Titans of the air: Moving outsize and heavy cargo charters

GE Aviation’s GE9X, the world’s largest engine, contains a composite fan more than 11 feet in diameter tucked inside a 14.5 foot nacelle, and weighs 11,545 kilograms. To date, GE Aviation has developed and built 10 of these massive GE9X engines for the new 777X, which first flew earlier this year.

The aerospace industry is one of many that occasionally requires a heavy or outsize cargo shipment like the GE9X on short notice, and Volga-Dnepr Group subsidiary carrier AirBridgeCargo Airlines (ABC) completed its trial loading Jan. 31 of the massive GE9X engine onto the titan of an aircraft, the 747-8F.

But what goes into moving this massive engine?

Such a herculean task necessarily requires cooperation to succeed, and with that in mind, the carrier coordinated the arrival and loading of the engine with GE representatives on site. The engine arrived in Chicago for its first inspection and on-truck fixation. Then, a large team comprised of several ABC and GE employees worked together to position the engine aboard the titanic freighter. Using 20-foot pallets, cranes and other heavy-handling equipment, the team successfully moved the GE9X engine from delivery truck to a pallet within 30 minutes.

Approaching the cavernous entry of the aircraft, the team carefully loaded the engine on board through the side cargo door. With cargo such as this, as the pallet jack elevates the engine toward alignment with the cargo door, mere inches will determine if the hold will accept the offering, so accurate planning and preparation are critical. Employees then worked together to fulfill the intricate dance of pushing the precious cargo into proper position. The team successfully completed onloading in only seven minutes, thanks to effective prior planning. After the engine was tied down in the belly of the 747-8F and all clearances checked, offloading the massive cargo took less than 10 minutes.

Like the aerospace industry, the energy and automotive industries, and militaries around the world, also occasionally require outsize shipments on short notice, which can present major challenges surrounding the loading and moving of goods.

In this feature, Air Cargo World speaks with stakeholders in outsize cargo shipping about how they tackle these unique shipments, and how logistics and aircraft fleets are evolving to meet current and future demand.

Read the entire “Titans of the air” feature in ACW’s March digital magazine here, or click on to the next page.
Age of titans

Most outsize cargo is moved as ocean freight, which is less costly, though sometimes shipping by air becomes necessary. This generally happens when clients are running late on a project or in urgent need of specific equipment —often seen in projects for industries such as energy, government, military and defense, automobile, construction aerospace and engineering.

“Sea freight is cheaper, but I would say probably 2% or 3% of oil and gas projects include some form of urgent airfreight at some stage,” said Pierre van Der Stichele, group director of cargo operations at Chapman Freeborn.

Beyond these general industry trends, conversations with stakeholders in air chartering reveal an emerging shift in demand for outsize cargo in the past year as market conditions have evolved. Due to the recession in 2008 and 2009, stakeholders in air chartering said the market for outsize cargo saw a slump, with many energy and overseas projects placed on hold. This trend lasted until about 2018, when a shift began; with the start of 2019, stakeholders said they saw more projects appear and received more requests for outsize cargo via both ocean and air. Several stakeholders reported requests have picked up, specifically for outsize air cargo.

“We had some very good construction projects last year, with outsized cargo for the building of factories, hotels and airport terminals,” van der Stichele said, adding that Chapman Freeborn has “done some cargo flights to transport very large pieces that do not traditionally fly on a scheduled cargo aircraft, so we turn toward specialist aircraft.” These include the “IL-76 aircraft with rear loading ramp, capable for uplifting 45 tonnes; An-124, capable of uplifting 120 tonnes, nose and rear loading, as well as aircraft is equipped with internal cranes; and the An-225, the world’s largest freighter, with rear ramp, internal loading cranes, capable of uplifting up to 250 tonnes,” according to van der Stichele.

Oil and gas projects also picked up in 2019, and the frequency of charter movements for these projects has increased, signaling a healthier energy industry, van der Stichele said. Other experts, like Daniel Ivy, government operations manager at Crane Worldwide Logistics, echoed this analysis.

“Following the recent downturn in the market, oil and gas clients are starting to move more cargo and are getting some of those rigs back to work,” Ivy said. “So, with that comes the support from the supply chain for those and getting equipment back into the fields; you’ll start seeing a lot more of the oversized cargo shipment requests come in.”

As a result, several major lanes for oil and gas are heating up for outsize shipments, including: United States-Europe, U.S.-Africa, U.S.-Asia, Southeast Asia-Africa and Europe-Africa.

Each industry is a little different, Ivy noted, adding that Crane Worldwide Logistics is seeing many of defense shipments going into the Middle East with government outsize shipments. Meanwhile, there is a lot of automotive movement coming out of Europe and going into the U.S. and Central America. And for North America, the company reportedly saw many outsize shipments coming in and out of China in 2019, though this may have changed with the outbreak of the novel coronavirus currently impacting operations across air cargo industry logistics chains.

Technical giants

Moving outsize cargo requires highly technical knowledge; the cargo often has many moving parts, and comes with a big price tag and the risk of potential damage, if incorrectly handled. Thus, expert knowledge can be critical to a successful shipment.

