A little piece of Gloucestershire that will always be Arizona

The grounding of British Airways’ Boeing 747 fleet may turn a former RAF airfield into a “boneyard” similar to those seen in the United States.

The original 747-100 – this example (747-121 N732PA “Clipper Storm King”) seen in in Pan Am livery in 1978
Photo by Aldo Bidini – GFDL 1.2 via Wikimedia

Reading the BBC news tonight for the first time in a while, I was slightly surprised to read the news that British Airways permanently grounded its fleet of Boeing 747s earlier in July 2020 – see https://www.bbc.com/news/business-53426886. Not only that, but collectors are “scrambling” for a souvenir – see https://www.bbc.com/news/business-53549457. On the other side of the world, QANTAS took the same decision in the last week and will no longer operate the 747. Somewhat sadly I noted from the article that Boeing has said it will cease 747 production entirely. I was even more surprised to read an article in FlightGlobal suggesting that A380 production will have ceased slightly before the last cargo 747 takes to the skies above the Pacific North West in 2023. The global downturn in air travel as a result of COVID-19 is undoubtedly the principal factor in these decisions.

Wikipedia says “On September 30, 1968, the first 747 was rolled out. The first flight took place on February 9, 1969 and the 747 was certified in December of that year. It entered service with Pan Am on January 22, 1970”. 50 years is quite an era – and I think it’s true to say that we are witnessing the end of an era in global air travel. I remember quite well the phrase ‘Jumbo Jet’ being coined when I was a boy. I dearly remember my first 1:144 scale Airfix kit (which was huge to me and had a BOAC livery) in the late 60s or very early 70s. For a brief period in the late 80s I collected those Wooster models of 747s in various airline liveries.

I’ve flown on three. In autumn 1996 I flew from London Gatwick to Saint Louis, MO and back in a venerable TWA 747 of unknown heritage. I remember on the return flight I was allocated a seat which was stuck up against a bulkhead. I looked around the deserted section and relocated myself in a vastly empty space right before take-off. I had a row to myself for the entire flight. Heck, I think I had five rows to myself. On our way back from England in 2013, Susan and I flew on a BA 747 from London Heathrow to Dallas-Fort Worth. We’d flown over in an American Airlines 777 which had increased density economy seating, with about as much room as you find in a domestic refuse cart (aka wheelie bin in idiomatic English). The flight from Heathrow to Newcastle in an A319 was a positive relief.

This is not to say the 747 will be leaving our skies just yet. The same Wikipedia article says that 1,554 examples had been built by summer 2019. At the time of its decision to retire the type, BA was the largest single operator of the 747 with 31 examples. I must look and see if there’s a figure for the number actually in use right now.

The BBC article talked about “Cotswold Airport” as the final resting place for a number of the the BA 747s. I had no idea where this is, but so many new British airports turn out to be converted RAF bases (Robin Hood, anyone?) and this is no exception. Cotswold Airport turns out to be the new name for the former RAF Kemble located near Cirencester, in, of course, Gloucestershire. A picture on the “W” site (below) shows a display in progress more than 10 years ago but just beyond the trees two or three Boeing 747s are lurking which even then were in the process of being recycled.

Part of Cotswold Airport, Kemble, Gloucestershire, England (previously known as Kemble Airport) from a Robinson R44 helicopter pleasure flight. Looking west, at the Battle of Britain Weekend 2009. Most of the picture is the Battle of Britain Weekend area, with the control tower amongst it. The dark aircraft, roughly left of centre, is Lancaster PA474 of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (it displayed later that day). Outside the two large open hangars on the right are a preserved Canberra and the Rolls Royce Spitfire PS853. Aircraft in the distance are for storage, scrapping or resale. The small red aircraft left of the control tower is a non-flying ex-Red Arrows Folland Gnat. Photographed by Adrian Pingstone in September 2009 and released to the public domain.

The BBC article shows several more 747s parked on the deactivated runway including at least one example in the livery of KLM.

An even older Wikimedia picture shows the main gate at RAF Kemble in 1967 with the almost obligatory low back Mark 16e Spitfire on a plinth. In this case it’s TE392 which was rebuilt in a high back configuration. After a picaresque journey from the UK to the USA and Australia TE392 flies in the markings of a 129 Squadron Spitfire IX as “DV-A”

Spitfire TE392 at Kemble, July 1967 Photo by RuthAS / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

A perusal of the Google map shows a fairly distinct cluster of commercial airframes being dismantled at the eastern edge of the field. This is the home of  Air Salvage International (ASI) who describe themselves as Europe’s leading airliner recyclers.

I don’t suppose it’ll look anything like those big areas of the Mojave or Arizona Deserts or the rather prosaically named Southern California Logistics Airport at Victorville, CA where there seemed to be countless acres of decommissioned airliners. but it’s interesting to see the industry getting a foothold in the UK. The so called “graveyard” at Teruel in Spain is also increasing in size

Ironically just as I was finishing this article, I read some news in the Australian press which says that QANTAS, as well as shedding approximately 6000 (six thousand) jobs and retiring its 747s, is sending its fleet of A380s to the Southern California Logistics Airport at Victorville until at least 2023. Only half of them will be brought out of storage. They’re not the only ones. More of this and the global grounding of nearly everyone’s A380s in another article.