ahead of its retirement. Canberra would score a one-hour-long joy flight over the city that even stretched as far as Kosciusko National Park.

Kevan’s dad used to work at the Boeing factory in Washington state, managing the IT behind the 737 Wedgetail communication aircraft.

“It’s always been a passion.”

The flight might have been expensive – about $1500 for one seat in the upstairs Business Class – but Kevan and his friend were also treated to a complimentary 45-minute tour of the cockpit and crew quarters.

“It was pretty cool,” he says.

water-bombing aircraft

A Douglas DC10 water bomber plane at Canberra Airport to help with the Black Summer bushfires in 2019/2020. Photo: Lachlan Wort.

DC10 Water Bomber

The same day an American air tanker crashed while fighting a bushfire near Cooma, tragically killing three firefighters on board, another arrived at Canberra Airport.

The Douglas DC10 Air Tanker was hired from the US for 50 days and about $1 million in an effort by the Federal Government to get on top of the ‘Black Summer’ bushfires in 2019/2020. It flew in from Alabama on 23 January 2020.

Better known for carrying passengers, the DC10 was stripped out and fitted with three tanks for carrying up to 35,600 litres of firefighting material, either water or chemical retardant. Due to its weight, it could only land on an empty tank.

Air Force One

Air Force One at Canberra Airport. Photo: Todd Milton.

Air Force One

As part of his tour of Australia in 2011, former US President Barack Obama visited the capital on 16 November. This meant that – along with countless men in black suits and earpieces – he arrived in Canberra onboard Air Force One.

One of two, the modified Boeing 747 is described as “the president’s office in the sky”. Emblazoned with the words ‘United States of America’, the American flag, and the Seal of the President of the United States, there’s no doubt who’s inside.

It’s also capable of refuelling mid-air, effectively giving it unlimited range, and features 371 square metres of floor space on three levels (including a medical suite that can double as an operating theatre) and ‘secure communications equipment’ that allows the aircraft to function as a mobile command centre in the event of an attack on the US.

Before this, former President George Bush left his mark on Canberra in 2003. Literally. During a Senate estimates committee three years later, it came out that the 374-tonne aircraft was so heavy it had damaged the runway on landing.

The Department of Transport and Regional Services denied it was all his fault, claiming other military and VIP planes over the years had contributed, but either way, the Federal Government spent $28.5 million on runway strengthening.

Ilyushin Il-76

This Russian heavy transport plane – fully loaded with military equipment – is known for causing no shortage of consternation in the Canberra Airport control tower when it nearly didn’t take off in February 2008.

“We paid for the whole runway; we use the whole runway,” seemed the pilot’s thinking. Here’s the video from the control tower (turn your volume up to hear the commentary – and it comes with a language warning).

The Ilyushin Il-76 was initially designed as a commercial freighter in 1967 to replace the Antonov in eastern-Bloc countries for delivering heavy machinery and equipment to remote areas.

Airbus Beluga

This 86-tonne behemoth began life as the Airbus Super Transporter in 1995, but there’s no explanation needed as to why it quickly became ‘Beluga’ after the whale species. The name was even officially adopted.

The Airbus Beluga at Canberra Airport. Photo: David Pryde.

Only five were made, primarily designed to carry aircraft parts and other extremely bulky cargo. In early February 2003, one made its longest charter flight ever, bringing three helicopters from Marseille, France, to the Avalon Airshow near Melbourne.

Afterwards, before heading back to France, it stopped past Canberra to give the RAAF a demonstration of one of these helicopters, the NH90.

Have we missed any?

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