“If you want to carry a huge 60-tonne turbine, with perhaps a few centimeters clearance to the roof of the aircraft cabin, the item is probably going to be too dense and heavy to fit on an aircraft safely, so a cradle will need to be designed and built to spread the weight across the cargo compartment,” van Der Stichele said.

The loading of an outsize shipment can often include the use of additional equipment at both the origin and destination airports, such as cranes to transfer the cargo from a flatbed truck to the aircraft-loading ramp, and vice versa. While cranes may be necessary to move massive objects, experts in the field seem to agree that the biggest and heaviest pieces are not always as challenging as those that are fragile or uniquely shaped.

“Some of the hardest may be aerospace industry items that are very dense, but extremely sensitive to movements, like aircraft engines,” said van Der Stichele. “Each engine can be worth between US$20 million to $35 million and any rough handling, such as vibration in flight or transit, can later cause a fault with an engine and engine failure.”

Such freight requires specialist trucking with air-ride suspension vehicles and suspension engine stands, van Der Stichele explained. Tie-down procedures must also be adhered to for ground and air transit; if not, the consequential damage can be substantial and costly. Preparation for these shipments can widely vary depending on the object and its complexity, but generally, the minimum time required to prepare a flight for cargo of outsize nature is ideally about a week, experts said, as anything shorter can be dangerous in terms of guaranteeing loadability.

In addition to ensuring safe and secure procedures, experts in outsize cargo shipments often leverage creative thinking to cut down on costs. This can be useful for certain larger items that can be rearranged to fit inside a smaller aircraft, allowing clients to avoid the costly pricing for robust Russian heavy hitter aircraft. Helicopter movement is one example of this, according to Dan Morgan Evans, group cargo director at Air Charter Services.

“Sometimes detaching rotary at the top will make a big difference on your aircraft you can pack it on; if you can dismantle a helicopter as much as possible, then you can load it on a much smaller aircraft which will reduce the cost quite a lot,” Morgan Evans said.

Also, while smaller specialist freighters, like the An-74 and An-12, may have less achievable payload, they are capable of taking smaller, yet more? difficult, loads to support energy industries with tooling equipment, van Der Stichele said. These smaller aircraft also provide a further advantage due to their capabilities of operating to and from smaller airports with shorter runways. This allows for more options in planning the end-to-end logistics of a shipment and may potentially reduce the distance required for ground transport of the item to its final destination.

A heavy question

Each sky titan has its own niche and provides the air cargo industry options for shipping outsize and heavy cargo. The An-124 and An-225 are not used for scheduled service, and therefore compete in a different space to carry massive cargo, compared with the 777F and 747F platforms. The latter haul general cargo and heavy items, often in scheduled service, and sometimes also as charters, which can provide some flexibility for shippers. However, several issues challenge the air cargo industry’s future options to ship specific outsize and heavy cargo these niche aircraft offer. The titans may rule the sky today but, observers are waiting for the Olympians that will eventually replace them, as they did in Greek mythology. So far, however, no clear successor has emerged.

Of the giants, Boeing is still taking orders for the 777F, which leads the way in widebody freighters added to the global fleet. Boeing didn’t receive a single 747-8F order in 2019, for the first time since 2010. Antonov aircraft, some of which are already more than 20 and 30 years old, are currently not being produced. Therefore, the main issue is a lack of options for niche cargo, and it is not clear how oversize cargo will be loaded in the future.

“There doesn’t seem to be any kind of long-term replacements for these aircraft as they age,” Morgan Evans said. “So, I would be concerned for the long-term outsized aircraft market.”

Legal battles threatening the current operations of existing aircraft present a further challenge.

The National Police of Ukraine launched criminal proceedings against the Russian Federal Agency for Air Transport (Rosaviatsiya) and Volga-Dnepr over the Ukrainian Antonov’s An-124 in summer 2018. Antonov withdrew support for the aircraft, claiming Rosaviatsiya and Volga-Dnepr’s German subsidiary Amtes had forged airworthiness certificates and were using unlicensed spare parts for the An-124 that were not factory authorized.

A Kiev court ordered the confiscation of five of the 12 An-124s operated by Volga-Dnepr last year. However, as none of these aircraft are located in Ukraine, the court must rely on foreign aviation and transport safety authorities to enforce this order. Volga-Dnepr has rejected the Ukrainian court ruling, claiming it to be illegal. To date, the aircraft under contention are still flying, although the question lingers about whether they may be grounded.

Additional tension is infused into the case given Russia’s pursuit of its own, modernized version of the An-124, designed by Russian aircraft manufacturer Ilyushin without Antonov’s input. Antonov in late 2019 objected to the use of its brand to designate a revamped variant of the An-124, while acknowledging the need for modernization to prolong the aircrafts’ service life. The Ukrainian company warned that selection and installation of the equipment by Ilyushin would cause grave changes in the aircraft’s performance, compared with the baseline model, and could effectively lead to the appearance of a quite different aircraft type. The Ukrainian design house also said it would not be responsible for the freighter’s safety and should bear a different designation, without reference to its own long-established brand name.

As the major nose-loading aircraft are not getting any younger, the question is: Which type will next rule the skies?

No one seems to know. So, until further news of the future of these titans emerges, the industry must continue to wait.

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