The titanic task of airlifting four 140-tonne metal monsters
Sometime in early April 2018, a giant metal winged behemoth rumbled along the tarmac at Leipzig airport in Germany. The world’s largest cargo plane — the Antonov AN225 — was about to launch into the sky carrying a massive payload.
A gargantuan industrial waste boiler was secured using more than 100 massive metal chains in the cargo plane’s cavernous body.
The plane’s mission: Move the enormous boiler across the seas to Saudi Arabia. It was going to be the first of four such trips.
Weighing 140 tonnes a piece, each of the four cylindrical boilers is roughly equivalent to the weight of two dozen fully-grown African elephants.
Used for cooling down 600°C waste gases in a methanol-producing facility, the submarine-shaped consignment is about 4.1 meters in width, 3.7 meters in height and stretches up to 19 meters in length. Imagine a cylinder the height of a giraffe, but with a length that stretches out as long as a tennis court.
In short, very big.
“We usually use the Antonov AN124 for cargo such as pipes and machinery parts that are big, but not heavy. However, the smaller Antonov can only handle up to 120 tonnes of cargo. This boiler is 140 tonnes, which is too heavy — that’s why we chartered the AN225,” explained Christian Sengelmann, Project Manager of Special Accounts at DHL Global Forwarding.
Route planning and collaboration
The colossal task required the planners to pay attention to the smallest details. Prior to the move, the planning process took almost six months.
“Logistics, especially within the break-bulk segment, is about local knowledge, mainly with regards to specificities of different ports or with reference to infrastructure, equipment, roads and regulation,” said Nikola Hagleitner, CEO of DHL Industrial Projects.
“We had to first identify all the stakeholders and work through the technical requirements with a fine comb. We then booked the Antonov after confirming that the boilers will be ready when the aircraft is available,” said Sengelmann.
Even though the Antonov 225, also known as Mriya, which is Ukrainian for ‘dream’, is huge, the team was not entirely sure that the boilers could be loaded onto the plane.
“We had to discuss with Antonov Airlines and check if they could load it. We also had to run through every little detail such as stress calculations and regulation checks, lashing securing scenarios, if the boilers would fit, and if the plane can take-off and land with the cargo in tow,” he explained.
“We worked on the concept for half a year, but we had no clue if it would really work until the first transport came. Everyone was really careful, and we genuinely took our time throughout the entire process of loading,” he said.
But when it became apparent that the plans worked, the deliveries for subsequent boilers happened at a much faster pace.
The journey from Europe to the Persian Gulf
The sheer size and weight of the cargo meant that the DHL team had to be precise with their planning. As there is only one Antonov AN225 in the world, the boilers had to be individually transported one at a time from factory to barge, and finally to the airport.
With each boiler too heavy and tall for some roads and bridges, airports close to Berlin were ruled out for ground transportation. Others which were accessible did not have runways suitable for the huge Antonov.
Eventually, a multi-modal journey — which saw the cargo transported over rivers, roads, and air — was deemed to be the most practical and economical solution.
The journey began at the manufacturing facility in Reinickendorf, a borough in the north-western city of Berlin. The cargo was loaded onto a trailer at the factory and transported to the jetty.
The operations were carefully managed at every stage from start to the end with safety and efficiency as top priority.
At the jetty, a 1,000-tonne mobile crane lifted the boiler onto a river barge, which then sailed for six days along various rivers and inland waterways to arrive at the port of Aken, an inland German port situated along Elbe River.
At the port, another 1,000-tonne crane unloaded the cargo onto a heavy haulage 20-axle trailer. The shipment then made its way on 20 sets of wheels to the Leipzig airport later in the night with the help of police and private escorts.
Another two mobile cranes — a 450-tonne and 300-tonne variant — were deployed within three hours, during which the Antonov crew installed the ramp system to the AN225 to prepare for the loading.
With the combined effort of both cranes, the boiler was hoisted up and carefully placed down on a set of rail systems to be lashed, secured and carefully pulled into the aircraft.
Once inside, the boiler was tied down with 120 heavy metal chains before it embarked on a seven-hour journey to Dammam airport in Saudi Arabia.
Each boiler took about a week to complete the entire journey, with a two to four-week break in between the transportation of each boiler. The last of the four boilers was successfully delivered in August 2018.