As experiments go, this one was pretty spectacular — 19 hours, 17,800 kilometers (about 11,060 miles), 100 metric tons of jet fuel and not one, but two separate sunrises.
Australian airline Qantas on Friday completed a one-off research flight that carried about 50 people from London to Sydney nonstop, clocking up two world records in the process.
The flight, using a brand-new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, became the longest commercial airline passenger flight both in terms of distance and duration.
It’s time in the air of 19 hours and 19 minutes eclipsed the record set last year by Singapore Airlines’ New York to Singapore route. The distance overtook Qantas’s own record set just weeks earlier with another test flight from New York’s JFK Airport to Sydney.
Both the London and New York flights are part of Qantas’s “Project Sunrise,” a goal to introduce direct Sydney-London and Sydney-New York return services by 2022.
Departing London Heahtrow at 6 a.m. on Thursday morning, the record-breaking flight — code QF7879 — flew over Germany, Russia, Poland, Belarus, Kazakhstan and China before heading south across the Philippines and Indonesia.
Despite a passenger capacity of up to 256, the plane was carrying only about 50 people, including four pilots led by Captain Helen Trenerry.
Messing with body clocks
Among those on board were Qantas employees and frequent fliers who were fitted with monitors to track sleep patterns, movement, food consumption and use of in-flight entertainment.
The data is being gathered by researchers from the Charles Perkins Centre — a University of Sydney medical research unit — who will study how ultra-long-haul flying messes with health, wellbeing and body clocks.
A team from Melbourne’s Monash University was also taking part to analyze how the pilots and crew were affected. They were monitored before, after and during the flight for levels of melatonin, the hormone that influences sleep cycles.
Also on board were be a handful of journalists, including CNN’s Richard Quest.
Data from the flight, which has the auxiliary purpose of delivering an airplane fresh from the Boeing factory in Seattle to Qantas’s home base, will be used by the airline to help make a case to Australian authorities to grant permission to run the service on a permanent basis.
“These are test flights to show the regulator, and to make sure that Qantas is convinced we can do them safely,” the airline’s CEO, Alan Joyce, said on the eve of the flight.
“Flying nonstop from the East Coast of Australia to London and New York is truly the final frontier in aviation, so we’re determined to do all the groundwork to get this right.”
If it gets the go-ahead, Qantas is hoping the next generation super fuel-efficient jetliners will be able to complete the journey with a more extensive passenger list — albeit one leaning more towards first and business class customers.
The carrier has challenged both Boeing and Airbus to supply the aircraft it’ll need in 2022 — with Boeing’s 777X-9 and Airbus’s A350-1000 both in the frame.
Testing for the service comes at a significant time for aviation, with pressure building on carriers to reduce the carbon emissions that are prompting an increasing number of travelers to cut down on airplane use.
Earlier this week, Qantas announced its pledge to cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. CEO Joyce said it would achieve this through the use of new — as yet unavailable — aircraft, aviation technology and fuel types.
Captain Trenerry said traversing a route not normally used by Qantas was one of the trickiest elements her team would face during the latest trip.
“The biggest challenge will be flying through unfamiliar airspace, with the language difficulties that will involve.”
It was still a whole lot easier than the last time Qantas attempted the flight in 1989. Back then the airline used a Boeing 747, stripped of most of its internal furnishings and loaded to the brim with special aviation fuel, to make the trip. It carried just 23 people and had to be towed to the runway to conserve every ounce of gas.
The modern iteration of the flight was cause for another celebration. It landed on the eve of Qantas’s 99th birthday and hundreds of airline employees turned out at the airport to greet the plane.