747 plays hero during virus crisis


(CNN) – During the week of April 21, there were only two twin jet aircraft carrying 747 passengers worldwide. The Covid-19 pandemic made the Queen of Heaven a critically endangered monarch.

But His Majesty may well have the best time of his reign.

As the pandemic continues to sweep the world, it has had a catastrophic impact on airline operations. Restrictions on domestic and international flights have reduced schedules to just a fraction of the thousands of daily flights operated just a few months ago.

Accelerated retirement

Two-thirds of the world’s airliner fleet – nearly 17,000 of 26,000 aircraft – have been stored or permanently decommissioned. The iconic 747, already in decline in the world’s airlines, has been hit hard by the pandemic, with a handful of people grounded and heading for retirement.

With the passenger fleet largely inactive, freight that once moved unknowingly under our feet on wide-body jet aircraft must find its way to market in some other way.

Airlines have been quick to take seats to make rudimentary conversions of passenger planes to make money, but the cargo fleet carries the heaviest load.

“Regarding this pandemic, seeing a 747 Freighter landing at an airport is like in an old western when the cavalry arrives to help people in distress,” said travel industry analyst and founder Henry Harteveldt the Atmosphere Research Group.

“The 747 definitely plays the role of a hero by moving essential goods around the world in this crisis. ”

Older versions of the jumbo quad-jet were already to be replaced by more efficient, smaller and newer twin-engine jumbo jets from Boeing and Airbus. Airlines, including Lufthansa and KLM, accelerated the withdrawal of their vintage 747s a few years earlier than expected.

According to Cirium, an aeronautical data and analysis company, Cirium, an aeronautical data and analysis company, discovered that only two 747 passengers were moving in the sky during this week of April. Before the pandemic, there were less than 200 passenger jumbos.

But now that international transportation of essential medical products has become a daily headline, freight operators such as Silk Way Airlines, Atlas Air, Air Bridge Cargo and Cargolux – barely known to the traveling public before COVID-19 – are the stars logistical efforts to support first responders.

And they all fly the Boeing 747F – it’s “F” for Freighter.

Captain Kelly Lepley - Ramp 747

Captain Kelly Lepley orders 747-8F and 747-400F for UPS Airlines

courtesy of Kelly Lepley

Air Bridge Cargo (ABC), based in Moscow, owns 17,747F – four 747-400F and 13 newer 747-8F. As part of the Volga-Dnepr group – known for its huge Ukrainian air transport aircraft AN-124 and AN-225 – ABC’s 747s fly 15 hours a day.

Analysis of Flightradar24 tracking data by the aviation industry publication The Air Current found that ABC’s operations in March increased 51% from the previous two months.

“Air cargo solutions have never been more important than they are today for global health services. Currently, our international teams send out several flights daily to ensure that vital medical supplies protect those in need, “said Tatyana Arslanova, Chief Operating Officer of ABC.

She indicates that the air conditioned hold of the 747-8F is one of the assets of the large aircraft.

“Its three compartments can have different temperature settings from 4 degrees Celsius to 29 degrees (39 F to 84 F), which gives us additional possibilities to transport perishable goods, such as temperature-sensitive pharmaceuticals and vital medical equipment. “

“It’s a gift I can give back”

According to Cirium, 286,747 freighters of various models are in service, which represents approximately a quarter of the fleet of 1,152 wide-body cargo aircraft on the main deck.

Captain Kelly Lepley orders the two models of UPS Airlines 747 – the newest 747-8F and the former 747-400F.

“You know you carry life saving equipment downstairs, and you know it will make a difference for those who need it on the front line. It’s very humiliating, and it’s not something I thought about when I started my aviation career. 30 years ago, but now I think it’s a gift I can give back in times of crisis, “said Lepley in an interview with CNN Travel.

UPS has 28,747F in its fleet, and an additional 15,747-8F on order. As part of the fleet of 261 dedicated cargo planes, the airline has pressed its largest freighters in the fight against the pandemic.

The nose of a 747 Freigher can tilt upwards, opening the complete main deck for loading.

The nose of a 747 Freigher can tip up, opening the entire main deck for loading.

Sean Gallup / Getty Images Europe / Getty Images

“UPS was already well positioned to support efforts to move critical supplies to the areas that need them most,” said Michelle Polk, spokesperson for UPS. “With governments and public authorities classifying UPS as an essential service provider, the company combines the flexibility of its global network to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. ”

Lepley said the pandemic has changed the way crews stop over during layovers in their multi-day flight schedules.

“Being a pilot can be a lonely career. We are many on the road, far from our families. Now we land, we go to our rooms, and we are not allowed to leave our rooms or socialize. Many countries, right now, are afraid of what we can bring, so to prevent that and to keep us safe, we have to stay in our rooms. ”

Anchorage, Alaska, where Lepley is based, became the busiest airport in the world this past weekend according to several reports, due to the continuous influx of cargo ships that use it as a stopover between Asia and l ‘North America.

Cargo planes, like all other planes, have to balance the load load and fuel quantity against the maximum payload of an aircraft, which translates into the distance that any flight can reach. Flights from major Chinese cities to Anchorage take around 8.5-9 hours.

“We can easily do this and transport a full payload on a 747-8F,” said Lepley.

New version capable of carrying 300,000 pounds of freight

The latest version of the 747 freighter is based on the passenger model, the 747-8. At just over 250 feet, it’s the longest of all the jumbos, with new engines and improved aerodynamics.

“It’s just a nice plane to fly. It’s a very stable, very smooth plane, a graceful plane, ”said Lepley. “From the cockpit, it’s hard to imagine that you’re flying something this big until you get off the plane and look at it and say,” I just piloted this thing! “”

Boeing 747

The Boeing 747 was launched over 50 years ago.


The freighter has a functionality that gives the 747 its iconic profile. With the cockpit cleared on the upper deck, the nose of the aircraft lifts up, opening the entire main deck for loading. The aircraft also has a cargo door on the main deck aft of the fuselage. Between the main deck and the belly bay, a 747-8F can carry more than 300,000 pounds of cargo.

A specialty of the Air Bridge Cargo, “the front loading door allows us to load oversized cargo,” said Arslanova of ABC. “This allows us to transport extra long pipes, diesel generators, compressors, pumps and other large and heavy offshore equipment. “

More than 50 years ago, Boeing expected the 747 to be just a postscript in aviation history, with passengers soon flying on supersonic aircraft.

So Joe Sutter, the chief engineer of the 747, and his team designed the jumbo to be converted into a cargo ship, with a main deck width that can accommodate two rows of freight containers eight feet wide and the lifting nose that gives 747 has its distinctive “bump”.

More than 1,500 deliveries later, the Queen of Heaven demonstrated remarkable longevity.

“We knew it would play a role in connecting the world 50 years later. We wouldn’t have known we would have this epic pandemic that would anchor so much of the world and affect almost every country, “said Harteveldt of Atmosphere.

“I am sure there are people who have worked on the project at Boeing who are not at all surprised that the 747 is a knight in shiny armor. The plane has shown repeatedly in its history that when the chips are down, the 747 can count on them to come to the rescue. ”


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