It was the world’s longest passenger flight in distance and duration, and the science undertaken on board record-breaking Qantas flight QF7879 as part of its Project Sunrise will be vital to the future of ultra long-haul aviation. Louise Jones explores its prospects.
Qantas’ brand-new Boeing 787-9, flight QF7879, touched down at Sydney/Kingsford Smith in the memorable time of 19hrs and 19mins after departing London/Heathrow Airport.
In a blaze of media coverage on both sides of the world, the Dreamliner christened ‘Longreach’ had clinched another aviation first, having departed London at 6.09am on November 14 and arrived – two sunrises later – in the Australian city the following day. The non-stop flight marked the beginning of 12 months of events leading up to Qantas’ 100th birthday in November 2020.
But the crew, passengers, scientists and researchers on the second of three Project Sunrise flights had more than mere records on their minds. As they winged their way across three continents and 11,060 miles (17,800km), they provided critical real-time safety and health data to reveal the implications of spending that length of time at altitude.
The 40 passengers in the Dreamliner, normally configured for 236, were taking part in hi-tech studies assessing whether there is a true place for ultra long-haul flying in the future of commercial aviation. Findings from the three flights will aid development of future services and product design in an effort to improve wellbeing and comfort on such routes.
The priority is to collect data that can be used to design optimum crew rest and work patterns but, most importantly, ensure such lengthy flights don’t increase risks to safety from over-tired personnel. Passenger research was also a core focus with six Qantas frequent fliers on the flight from London to Sydney.
A third Qantas Dreamliner test flight from either London Heathrow or New York JFK had been planned and was being prepared to take to the skies as Air International went to press in December. The first journey from New York/JFK to Sydney was flight QF7879, operated. by 787-9 VH-ZNI (c/n 66073) on its delivery rotation to the Australian airline in October. This first-ever non-stop airline service between the US city and Australia took 19 hours and 16 minutes.
Thirty years since Qantas’ first non-stop flight connected London and Sydney to celebrate the arrival of its first 747-400s, the carrier means business. For November’s service it teamed up with researchers from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre and the Cooperative Research Centre for Alertness, Safety and Productivity (Alertness CRC) to explore studies and collect data.
A first in collaboration of this type between an airline and university, the ‘laboratory in the sky’ caused excitement and intrigue throughout the sleep research field. It was described as a “once in a generation” chance to collect information on the impact of alertness and sleep for those who work long hours around the clock, and the effect of jet lag on the body when travelling across multiple time zones.
Two technical devices played a fundamental role in collecting valuable data and were worn by crew for seven days prior to the flight and for 14 days afterwards. One was placed around the wrist, the other attached between chest and eyes. The first recorded activity, while the second measured the amount of light entering their eyes at any given time.
The four pilots, led by Captain Helen Trenerry, wore EEG (electroencephalogram) brain monitoring equipment for the duration of the flight to track brain activity and measure alertness during their ‘on’ times and quality of sleep during their rest periods.
The pilots spent time in a Boeing 787 simulator before the flight to ensure the EEG equipment didn’t interfere with aircraft systems and standard operations. In addition, five GoPro cameras were mounted inside the flight deck for the duration of the journey to record crew alertness cues and operational activities.
To complement and enhance data collection, pilots completed sleep diaries and tests of alertness and reaction time. The results of this comprehensive testing will make valuable reading for airlines around the world as it examines optimum crew work and rest patterns for extended flying duties in the future.
Crew were also asked to collect daily urine samples for seven days prior to the flight, and for 14 days after it. Levels of the hormone melatonin can be measured in urine to indicate sleep and wakefulness. A core focus of the studies is on how the human body adapts to different time zones, and melatonin levels are a key indicator of how quickly someone is adapting to a new time.
Supper for breakfast
Passenger wellbeing and the potential impact of extra-long flights must also be carefully considered. Although travellers already fly long routes, such as London to Perth, Qantas emphasises that this can’t be used as a blueprint for an ultra long-haul flight, which is often defined as being in the air for both a whole night and day.
Professor Corinne Caillaud from the Charles Perkins Centre said that data from all three Project Sunrise flights will be used for analysis. She explained how every bodily organ has its own clock, with the master regulator being the brain. The main cues that set those circadian rhythms are light, food and exercise. In addition to wearing the same datacollecting wristbands as the crew (tracking movement and light), passengers followed a strict regime throughout the flight focused on these key cues.
Prior to the Qantas flight from London to Sydney, Caillaud revealed that passengers would eat supper at breakfast time, aiming to encourage them to sleep at 10am in the morning London time and then avoid light and reset their body clock to Sydney.
The entire inflight schedule was based on destination time to ‘adjust’ passengers to local time as soon as possible. Monash University researcher Dr Tracey Sletten, who was on the London to Sydney service, offered an insight into combatting the effects of jet lag: “It is all about the light. The timing of day that you get light exposure and its intensity is going to help you with your jet lag more than anything else.”
Passengers boarded at around 6am London time and, after take-off, were offered a range of high glycaemic index (GI) supper options such as chicken broth with macaroni or a steak sandwich, along with a glass of wine and a milk-based panna cotta dessert. Temperature, stretching and meditation were also key to the research, which focused on identifying strategies to reduce jet lag and promote inflight health for passengers.
Eat, Sleep and Exercise
The second phase of the flight involved darkness in the cabin to induce sleep, followed by the third and final stage of daylight and activity. Following a meal, including spices and caffeine to awaken the senses, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce joined passengers in the aisle for some light exercises.
