Anyone who’s visited AFF’s popular Ask The Pilot thread will be familiar with John Bartels, who goes by the AFF username of jb747. Over the years, jb747 has developed a reputation as one of AFF’s most respected members. He has tirelessly answered thousands of AFF member questions relating to aviation, flying and the life of a pilot.
Earlier this year, John Bartels hung up his wings and retired from his role as a Qantas Airbus A380 captain. After a stellar aviation career spanning decades, John’s final flight as a commercial pilot was from Singapore to Melbourne in January 2019.
Luckily for us, John is still posting actively on AFF. He also joined me on this fortnight’s episode of AFF on Air, the official Australian Frequent Flyer podcast.
From a young age, aviation has run through John’s blood. He tells me that “there was a picture of me when I’m about five years old drawing airplanes on a chalk board”.
John began his aviation career as a navy observer before learning to fly with the Royal Australian Air Force in Point Cook, Victoria in 1979. After flying the McDonnell Douglas A-4 Skyhawk for the military, he then made the switch to commercial aviation and became a Second Officer with Qantas on the Boeing 747 Classic. Back in those days, aircraft did not have the range to fly from Australia to London with just one stop in Singapore, so flights would also call in to Bahrain for a fuel stop. jb747 then worked his way up to become a Boeing 747 First Officer, Boeing 767 Captain, Boeing 747 Captain and finally an Airbus A380 Captain.
John’s proudest career achievement was becoming a Captain with Qantas for the first time. “Firstly the course itself was fairly stressful, so it was nice to have that over. But they don’t hand out commands willy-nilly so it was very pleasant to get it, and there was a high failure rate so it was nice to get past that hurdle.”
This pilot’s career was not without incident. John Bartels was famously in command of QF30 on 25 July, 2008 when an oxygen tank exploded in the cargo hold. The flight from Hong Kong to Melbourne made a rapid descent and diverted to Manila. Despite significant structural damage to the aircraft, the Boeing 747 landed safely and there were no injuries.
This was an extremely unlucky event. But John reflects on it in a more positive light, saying “In many ways it was actually a fortunate event. The airplane got on the ground and no-one got hurt. There are many of those bottles on the aeroplane – and in other planes – and depending on where they’re positioned, the outcome could differ quite a lot. That particular bottle had spent half of its life as a 767 crew oxygen bottle. The 767 has only two of those bottles, and they’re only for the cockpit, so going ‘bang’ there might have been a little bit bad!”
Many AFF members followed jb747‘s final flight vicariously via a dedicated AFF thread. But one AFF member, hvr, flew to Singapore especially so that he could be on board QF36 back to Melbourne on the 27thof January. Being the end of the Australia Day long weekend, it was a full flight.
John tells me that he tried to treat his last flight just like any other, although he admits that he “tried harder than usual to make sure the last landing was a good one”.
But this wasn’t any ordinary flight. Two of the passengers and even some of the cabin crew on that final flight had also been on board QF30 on that fateful day back in 2008.
After landing in Melbourne just after dawn on 28 January 2019, hvr was instructed to distract the pilots for a few minutes while the cabin crew prepared a surprise cake and gift – a framed photo of the actual A380 they were on, which had been signed by all of the crew. Somebody from Qantas management even made an early morning trip to Melbourne Airport to say farewell… although John’s wife had to wait for him with the rest of the crowds in the airport arrivals hall!
AFF’s Ask the Pilot thread – which now contains well over 13,000 posts – contains countless hours of insights and contributions from real-life pilots, including jb747‘s recollections of the QF30 incident. The thread is still active and all Australian Frequent Flyer members are welcome to ask questions.
If you’d like to hear the full 37-minute interview with John Bartels, be sure to listen to Episode 13 of the AFF on Air podcast. As well as on AFF, you can find this podcast on Apple Podcasts, Android, Google Podcasts and Spotify.