The bigger, the better: Specialising in oversized cargo

The logistics behind unusual cargo, volga-dnepr group

With a fleet that includes some of the world’s largest freight-carrying aircraft, Volga-Dnepr Airlines specialises not only in carrying oversize cargos but through its ‘cargo supermarket’ service, responds to extremely complex transportation challenges in industries from oil and gas to aerospace.

The figures speak for themselves: the airline’s 12 Antonov-124-100 Ruslan super freighters and five Ilyushin-76s carry more than 60,000 tonnes of cargo to more than 80 countries annually, clicking up more than 350 million tonne-kilometres.

The airline’s name, drawn from the rivers Volga and Dnepr, reflects both its scale and ambition. The former is Russia’s ‘national river’ and Europe’s largest and longest, while the latter rises in Russia but is considered Ukraine’s ‘holy river’.

Now the airline has taken important steps to cement its reputation as the world leader in the carriage of outsize cargos by creating its cargo supermarket to bring together the key functions of transportation, logistics and the design and provision of engineering solutions to complex logistics questions.

Oil and gast stripping tower oversize cargo
A special cradle was designed to enable this 70-tonne oil and gas stripping tower to be loaded

At the heart of this concept has been the creation in the past 12 months of a series of hubs across the world at London Stansted, Leipzig, Houston, Hanoi, and Sharjah.

This has brought with it a number of benefits for both airlines and customers. Firstly, as the hubs have been chosen to reflect customer demand, it reduces both the time required and the cost of positioning an aircraft for a specific charter.

Additionally, each hub is supported by loading equipment and a 24/7 team, covering everything from logistics sales and customer support, to load- planning, loadmasters, operations, navigators, and ground handling.

For the airline, it also provides a shop window for its services, as Tony Bauckham, Commercial Director, Charter Business, at Volga-Dnepr Group, explains: “The bases naturally support Volga-Dnepr’s goal of attracting new customers, as they give us the opportunity to present our AN-124-100 and IL-76TD- 90VD freighters to customers in each region – as well as to organise site visits, aircraft guided tours and demonstrations of our fleet capabilities and loading procedures so as to increase customer understanding.”

AN-124-100 freighter
The AN-124-100 freighters are heavy lifters

“So far, we have received extremely positive feedback from our customers around the world about the benefits of our operational bases.”

The cargo supermarket concept, says Bauckham, differentiates Volga-Dnepr by offering customers the widest possible choice of transportation and logistics solutions for all types of cargo – including the most outsize, heavyweight and complex shipments to the most remote regions of the world.

“The whole spectrum of aircraft types, coupled with 28 years of experience and our global team of highly skilled logistics specialists, gives Volga-Dnepr the opportunity to offer the broadest range of logistics solutions in the most cost-efficient manner,” says Bauckham.

Chief among these is not just access to the AN- 124-100, and IL-76TD-90VD, but also Boeing 747 and 737 freighters operated by another group company, AirBridgeCargo Airlines (ABC). “No other company in the world is able to offer a range of available aircraft of this scale,” says Bauckham.

The supermarket concept also covers a range of other services, including direct air charter, sub charters from partner airlines for types including the AN-12, AN-26, and AN-72, as well as scheduled air cargo services and road feeder services.

Customers can also access support services, including managed warehousing, turnkey projects, crane equipment lease, road permits, and customs brokerage.

Oversize cargo being loaded

“This offering enables us to provide solutions for customers that range from moving smartphones to entire satellite communications systems, vaccines to field hospitals, valves to gas processing plants, cabling to power substations, car parts to fleets of vehicles, shipments of fresh fish to entire boats and much, much more.”

Volga-Dnepr’s principal source of business is three main industry sectors: aerospace, oil and gas, and energy. “There has been stable demand from these three industries for decades,” says Bauckham.

“The total shares of these industries among all charters vary from year-to-year owing to geopolitical, economic and other factors.

Some years might see an upsurge of aerospace cargoes, whereas at other points, the core industries might experience a significant drop in demand.

“This is especially true for the oil and gas sector which is highly volatile and dependent on investment flows into complex projects.

In 2015, the oil and gas market went down because of the drop in oil prices and the subsequent freezing of some projects, while in 2018 and beyond we expect to see a pickup of demand with a revival of some projects based on an overall improvement of the market situation.”

He reports that throughout 2017 there was persistent demand from the energy, aerospace, and oil and gas industries.

“This was the solid foundation of our development in 2017 and is likely to continue in 2018 and beyond,” says Bauckham, adding that: “Demand for aerospace-related transportations has been stronger than those for oil and gas.”

The best way to understand how the cargo supermarket concept works in practice is to look at some of the more unusual challenges that have confronted Volga-Dnepr and which it has overcome in recent years.

