Paris Air Show

747SF gets ready for prime time

 - December 12, 2006, 9:20 AM

Marco Cavazzoni says to mark his words: “We’ll deliver the first 747-400 Special Freighter on December 13. Cathay Pacific Airways will put it into revenue service within a couple of days.” Cavazzoni, who leads the 747 passenger-to-freighter conversion program for Boeing Commercial Aviation Services, added, “We’re told that such a firm date is unusual…customers will keep that date in their pocket.”

As of the end of May, Boeing had pocketed 33 firm orders with 29 options for the 747-400SF. Orders by launch customer Cathay Pacific preceded those from Air France, All Nippon, Japan Air Lines, Korean, Singapore Airlines  and Guggenheim Aviation Partners of the U.S. The latter acquired four copies through Boeing Aircraft Trading, which it plans to make available to cargo operators beginning in 2007.

Boeing bills the Special Freighter as an efficient hauler, but Cavazzoni declined to get specific about the usual measure of this attribute–costs per ton. “There’s more than the lowest ton-cost per mile. [Our cargo doors] complement the 747 Special Freighter offering. We look at how many customers have concurrently bought production freighters and we’re pleased to see that the two offerings complement each other.”

Taikoo Aircraft Engineering (TAECO) of Xiamen, China, took delivery of the first 747 to be converted on April 10 and began working on it eight days later. A 747-400 conversion begins with installation of a new side cargo door identical to that of the production freighter with an actuator on its main deck. Surrounding skins and structure are replaced, which requires removal of the aft left fuselage.

Each conversion takes some four months and includes strengthening of floor beams to raise running loads; lining the full main deck with seat tracks and providing for a cargo handling system (usually supplied by the customer); adding a 9g restraint net, smoke detector and barrier; installing an environmental and temperature control system; and upgrading the flight deck.

A Special Freighter will afford a capacity of 250,200 pounds and have an mtow of 870,000 pounds, with a design mission range of 4,076 nm at Mach 0.855 at maximum structural capacity. Its main deck holds thirty 96- by 125-inch pallets for a volume of 20,464 cu ft. The 4,498-cu-ft lower hold takes nine more pallets plus bulk.

A Special Freighter’s cargo numbers are nearly identical to those of the production freighter, which nonetheless wins by a nose–the factory model blows its nose door to accept outsize items and enable efficient loading. Its basic upper deck arrangement accommodates eight persons, although customers can seat up to 19. Emergency exits are installed as required.

Boeing reports that widebody 747s log an average of 15 years’ revenue passenger service before conversion to cargo, and estimates that modified passenger 747s and combination freight-passenger or “combi” products will comprise three quarters of additions to the world freighter fleet by 2023.

“We’re really interested in the assembly schedule [at TAECO],” said Cavazzoni. “We’ll complete the prototype assembly in late August, then we’ll have a three-month flight test program.”

Certification work will happen in collaboration with the Swire Group of companies (Cathay Pacific’s parent) which is to flight-certify the 747-400SF out of Hong Kong. “Our Boeing flight engineers will be working with the Swire Group which will supply the capability to modify the airplane during the flight test period,” said Cavazzoni. He added that the Special Freighter is the first major program within Boeing certified to U.S. Federal Aviation Administration regulations on changed products.

“Anything that’s changed as part of the conversion has to be reviewed–reviewed is the key word–to the latest regulations. That has relevance for things such as decompression, smoke detection, [and so forth]”  said Cavazzoni. “As the OEM, we have the designers, the data and the people who designed the original aircraft.”

Cavazzoni explained that after the first delivery, multiple lines of conversions will run concurrently. In addition to managing conversions through TAECO, Boeing offers a customer kit. “As part of the fleet planning, we have offered [freighter conversion] kits. We sell the serviceable engineering and the mechanic cards used to do the conversion, and the on-site support. The airline is responsible for the conversion and securing customers.” Both Singapore Airlines and Korean Airlines have ordered kits as part of their firm orders to deliver a freighter using their own facilities.

“I think a program that started with a focus on Asia has expanded to a global market base,” said Cavazzoni. Cathay Pacific is scheduled to take delivery of its sixth firm order by end of 2007, initially basing the Special Freighter in Hong Kong to strengthen its logistics hub. Most customers are expected to fly the freighter on routes within Asia, although some will connect with North American or European city pairs.