747-4Q8 G-VFAB “Lady Penelope”, named after the Thunderbirds puppet ‘star’ who in turn was modelled on Sylvia Anderson, the creators wife and who provided the voice, was flown to Phoenix Goodyear (GYR) as scrap today. Aero Turbine Inc will dismantle her. Her registration, G-VFAB was taken from Lady Penelope’s 6 wheeled Rolls Royce, famously driven by her manservant Parker, FAB-1.
The registration was very Virgin Atlantic of the period, slightly misogynistic. The idea that Thunderbirds referred to both the glamorous female cabin crew, (in the 1960’s and 70’s the term ‘birds’ was a British male generalisation for girlfriends/attractive women), and the power of the aircraft, whose engine noise was considerable.
Delivered to the airline on 28th April 1994 through ILFC (hence the Q8 customer code) from whom Virgin Atlantic leased her, she spent most of her life operating out of Heathrow, usually on the LAX/SFO/JFK/MIA/LAS routes. There were a few excursions from Gatwick and Manchester over the years. She was one of the Heathrow Five, who when refurbished from 2010 had the premium Economy seating downstairs, with a mix of Upper and Economy on the top deck that never really worked for the Upper Class passengers. The Gatwick based aircraft had Premium Economy upstairs.
She operated in all but the latest 2010 livery having been expensively repainted into the amazing Birthday Girl 25th anniversary livery in 2009, which she wore until the end. It was probably one of the most dramatic liveries ever continuously worn by a British registered aircraft.
It’s the beginning of the end of the Heathrow Five, now only G-VWOW, HOT, BIG & ROC are left and every one of them will be gone by February 11th when the last one comes back from Miami.
In later years she spent time going back and forth to Xiamen where Virgin Atlantic contracted it’s 744 major maintenance cycles to HAECO.
It’s the end of an era when such an iconic airliner, that must have moved by any rough estimate, at least 4.6 million passengers in her life time and travelled around 70 million miles, is retired. She’d have made a great museum piece in the UK, especially at Duxford which has the space to have housed her.
One of the most controversial and frankly stupid things Virgin Atlantic ever did was launch Little Red. The only people in the airline industry who thought it would actually work with just 4 aircraft on wet lease from Aer Lingus were Virgin Atlantic’s deluded management. Of course everyone wanted it to work, and it was a good service, I used it for day trip to Edinburgh in July 2013 after it’s March launch and it and the aircraft were excellent. It was pretty cool that both the models EI-DEO and EI-EZV were the models made by AC & JCW and used on our flights.
The rationale was that with the demise of BMI and it’s absorption by British Airways, 35% of Virgin’s long haul transfer customers would be cut off from the airline unless they flew BA from key points EDI, ABZ and MAN, which meant they may as well fly all-inclusive BA through Terminal 5. Why bother switching to the awkward to get to Terminal 3?
BA was obliged to hand over the slots by the EU/UK CAA. All domestic and unable to be used for any other purpose – so Virgin took up the challenge. There were never enough flights at the right times to make a real dent in BA’s monopoly and while some flights were quite busy – fares were as low as £10 one way with £45 in taxes and airport fees slapped on top, average utilisation was never more than 47% in July 2014 but was normally around 35%. Woeful tales of aircraft with 10 or fewer passengers were rife.
Things were made worse by poor schedule availability at Manchester and the slots at Heathrow used for it were borrowed from another airline who wanted to sell them. Virgin Trains (high speed) were also competing directly in Manchester with Little Red, with the advantage of arriving in the centre of London. The new CEO Craig Kreeger must have been horrified at inheriting this mammoth waste of money in the middle of a huge financial down point for the airline that the project only exacerbated. It didn’t take long for sense too prevail. Once it became clear Manchester would have to go in March 2015, the project was doomed and it was allowed to quietly slip away. Nobody will much notice it’s departure.
The main annoyance is that it really was a good idea, well executed in terms of service offering. There just wasn’t the critical mass, marketing money, slots and clout to make it work. The mysterious passengers so vital to long haul still turned up – but not on Little Red. In the end just 5% were transfer passengers.
Originally it operated out of Terminal 1 – it was the last flight I ever took from the now closed terminal. They transferred not to Virgin’s T3 but to the new T2TQT where Aer Lingus operate from, and there is a specialist domestic passenger facility. To give you an idea, this was a 930-am flight, so few people were on it, that when we turned up to check in the staff at the desk were, and I do not joke, not really awake. They actually seemed surprised to see us!
The last outbound flight was LHR-ABZ VS3025 operated by EI-EZV arriving at 2145hrs on 26th September 2015. It flew over me but it was too dark by then to photo, so this is the last inbound I was able to see as it flew over my house at nearly 22Kft. We’ve had clear blue skies for days now, so I was very lucky. It’s not much of an image, but it’s the last one I’ll ever take, and that makes me a little sad.
There were no return flights from Edinburgh and Aberdeen. EI-EZV was flown Aberdeen-Dublin, EI-EZW from Edinburgh to Shannon and EI-DEI from Heathrow to Shannon. The will be stripped and repainted for either their next wet lease customer or returned to Aer Lingus/IAG Group service.
So you might say why is this a good day for Virgin Atlantic? Well firstly it marks the end of a service that has done nothing but suck it dry of profit – Little Red was a financial big red. Great as it was it remains a business disaster, a vanity project typical of many of Branson’s actions as evidenced in his interestingly unchallenged unauthorised biography, Branson: Behind The Mask by Tony Anderson. G-VFAB, another example of the airlines bravado, sails into the sunset. Sad from a historical, livery, aviation point of view, but another chapter in a great airlines history. It’s going has been made possible by the latest technology, as the 787-9’s come on stream and a marked change of attitude starts to permeate through the business. One that I’m sure will lead to better things as we reach the second half of the second decade of the 21st Century. It’s a great airline that lost it’s way and is finally moving forward again.