We’ve now reached the point where a number of aircraft fleets have been retired due to the current worldwide situatuion. One fleet to retire that has been particularly personal to me however is the Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747.
In particular, the -400 series. These aircraft took me across the Atlantic many times between 1997-2015.
The Boeing 747 first entered service with Virgin Atlantic in 1984. It was the aircraft that Sir Richard Branson selected to launch his airline. Initially, there were a fleet of six second hand -200 series, with a single -100 named after Sir Freddy Laker.
Initial Boeing 747 Fleet
- G-VIRG Maiden Voyager
- G-VGIN Scarlet Lady
- G-TKYO Maiden Tokyo
- G-VRGN Maiden Of Honour
- G-VOYG Shady Lady
- G-VMIA Miami Maiden (Later renamed Spirit Of Sir Freddie)
- G-VJFK Boston Belle
- G-VLAX California Girl
These initial aircraft served the airline well during its founding years. Although with the airlines route network growing, more aircraft were needed. Initially the Airbus A340 joined the fleet to mostly serve the longer distance routes. However, with popularity growing, and the current classic 747’s in service having mostly been build in the 1970’s, it was time to modernise.
By April 1994, Virgin Atlantic had welcomed its first 747-400 to the fleet. Initially based at London Gatwick, and used on the Orlando route, G-VFAB would spend its entire life with the airline. Lady Penelope was joined later in 1994 by G-VHOT.
The initial 4 747-400 deliveries to the airline were leased from ILFC. Hence the 4Q8 customer code. The airline also ordered 4 directly from Boeing, with deliveries taking place between 1997 and 2003. Of those four, two (G-VAST and G-VXLG) remained in service until the very end.
Initial Boeing 747-400 Fleet
- G-VFAB Lady Penelope
- G-VHOT Tubular Belle
- G-VBIG Tinker Belle
- G-VTOP Virginia Plain
- G-VAST Ladybird
- G-VXLG Ruby Tuesday
- G-VWOW Cosmic Girl
- G-VROC Mustang Sally
By the end of the 90’s, 3 of the initial 747 classics had left the fleet (G-TKYO, G-VRGN, G-VOYG). The aircraft that remained were based at London Gatwick. However, to compliment these and to provide extra capacity at Heathrow, a number of more recent 747-200’s, fitted with Rolls Royce engines joined the fleet from 1998.
Initially, a pair of aircraft were acquired from Cathay Pacific. These were followed in 1999/2000 by a further 5 aircraft from Air New Zealand. These had a somewhat short life with the airline, especially after the 9/11 downturn. The remainder of the initial 747-200 had left the fleet by the end of 2001, and these new additions had also gone by 2005. A number of them found a new life with Transaero in Russia after leaving the Virgin Atlantic fleet.
Later Boeing 747-200 Aquisitions
- G-VCAT Wild Thing
- G-VRUM Calypso Queen
- G-VZZZ Morning Glory
- G-VIBE Dancing Queen (Later renamed to Spirit Of New York)
- G-VPUF High As A Kite
- G-VBEE Honey Pie
- G-VSSS Island Lady
The pair of -200’s that were acquired from Cathay Pacific didn’t have the best reputation with the crews that operated these aircraft. To the point where they were known as RAT and SCUM within the airline, in reference to their registrations!
The general rule of thumb by the turn of the century was that the 747-400’s were based at Heathrow, and served the USA. These were complimented by the later -200 acquisitions. The initial batch of -200’s that were delivered to the airline in the 1980’s served the holiday routes from London Gatwick, along with the seasonal route to Orlando from Manchester.
More -400’s Needed
Realising that the -200’s wouldn’t go on forever though, the airline was on the look out for more -400’s to replace them. Talks were at an advanced stage with British Airways to acquire a small number of aircraft from them. Although due to their Rolls Royce engines, they wouldn’t provide commonality with the GE engines that were fitted to the existing Boeing 747-400 fleet that Virgin Atlantic already had in service.
However, a better opportunity presented itself at the end of 2000. Italian airline Alitalia had made an 11th hour decision to not take up 5 747-400’s it had an order for, and instead opted for the smaller 777-200.