Before the departure, he said: “We know that travellers want room to move on these direct services, and the exercises we encouraged on the first research flight seemed to work really well. So, we’re definitely looking to incorporate on-board stretching zones and even some simple modifications like overhead handles to encourage low impact exercises.”
The studies didn’t stop there for the frequent flyers. Aside from the strict schedule of eating, sleeping and exercising, passenger reaction time and cognitive alertness were tested using response tests on an iPad. While participating in the tests, passengers kept a daily log to note how they felt throughout the study. Matching the timescale of the wearable devices, their diary entries began a week before the flight and continued for two weeks afterwards.
Naturally, the pristine 787-9, fresh from collection at Boeing’s Everett factory near Seattle, was the subject of testing too. The repurposed delivery, which would otherwise have ferried empty from Seattle to Sydney, was routed via Los Angeles International Airport to Heathrow, before taking its history-making journey to Sydney. Aside from the standard engineering tests for the delivery trip, the crew monitored aircraft systems throughout.
If Qantas chooses to make the rotations a permanent fixture in its flying schedule, agreeing regulations around crew work and rest patterns will be critical to them getting the goahead. Arrangements must be agreed by the airline and unions to ensure operating sequences are optimised for the safe operation of the aircraft and correct work-rest balance. Flight plans for the research flights were agreed well in advance, but there are various regulations that will need to be addressed to ensure regular routes can be flown between the east coast of Australia to and from London and New York without the need for complex planning and permissions.
Sustainability is also high on the agenda. Qantas promises to have net zero carbon emissions by 2050, so the airline will need to be positive that its mid-century goal remains achievable if ultra long-haul becomes the new normal.
Ultimately, it will come down to financial viability. Joyce has expressed his confidence in the routes based on the high yields of the London to Perth flight, and customer feedback that longer non-stop flights have a place, but the figures need to add up.
If approved, flights could start from 2023 marking a seismic change for customer expectations around the world.
Yesteryear’s Route to Today’s Records
One hundred years before flight QF879’s impressive feat, the world’s first flight from London to Australia, led by Captain Ross Macpherson, departed Hounslow Heath Aerodrome, close to the site of today’s Heathrow Airport.
The converted Vimy bomber, registration G-EAOU (whimsically said to stand for ‘God ‘elp all of us’) touched down in Darwin 28 days later. The sole objective for those early pioneers of aviation would have been to cover the estimated 11,123 miles (17,911km) and total flying time of 135 hours and 55mins with aircraft and passengers intact on arrival.
Fast-forward a century, with the advent of more ef icient long-range aircraft came the opportunity to fly significantly further, cutting out the need for a stopover. Airlines seized the opportunities created by this ‘point to point’ as opposed to the ‘hub and spoke’ model to allow passengers to reach more places via a direct flight. Carriers such as Singapore Airlines, Qatar Airways and Qantas rely on being able to fly ultra-long sectors as part of their business models.
In February 2017, Qatar Airways’ Doha/Auckland route, operated by a Boeing 777-200, completed the 9,032-mile (14,535km) distance in 16hrs and 23mins to set the longest flight record. In October the following year, Singapore Airlines’ non-stop A350-900 ultra long-range (ULR) flight between its hub and Newark, New York, took that record for the longest commercial flight in regular service, covering more than 9,320 miles (15,000km) in 17hrs and 52mins.
Flight QF7879 wasn’t the first non-stop flight connecting London and Sydney. In 1989, a brand-new Qantas Boeing 747-400 VH-OJA (c/n 24354) flew non-stop, spending 20hrs and 9mins in the air. There were stark differences between the two flights separated by three decades. For the 747 to cover the distance, its interior was completely stripped to make the aircraft as light as possible and its fuel tanks were brimmed to ensure the four-engine jumbo could go the distance. It even had to be towed to the runway to save fuel while taxiing.
Compare this with the twin-engine Boeing 787 that wasn’t stripped, carried 50 passengers and crew, took of with room left in the tanks, and still had 13,889lb (6,300kg) of fuel (accounting for 1hr and 45mins of flying time) left on arrival. Thanks to improvements in aircraft design and engine efficiency, the most recent flight operated with about 50% less fuel than its 1989 counterpart. It illustrates just how far aircraft development has come in a relatively short space of time.
Appliance of Science
Project Sunrise continues to examine the feasibility of direct commercial flights between the east coast of Australia to London and New York. The results of crew, passenger and aircraft tests will be one of many determining factors for Qantas CEO Alan Joyce and his team.
Soon after November’s Project Sunrise flight, the carrier rejected proposals from manufacturing rivals Airbus and Boeing who had pitched their aircraft (the A350 and 777X respectively) as contenders with the required range to operate the ultra long-haul flights. Qantas now awaits fresh offers.
Joyce said at the time: “I have no problem... in saying ‘we gave it a good try but it didn’t work’.”
However, he vehemently denied the project was a big publicity stunt with no intention to launch direct flights between London and Sydney, stating that he wouldn’t expect some of his most senior flight crew to have to provide urine samples for 21 days as part of the scientific testing simply for the purposes of public relations.
Similarly to the London-Perth route’s hugely impressive and consistent 95% load factors, Joyce believes there is true demand for even longer direct flights that cut out the need for a midway stop: “I’ve had business travellers tell me they’d rather stay on board and watch an extra episode of their favourite show before arriving at their final destination, than [spend] 90 minutes on the ground waiting for a connecting flight.
“I’ve also had a few parents tell me they would rather not disturb their kids if they are settled in and [would like to] avoid having to bundle them and all their carry-on luggage off and back on a flight during a stopover. So, there is definitely support for the non-stop flights.”