Captain Jeremy Burfoot on his harrowing record flight on Airbus A380 as fuel ran low

Captain Jeremy Burfoot on his harrowing record flight on Airbus A380 as fuel ran low
Photo credit: Captain Jeremy Burfoot/Getty

While we have all felt the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on our daily lives, not many jobs have been as disrupted as that of an airline pilot.

Until the pandemic, Captain Jeremy Burfoot was a pilot at Qantas, flying aircraft such as the Boeing 747 and the Airbus A380. 

He was made redundant by the airline as a result of the dramatic drop in global travel when the pandemic hit.

While he intends to take to the skies again, he's used the time in lockdown to write a book about his experiences as a pilot of some of the most fascinating aircraft ever to have been flown.

Captain Burfoot spoke to Newshub Travel about some of the highlights of his career.

Captain Jeremy Burfoot on his harrowing record flight on Airbus A380 as fuel ran low
Photo credit: Captain Jeremy Burfoot

The Airbus A380 was about trying not to 'tango at the disco'

Up until his redundancy, Burfoot was captain of what some people call "the mega jumbo" or "double decker plane", the Airbus A380; an aircraft that could not be any further away from those Burfoot flew in the air force in his early days.

"When I first started the A380 course, I was pretty apprehensive. With the A380, it was new technology and a whole different way of doing things," Burfoot said.

"I'd also heard stories of old farts who preceded me, who had struggled with the course. The general thinking was that they tried to bring their Boeing procedures with them, rather than accepting the new system and getting on with learning it.

"In other words, they were still trying to tango at a disco. I also wondered whether I still had the capacity to spend that much time learning again without nodding off every 20 minutes.

"It turns out I did. Thankfully, I got excited about the technology, and the sheer size of the aircraft and my enthusiasm got me on the crest of a wave, which I rode right through to the end."

Burfoot says the differences between the Boeing 747 and the Airbus A380 are quite dramatic.

No NRL game ever took place onboard an Airbus A380.
No NRL game ever took place onboard an Airbus A380. Photo credit: Getty Images

"A plane so big it could host the NRL grand final."

Instead of a control column between the captain's legs, there is a joystick. The control column has been replaced by a pullout computer keyboard that converts into a dining table. 

The Airbus A380 is what's known as a fly-by-wire aircraft; put simply, everything is electric. All of the old switches and panels have been replaced with touchscreens.

"All in all, it's a pretty good system, and contrary to what I had always expected, I liked it. Moreover, I took to it reasonably well once I learned all the new calls and 'Airbus speak'. And so, on November 30, 2017, I flew my first flight in command on the A380 to Dallas."

In terms of economy, the A380 was a hit with airline accountants; but it was also a big hit with passengers.

"When the A380 was first announced, the waffle that came out from Airbus and the airlines about the 380 was typically stupid. There was talk of petting zoos and gyms, and beauty salons. Someone even suggested that the NRL final may be held on one, one day. The realists among us knew this to be the typical 'bs'," Burfoot said.

He said the A380 remains the best aircraft he's flown, but knows their time in the sky is limited, with new two-engine jets proving much more efficient. Burfoot said Airbus even considered making changes to the A380 so it could carry more passengers.

"Airbus considered stretching it and putting more efficient engines on it but couldn't get commitments from airlines to buy the new version."

Aircraft are frequently hit by lightning.
Aircraft are frequently hit by lightning. Photo credit: Valk Aviation

It's considered a really bad idea to enter thunderstorms

Despite loving every minute of flying the Airbus A380, one flight in particular stands out for the captain.

On April 18, 2019, Burfoot was in the cockpit on the ground at Dallas airport as the flights 10pm departure time approached.

The aircraft was fully loaded with the fuel needed to make the non-stop flight to Sydney when air traffic control (ATC) advised that there was a line of storms stretching from 200 nautical miles north-west to 500 nautical miles southwest and aircraft were having trouble penetrating through the storms to the height of the cloud build-ups," he said.

"We could see flashes of lightning in most directions. It is considered a really bad idea to enter or go near thunderstorms in aircraft due to turbulence and lightning."

Dallas air traffic control suggested the Qantas flight remain on the tarmac until this calmed down. But that wasn't going to be possible. A delayed departure would mean the crew would have to work more than their legal limit of 20 hours.

"So I decided to get airborne and have a look. Usually there is a way through or over the top of a weather band somewhere but the difficulty at the beginning of a flight is that you are limited to lower altitudes due to your heavy weight," Burfoot said.

"We would always have the option of diverting into Los Angeles or Honolulu or even Brisbane on the way if the initial diversion had used too much fuel.

"We got airborne and started to track down the side of the line of storms heading between south and southwest right over the top of San Antonio. We looked hard for a gap in the weather to fly through, but none showed. Usually, two of us would have disappeared into the bunks for a rest, but I could see we had things to do, so we all stayed there. 

"We basically made the bottom of Texas at the Mexican border, heading at right angles to where we should be going before we could turn. More than an hour after getting airborne, we turned onto our new track following the Mexican border to the northwest. We set the 'maximum range cruise' speed and sent information back to Qantas, giving them a position and weight and asking for a new flight plan to Sydney.

Qantas A380 with Captain Jeremy Burfoot at the controls.
Qantas A380 with Captain Jeremy Burfoot at the controls. Photo credit: Wayne Bennett

Minimum fuel

"We had the new plan, and it had us arriving in Sydney with minimum fuel. 

"The new plan was the shortest route taking into account the winds enroute. So we followed the Mexican border to the north west and crossed over San Diego in California. From there we tracked over the big Island of Hawaii, north of Fiji, over Noumea, passed so close to Brisbane we could see it then into Sydney. 

"Against all the odds and 18 hours and 43 minutes after departing the gate in Dallas, we made it to the gate in Sydney."

That flight time could possibly be the longest ever flown by a Qantas pilot.

"The flight time was 18 hours and 3 minutes, and we covered around 16,000km. That was a personal record for me. No fuss was made. No thanks were received. It's what they pay you the big bucks for, and that's what's called 'getting the job done'," Burfoot said.

Captain Burfoot's book Kiwis Can Fly: A Career in Aviation is available through now. Next week the former captain will share with Newshub some of the secrets about planes, flying and the people on them.