It was so late in the day when Alitalia cancelled these particular aircraft that they were virtually complete. From flying on them in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s, I recall them even having dual Italian/English signage on board. The cabin and IFE wasn’t in line with what Virgin had fitted to the rest of the fleet either. As such, Boeing were pretty desperate to move these 5 aircraft on, and Virgin grabbed themselves a bargain basement deal.
Initially allocated the registrations EI-CVG-K, after a period having work done in Auckland at the beginning of 2001, the following aircraft joined the Virgin Atlantic fleet, with Alitalias -443 customer code:
Ex Alitalia Boeing 747 Fleet
- G-VROS English Rose (Later renamed to Forever Young)
- G-VGAL Jersey Girl
- G-VROM Barbarella
- G-VLIP Hot Lips (Later renamed to Falcon One)
- G-VROY Pretty Woman
These aircraft were based exclusively at London Gatwick and enabled the final retirement of the initial batch of 747-200s to be delivered.
Over the next few years, the fleet remained more or less stable. The main exception being the final retirement of the -200 fleet. Although this was an interesting case. Whilst most went off for good, a pair remained in the Virgin Atlantic livery and were based at Manchester to operate the flight to Orlando. Although things weren’t as they seemed from the outside. Both G-VBEE and G-VSSS were sold to Air Atlanta Icelandic, and immediately leased back. Therefore the only difference with the aircraft being the registration, which were now wearing TF-ATN and TF-ATW respectively.
The End Of The -200
This arrangement lasted until 2005, at which point the 747-400 took over the route. This coincided with three aircraft moving over from Heathrow (G-VAST, G-VTOP, G-VXLG) to take up the slack.
Between 2010 and 2012, G-VROM moved to Bolivia to operate for AeroSur. However, when that airline folded, the aircraft moved back to Virgin Atlantic. In the process, it gained the new livery and a much needed cabin refurbishment. The remainder of the Gatwick based fleet also received a cabin refit during this time. It was very much needed!
The retirement of the 747-400 fleet actually started back in 2013. The first to leave was G-VTOP, which went off to fly for Orient Thai Airlines for a few years before being stored in 2015. This was a one off however, as opposed to a more major plan.
The End Of The -400
By 2015, the initial retirement of the -400 began. As Virgin Atlantic stated that they would end 747 operations from Heathrow, the 5 aircraft that were based there were surplus to requirements. The two oldest members of the fleet (G-VFAB, G-VHOT) ended up in the scrap yard. The two newest additions got a new life though. G-VWOW lives on in Long Beach serving as Virgin Galactics satellite launch aircraft. The most recent delivery, G-VROC (and the only Virgin Atlantic 747-400 I didnt manage to fly on…) found a new life in Moldova with Terra Avia. The latest info is that this one was parked in September 2019.
The final Heathrow based Boeing 747 (G-VBIG) lived on with Virgin Atlantic. After a refit – the Heathrow and Gatwick 747’s had a different cabin configuration – it moved to Gatwick.
This is where it remained until late 2019, when it was sent off for scrap.
As of today, the final 747’s to wear the Virgin Atlantic livery are currently parked up in Glasgow and Manchester awaiting their final fate. Which is most likely the scrap yard.
The Final Virgin Atlantic 747’s To Fly Commercially
My final flight on a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 came in November 2015. This came between London Heathrow and New York JFK. Due to the aircraft being reconfigured, despite flying in economy, I was still able to sit in my favourite seat: 77K – Upper deck, rear section, in the middle of the cabin. I found that this position gave the best wing view!
That flight came on G-VHOT – one that I had only flown once previously, back in March 1998 between Heathrow and Los Angeles. It was a little disappoining that I wasn’t able to complete the fleet. G-VROC was delivered at the end of 2003, by which point I wasn’t flying on a particularly regular basis.
Up until 18 months ago, G-VFAB was my most flown aircraft in the log – having been on it 5 times in total. And in every livery too. From the initial white livery with the small Virgin Atlantic titles.
And then getting a flight on it a few weeks after it was painted into the new “Silver Dream Machine” livery in 1999 (Which wore a much darker shade of silver to the rest of the fleet).
And finally, a couple of flights in its final Birthday Girl livery – to celebrate the airlines 21st birthday.