Of all of the Virgin Atlantic 744’s – especially the “Heathrow Five”, G-VFAB was and remains the outstanding aircraft of its time. Not only was it the most obvious and the most photographed of the Virgin Atlantic fleet, it was one of the most easily identified aircraft at Heathrow – and any one of the key destinations it served; mostly New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas and Miami. She shared these duties with G-VWOW, G-VBIG, G-VHOT & G-VROC.
VBIG and VROC were the only ones painted in the 2010/11 Billboard livery that remains current at the time of writing – also the only two I flew on. WOW became “Cosmic Girl” and is now launching ships for Virgin Galactic. VROC is stored having been used by Terra Avia and even Flynas in 2018. VBIG is still in use at Gatwick.
G-VFAB was officially a 747-4Q8 and named Lady Penelope. The registration was based on the Thunderbirds TV Series six-wheeled Rolls Royce (that actually was built and still exists both from the 1960’s version and the later version, occasionally rotating through various car museums). Lady Penelope was its ‘owner’, but it was driven by her faithful chauffeur, Parker. As an aside an original puppet of Lady P was valued at £500,000.
Lady Penelope’s puppet was based on Sylvia Anderson, who with her husband Gerry, created the series, and she was also the voice of the character. It was typical of Virgin Atlantic at the time – indeed all the way up to and including the early part of this century; they liked to name their aircraft after femme fatale, and Sylvia Anderson was certainly in that category, according to the many stories that circulated at the time.
The whol Lady Penelope thing is so engrained at Virgin Atlantic, even last year they were still serving FAB ice lollies on daytime long haul flights – you won’t here me complaining about that!
For the airline’s 21st Birthday G-VFAB was repainted with the stunning Varga Girl style tail at Amsterdam Schipol and returned to the UK as flight VS812P on April 17 2005. Nobody expected she’d end up wearing it for the next 11 years.
By the time of the airlines 25th Birthday in 2009 they wanted to do something significant, and in full misogynistic style that would go down like a lead balloon in the current #MeToo environment, they commissioned a retro TV ad, which felt a little awkward even then. Now it seems just painful, while at the same time funny.
A combination of recession, financial struggle and deep cuts meant there was no room to find the millions to repaint her, so despite being renamed Lady Penelope again after a couple of years, she kept the paint job and as it frayed, the giant Birthday Girl image was touched up instead, to stop it looking too flaky.
All of the 744’s were refitted internally around 2010-11, but the Heathrow Five had a different cabin layout upstairs to the Gatwick 744’s – a bizarre mix of Upper Class at the front with Economy seats immediately behind them. These were prized because it was so quiet, but disliked by Upper Class passengers as the riff-raff in economy got to get off before they did, on arrival, which wasn’t part of the deal!
Despite having kept one or two of the old Heathrow Five in my collection, but boxed away, G-VXLG (in fact one of the Gatwick 744’s) and G-VFAB remain active, despite her being withdrawn in September 2015.
This is the original Gemini model in the tin box with ownership card made for and sold by Virgin Atlantic’s web shop.
Other versions exist, GJVIR001 is the earlier livery version released in 1999 by Gemini. It was their first Virgin Atlantic model.
- Tucano Line and Sonic Wings also made versions of the early livery in 1:400.
- Big Bird did a 1:400 and 1:500 of the 2005 livery
- Riseoon did a 1:200.
- StarJets, Netmodels and Herpa also did a 1:500 of the early livery
The early livery is usually referred to as the Silver Dream Machine livery, in another nod to the Virgin brands recording industry origins, it was a well know David Essex theme song from the 1980 film “Silver Dream Racer“.
It was because she’s never been reviewed – and the lack of a new model that should have been here have but now isn’t ever coming, I though it time to do her that honour.
G-VFAB started life back in in 1994, delivered new to Virgin Atlantic on March 28th. Her entire service life was spent with the airline, but she was leased for the whole time from Boeing’s ILFC until May 2014 when it transferred to AeroCap. Withdrawn from use on September 23rd 2015, she was flown to Goodyear Litchfield Municipal Airport near Phoenix, Arizona and is listed as stored.
In all honesty, you cannot judge this model by current standards, it’s almost from another technological age, two years before the first iPhone was even released!
There are no aerials, but nobody did them then. It’s also the superb and still best original 744 mould. It may be cradle fit but it’s verging on seamless. Yet strange as it may seem all these years later and the same mould is still being used (or a duplicate of it) still creating the same quirky problems; namely a mildly skewed forward wing cradle edge where it’s attached to the fuselage.
The paint is superb, the quality fantastic, and that is no transfer as we see so often now. That’s a painted tail and its gorgeous. The detail is outstanding and the definition would be hard to match even in 2019.
The wings and the paint quality/mould details are excellent. At this point she had Union Jacks on the ends of the wings, and Virgin was as usual locked in battle with British Airways over something. The Union Jack was an earlier response to BA’s world tails, so Virgin announced itself as Britain’s Flag Carrier, made somewhat obsolete when BA dropped the World Tails in 2003 and went back to just the Union flag.
It was also around this point that Richard Branson, still very much in day-to-day charge, decided against all sense to stick with four engine aircraft and the company came up with the “Four for the long haul” campaign which they had to remove in 2007 from their aircraft, because it suggested they were safer than two engine aircraft.
As is still the case, when Gemini produce models for the airlines, they have lower volumes and higher standards. This is no exception. The engine finish for one is outstanding, with pristine rims and an excellent mould and paint on the fans.
The downside to this period of model making is the frankly horrible landing gear.
I don’t know why anyone though this was a good idea, or acceptable, to produce such simple and incongruous gear on such good models. Big fat black tyres – which appear to be plastic – are stuck onto spigots. They’re not really wheels, just fat tyres.
Yet this aircraft was truly iconic, so much a symbol of the Virgin Atlantic brand that they never changed it. While the ‘flying lady’ as they more respectfully describe the symbolic Varga-inspired character on the modern aircraft, is still here and not going anywhere, it’s very unlikely we’ll ever see the likes of this one again.
Yet, here in my own imaginary airport world, she retains a place, immortalised in die-cast alloy. And long may she remain so.