It may not be pretty, but the huge and heavily modified 747-400 Large Cargo Freighter is an essential part of Boeing’s gruelling 787 production programme

Boeing breathed a collective sigh of relief on 9 September when the heavily modified 747-400 Large Cargo Freighter (LCF) lumbered off the runway at Taiwan’s Taoyuan International airport and took safely to the skies for the first time. This ungainly behemoth, which 787 programme vice-president and general manager Mike Bair described last July as the type of aircraft “only a mother would love”, may be ugly, but it represents a massive cog in the 787 production wheel and is pivotal to the programme’s overall success.

787 map

Sized to transport loads as large as the two centre-fuselage Sections 44 and 46, Boeing openly acknowledges that the 747 LCF and the 787 “global logistics” plan was conceptually inspired by the Airbus transportation system. Although all the main 787 production sites have access to deepwater ports for seagoing vessels, air transport is the only means by which Boeing could hope to realise its global partnership vision for the unprecedented production rate envisioned for the 787.

Based on a standard 747-400, the extensive modification was performed by Evergreen Aviation Technologies (EGAT) and involved dismantling the aircraft down to its “waterline”. The aircraft was also split aft of the trailing edge to accommodate the “swing zone” – a strengthened barrel section divided radially into two and connected with two massive hinges on the port side of the aircraft. Built by Aernnova of Spain, the hinged section measures 3.05m (10ft), and extends the overall fuselage length to 72m, making the LCF the first variant of the 747 family ever to be stretched beyond its original design length. To ensure adequate lateral stability, the tip of the vertical fin has also been extended to increase overall height from 19.4m to 21.6m.

© Boeing
The RT876 arrived at the Boeing Field on 16 September and started its flight test  programme the following day

The enlarged cargo space, which is 300% larger than in the -400F, is not pressurised and will be divided from the flight deck and forward Section 41 by a new pressure bulkhead. The main cargo interior measures 6.86m from the deck to the crown. The “swing zone” section was designed along similar lines to the hinged fuselage junction of the Canadair CL-44, which was also supported on two large hinges.

Reassembly mode

A second 747 has now entered modification to be converted into an LCF, while a third is parked at Taipei awaiting its turn. A decision over the acquisition and conversion of a fourth and even fifth LCF still depends on the outcome of Boeing’s studies into a possible second phase of its planned production rate increase beyond 2011-12.

“We need that second airplane to come on line fairly quickly,” says Mike Bunney, director of global logistics for the 787 programme. “It is in the reassembly mode, and two of the four big ‘bonnet’ sections are in place, while the third is being built. The third aircraft is sitting at Taipei, and will go into modification as soon as the second comes out,” says Bunney, who adds that this is due before year-end. The second conversion is also “going back together much more quickly than the first”.

The acceleration is expected, and was planned, largely because the initial conversion also included “proving out all the tooling”, says Bunney. “One of the big challenges was the sheer size of the sub-assemblies. Due to the size of the parts, we had to ship them all in, and the skins are so enormous that we had to build them all up onsite. We also had to build up the tooling and do some real precision work on hinges and the swing zone.” Bunney attributes the on-time success to the EGAT team. “We’ve got to give them a lot of credit, they’re a quick study.”

The 2h 4min maiden flight on 9 September was the first of 250 expected flight test hours, most of which will be undertaken in the USA out of Boeing Field. Following its first flight, the LCF was covered in anti-corrosive paint before completing an initial set of test flights around Taiwan to extend the aircraft’s flight envelope prior to its transpacific ferry flight.

For its first flight, Boeing flight test pilots Joe MacDonald and Randy Wyatt flew the aircraft (RT876) north, and then flew 280km (170 miles) south following along the east side of the island before heading north again. The modified aircraft handled well according to the crew, and MacDonald commented that “quite often during the flight, it was easy to forget you were in an LCF rather than a regular 747-400”.

Boeing, which successfully ferried the first LCF to Seattle on 16 September, is expected to devote around 250h to ground tests, most of which will be concentrated on loading/unloading, manoeuvering and interaction with the ground vehicles. Boeing has developed a “unique” ground vehicle to swing open the tail as well as support it. Other specially developed cargo loader vehicles will transport 787 sub-assemblies to the LCF in support fixtures.

The fixtures and assemblies will fly as a unit in the LCF until arrival on the assembly line. The first two Canadian-built cargo loaders are now being delivered to Japan and Italy, with the third expected to be delivered within the next few months to Seattle. Further units will be sent to Charleston, South Carolina and to Spirit in Wichita. Made in Sherbrooke, Quebec, the loader is 36m long-making it the longest of its type in the world.

An operator seated in a cab on top of the giant loader will drive the machine to the parked LCF. Boeing says sensors will “perfectly align it to the LCF’s cargo- handling system to ensure safe loading and unloading”.

Parts co-ordination

The global logistics network is a transport operation of military-like scale and complexity with parts converging on Everett by road, rail and air. From suppliers, including Boeing, within the USA, engine nacelles built by Goodrich will be sent by road from Riverside in California, while Spirit-built engine pylons and movable leading edges will be sent by rail from Wichita and Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Everett.

cargo loader 
© Boeing
The cargo loader can be extended from an overall height of 4.2m to 10m in the full up position

The Section 41 nose, also from Spirit, will be picked up by the LCF and flown to the northwest during one of its rotations. Parts also arrive at Wichita for assembly into the Section 41 before delivery. Apart from a myriad of avionics and other systems, the larger structural parts arriving at Spirit include the Saab-built forward cargo door from Linjkoping, Sweden and the nose gear from Messier-Dowty in the UK.

The fin is assembled in Boeing’s Frederickson site using locally made parts and the vertical leading edge and rudder which are shipped to Seattle from Chengdu and Shenyang in China. The complete fin assembly is then shipped by road from Frederickson to Everett. The tail cone arrives in Everett by sea from South Korea, while the main landing gear from Messier-Dowty will also arrive, via a final assembly site, from the UK. Movable trailing edges and inboard flaps will also arrive in Everett by sea from Hawker de Havilland in Australia.

Meanwhile, the Chinese-made wing-to-body fairing will be shipped by sea and rail to Winnipeg, Canada, where it will be disassembled and then moved on by rail to Charleston, South Carolina, for integration with the fuselage structure. Charleston is also the collecting point for the passenger doors, which will arrive by ship from Toulouse, France, as well as the major fuselage sections ferried in by LCF from Nagoya, Japan, and Grottaglie, Italy.

The Italian-built fuselage section will also include other pre-installed parts such as the Saab-built cargo doors, which are shipped to Grottaglie from Linjkoping. The Italian-assembled horizontal stabiliser, which includes Israel Aircraft Industries-made trailing and leading edges and Turkish Aerospace Industries-made body seal sections, is flown by LCF to Everett.

The fixed leading edges, meanwhile, will move in the opposite direction, and travel from Tulsa to Japan for installation on the wings before being flown in the LCF back to Everett. Bunney says initially up to 12 LCF flights will be required per 787. However, as this includes return flights to bring the tooling back from the early deliveries, the number of sorties per aircraft reduces with increasing production rate. ■

Source: Flight International