High above the clouds over southern Russia, two Qantas pilots tried to work out the Russian word for hello.
They thought it would be a nice treat for the local air traffic control who’d congratulated them over the radio on Qantas’ monumental flight.
Watch the video above
The messages came in thick and fast to the cockpit on QF7879 from amazed controllers from the Western Europe to Asia.
And even gob-smacked pilots from nearby aircraft, radioing in as the brand new Dreamliner passed by.
How could you fly that far, for that long?
Just a few weeks after Qantas completed its first ever New York to Sydney flights, 7NEWS has been invited on board for Qantas’ second even non-stop journey between London and Sydney.
The first was back in 1989.
It was a stripped down 747-400 with just 23 people on board and fuel tanks filled to the brim.
The flight took 20 and 9 minutes.
Thirty years on, we’re on a brand new Boeing Dreamliner, fresh from the factory floor in Seattle.
We arrive to a nearly empty Terminal 3 at Heathrow Airport just after 4am.
The first commercial flight doesn’t leave until 6.15am (BA472 to Barcelona), but Qantas has snagged one of the first slots after Heathrow’s night-time curfew is lifted.
Departure is set for 6am.
“Welcome aboard this very special flight from London to Sydney,” Captain Helen Trenerry says from the cockpit.
She’s in charge of two teams of pilots.
Captain Trenerry tells us we’re embarking on “one of the last frontiers of commercial aviation”.
On board, we’re told to immediately switch to Sydney time, so that means mentally switching from a cold British morning to a hot summer Sydney afternoon where it’s 5pm.
We’re kept awake for five hours with exercise routines, bright lights and the brilliance of the first of two sunrises.
“The reason why we’re calling it Project Sunrise is not after your breakfast show as Kochie would have you believe,” Qantas CEO Alan Joyce tells me, “but because in the 1940’s Qantas had these amazing flights called the Secret Order of the Double Sunrise.
“They flew from Perth to Sri Lanka to link up with the British Airlines to keep the link up between Australia and the UK during the Second World War when South East Asia was closed down.”
Out the left hand side of the aircraft, we see the sun peek above the clouds of northern Europe.
Nearly 12 hours later, after most of those on board have had nearly eight hours of darkness on board to sleep, we witness a blood orange sunrise over the Philippines.
Right now, there’s no commercial flight that sees a ‘double sunrise’.
The reality is, even if Qantas does press ahead with its plans for a permanent non-stop London to Sydney flight, it’s unlikely passengers will see one either.
The early 6am flight from Heathrow would be an uncomfortable way for Aussies to end their holidays in Britain, so they’ll probably see the sun rise over West London before taking off.
More on 7NEWS.com.au
On QF7879, it’s a mix of invited media, Qantas staff, crew and frequent flyers on board.
Almost everyone, apart from the media, has been monitored in the days leading up to test their exposure to sunlight and willingness to sleep.
There’s a particular emphasis on managing pilot fatigue.
It’s all part of the research process to see whether humans really should be on board a plane for more than 19 hours on a regular basis and whether they should also be in change of the controls if they are.
The passengers are already converted to the concept.
David Jamison from Terrigal, NSW, is a regular flyer with his job in the mining industry, telling me he’s completed an astonishing 7000 flights throughout his life.
He can’t wait for the days of stopping off in Singapore or Dubai to be over.
‘The concept of going straight through and just being able to get where you’re going, it’s a godsend, it’s really good,’ he tells me, perched in business class.
Economy class questions
On this flight, economy class is empty apart from our carry on baggage which we’ve been asked to place at the back of the plane to even out the weight on board.
If Qantas is going to commit to these ultra-long haul flights, it has to be confident that people are going to be willing to sit in economy for more than 19 hours.
One of the researchers on board, Professor Corinne Caillaud, from the Charles Perkins Research Centre, admits it would be a challenge.
“This is something we obviously have to test. But there’s already 16 hour and 17 hour flights, and I’ve done some of those, and I’m not saying it’s a lot of fun,” Professor Caillaud said.
“But I think really if companies make the environment and service in such a way that it’s going to help people to do things differently, and to behave differently, I think it’s really going to help.”
Alan Joyce says that’s the plan.
The possible ultra long haul flights would feature more room to move about and stretch in economy, better food, and more encouragement to take measures to beat jet lag – like avoiding alcohol.
At the other end of the plane, the Qantas Dreamliners would likely be fitted with First Class for the first time too.
“Qantas has so many destinations because we are so far away given the location of the [Australia],” Joyce says.
“You think of New York, you think of Chicago, London, Paris, Rio, Cape Town, we can justify a significant fleet of aircraft that can do this long haul travel.
“If you look at British Airways, you only need these aircraft to get to Australia.
“If you’re American Airlines you only need New York to Australia.
“So there’s no other airline in the world that has so many destinations that are so far away that can make this work.
“And design the unique intellectual property that makes it work for passengers.”
Back on ground
After eight hours with the lights out, most of those on board have managed to get at least a few hours sleep (it helps being in business class).
Ahead of our arrival in Sydney, the lights are switched back on as we watch the sunrise over South East Asia.
Breakfast is served and, a few hours later, a light lunch just before our arrival into Kingsford Smith airport, 19 hours and 19 minutes after take off from London.
That’s 2 minutes longer than the New York to Sydney flight.
And now the cockpit battle begins.
Who will be the pilots to take on that final frontier of commercial aviation, if the bosses at Qantas decide to make that single hop from London to Sydney, a regular journey?
They might even have a chance to use their Russian a little more.
Hugh Whitfeld travelled as a guest of Qantas.