United bids farewell to the Boeing 747

After a long innings spanning 47 years, United Airlines is set to retire the iconic Boeing 747 from its fleet. The final regular passenger flight operated by the Boeing 747-400 will be on October 29th 2017, from Seoul to San Francisco. It will be the end of an era for United, in which its much loved “Queen of the skies” ruled the skies across the world.

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United Airlines had taken delivery of its first ever Boeing 747 on June 26th 1970, with its first commercial flight from San Francisco to Honolulu a few weeks later on July 23rd 1970. The Jumbo jet served as the workhorse of the airline’s long haul fleet for over four decades, and was adored by passengers and crew equally.

United operated multiple versions of the Boeing 747, starting with the original 747-100, 747-200, 747-SP (taken over from PanAm) and finally the 747-400. It allowed the airline to carry over 300 passengers comfortably to popular destinations in Europe, Asia and Australia.

To commemorate the retirement of this iconic aircraft, United will be operating a one-off farewell flight on the 747-400 from San Francisco to Honolulu on November 7th 2017. This flight will recreate the first 747 flight operated by United in 1970. From a 1970s-inspired menu to retro uniforms for flight attendants to inflight entertainment befitting of that first flight, passengers will help send the Queen of the Skies off in true style. Tickets for this farewell flight were sold out within two hours of going on sale.

San Francisco International Airport (SFO) was the de-facto hub for United’s Boeing 747s, and it is only fair for the airport to operate the farewell flight.

I had the opportunity to spot the United 747-400s in action at SFO a few years ago. Here’s my tribute to the Queen of the Skies…

 

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United 747 in the classic “Tulip” livery about to touch down on Runway 28L at SFO

 

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Air India’s Star Alliance fleet

Air India joined Star Alliance – the world’s largest global airline alliance on July 11, 2014 as its 27th member. As is the custom, the alliance members paint a few of their aircraft in a special Star Alliance livery. This livery usually consists of a white fuselage with the words “Star Alliance” across it and a black tail fin with the alliance logo.

At the time of joining the alliance, Air India painted one of its Airbus A320s, VT-ESF in the Star Alliance livery. This was rolled out on July 11, 2014.

Here is VT-ESF painted in the Star Alliance livery, touching down on Runway 09 at BOM.

One interesting aspect about this aircraft is that it belongs to the pre-merger Indian Airlines, and is equipped with a double bogie main landing gear. Indian Airlines’ first set of Airbus A320s delivered in the early 1990s all sported double bogie main landing gears, designed to handle the “not so perfect” airfield conditions in India at the time.

A few months later, Air India painted one of its Boeing 777-300ERs, VT-ALJ titled “Bihar” in the alliance’s colours. VT-ALJ was Air India’s first Boeing 777-300ER, delivered to the airline in 2007. Also, this was Air India’s first wide-body aircraft to be painted in the Star Alliance livery.

“Bihar” seen here on short final to Runway 27 at BOM on a dull, rainy day.

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Air India Boeing 777-300ER VT-ALJ “Bihar” in Star Alliance colours

Again in April 2015, Air India took delivery of a brand new Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner, VT-ANU factory-painted in the Star Alliance colours. This was the world’s first 787 Dreamliner to be painted in an alliance special livery.

Here is VT-ANU turning on to taxiway N1 at BOM for a morning departure.

Two year later, VT-ANU remains the only Boeing 787 Dreamliner to be painted in the colours of an airline alliance.

As of now, these are the only three aircraft in the Air India fleet sporting the Star Alliance colours.

As Air India starts phasing out its classic Indian Airlines era Airbus A320s and inducting brand new Airbus A320 NEOs, it is likely that one of these aircraft would be painted in the Star livery.

 

 

Juneyao Airlines joins Star Alliance as a Connecting Partner

May 23 2017 – Juneyao Airlines today became the first airline to join the Star Alliance network as a “Connecting Partner”. Juneyao Airlines is a major Chinese airline based in Shanghai, and operates to both international and domestic destinations.

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Connecting Partner is a brand new concept adopted by the world’s largest airline alliance, and this partnership will offer Star Alliance passengers opportunities to transfer through Shanghai’s two airports – Pudong International (PVG/ZSPD) and Hongqiao International (SHA/ZSSS) on the Juneyao Airlines network.

This partnership will also allow passengers travelling on Star Alliance carriers through check-in facility in both directions on Juneyao Airlines flights. Additionally, all qualifying Star Alliance Gold Status passengers will be provided the same privileges on their Juneyao Airlines connecting flights as they currently enjoy on the Star Alliance network.

These include:

• Lounge Access

• Fast Track Security

• Additional Baggage

• Priority Check-in

• Priority Boarding

• Priority Standby

• Priority Baggage Delivery

At present, 17 out of 27 airlines in the Star Alliance group operate more than 1600 weekly flights to various cities in China. Juneyao Airlines now offers Star Alliance passengers the option of connecting to more than 1,700 weekly flights to 69 destinations in eight countries and regions through Shanghai. This partnership is therefore a win-win proposition for both Juneyao Airlines and Star Alliance.

Currently, Air China and Shenzhen Airlines are two Chinese carriers that are full members of Star Alliance.

Juneyao Airlines has a fleet of 62 aircraft consisting of Airbus A320 & A321 narrow-body planes.

 

ATR 72MP – The pint sized Maritime Patrol platform

The ATR 72MP is a maritime patrol, C3I (Command, Control, Communication & Intelligence), ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance) and SAR (Search & Rescue) aircraft.

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It has been derived from the popular ATR 72-600 commercial (passenger/cargo) aircraft.

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The ATR 72MP is powered by two Pratt & Whitney Canada PW127 M turboprop engines mated with six bladed Hamilton Standard propellers. Each engine is rated for a maximum take-off power of 2750SHP.

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Similar to the ATR 72-600, the ATR 72MP is equipped with a full glass cockpit featuring five wide LCD screens.

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The ATR 72MP is equipped with the ATOS (Airborne Tactical Observation & Surveillance) mission system designed by Leonardo Airborne & Space Systems. This manages the wide array of sensors on the aircraft, combines the information received during missions (using Data Fusion) and provides it to the mission system operators in a suitable format.

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The aircraft can effectively communicate with ground stations, satellites and other platforms such as AWACS to provide excellent real-time situational awareness during surveillance missions.

The four main mission stations are equipped with large LCD display screens, which provide high-resolution imagery from the aircraft’s sensors.

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The ATR 72MP has two “bubble” observer stations on either sides, allowing an unhindered view to the observer during Search and Rescue missions.

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The view from the “bubble”

The ATR 72MP can cruise at 465kmph (250 KTAS) at a maximum altitude of 25000ft. The aircraft has an astounding 10 hour endurance (plus 45 min hold time) at 5000 ft, allowing it to loiter longer over an area of interest. The aircraft can take off using only 1170 metres of runway at MTOW, allowing it to operate from small airfields that are not capable of handling larger jets. It can carry additional personnel using re-configurable airline style seating.

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The affordability and versatility of the ATR 72 platform means that one can acquire an effective force multiplier without having to break the bank. This is sweet news for agencies like the Coast Guard that need a robust maritime surveillance platform but have limited budgets for aircraft acquisition. The aircraft occupies a niche spot between maritime surveillance helicopters and larger long-range maritime surveillance aircraft like the Boeing P-8 Poseidon.

 

 

End of an Era! Indian Navy to retire Tu-142 ASW aircraft

The Indian Navy is set to retire its Tupolev Tu-142 long range maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare aircraft by the end of this month. Eight of these gigantic turboprop aircraft were acquired by the Indian Navy in 1988 from the Soviet Union and served as the flagship maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare platform in the Indian Ocean region for nearly 30 years. The Tu-142s are based at INS Rajali, situated at Arakkonam in Tamil Nadu.

The Tu-142 was derived from the Soviet Tu-95 “Bear” long range strategic bomber designed in the 1950s. It is a large turboprop aircraft powered by four Kuznetsov NK-12 engines with distinctive contra-rotating propellers. It is one of the loudest military aircraft and is also the fastest turboprop aircraft with a maximum speed in excess of 850kmph/460knots. Its long fuselage, wide wingspan and high speed has earned it the nickname, “Albatross”.

The Tu-142 is a true long range reconnaissance aircraft with a combat radius of around 6500km. It can carry out long duration missions of nearly 11 hours with a large payload of around 9000kg. The aircraft is fitted with ASW equipment including sonar, magnetic anomaly detector (MAD), sonobuoys, anti-submarine mines and torpedoes.

However, age has begun to catch up with the Albatross, as newer anti-submarine warfare technologies have emerged in the recent years, thereby rendering the Cold War era Soviet equipment on the aircraft obsolete. The Indian Navy has already found its eventual replacement – the Boeing P-8I “Neptune” multi-mission maritime aircraft (MMA). Eight P-8Is have already been inducted into the service, and are also based at INS Rajali.

Although the P-8I doesn’t quite have the range or the endurance of the Tu-142, it is packed to the gills with state-of-the-art surveillance & ASW equipment, including the deadly Harpoon anti-ship missile.

In addition to the Tu-142 & the P-8I, the Indian Navy also operates the Ilyushin IL-38SD maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft. The IL-38s were acquired by the Indian Navy starting in 1977, and were recently upgraded in Russia including fitting of a new radar and the Sea Dragon avionic suite, allowing them to soldier on for some more time. These are currently based at INS Hansa situated at Dabolim, Goa.

Newer technologies apart, none of these aircraft have the Cold War style awe and aura of the Tu-142. The retirement of the Albatross is truly the end of an era!

 

Saudi King Salman visits Malaysia

February 26 2017 – The ruler of Saudi Arabia, King Salman kicked off his month long Asian tour with a four day visit to Malaysia today. King Salman is visiting with a huge delegation of around 600 staff, ministers and officials. The King and his delegation arrived at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KUL) in three special aircraft earlier today.

The KUL plane-spotting community was out in force to catch the arrival of these special aircraft.

The King himself along with his close associates arrived first in the Saudi Royal Flight Boeing 747-400 registered HZ-HM1. The callsign was “Saudi One”

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The second aircraft to arrive was the highlight of the day. Carrying the Saudi delegation was the Saudi Royal Flight Boeing 747SP, registered HZ-HM1B. The callsign was “Saudi One Bravo”

We were lucky to spot this rare 39 year old classic as it touched down on Runway 32L.

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The final aircraft in the delegation was the Saudi Royal Flight Boeing 757-200, registered HZ-HMED, and callsign “Saudi 11”.

This is an interesting aircraft as it is practically a flying hospital. This aircraft is equipped with facilities and personnel to cater to any medical emergencies that might occur.

Saudi Arabian Royal Flight Boeing 757-200

 

As you can see, this was a great opportunity to spot some rare special aircraft. Enjoy the photos! 🙂

 

Countdown to LIMA ’17

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The LIMA (Langkawi International Maritime & Aerospace Exhibition) 2017 maritime and aerospace exhibition for defence, civil and commercial applications will be held next month in Langkawi, Malaysia.

The biennial event will be held between 21st and 25th March 2017 will be held at The Mahsuri International Exhibition Centre, Langkawi for the Aerospace exhibition and Resorts World, Langkawi for the Maritime exhibition. This year will be the 14th edition of LIMA and it promises to be as spectacular as always. There will be something for everyone – whether you are an aviation geek or a maritime enthusiast.

The highlight of the five day event will of course be the daily aerial displays and boat demonstrations.

The list of confirmed participants for the aerial displays this year is as follows:

  1. SU-30 MKM Royal Malaysian Air Force
  2. F/A-18D Royal Malaysian Air Force
  3. Hawk 108/208 Royal Malaysian Air Force
  4. A400M Royal Malaysian Air Force
  5. PC 7 MKII Royal Malaysian Air Force
  6. KT-1B (Jupiter) Tentara Nasional Indonesia Angkatan Udara
  7. HAL Dhruvs Indian Air Force (Sarang Aerobatic Team)
  8. KAI – T50B Republic of Korea Air Force(Black Eagle)
  9. Gripen Royal Thai Air Force
  10. Rafale France Air Force
  11. B-1B (Fly Pass) United States Air Force
  12. Airbus 380 (Fly Pass) Malaysia Airlines Berhad (MAB)
  13. Airbus 330 Malaysia Airlines Berhad (MAB)
  14. Super Lynx Royal Malaysian Navy
  15. Fennec Royal Malaysian Navy
  16. CL-415 Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency
  17. Agusta AW 139 Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency
  18. Dauphin AS365 Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency
  19. AS 355 Royal Malaysian Police

Source:  LIMA Exhibition Official Website

As you can see from the line-up above, it looks like a power-packed display this year. It will be exciting to see the Royal Malaysian Air Force birds in action, as well as the Airbus A330 & A380s from Malaysia Airlines. The USAF B-1B Lancer fly past also promises to be an exciting event.

I am also looking forward to seeing the Indian Air Force Sarang Aerobatic Team in action with their brightly coloured HAL Dhruv helicopters. I last saw them in action two years ago at Aero India 2015 in Bangalore, India.

Look forward to more updates soon!

 

 

 

 

India & France sign the Rafale deal – FINALLY!

After a wait of almost a decade, involving a multi-country and multi-aircraft competition, extensive negotiations, cancellations and re-work, the IAF (Indian Air Force) will get modern fighter aircraft with India & France FINALLY inking the deal for the Dassault Rafale multi-role fighters on Friday, September 23 2016.

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The precursor to the Rafale deal was the MMRCA (Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft) competition to supply the IAF with 126 advanced multi-role combat aircraft. The RFP (Request for Proposal) for this deal was released in August 2007 to six bidding aircraft – Boeing F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet, Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed Martin F-16, Mikoyan Mig-35 & SAAB Gripen NG. The competition involved extensive trials of the six competing aircraft in a variety of environmental conditions. After an extensive technical evaluation, the IAF announced in April 2011 that it had shortlisted two aircraft – Dassault Rafale & Eurofighter Typhoon. On 31 January 2012 it was announced that Dassault Rafale won the MMRCA competition due to its lower life-cycle cost. Thus began a phase of long and painful negotiations, which involved differences over cost escalations and guarantees by Dassault for aircraft license-built in India.

The negotiations continued for over two years with differences persisting between the two sides. Finally, in April 2015, Indian PM Narendra Modi announced that India’s intent to purchase 36 Rafale fighters in a fly-away condition directly from France in a government-to-government agreement. This effectively killed the MMRCA deal, with the Indian defence minister Manohar Parrikar officially making an announcement to this effect. Even then, it took nearly 18 months of negotiations to officially ink the deal!

The Dassault Rafale will be a much needed boost to the IAF’s rapidly declining fighter aircraft strength. With multiple aircraft types like the Mig-21, Mig-27 and Jaguar slated for retirement in the coming years, there is a critical need for inducting modern fighter aircraft into the fleet. The Rafale will be a shot in the arm for the IAF, providing it with a much needed capability boost to tackle the challenges it faces from Pakistan & China.

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Being an “omni-role” aircraft, the Rafale can be easily configured for air-air or air-ground missions. The deal includes the Thales RBE2 AA AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar and weapons systems like the Meteor BVR air-air missile, which has a range of over 150km, and the SCALP air-ground cruise missile with a range of over 300km. This will allow the IAF to engage targets inside enemy territory without crossing its own borders.

The first Rafales will start arriving within 36 months of signing the contract i.e. in the year 2019 and the delivery will be completed within 66 months. The 36 Rafales constitute approx. two squadrons, and will clearly not be enough to plug the declining fighter strength in the IAF. What remains to be seen is whether there will be a follow-on order for more Rafales including possible local assembly/manufacturing or whether the IAF decides to go in for another type.

 

 

 

 

Dream comes true – The An-225 visits Kuala Lumpur

Dream comes true – The An-225 visits Kuala Lumpur

I had a dream – to see the “dream”. Goofy wordplay aside, the dream was to see the Antonov An-225 “Mriya” (meaning dream or inspiration in Ukranian) at least once. This dream came true, as the big bird landed in Kuala Lumpur yesterday – May 14th 2016.

Powered by six Progress D-18 turbofan engines, the mammoth An-225 was on a trip from Prague, Czech Republic to Perth, Australia, carrying a 117 tonne electrical generator. The trip involved stopovers in Turkmenbashi (KRW), Hyderabad (HYD), and Kuala Lumpur (KUL) before reaching its destination in Australia.

The stopover at KUL was lucky, as the original itinerary involved the big beast stopping over at Jakarta. This was changed later to KUL due to unavailability of slots at Jakarta. The schedule was published by Flightradar 24 a couple of weeks prior to the flight, and we waited with bated breath for the arrival.

The scheduled arrival at KUL was 0800 local time, and I left home early with my seven year old son in order to secure a vantage point to witness the arrival of the Mriya. As I was reaching the spotting location, I saw hundreds of people gathering to see the giant six-engined aircraft that was due to arrive soon. The excitement was palpable, as the spotting community in KUL came together, and waited patiently.

The aircraft could not be seen on Flightradar 24 – our trusted companion for tracking aircraft and their arrival/departure times. We had found out from friends back in Hyderabad that the aircraft had departed at 0140 local time, which meant that it would be arriving approximately at half past eight.

Just before 0800, the Mriya became visible on Flightradar 24, and the atmosphere amongst the waiting spotters became electrified. Folks readied their equipment – double-checking to make sure that the memory cards were inserted and batteries were charged.

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Soon, the familiar shape of the An-225, with its six engines became visible in the distance. The aircraft was approaching rapidly, and appeared to become larger by the second.

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It glided smoothly over the threshold of Runway 32L, and touched down right in front of us, producing a fair bit of smoke from its massive 28 wheel main landing gear.

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A loud cheer went up in the spotting community as the aircraft rolled down the runway, and slowly made its way to its designated parking bay.

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It felt amazing to see the massive six-engined aircraft with its distinctive twin tail. The wings and the horizontal stabilizers are humongous!

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So there it is – the dream to see the one-of-a-kind Antonov An-225 “Mriya” finally came true. Don’t know if I will get an opportunity to see it again…

The Malaysian Queen flies again!

Malaysia Airlines recently decided to bring a Boeing 747-400 back into active service. The 747-400s were retired a couple of years ago when the A380s joined the fleet. The 747 will provide interim heavy lift to the airline while the A380s go through maintenance. The Jumbo is supposed to operate its long haul service to London on two days of the week.

The aircraft that was re-commissioned is registered as 9M-MPP (formerly named as “Putrajaya”) Malaysia Airlines has painted this aircraft in the retro 1970s livery. Many aviation enthusiasts including me were pretty excited when this piece of news broke, and we have been waiting patiently for the Queen to take to the skies.

The big day finally arrived!  The 747-400 was supposed to roll out and get airborne for a test flight at 10AM local time on April 26th 2016. All the local plane spotters and aviation enthusiasts flocked to the Subang airport (where the aircraft was parked) and waited for the aircraft to show up. 10AM came and went, and there was no sign of the Queen. Then we got to know that there was a technical issue with the aircraft, and it was taken back to the hangar. The test flight would have to wait for another day!

The new date for the test flight was two days later – on April 28th at 2PM local time. Again, the enthusiast community came out in full force to view the Queen. This time we hoped that she would show up! At around 2PM, the aircraft showed up on Flightradar24, which meant that the transponders were active.

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The aircraft had been given a callsign – MH5109 for the test flight.

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We were getting impatient, as the aircraft showed no movement. We were hoping that the technical issues had been sorted, and the Queen would finally take to the skies.

Just before 3PM, the 747 finally started taxiing out. We got ready with our cameras to capture this event. Dark rain clouds had gathered over the Subang area, and the light had faded quite a bit. As she made her way to the active runway, we could see streaks of lightning with accompanying thunder all around. It was as if the weather gods were announcing the arrival of the Queen! 🙂

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As she lined up on Runway 15, the heavens opened up! What started off as a slight drizzle, turned into a torrential downpour. We were caught in between – sheltering our cameras from the rain, and craning our necks to catch sight of the Queen. We soon heard the four Pratt & Whitney PW4056 powerplants spool up to take-off power, and a loud cheer went up amongst the waiting plane-spotters. And in the next few seconds, the four engines spooled down, bringing a look of worry on all our faces. The engines spooled up and spooled down once again, before spooling up once more and the aircraft finally started to roll. As soon as the Queen came into view, our cameras went into overdrive, capturing her spraying water all around.

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What a sight it was!

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After a shortish take-off roll, the Queen took to the skies with a grace typical of the 747.

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That’s it – the Malaysian Queen was finally back in the air!

After taking off from Subang, the aircraft turned north and headed out to the Malacca Strait for its tests. The aircraft made multiple circuits at varying altitudes around Penang and the Malacca Strait for nearly three hours before heading back south to Kuala Lumpur. The aircraft was supposed to land at KLIA (KUL) at around 6PM local time.

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We reached there well in time for the arrival, and hoped that the rain gods would keep away this time. At exactly 6PM, the familiar shape of a 747 on approach became visible on the horizon. The Queen touched down with a puff of smoke on Runway 32L and deployed her reversers briefly.

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As she rolled out, we got another view of the beautiful curves of the Queen of the skies…

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Test flight complete, the aircraft was parked at the cargo apron, next to her cargo cousins. We hoped all had gone as per plan, and the 747 was fit to fly once again.

Some not so good news emerged one day later, as the website Airlineroute.net reported that Malaysia Airlines had shelved plans to operate the 747-400 on the Kuala Lumpur – London route for the month of June. As of now, the reasons for this change are not known.

We only hope that all issues are sorted out, and the Queen takes to the skies soon!