Philip Orin Parmelee, an American aviation pioneer and an associate of the Wright brothers, flew the first cargo flight on November 7, 1910, between Dayton and Columbus in the US. Parmelee ferried 200 pounds of silk for a new store scheduled to open in Columbus, covering the 105km distance in less than an hour. He could not have foreseen the dramatic growth of the industry that he pioneered.
The faster times offered by air freighting opened up colossal commercial possibilities. Air freight volumes rose rapidly from low levels of 26,000 million ton-kms in 1985 to touch 188,000 million tons-km in 2015. In 2015, airlines transported 52.2 million metric tonnes of goods, accounting for about a third of global trade by value, says IATA. This works out to $15.3 billion worth of goods flying high every day.
The air cargo business is an industry in itself. Companies such as FedEx, DHL, TNT and UPS are today's biggest air cargo operators. However, they see competition from several passenger carriers as well, who provide 'belly cargo' facilities to operators. In fact, passenger airlines are estimated to transport about half of all air freight.
The potential in the air cargo business has led to specialised aircraft designs. According to Airports Council International, a body representing global airports, currently there are more than 1,800 freighter aircrafts in operation worldwide. About a third of these are large, wide-body aircrafts that can carry more than 80 tonnes.
Types of cargo aircrafts
Designed for freight Aircraft designed for cargo flight usually have features that distinguish them from conventional passenger aircraft: a wide/tall fuselage cross-section, a high-wing to allow the cargo area to sit near the ground, and a large number of wheels to allow it to land at unprepared locations. Some planes have a high-mounted tail to allow cargo to be driven directly into and off the aircraft. Others have access from the nose area.
The Caribou: Military cargo aircraft have a few specific features, for instance short take off and landing capabilities. One such plane is the de Havilland Canada DHC-4 Caribou. The Caribou was first flown in 1958, and has been retired from active duty.
The Hercules: Capable of using unprepared runways for takeoffs and landings, the Lockheed C-130 Hercules is, like its name suggests, a reliable work horse. Typically used as an airlifter, the Hercules has also been used for other duties, such as airborne assault, search and rescue, and humanitarian aid operations.
The Globemaster: The Boeing C-17 Globemaster III was developed to meet the transport needs of the United States Air Force. The Globemaster is a name that has continued from the McDonnel Douglas firm to Boeing after the two firms merged. The C-17 is used to transport both cargo and troops around the world, as well as for medical evacuation duties.
The Super Guppy: The Aero Spacelines Super Guppy was used in the 1970s for hauling outsize cargo components. Here, the Apollo 11 spacecraft Command Module (CM) is being loaded aboard a Super Guppy Aircraft.
The Beluga: The Airbus Beluga has one of the most voluminous cargo holds of any civil or military aircraft flying today. Also known as a Super Transporter, the Beluga is big enough to transport complete sections of Airbus aircraft - such as fuselage sections, wings and tails — from different production sites around Europe to the final assembly lines in Toulouse and Hamburg.
The Dreamlifter: The Boeing 747 Dreamlifter is a wide-body cargo aircraft used exclusively for transporting Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft components to Boeing's assembly plants from suppliers around the world. The Dreamlifter has a swing tail cargo bay.
The Mriya: Considered to be the biggest plane in the world, the Antonov An-225 can transport 50 cars at a time. It has a wingspan of 290 feet (88 metres) and is powered by six jet engines. Called Mriya, this cargo jet was developed in the 1980s to carry the Soviet space shuttle on its back. The An-225 also holds world aviation records for flying heavy payloads, such as transportation of the heaviest cargo of 253 tons as well as the longest cargo, 42.1 m long.