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Feature Story

 

The Big Lift

Four Large Cargo Freighters are key players on the Dream team

The Large Cargo Freighter, also known as the Dreamlifter, is the primary means of transporting the wings, fuselage sections and other major assemblies of the 787 Dreamliner from Boeing's global partners to the 787 final assembly sites in Everett, Wash., and North Charleston, S.C. As 787 production increases, the four Dreamlifters in the fleet are crisscrossing the skies day and night -- crucial players on Boeing's Dream team. Recently, Boeing photographer Bob Ferguson captured what happens when a Large Cargo Freighter arrives in Everett with its valuable cargo. In this case, it carried the composite wings for the new 787-9. The wings for the 787-8 and 787-9 are manufactured by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Nagoya, Japan.

During a luncheon at Seattle's Museum of Flight several years ago, Boeing's first Large Cargo Freighter, then in flight testing, taxied by. The museum borders the runways of Boeing Field.

A Commercial Airplanes executive was giving the keynote speech, and in the audience was Joe Sutter, chief engineer for the original 747 program, who is often referred to as the "father" of the first jumbo jet.

As all eyes turned to the conference room windows where a gargantuan airplane with bulging fuselage was slowly making its way past, the executive quipped: "Sorry, Joe, for what we did to your airplane."

The 747 that Sutter and his team of "Incredibles" designed and built in the late 1960s is an icon of aviation, one of the most recognized and photographed of all commercial jets, beloved by generations of passengers for its beauty and majesty in the sky and for the flying experience it provides.

Born of the 747, the Large Cargo Freighter also turns heads -- for its sheer size and unusual appearance. The highly modified, secondhand 747-400 passenger plane can haul more cargo by volume than any airplane in the world. The first one made its first flight in 2006 and was certified to return to service in 2007 to support final assembly of the first Dreamliners. A total of four were built.

The world's longest cargo loader vehicle, measuring just over 110 feet
(34 meters), with 32 tires, was built to move 787 wings and
fuselage sections on and off the plane.

Although beauty may be in the eyes of the beholder, few would probably call the Large Cargo Freighter beautiful, regardless of its 747 lineage. But it is certainly impressive. The upper deck of its massive cargo bay has a volume of 65,000 cubic feet (1,840 cubic meters). That's more than three times the cargo capacity of the upper deck of the 747-400 Freighter. Boeing once calculated that a Large Cargo Freighter could hold 42 million pingpong balls, or 8 million 12-ounce (0.35-liter) cans of soda, or 80 Mini Cooper sports cars. . . or even a three-level, 10-lane bowling alley with room to spare for a restaurant.

Of course, what the four Large Cargo Freighters do carry are the wings and fuselage sections, along with other large assemblies such as the horizontal stabilizer, needed for final assembly of 787s in Everett and North Charleston. They arrive at both sites from Italy and Japan, and from Wichita, Kan., where the forward fuselage of the 787 is manufactured. They also carry the aft- and mid-body 787 fuselage sections made by employees at the Boeing South Carolina site to the Everett factory.

With 787 production scheduled to hit 10 planes a month by early 2014, the four Large Cargo Freighters are putting in some long days. As of August this year, they averaged 100 flights per month and approximately 600 flight-hours, according to Boeing. The planes are expected to average about 160 flights per month to support the higher 787 production.

To accommodate those 787 assemblies, and to make loading easier, the Large Cargo Freighter was designed with a tail that swings open. The swinging portion of the plane's tail weighs about 44,000 pounds (20,000 kilograms), or as much as a fully loaded World War II Boeing B-17 bomber.

The Large Cargo Freighter is big enough to transport one set of 787 wings, each wing nearly 100 feet (30 meters) long.

The world's longest cargo loader, measuring 110 feet (34 meters), with 32 tires, was built to move the 787 wings and fuselage sections on and off the plane.

But those are only numbers that underscore just how big the Large Cargo Freighter actually is. Given the appearance and size, it's easy to forget what this unique airplane carries inside -- why it's called the Dreamlifter.