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The Romance of a 5 a.m. Cargo Takeoff

By Jan Koppen
April 17, 2008

Can standing on the cold tarmac in the earliest hours of the day watching the sleepless cargo jumbos at Schiphol be an idyllic experience? Jan Koppen returns with a unique composition that lets us all put ourselves into this unusual environment.

In the Dark of the Night

It’s about four hours after midnight and I’m standing on the vast freight apron of Amsterdam Schiphol International Airport in Holland. Cold rain is lightly drizzling down, from the threatening dark, water-filled clouds. While working my regular nightshift, I interrupted my overloaded schedule in order to catch up with some action on the freight ramp. In front, I see some familiar silhouettes of the classic large turbofan-powered Boeing 747, vaguely lit by the shimmering yellow ramp floodlights. Looking across the tarmac, I see several classic 747s parked together, some of them barely visible due to absence of sufficient light—surely a delightful view considering the dwindling numbers of first generation 747s throughout the world.

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Nighttime at Schiphol
Photo © Vasco Garcia

Schiphol, well-known for its established carriers, is also frequently visited by worldwide 747 operators such as KLM, Martinair, Malaysian, Singapore, EVA, China airlines, Nippon Cargo, China Southern, Korean, Dragon, JAL Cargo, Northwest, Jade Cargo, AirBridge Cargo, Southern, Atlas, Polar, ELAL, Great Wall, Surinam, Cargolux, Kalitta, Virgen, Saudia, Air Atlanta, Emirates, TNT, Syrian, Air China, Corsair, Japan Defence Force and Royal Air Maroc.

The lesser known, but surely more interesting carriers that grace the ramp at Schiphol are the cargo jets of GirJet, Focus, Blue Sky, World Travel and Air Universal. This second category of 747s, often run by a couple of experienced aviators mostly on a low budget, will carry literally anything. Their cargo manifests show that besides general cargo, such items as in-calf cows and one-day chickens are heading for exotic destinations such as Iran and Kazakhstan.

The classic 747, which can be acquired at a reasonably low cost, offers a generous payload of 100 metric tons, which can be loaded with 29 maindeck and 9 lowerdeck pallet positions. Besides these advantages, there’s a minor draw-back, in the shape of four fuel guzzling Pratt & Whitney JT9Ds or the early generation General Electric CF6-50s turbofan engines. Increasing fuel bills can cause an early retirement for the remaining 747-100/200/300 series. Another problem is current noise restrictions—due to the increase of these restrictions at the major airports, the classic 747 will be surely banned for its excessive noise someday.

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A Classic 742 - Kalitta Air Cargo at Schiphol
Photo © Vasco Garcia

When our clients sleep

Just in front of me, ground handlers are loading one of these dependable 747s with outward-bound cargo. The classic lines of the big Boeing are so evident when standing close to this four-engine transport. The overall sight of the giant bird commands deep respect from the onlooker.

This particular aircraft is a new generation Boeing 747-406 extended range freighter, PH-CKA, c/n 33694, of KLM Cargo. This high tech 747 rolled from Boeings production line in March 1993 and is one of the four 747-400ERFs in KLMs Cargo fleet. One of them has been temporarily transferred to Air France Cargo. The fuselage consists of a heavens-blue trim, running along the whole top and side of the aircraft. Her all-white tail sports the name KLM Cargo in bold blue letters. Added to this, are the mega big military style CARGO letters, making clear in what kind of business this 747 is in.

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A KLM Cargo 744 at Schiphol
Photo © Tim de Groot

At the moment, ground handlers are preparing ‘CKA’ for her up-coming nightly freight run to Almaty, Kazakhstan. Flight line maintenance is supplied by KLM engineering & maintenance. Their regular technical support keeps this 747 flying under all conditions. With the last freight pallet moved into the 747, the highloader is disconnected and the huge hydraulic freight-door is slowly closing into its lock position. The 747 is ready and the forward rampstair is pushed aside.

