Darn Big Loader

Darn Big Loader was not the original name for the mini "aircraft carrier"cargo loader, one third the length and half the width of a football field. Its conspicuous nickname augmented throughout the design and construction process, for obvious reasons, stuck. The longest in the world at 118 ft., 1 inch, this loader was designed and built in less than 15 months by TLD at its facility in Sherbrooke, Quebec. It was unveiled and successfully tested in June of last year.

The DBL-110, built solely for Boeing's 787 program, is used for the loading and unloading of major 787 Dreamliner aircraft components into three specifically modified 747-400's LCF (the swing-tail Large Cargo Freighter, naturally dubbed the "Dreamlifter"). Five loaders were in operation toward the end of 2006 in Japan, Italy, Kansas, South Carolina and Washington. An additional loader will soon be operational in Everett, Wash."Two additional loaders are soon to be operating in Everett, WA. But why fly these massive components when normally, parts and assemblies are transported by ship, rail, truck or other traditional methods?

"We announced in June 2003 that the 787 would be the first commercial jet to have the majority of its primary structure — including the wing and the fuselage — made of composite materials, says Kurt Kraft, chief project engineer for the Dreamlifter. Using composite materials, according to Kraft, allows Boeing to build larger, more integrated assemblies that would originate from various parts of the world. "We decided to fly the major assemblies [because] our studies showed we could save between 20 to 40 percent over the cost of traditional shipping methods,"Kraft explains. Using the Dreamlifter, what once took weeks, now takes hours.

The Dream Team
The entire project was a shared design effort between Boeing and TLD engineers beginning with the discovery phase in the spring of 2004 through to the issue of the contract in February 2005. Boeing initially provided the operational concept, interface and control system requirements, as well as the overall direction. TLD implemented the design, providing and calculating the power requirements, structural geometry, stress analysis, hydraulic design and structural component configuration.

"Designing and building a cargo loader of this magnitude is a unique proposition,"says Mike Bunney, director of global logistics for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner program. "A robust transportation system is essential to meeting the customer demand for the Dreamliner and a safe and efficient cargo loader is critical.”

The DBL-110 is a critical part of the supply chain for the production of the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner and, as such, it has been designed and equipped with a number of redundant systems as well as being subject to a number of reliability studies in component selection.

Two of the three Dreamlifter LCFs were modified at Evergreen Aviation Technologies Corp. in Taiwan. The third has been "inducted"into the factory and the modification process has begun. The Dreamlifter is expected to be certified within next few months and the first two began transporting 787 major assemblies in January of this year.

The LCF fleet will ferry 787 wings and fuselage parts from partners in Wichita, Kan.; Charleston, S.C.; Grottaglie, Italy; and Nagoya, Japan, to Boeing's Everett factory for final assembly. A cargo loader is based at each facility. An operator seated in a cab atop the giant loader will drive the machine to the parked Large Cargo Freighter (LCF). Sensors will perfectly align it to the LCF's cargo-handling system to ensure safe loading and unloading.

Darn Big Challenges
Evergreen Eagle, a division of Evergreen International Aviation (also responsible for operating the fleet of Dreamlifters), is Boeing's partner for all of the LCF's ground handling activities. Based in McMinnville, Ore., Evergreen was chosen because they have extensive experience in managing cargo freight operations, including odd-sized cargo.

Though only four crew members are necessary for loading and unloading, special training is imperative. Think about it, you might be willing to get on the back of an ordinary elephant, but would you even consider, for one moment, mounting a woolly mammoth? DBL training is provided by TLD and additional training for specific functions and equipment on the loader such as Caterpillar (engines), Allen-Bradley (PLC controller), Cybernetix (optical control) and Hydequip (steering) is provided individually. Due to the exorbitant size and weights of the loads involved, other important details in training need to be addressed including emergency movement, alignment, steering and load control.

"One of the major challenges,"says Bunney, "is the turn time necessary to meet the Dreamlifter flight schedule... which necessitated that [it] be unloaded and back loaded as quickly as possible."To reduce the turn time, it was decided the Dreamlifter would not be jacked prior to freight transfer, which meant the loader needed to be capable of following the movement of the LCF as the parts were transferred. "In addition, we did not want any physical contact from the loader to the Dreamlifter,"states Bunney. "This was solved by incorporating optical sensors."Carrying a maximum load, the DBL has the potential of damaging roadways, necessitating the use of 32 independently controlled tires on 16 steerable axels under the loaders. Of course, getting the loaders moved from the manufacturing site to the final location became a project in and of itself, according to Bunney.

Swingin' in the swing zone
Military and civilian cargo and transport planes are loaded though the front or the rear. The Boeing 747-400 freighter is loaded through its lift-up nose section. However, the 787 composite structures are so large they could not be loaded in the same manner. "So we decided to use a swing-tail system where the aft fuselage swings open for loading and unloading, says Kraft. " We knew that would work to accommodate the size of the asemblies and we needed to work with our design partners on a workable solution — we found it."While the swing zone was very difficult to complete during the modification process, according toKraft, the swing tail has performed flawlessly. It is guided by an enormous mobile tail support, which carries most of the weight of the 44,000-pound (20,000-kilogram) tail and continually adjusts to changes in position during the opening and closing of the tail. This reduces wear and tear on the two hinges visible in the aft section of the fuselage.

Currently, there is no plan to use either the Dreamlifter or the DBL for any other use, either within Boeing or commercially. "Our mission is focused specifically on 787 production and making the Dream liner successful,"says Bunney. "We expect to recoup the costs of buying the fleet of Dreamlifters and all the associated expenses for modifications, including the creation of specialized ground support equipment, within the first few years of the 787 production."To date, 38 airlines had logged 473 orders and commitments for the 787 worth more than $70 billion.

Bunney says it best, "When you have a team of people who are fully focused on the goal-and understand the importance of the work they are doing-personal considerations get set aside and you accomplish great things."