How Cargo Planes Work

Cargo planes – whether used in the private, military or commercial sphere – are fixed-wing vehicles that have usually been designed with haulage in mind or have been converted from standard aircraft.

Passenger planes commonly have a specialised hold that can store around 150 cubic metres (over 5,000 cubic feet) of freight, found on the underside of the craft. Dedicated freight planes don’t need the seats or any of the other amenities on commercial flights – that said, their design amounts to much more than a hollowed-out passenger plane.

To make the most efficient use of the space available, the floor is lined with a walkway and electronic rollers that allow prepackaged pallets to be rolled back as far as possible, without the need for a forklift. Large cargo bay doors are installed to fit bigger items through and, in some examples, like the Boeing 747-400, the nose lifts up to allow particularly large items to pass down the body of the plane. With the demands of air freight ever increasing, aircraft with huge cargo capacities like the Airbus A300-600 Super Transporter (also known as the Beluga), are be timing the norm.

It’s not enough just to increase the size of the aircraft hold though. In order for a cargo plane to efficiently and safely transport its mighty load, a number of adaptations must be made to the overall avian design. For example, the wings and tail are built high to allow the freight to sit near the ground and to facilitate loading; the fuselage is much bigger; and – similar to heavy goods vehicles – cargo planes typically feature a larger number of wheels to support their weight on landing.

Cargo PlanesPlane politics

The Xian Y-20 is a military long-range transport plane that’s still in development by China, although it has recently been filmed on a short test flight. It’s a similar class of aircraft as Russia’s Ilyushin Il-76 or the US Boeing C-17, and though China maintains a tighter guard over its military secrets than most, it has an estimated payload in the region of 72,000 kilograms (160,000 pounds) – that’s quite a bit, by any country’s standards! The PLAFF (People’s Liberation Army Air Force), or avian branch of the Chinese military, had long favoured the development of fighter jets over this kind of support aircraft, so that the Y-20 project was sidelined when it started in 2005.

However, following the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, China was unable to effectively drop relief supplies with its small fleet of cargo planes, so the US had to assist with two C-17s. This embarrassment undoubtedly spurred the Chinese government into pushing on with the Y-20’s development.

Boeing C-17Lightening the load

Depending on the type of cargo being carried (very large items or military vehicles may be exceptions), many cargo planes will use ULDs, or unit load devices. These allow the crew to prepackage cargo into single units that can more easily be loaded into the hold prior to the flight, saving a great deal of time. It’s a similar system to that used in shipping, maximising the space used at the same time and, thus, increasing efficiency (and profits). The ULDs themselves are either robust and lightweight aluminium pallets or aluminium-floored containers with toughened plastic walls. The containers are sometimes converted into self-contained refrigeration units to store perishable goods.