Under the nose section, a senior KLM ground engineer is conversing with the flight crew through his headset, attached at the forward interphone jackplug. Inside the cockpit the crew is preparing the aircraft for engine start-up. At the same time, the blue Hobart generator, which is responsible for the electrical voltage, is connected to the 747. Shortly after, the flight crew starts the aircraft’s auxiliary power unit. Then highly compressed air is forwarded through the aircraft pressure-lines and, in turn, forces the second stage compressor blades, which are hidden within the enormous turbofan engines, slung under the 747 streamlined pylons, to accelerate to idle power.

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Photo © Tim de Groot

Moments later, kerosene flows into the combustion chamber and simultaneously the igniter plug is being fired. With a small explosion in the engine hot section, number three and four come alive simultaneously and the raging gas is rammed backward. Slowly the engines are starting to suck massive quantities of air through their intakes in order to maintain necessary thrust.

As the engines start to settle down at idle power, the high-pitch howling starts to fill the upper level of my hearing senses. As engine numbers 2 and 1 are started at the same time, torrents of hot gas built up behind the 747. Quickly, the generator is disconnected, while the nosewheel chocks are also removed. With a puff of black smoke, the monstrous, weary looking, but powerful Hough pushback truck starts to push the heavy-laden jet backwards. Meanwhile, the ground engineer is walking alongside the 747’s nose, ready to report any technical snag to the flight crew during the pushback.

As the 747 slowly moves away, she disappears from the bright, ramp floodlights and is positioned with its tail toward the freight building. Efficiently, the ground crew disconnects the tug from the forward undercarriage and drives away with the Hough, leaving the senior ground engineer alone with the Boeing on the middle of the freight apron. The ground engineer unplugs himself, secures the panel and walks to a proper position for visual contact with the flight crew. With a resolute “thumbs-up signal”, the engineer indicates that everything is OK and that the Boeing is ready to go. As a friendly gesture, the flight crew flashes the 747s taxi-lights several times, thanking the ground support for their help.

Simultaneously and with a sudden roar, the four turbofan engines increase power to give the 747 forward momentum. The hot exhaust gasses are blasted backward out the engines, but then caught by the jet fences, to prevent doing any harm. Propelled by Herculean power, the 747 stirs itself, the silver swept-back wings swaying, as she begins to roll onto the taxiway.

After a lengthy taxi, which leads the jet through a maze of blue and green ground lights, she finally reaches the holding point of the active runway. The big Boeing points its nose towards the long ribbon of lights, spread out in front of her. She lines up and holds, in preparation of her airborne venture.

Suddenly the sound rises to a furious level

With the sudden stop of the 747, I pause to look at my watch and realize that it’s already five o’clock in the morning, an ungodly hour to be standing here in the cold, wet breeze of winter showers. Suddenly sound rises to a furious level, the 747’s turbofans roar with greater authority. From each engine, volcanic hot gases hurtle rearward with tremendous velocity. All four engines give maximum thrust.

With a sudden shock the silver jet, now free from the restraint of her brakes, responds to the insisting demand of her four engines. Slowly she starts to build up speed. With already 2000 feet behind her, the 747 steadily accelerates her pace. Still bound by the earth’s gravitational forces, the jet races down the runway at about 170 miles per hour. Then the magnificent sparkling bird responds to the invisible demand of air flowing along her massive wings.

With the nose gear tilted up from the runway and her tail section slowly dropping to the concrete, the giant starts to rise. For a moment the 747 hurtles along, nose high, momentarily clamped to earth, but seeming eagerly to sniff the sky. As the she quickly gains height, the tricycle landing gear starts to disappear into its undercarriage bays. Finally, with a clean configuration, the 747 starts to feel her way in her natural element.

As the jet starts to fade away, I can still see the double green-red wingtip and anti-collision lights flashing in the heavy cloud cover. With the roar of the engines slowly dying, the 747 finds its way through the darkened skies.

