Qantas makes history with epic non-stop flight


Qantas passengers have touched down in Sydney this morning after departing New York on QF7879 - the longest ever flight for a commercial airline. Here is how the historic event unfolded:

NY TIME 9.10pm Friday

SYDNEY TIME 12:10pm Saturday

Time until destination: 19 hours and 33 minutes

The new plane smell is strong aboard QF7879 as she starts taxiing out of New York's John F. Kennedy Airport with 49 souls aboard.

It's the first ever non-stop journey by a commercial airline from New York to Sydney and the excitement among those included in the Qantas research flight is palpable.

The Qantas Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner has made aviation history. Picture: Qantas
The Qantas Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner has made aviation history. Picture: Qantas

Over the next 19 hours and 17 minutes, we will travel over the centre of the United States and pass 200 miles south of Hawaii before cruising over Vanuatu and New Caledonia and landing in Mascot, early on Sunday morning.

The Boeing 787-9 was flown from Seattle earlier today by Captain Lisa Norman, a 30-year veteran of the airline who piloted last year's first direct flight from Perth to London. She won't be piloting us tonight, that privilege goes to Captain Sean Golding, another three decade veteran, who described our journey as "a career highlight for me".


Travel time: 22 minutes

The seatbelt signs are off as the cabin service announcements begin, explaining that we are aboard a scientific research flight that has been tailored to study the health impacts of such ultra-long haul journeys.

They are also trialling ways to beat on-board fatigue and jetlag for both passengers and crew, according to Professor Marie Carroll from Sydney University's Charles Perkins Centre.

Therefore, she said every aspect of our flight was to be tailored to trick our bodies into our new timezone.

The Qantas 787 Dreamliner. Picture: Qantas
The Qantas 787 Dreamliner. Picture: Qantas

"When you get on that plane we will be on Sydney time," she said.

"That means your first meal will be a stimulant; spicy food, caffeine, no alcohol."

Among the options on the Neil Perry menu are a green papaya salad, Chinese braised short rib or Jiangxi style fish with sesame seeds.

"Later, about six hours into the fight, we will be ready to turn the lights down, so there will be another meal that is carb heavy. White bread, still delicious and healthy, but something that will help you sleep. There will also be some alcohol served."

This meal will be a choice of roast sweet potato soup or a toasted sandwich.

10pm/ 1pm

Travel time: 50 minutes

Captain Sean Golding announces we will have about 90 minutes, or more than six tonnes of fuel, left by the time we land.

He then goes on to reflect on the "historical significance" of our flight.

"A hundred years ago this journey would have taken weeks," he said.

"With the advent of commercial air travel, that brought it down to days.

"For the first time ever, the last frontier, we are making this journey without a stop."


Travel time: 1 hour

Customer service manger Janek Picheta, 40, introduces himself to passengers, who include six volunteers, Qantas brass such as CEO Alan Joyce and several other senior staff, media and researchers.

As he passes he says: "Oh no; you're not already working are you? Well lucky enough this flight will have plenty of time for you to be able to do a little bit of everything."


The Dreamliner’s Business class cabin. Picture: Qantas
The Dreamliner’s Business class cabin. Picture: Qantas

Travel time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

Prof Carroll and her colleague Dr Tracey Slatten from Alertness CRC take the six volunteers into the empty economy section for a short session of stretching exercises.

All frequent flyers who were approached in recent weeks by Qantas to take part because they were already planning travel from New York to Sydney around this time, the volunteers have spent the past week tracking their movement and sleep patterns and will diarise a further two weeks of how they are faring in order to contribute to the research.

"It can take up to two weeks for symptoms of jet lag to dissipate and we want to know how they are feeling that long after the flight, and where our interventions have been successful," Prof Marie Carroll.


Travel time: 3 hours, 40 minutes

Meal service has finished and a couple of passengers are dozing in their seats. We were warned the lights would be on for at least six hours to help move us into Sydney time, so the aim to stay awake until then and try for a long sleep before landing in the Australian morning.

"Only 15 hours to go!," says flight attendant Maddy Knight as she passes with a smile.

There's actually more than that, but who's counting?

Passengers on the test flight will be monitored in the next few weeks.
Passengers on the test flight will be monitored in the next few weeks.

Raised in Melbourne, Ms Knight, 22, got the travel bug from her flight attendant mother.

Now based in England, she regularly flies the 17-hour, London-Perth route that Qantas started last year. In a northern winter, that flight can stretch to 18.5 hours, but Ms Knight says she's a big fan of the long-haul lifestyle because of the rest days either side of her mammoth shifts.

"I started out as short haul and then got the opportunity to move to London. I really love it because with the hours you really get to experience everything in Europe (on your days off)," she says.

"That's why this job is great, because you never know what you are going to do each day."


Travel time: 4 hours, 20 minutes

"The next stretching is on," says Prof Marie Carroll, encouraging the volunteers back to the cheap seats.

For the next 20 minutes most of the occupants of the plane, some already sporting their Qantas business class pyjamas, perform squats and lunges down the aisles. This is followed by a brief Macarena. It's already quite surreal and we are still a long way from home.


Travel time: 6 hours, 40 minutes

On a normal New York to Sydney flight we would likely be boarding a connecting flight right now. Instead some passengers are sleeping while the majority are trying to stay upright for a second meal service ahead of about 10 hours of cabin darkness.

This is the carb heavy, "ready for sleep" menu of either soup or a toasted sandwich.

"This is the most trying part of the flight," says Prof Carroll.

"Everybody has pushed past their tired point but ideally they have managed to stay awake until this point."

Frequent flyers were approached in recent weeks by Qantas to take part in the flight.
Frequent flyers were approached in recent weeks by Qantas to take part in the flight.


Travel time: 7 hours, 20 mins

One last group exercise session is followed by a food service, and then the lights go down.


Travel time: 17 hours

After nine hours of sleep, I wake to the sound of cutlery on china, having been down longer than most of the other passengers.

As someone who frequently travels economy around North and South America on whatever airline is cheapest and quickest, the business class flat bed is luxury. I once took a red-eye from LA to Georgia with a plump corgi (the "comfort animal" of the gigantic bloke next to me) sat on my feet the whole five hours and managed to sleep. So anytime I can have my own space, I'm out for the count.


Captain Golding announces we are "on the home stretch, some 500km" after having flown 18 hours and 25 minutes.

Inside the plane, there is applause as he says we have conquered "one of the final frontiers of commercial aviation".


Travel time: 18 hours and 50 minutes

To our right, we look out the windows as we pass QF12, the fully-booked A380 which left JFK three hours ahead of us with a stopover in Los Angeles.

This "unique" saving of three hours is a huge part of the appeal of these ultra-long haul flights, according to Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, who hopes to commercialise these direct flights by 2022 or 2023.

"In the aviation industry these days there's not many unique business opportunities," he said earlier.

Passenger volunteer Laurie Kozlovic says he would pay a premium for the service.
Passenger volunteer Laurie Kozlovic says he would pay a premium for the service.

Passenger volunteer Laurie Kozlovic, whose wife and two children were aboard QF12 home the day before, says he would prefer the direct flight option if Qantas can make it a reality.

"I would pay a premium for this service if I had to be alert when I landed," said Mr Kozlovic, of Adelaide.

Mr Kozlovic managed seven hours and said "it was like a normal night sleep".

"What made the difference to me was having the set day time and night time parts of the flight," he said.

"So in the day with the regular food and exercises and full light, you feel much alert and then when the lights go down and you stop moving you get a good rest."


We land in Sydney with 70 minutes of fuel remaining.