One of the largest cargo planes in the world touched down at Pittsburgh International Airport last week. Hours later, its payload was already in production to eventually help people affected by COVID-19.
An Antonov An-124 Ruslan operated by Russian cargo airline Volga Dnepr arrived at PIT with more than 17,000 compressors—weighing 113 metric tons—destined for Somerset, Pa., about 70 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.
The compressors are a key component in the manufacturing of oxygen concentrators by Drive DeVilbiss Healthcare, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of oxygen devices.
The massive aircraft, carrying 240 pallets, originated in Shanghai and made several fuel stops along the way, including in Anchorage, Alaska, and Edmonton, Alberta, before arriving in Pittsburgh.
“What’s unique about our (Somerset) facility, it’s the one that is literally supplying the world,” said Drive DeVilbiss CEO Derek Lampert. “COVID has created an incredible demand for oxygen concentrators, more than anything we’ve ever seen. Every unit that’s made is critical for COVID care in the home, long-term care and other health care settings. We’re at max capacity, running three shifts, seven days a week.”
Lampert said his company typically transports the compressors by boat but said shipping capacity is scarce and seaport congestion is high.
“To keep production from slipping backwards, we had to charter that plane to bring in 17,000 compressors to keep that manufacturing facility moving while we wait for other compressors to arrive via ocean,” Lampert said. “Being able to bring them into an airport that’s an hour away from our facility is a game-changer for us because it allows us to keep production going. With Pittsburgh airport, we were able to put them on a truck at 2 in the afternoon and have them in production by third shift that evening.”
The flight was coordinated with freight forwarder Tazmanian Freight Systems Inc., based in nearby Moon Township.
This was the second time an An-124 has visited PIT this month, with one previously arriving from Toronto on May 1.
The An-124 is one of the largest cargo transport aircraft flying today. First entering service in 1986, the An-124 can carry up to 150 tons of cargo at a range of nearly 8,700 miles.
Being a Russian design, the aircraft is often compared to the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy of the U.S. Air Force. Like the C-5, the An-124 can unload cargo through either the front or the rear of the aircraft. Its landing gear is specially designed to allow the aircraft to “kneel” close to the ground, allowing easier loading and unloading of cargo.
Since it often carries complex items, the An-124 is one of the few aircraft in the world that has its own onboard crane. Attached to the top of the plane’s cargo compartment, the crane can shift to different locations inside the aircraft and lift a maximum of 30 tons. In addition, the aircraft has its own winch system that can pull up to 120 tons.
The An-124 holds several world records, including the heaviest takeoff weight at 455,000 kilograms (over 1 million pounds). Thanks to its tremendous payload capability, the An-124 is relied upon to transport some of the largest items ever flown by air, such as heavy machinery, rocket stages, locomotives—and 17,000 compressors. It has also been active in transporting high volumes of personal protective equipment around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lampert said he expects his company will continue relying on air cargo for the foreseeable future.
“If we lose a day (of production), it’s thousands of units that won’t be made that day and it’s that many less units that won’t be able to go to COVID patients needing them,” he said. “Without Pittsburgh being able to accommodate this, we very much would have lapsed in production.”
According to Planespotters.net, 20 An-124s are in service with commercial cargo airlines. Volga Dnepr operates 12 of them; other carriers with An-124s include Ukraine’s Antonov Airlines and the United Arab Emirates’ Maximus Air Cargo.
Volga Dnepr and Antonov Airlines have previously sent their An-124s to PIT. In 2018 and 2019, both carriers used their aircraft to transport large cranes to assist in the construction of Royal Dutch Shell’s $6 billion ethane cracker plant outside of Pittsburgh in Monaca, Pa., which is expected to be completed in 2022.
Executive Editor Bob Kerlik contributed to this story.