Alaskan Grocery Getters aka Cargo Aircraft
The other day I got the chance to see a Boeing 737-200 cargo aircraft up close and personal. Holy hannah!! Talk about ginormous!! You don’t realize how big these aircraft are until you see one up close.
Bethel is a major airline hub for western Alaska. There are always aircraft coming and going. Passenger, cargo, fancy jets, little puddle jumpers, helicopters…you name it we got it. The noise of arriving and departing aircraft is always in the air. We have been here long enough where we don’t really notice it. Even though the hum of engines has become a norm for us the cargo aircraft always stick out from the rest. They are extremely loud. It is like they want the whole town to know that they have arrived. They definitely make an entrance.
These large aircraft are a lifeline for remote Alaska and without them things would be very different. These aircraft can carry up to 30,000 pounds of stuff. That is two adult sized elephants or 7 average sized cars!! You name it they ship it…cars, boats, mushing dogs, beds, frozen fish, groceries, mail. These types of aircraft are arriving in Bethel daily (up to three times a day…sometimes more). They keep our grocery stores full and our mail on time (for the most part).
My husband works for a local cargo company…Northern Air Cargo or NAC. He is a Station Agent. I know, I know it doesn’t really leave much for the imagination to go off of but in the airline world everyone knows what you are talking about. He does everything from marshaling in aircraft, to driving a forklift, to writing up air waybills. It is a very diverse job.
When my husband and I arrived at the NAC warehouse the aircraft was already being unloaded. Forklifts were zooming back and forth and pallets were being sorted and labeled. It was a well orchestrated procedure. We were there because our new mattress was due to arrive on the flight. And sure enough it was there in the pile of stuff that had once been inside the massive aircraft. My husband asked me if I wanted to see it up close. Are you kidding me??? Heck yes!! I am not going to lie. It was a bit scary. The aircraft was very intimidating…I am not sure why. Maybe it was the massive size, maybe it was the hum of the APU (Auxiliary Power Unit), maybe it was the unstable staircase that we had to climb to get into the aircraft. I don’t know but I was a little nervous. Once inside the door it looked very similar to a normal passenger plane without the stewardess to greet you. The entry was dark and cramped and a little claustrophobic. To my right was the cockpit where the captain and co-captain would sit.
To my left was a wall. A never ending wall. It is what they call a “bulk head”. It provides a secure barrier between the flight crew and the cargo. I was beginning to wonder how in the world a person could even get back to the cargo area? I felt like I was in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory trying to find my way out of one of his crazy rooms. I continued to follow the wall farther and farther inside the aircraft. That is when I saw a small crescent-shaped slit in the wall. That is the door?? It was just big enough to fit an average sized person. It is one of the first times in my life I have been glad to be average. I squeezed myself through the “door” and arrived inside the cargo bay. It was huge!!
There were no seats, no aisles, no overhead compartments. The main cargo area was like a vast open cave waiting to be filled with treasures. The floor is 60 feet in length and 11.5 feet wide. In major league baseball that is the distance from home base to the pitchers mound or the length of four average cars parked end to end. It has a 4,00 cubit foot capacity and can hold a maximum of 100 lbs per square foot. That is insane!! There are large ratchet straps on either side of the aircraft to secure the cargo once it is loaded. I started to imagine all the things that you could cram into the empty space. The possibilities were endless. Can you imagine how many candy bars that you could haul in that thing??
The cargo door was on my right. The door is 81 inches by 134 inches which is approximately 7 feet by 11 feet. It allows the aircraft to carry over-sized items like mattresses and vehicles. Forklifts are used to get the items off of and onto the aircraft. The bellies of the aircraft also have compartments to store more stuff if necessary. These compartments usually carry lighter items like mail and potato chips. It is not uncommon for the bellies to be chock full of stove top stuffing (a favorite around thanksgiving ), bicycles…virtually anything but hazardous materials. The belly compartment is only 3.5 feet tall so you have to kneel to unload it. It tends to be back-breaking (literally) and it is not a highlight by any means. Lets just say the “new guy” gets to unload the bellies. Belly loads are actually avoided if possible just because of the inconvenience of loading and unloading. It is also very time-consuming.
The guys at NAC want to be able to “turn the aircraft” in 45 minutes. Turning the aircraft is the time it takes starting when the aircraft locks its breaks (to park) to when it taxis away. Once the aircraft is parked the guys have to wait for the engines to spool down then the unloading process begins. If there is anything that needs to go back to Anchorage it will be loaded (what they call back-hauling) and the aircraft will prepare for departure. On average the crew can “turn the aircraft” in 35 minutes!! Pretty impressive.
I suppose the process looses its luster when you do it everyday. But for me being a spectator it was awesome!! I don’t think many people think about how their stuff gets to Bethel or the people behind the scenes that get it too them. It is a pretty awesome process…only a small part of which I have touched on. Because of them we are able to live a more comfortable, modern lifestyle in a very remote place.
**All photos from airliners.net**