To meet its goal of building ten 787s per month transporting its in-process inventory seamlessly between partner sites, Boeing had to conceive a way of moving its monolithic structures between its global suppliers and final assembly.

The company's answer: A small fleet of well-worn 747-400s, born in Everett as passenger aircraft, now retired and radically converted to cargo aircraft. The Large Cargo Freighter (LCF), or Dreamlifter as they have come to be known, have become an iconic part of the 787's global production system.

Concerned about meeting the high production rate required for the 787, the Dreamlifter avoided the use of a fleet of ships transiting across oceans packed with 787s heading for final assembly or integration.

Similar to the fleet of Airbus A300-600ST Super Transporter "Beluga" aircraft used to transport structural sections for A320 and A330/340 family aircraft, the bespoke delivery system for each 787 accommodates the wings, horizontal stabilisers and fuselage components, exclusively for the Dreamliner programme.

Of the four Pratt & Whitney PW4056-powered 747s, two of the aircraft were previously operated by China Airlines and one by Malaysia Airlines and Air China.

The aircraft were flown to Taoyuan International Airport in Taiwan where Evergreen Aviation Technologies (EGAT) replaced the passenger cabin with a bulbous unpressurised cargo hold, punctuated on one end by a massive forward pressure bulkhead and a hinged swing tail at the rear, which has raised the vertical stabiliser by 1.5m (5ft).

 787 Production

 Copyright: Boeing

"This is one of the most unusual modifications Boeing has ever done," said then-787 vice president of airplane development and production, Scott Strode.

The first Dreamlifter made its maiden flight on 9 September 2006, beginning a 250h flight test campaign to certify the heavily-modified LCF's for use, evaluating its handling characteristics and clearing it of any excessive vibration or flutter. During the US Federal Aviation Administration certification trials, which also included 500h of ground testing, Boeing was forced to drop the winglets from the final design after it discovered flutter issues during flight testing.

The first two Dreamlifters, painted in a now iconic white and blue company livery, entered service in 2007 moving 787 parts between suppliers. The aircraft marked its first service in January 2007 between Grottaglie, Italy, Nagoya, Japan and North Charleston for parts for integration of the first Dreamliner's centre fuselage at the Global Aeronautica facility.

Initially operated by Boeing, Evergreen International Airlines, which has no relation to EGAT, operated the fleet from August 2007 until September 2010 before being transferred to Atlas Air as part of a compensation package for delays to its 747-8F order.

In operation, the US Federal Aviation Administration limits the crew to use of the upper deck of the aircraft with its two pilots and a loadmaster, though Boeing hopes to gain supernumerary usage of lower deck forward cabin, seating up to 16 personnel, to double as a shuttle connecting supplier partners in the US, Europe and Asia.

Source: Flight International