Some of us remember what we were doing the day mankind walked on the moon, but fewer might recall what they were doing the day the first Qantas 707 landed at Sydney Airport and brought regular jet airliner flights to Australia.

It was July 2, 1959 — and the site was impressive enough to stop a schoolyard punch-up at Randwick Boys’ High School, mid-swing.

On Monday a Qantas 737-800 landed at the same airport repainted in that original livery, as part of the airline’s 95th anniversary celebrations.

The Boeing 707-138 — the short fuselage “hot rod” version specially produced to get Qantas out of Nadi airport’s then rather short runway on its route to San Francisco via Fiji and Honolulu — was to inaugurate that service at the end of that month.

Later in 1959, Qantas extended the reach of its fast-growing 707 fleet to London, via Idlewild (later renamed JFK) in New York City on the first Qantas jet service to the UK. The sleek (but much slower) piston-engined, propeller-driven Lockheed Super Constellations continued the multi-stop services Qantas was running to London (Heathrow) via stops in south-east Asia, India, the Middle East and continental Europe.

The unveiling of the Retro Roo II livery on a 737 represents an exceptional chapter in the extraordinary history of Qantas.

The arrival of a Qantas 707 in Australia was the prelude to the airline becoming the first non-American carrier to operate the Boeing jet.

There is a treasure trove of historic images and videos on the Qantas site.

The movements of the first Qantas 707s in those early weeks were more intricate than many articles and press releases indicate, and included engine fires, surprise diversions and training incidents, all with happy, if at times exciting, endings.

The Qantas 707 VH-EBB that was the first to get to Kingsford Smith Airport, as it was most commonly called in 1959, was its second such jet. The first, VH-EBA, arrived second, and had a name change, and the third, VH-EBC, was the first to take paying passengers on the inaugural Qantas jet service, which left Sydney for San Francisco on July 29, 1959.

As far as memory permits, the lunch break at Randwick Boys’ High School (between the east-west runway and Coogee Beach) ended with the arrival of the Qantas jet. There was a “rumble” going on in the playground, and it stopped, mid-punching and pushing, as the gleaming jet airliner and a frowning teacher appeared at the same moment.

But I don’t remember it flying low past the school, as most aircraft did, in a daily procession of DC-3s, DC-4s, Convair 240s, Vickers Viscounts, DC-6Bs and even the odd exotic French colonial carrier DC-7C and assorted Super Connies.

Memory says it flew along the coast instead, so not nearly as close as it did once regular services began, often using a departure that went just past the playground and out toward the unseen Pacific.

Those times, like the actual history of the early use of 707s by Qantas, are not necessarily recalled with photographic accuracy. But the excitement of the jet age is a powerful recollection. There was suddenly something that looked, sounded and behaved very differently to normal airliners.

There was a huge sense of change about the ’50s in general. The space age had came as an ambush, with implications that aggravated the pervasive fear of a nuclear war with the USSR. Australians were starting to own private cars and have telephones in their houses on a wider scale and discover they had spending power after post-war austerity, and television was only three years old.

When people went to Europe or America, they mostly went to a wharf, where the great liners came and went in the working harbour that was Sydney, and a brass band played and we threw streamers to be held by our brothers and sisters until the symbolic links between home and abroad snapped as the ships were pushed away by fussy little tugboats and turned around to sail towards the Heads.

Flying was almost impossibly romantic and out of reach. But the jet age was to change that, with amazing speed, and that original 707, its colours revived in Retro Roo II, was the curtain raiser, as well as the playground punch-up stopper.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey