Backers of a bid to bring John Travolta’s Boeing 707 to the Illawarra must foot a $4 million maintenance bill before the prized bird can make the journey to its new intended home.
The sum is four times that flagged when Travolta’s donation to the Albion Park-based Historical Aircraft Restoration Society (HARS) was announced to much excitement, in May.
The maintenance bill was revised after HARS engineers inspected the retro aircraft and came to fully understand its shortcomings.
HARS is now seeking sponsors to enable the feat.
John Dennis, the group’s 707 project manager, said members remained determined to bring the aircraft to the Illawarra.
“Is it going to be easy? No. Because if it was easy, absolutely everyone would do it,” he said.
“There were people who said we’d never be able to bring a Super Constellation to Australia and we did it, and it’s still flying, so where there’s a will, there’s a way.
“It’s a huge project, we know that. If there are any sponsors out there, we need you.”
The biggest maintenance costs relate to the vintage airliner’s engine mounts and some engine components.
Despite the greater-than-expected costs, HARS had no regrets about its decision to take on ownership of the aircraft, Mr Dennis said.
“It’s a very big aircraft and it’s like anything – the older it gets the more maintenance it needs, the harder it is to keep it serviceable,” he said.
Hollwood megastar owner aside, HARS’ aircraft enthusiasts consider the 707 to be of great value.
The 13th of the only 13 ever made, VH-EBM was delivered to Qantas in 1964.
It was the first jet-era aircraft for the carrier, slashing the flight times of Lockheed’s piston-driven Super Constellation aircraft.
“This heralded the jet age to Australia,” Mr Dennis said. “It reduced flying times by well over half.”
“This aircraft has a massive historical significance for Australia.”
VH-EBM was converted to a VIP jet in 1973 and had several owners, including Frank Sinatra and billionaire Kirk Kirkorian before Travolta bought it in 1998.
In 2002 Travolta became Qantas’ ambassador-at-large, promoting the airline in exchange for the carrier covering the maintenance bills.
It took on a new registration - N707JT – in his honour.
A spokesman for Qantas said the arrangement was revised five years ago.
“Five years ago, Qantas and John Travolta mutually decided not to continue maintenance of the Boeing 707 and to limit its flying due to the age of the aircraft and its environmental impact,” he said.
“To keep the aircraft certified to fly to the standards required by the various authorities was prohibitive.
“The aircraft has not been certified to fly for a number of years and HARS were aware of the costs associated with getting the aircraft airworthy when they approached Mr Travolta to discuss his generous donation.
“Qantas is providing in-kind assistance in the form of engineering and flight planning to bring the aircraft to the Illawarra region, but this is a commercial agreement.”
Travolta has signed over ownership of the aircraft to HARS, which now pays to keep it on the tarmac of Brunswick Golden Isles Airport, near Georgia.
Mr Dennis declined to divulge the cost of this but said the sum was “small”.
HARS counts many ex-Qantas staff among its members, including some who spent many years working on 707s. The group considered flying in members to carry out the maintenance work in the US, but had since ruled this out as an option, Mr Dennis said.
“At this stage the economics just don’t stack up.”
He estimated it would take at least 12 months, from now, to bring the aircraft to the Illawarra, assuming sufficient sponsorship could be found.