Loading cargo onto an aircraft is a specialist aspect of logistics with its own unique challenges and consequences. Moving from storage to the plane, from the plane to the warehouse, and out to further distribution is a key area of the supply chain for global shipping.

A big difference between airport and manufacturing logistics is the variation in load types. Airport logistics handle loads with a high degree of standardization, such as containers and unit load devices (ULDs). This enables airports to optimize their equipment for maximum efficiency.The manufacturing industry, on the other hand, typically handles a large variety of sizes, shapes, and weight. This requires a much more diverse fleet.Aircraft serve a variety of functions, not limited to carrying freight. A Boeing 747, for example, can be configured for many duties, including as a passenger airliner or for freight responsibilities. As configured for freight, it can hold 26,000 square feet worth of cargo. 26,000 square feet is roughly the cargo equivalent of five trucks.From one perspective, that’s a lot of space for cargo. If you’re shipping less than that amount it makes complete sense to move your freight by air. This is especially true if the freight shouldn’t be in transit for too long, it’s on a deadline, or it’s especially expensive, fragile, or antique. Air freight is the best solution for all of these, and it’s the fastest solution available for shipping.A Boeing 747 holds 35 pallets that are 8×10.5×10 ft, and 14 containers that are about half as tall. But their interior is flexible and can be readjusted to accommodate larger cargo, such as cars. For much larger cargo, you can aim for a super transporter. These are planes that are so big they can transport entire other planes. These are ideal for shipping a range of different vehicles, including construction shipping to remote areas.

How to Load Cargo onto an Aircraft

Like most logistics operations, loading airfreight starts by loading a pallet with cargo. Due to the size of cargo planes, these pallets are available in standard, 10ft, and 20ft sizes. This allows a variety of cargos to be air freighted. There are also specialized unit load devices.ULDs are essentially aluminum boxes with profile frames that allow netting to snap on easily. The cargo is loaded on using forklifts or other lift trucks before being prepped for shipping.Most planes are loaded through hatches in the side or rear of the plane. Some planes also make use of a nose hatch for larger cargo. The plane is up off the ground and its loading spaces don’t necessarily accommodate forklifts. As such, airports make use of alternatives for loading a plane.The most common alternative is the container handeling.

. This is essentially a giant scissor lift that is loaded with containers at the warehouse and travels out to the plane.Container loaders ideally make one trip to load their cargo. As such, they are typically very large and rugged. Despite the traditional smoothness of a runway, most container loaders are able to operate even on uneven loading surfaces. Independent hydraulic controls allow for fine adjustment of the platform so it can line up perfectly with the hatch.Using its hydraulic mount, it aligns with the plane hatch to allow easy loading. Once inside, hydraulic lifts can raise cargo, and electric rollers installed into the plane help shift cargo to different areas of the hold.Static container loaders are commonly supplied with loader transporters. They essentially act as a lift between the transporter and the plane. Similar to a side loader, these transporters have a large bed for pallets and cargo alongside the cab. They also have large rollers to enable easy cargo transfer.

Bulk Loading

Many narrow body short-haul aircraft are bulk loaded with loose individual items of baggage and cargo. In this case, baggage loading is determined by item count, with prescribed assumptions about the average weight per bag used to conform to loading limits.Standard baggage weights must be applied with care. Incidents have occurred where standard weights have seriously understated the actual mass of the loaded baggage causing both an error in the total mass of the aircraft and a center of gravity outside the approved safe envelope.Netting is used to restrain bulk loaded loose baggage items within holds so that they do not move in flight. Any load that shifts in flight will move the aircraft’s center of gravity and can cause control difficulties (in extreme cases causing loss of control) and prevent baggage doors from opening post-flight. Cargo netting may also be used to divide larger holds into sections.Bulk Loading is usually accomplished by delivery of items to the aircraft in a baggage train of towed trailers. To help ensure each holding compartment is loaded correctly, trailers are stocked only with the baggage destined for only one particular compartment.The trailer is unloaded into the aircraft hold via conveyor belts and finally positioned in the hold by loaders working within it. Usually, bulk loading of baggage items uses a system whereby loading crews are informed that the last bag for loading on a particular flight has arrived by use of an ‘End Bag’ identification tag - the tag is applied to the last checked bag sent to the aircraft.

Checking & Inspection

Cargo on airplanes must be loaded according to very specific weight balances in order to keep the plane in the air. Once planned, the cargo should be checked once it is loaded to ensure the cargo load sheet and the cargo proper match up. Then the pilot is given the load sheet to ensure they know everything they need to know about their cargo.Loadmasters are required to place all locks on cargo planes in the up position, even if there is no freight in the space, to prevent loose cargo from sliding through empty positions.

Hazards of Cargo Loading Errors

Cargo pilots worry about freight breaking free from the locks and sliding around in the back. Shifting freight can make the plane either nose-heavy or tail-heavy, and the pilot has no way of knowing whether that has happened until after the plane is airborne, when it may be too late.On 23 July 2015, an ATR72-600 crew suspected their aircraft was unduly tail heavy in flight. After the flight, they found that all passenger baggage had been loaded in the aft hold whereas the loadsheet indicated that it was all in the forward hold. The Investigation found that the person responsible for hold loading as specified had failed to do so.An even worse scenario played out in 1997 when boxes of denim broke loose in the belly of a DC-8 operated by the Fine Air cargo airline. Several empty positions allowed the freight to shift a great distance toward the back of the plane. The suddenly tail-heavy aircraft plummeted to the ground immediately after takeoff, skidding through a busy part of Miami, Florida and killing a man on the ground along with several crew members.Help improve your cargo loading safety by making sure you have the right equipment.

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