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Photo © Eduard Brantjes

This article is dedicated to our loadmaster Mr. Herman Reede.
A true Sky-trucker of the big jets!

Written by
Jan Koppen

Jan Koppen lives near Amsterdam's Schipol airport and has been an aviation enthusiast since childhood. Currently, he works for KLM Cargo as a Cargo Duty Manager in KLM's Operations Control Centre.

16 User Comments:
Username: Midcon385 [User Info]
Posted 2008-04-20 14:43:22 and read 32768 times.


Thank you for this marvelous article on 747 cargo operations out of AMS!


Username: Elpuma [User Info]
Posted 2008-04-20 19:58:22 and read 32768 times.

Hey - as an ex-freight dog I appreciate the feelings you convey. I remember many times walking a silent ramp during the sort in LEVT or EKCH, only to be caught in the hustle and bustle an hour later. Loved it, loved the good old 727 and 747!


Username: Gerry [User Info]
Posted 2008-04-21 02:58:37 and read 32768 times.

Beautiful - sometimes a job is not just a job is it?

Username: BrightCedars [User Info]
Posted 2008-04-21 08:15:38 and read 32768 times.

Great story!

I don't want to seem picky, but I don't think B747-400ERF was available and surely not delivered back in 1993.

PH-CKA "Eendracht" was delivered 31/03/2003 according to airfleets.net, that make sense.

Again, great story!

Username: 747fanatic [User Info]
Posted 2008-04-26 14:14:31 and read 32768 times.

Nice! Airline Porn. :) Thanks for the write up. :)

Username: C2awar [User Info]
Posted 2008-04-29 07:42:22 and read 32768 times.

Great story about a group of people we often forget. I also thought 1993 was early for a 400F.

Username: DrFrankenstein [User Info]
Posted 2008-05-07 14:30:02 and read 32768 times.


I wish my parents read this kind of story when I was a child.

I'm gonna re-read it. I want to dream of this.

Username: Navymmw [User Info]
Posted 2008-05-12 21:05:56 and read 32768 times.

beautiful story.

Aviation really is a marvelous thing.

Username: Hsw3rd [User Info]
Posted 2008-05-13 21:09:33 and read 32768 times.

Thanks for this; don't stop writing! ;-)

Username: Zarkon [User Info]
Posted 2008-05-26 01:53:24 and read 32768 times.

Great story - all of us that love the heavy metal can relate to the grandeur of a moment like this. I've been there too.. and it's just like you write it. Well done!!!

Username: Climb1 [User Info]
Posted 2008-05-26 15:10:59 and read 32768 times.

Great write up! Im a big fan of the cargo ops, this was great reading.
Oh and im sure "1993" was just an error and he really meant 2003. :)

Username: Momona737 [User Info]
Posted 2008-05-28 04:29:59 and read 32768 times.

I enjoyed your well written article on the B747 cargo. You could just about imagine you were nearby to witness the action unfolding in front of you.

There's always a mystique about airports at night in the drizzle/fog. Eerie but beautiful with the terminal lights and taxiway lights.

Thank you.

From New Zealand. {wave}

Username: Brilondon [User Info]
Posted 2008-07-14 12:19:50 and read 32768 times.

Well written. This gives you a feel like your experiencing it first hand. Thanks for your article.

Username: Forjasper [User Info]
Posted 2008-09-03 12:07:58 and read 32768 times.

Well I have been a CPT on the Airbus for many years and trust me,... if you want a life and a family you can forget about Freight. Its not about a/c size but about life style and being at home watching your children grow up. I have seen it,... heavy freight captains; no wife no life, money to spend but on what... on themselves while your friends and family are all having a happy family. Before you know it you will write articles at airliners.net. The beginning of the end. (Did I say this?)

Username: Outofcurrency [User Info]
Posted 2011-04-29 23:24:18 and read 32768 times.

wish i had a friend like you haha

Username: Nickdr21 [User Info]
Posted 2012-08-19 07:15:54 and read 32768 times.

Great Read thank you

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