One of these was to transport a 70-tonne oil refinery stripping tower from Houston to Erbil in Iraq. Just one big problem, the tower was two metres longer than the cargo hold of an AN-124-10 and absolutely had to be transported in one piece.

Volga-Dnepr’s specialists rose to the challenge by designing two transportation cradles, which they developed by using 3D modelling technology and drawings provided by the manufacturer.

In this way, it was possible to accommodate the tower at an angle within the hold, while meeting load-bearing concerns, restraint criteria for G-Force restrictions and tie-down requirements.

The tower was destined for use in the Kurdistan region of Iraq and, with 40,000 barrels of oil daily at stake, operations at the refinery needed to begin as soon as possible.

Unloading the hijacked Boeing 737
Unloading the hijacked Boeing 737

Volga-Dnepr Airlines’ AN-124-100 and IL- 76TD90-VD freighters also enabled an emotional homecoming to Germany of a Boeing 737-200, which was hijacked by terrorists in 1977.

The former Lufthansa aircraft is to be fully restored and placed on permanent display in the Dornier Museum, in Friederichshafen.

The aircraft, named after the Bavarian town of Landshut, was hijacked en route from Palma to Frankfurt, at the start of a four-day ordeal for the passengers and crew as it was forced to travel to Rome, Cyprus, Bahrain, Dubai, and Aden before reaching its final destination in Mogadishu, Somalia.

The hijacking was ultimately ended by a daring early morning raid by German special forces, which successfully freed all 86 hostages. Tragically, the aircraft’s pilot, Jürgen Schumann, had already lost his life at the hands of the four terrorists.

The Boeing 737-200 eventually went back into service but had been abandoned at Fortaleza International Airport, in north-eastern Brazil, until the German foreign ministry chose to bring it ‘home’, as a symbol of a free society, which could not be defeated by terror.

The fuselage and wings were transported in a special frame on board an An-124-100, while Volga-Dnepr’s IL-76TD-90VD carried the engines and other components.

In one of its biggest ever air logistics projects, Volga-Dnepr Airlines safely completed 88 cargo flights, carrying more than 6,000 tonnes of equipment in 103 days, to supply an ExxonMobil operated the gas project in a remote part of Papua New Guinea.

The airline’s AN-124-100 aircraft operated all of the flights from Port Moresby Airport to the specially constructed Komo Airfield.

With each component averaging 60 tonnes, including oversized shipments requiring individual handling solutions, Volga-Dnepr’s engineers created a special loading process.

Additional work was conducted by the airline to minimise the empty weight of the AN-124-100, tooling and packaging equipment so as to maximise the opportunities offered by the freighter’s cargo capacity.

The huge operation marked the successful culmination of several years of planning by specialists from Papua New Guinea, the US, Australia, and Japan.

One of the key elements supported by Volga-Dnepr’s specialists was building a new airfield in Komo, with a 3,200m runway.

As part of the Volga-Dnepr Group, the cargo supermarket is also able to draw upon the resources of ABC and its fleet of 17 Boeing 747 freighters, including ten latest generation Boeing 747-8s.

ABC operates a global network of scheduled cargo services, covering 30 destinations across Europe, Asia, and North America.

Strong demand in the Asia-Pacific region helped to drive 16 per cent growth in volumes in the first half of 2017, matched by a 13 per cent rise in freight- tonne-kilometres and a 4 per cent rise in load factor, to 71 per cent.

ABC now serves 12 destinations in the Asia-Pacific region, having added a twice-weekly connection to Taipei, alongside Tokyo, Seoul, Singapore, Hanoi, Phnom Penh, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, and Zhengzhou.

A major driver of growth has been the company’s abcPharma product, specialising in the carriage of temperature-sensitive pharmaceuticals and life-saving medical equipment.

The airline is the first in Russia and just the seventh in the world to gain IATA’s CEIV and has developed Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport as its global pharma hub.

In 2017, the ABC fleet also carried 15 per cent of oversize cargos as part of the Group cargo supermarket operations.

More than 20 per cent of these transportations were loaded through the aircraft’s cargo nose door and included complex consignments, such as gas turbines, oil and gas, and aerospace equipment, including fuselages, engines and helicopters, as well as tractors, mining equipment, and products requiring special care and attention.

The choice as to whether cargos are shipped by 747 or ANo-124 is largely down to whether the load will fit through the 747F nose or side doors, as well as cabin floor load limitations and type-specific tie-down requirements.

ABC and Volga-Dnepr Airlines regularly draw on each other’s experience in the transportation of outsize and super-heavy cargoes.

Bauckham concludes: “The main advice for all customers wishing to move outside or special cargo is to contact a Volga-Dnepr specialist at the earliest stages of the project.

“Time,” he reminds us, “is the crucial factor for successful realisation of transportation.”

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