Five things you didn’t know about Virgin Atlantic’s Boeing 747s

Black and white image of Richard Branson inside an aeroplane talking to a seated customer
Virgin Atlantic
Natalie Clarkson
by Natalie Clarkson
16 December 2020

For 36 years, Virgin Atlantic flew Boeing 747 aircraft around the world. Now, the planes have been retired in favour of newer, more sustainable aircraft such as the Airbus A350-1000 and the Boeing 787-9. 

If you miss the 747 as much as we do, here are five things you might not know about the Queen of the Skies…

Virgin Atlantic’s final 747 passenger flight was from Los Angeles to London

Virgin Atlantic had originally planned to retire the 747 from its fleet in 2021, but announced the aircraft’s immediate retirement from commercial service in May 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The airline’s final 747 passenger flight took place without fanfare on 30 March 2020, a COVID-19 rescue flight from Los Angeles to London Heathrow.

The 747 has an additional engine mount

Between the number two engine and the fuselage, the Boeing 747 has an extra engine mount which was used to ferry spare engines. 

It created a very strange looking aircraft, with three engines on one side and two on the other. Virgin Atlantic only ever used this once – to bring an engine from London to San Francisco to replace one that had ingested a pelican.

Virgin Orbit's Cosmic Girl adapted Boeing 747 rocket launcher from below

A 747 will launch satellites into space

The 747 known as Cosmic Girl left the Virgin Atlantic fleet in 2015 to take on a new mission. Rather than transporting passengers, Cosmic Girl is now an airborne launch platform for Virgin Orbit to send satellites into space. 

Virgin Orbit has made a few adjustments to the 747 to launch rockets. It uses the additional engine mount to carry LauncherOne, its satellite launcher. And rather than finding Premium Economy on the Upper Deck, you’ll find Virgin Orbit’s mission control.

To launch the rocket, pilots fly Cosmic Girl to 35,000 feet. The pilot pitches the aircraft up 30-degrees and releases the rocket, before banking away to the right of the rocket, which will ignite five seconds after separating from the 747. The first stage of the rocket takes the satellite into a parking orbit around the Earth. The second stage of the rocket then ignites to take the satellite into its correct resting orbit. 

A pilot taking a selfie in the cockpit of a Boeing 747
Virgin Atlantic

Virgin Atlantic holds several records for 747 captains

Virgin Atlantic had the youngest 747 captain, as well as the 747 captain with the most hours on that aircraft in the world. The airline also holds the record for having the first-ever female 747 captain, Yvonne Kershaw.

Yvonne spent 24 years flying the 747 for Virgin Atlantic, making history in 1993 as the first female 747 captain. On her retirement in 2017, she said of the 747: “It’s such an iconic aeroplane and it’s why I wanted to fly. For decades it was the largest aircraft in the world and the most loved by everybody. That’s why I joined Virgin Atlantic. For the opportunity to fly the aeroplane and be part of the Virgin family.”

She added: “It has been a privilege to fly the flag for female captains over the past 24 years. After overcoming traditional gender stereotypes, I’ve been humbled to act as a role model for young aspiring female pilots.”

Richard Branson celebrates the inaugural Virgin Atlantic flight with his daughter Holly

Each Virgin Atlantic 747 had its own name

Virgin Atlantic has had 30 different 747s in its fleet over the years, and each one has had its own name and identity. The airline often names its planes based on their aircraft registration. All British aircraft registrations start with the letter G, followed by four letters – and all Virgin Atlantic aircraft have V as the first of those four letters. 

Virgin Atlantic’s first plane had the registration G-VIRG but Richard Branson didn’t like it being referred to as ‘Romeo Golf’ (the aviation industry refers to aircraft by the last two letters of their registration using the phonetic alphabet as standard). Instead, he named the plane Maiden Voyager. And every aircraft that Virgin Atlantic has had since has also been named. 

For the 747s, these names have included: Boston Belle, California Girl, Pretty Woman and Maiden of Honour. Find out more about Virgin Atlantic’s aircraft names on their blog.

Read Richard Branson’s memories of Virgin Atlantic’s first 747, Maiden Voyager, on his blog.