Why Did Boeing Build The 747 Dreamlifter?

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Maybe you have never seen the Boeing 747 Dreamlifter? There are not a lot around, just four. The Dreamlifter is the world’s longest cargo aircraft. They were built to transport Boeing’s 787 parts from Dreamliner suppliers around the globe to Boeing’s US factories. Dreamlifter is not only an attention-grabbing name, it is also accurate too.

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Just four Dreamlifters were made. Photo: Getty.

When Boeing began planning for their 787 Dreamliner, around 20 years ago, they decided to skip shipping some of their 787 aircraft components by land and sea. It took too long, Boeing argued. Another issue was that many of the Dreamliner’s parts would be too big for standard shipping containers. Boeing’s 747-400 freighters and the bigger Antonov aircraft would also be too small.

Boeing’s solution was to convert some existing 747s to act as ferry aircraft. Dreamliner suppliers were located as far afield as Japan and Italy.  It was a different era. Could you imagine such an extravagance at Boeing in 2020?

Only four Dreamlifters were made

Boeing bought four 747-400s. One came from Air China, another from Malaysia Airlines, and two from China Airlines. The reconfigured aircraft were to have a bulging fuselage similar to the equally elusive Super Guppy. The reconfiguration was a joint venture between Boeing’s Moscow outpost, Rocketdyne, and Spain’s Gamesa Aeronautica. They did the reconfiguration in Taiwan using Evergreen Aviation Technologies Corporation. It was truly a global enterprise.

The first Dreamlifter (N747BC) rolled out onto the tarmac in Taiwan in late 2006. They took it to Boeing’s Seattle field to undergo flight testing. The second aircraft (N780BA) made its first test flight in early 2007. Both these aircraft began transporting Dreamliner parts later that year.

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The Dreamlifter started flying in 2007. Photo: Eric Salard via Wikimedia Commons

The wings for the Dreamliner were manufactured in Japan. Overnight, shipping times dropped from a month to nine hours.

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Boeing didn’t operate the Dreamlifters themselves. They outsourced that to Evergreen. The Seattle based freight airline lost the contract to Atlas Air in 2010 and subsequently sued Boeing. Unfortunately for Evergreen, they lost the lawsuit.

By mid-2008, the third Dreamlifter began operating. The fourth Dreamlifter came into service in 2010.

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Comparisons between the Dreamlifter and the 747-400

The Dreamlifter is 235 long, whereas the 747-400 is 231 feet long. They have the same wingspans. The Dreamlifter is 70 feet high, whereas the 747-400 is 63 feet high. The Dreamlifter’s fuselage is 27 feet wide, whereas the 747-400 fuselage is 21 feet wide.

The Dreamlifter’s maximum take-off weight (364,235 kg) is less than the 747-400’s maximum take-off weight (396,890 kg). The Dreamlifter’s range when fully loaded is also less, 4,200 nautical miles whereas the 747-400 range when fully loaded is 7,260 nautical miles.

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The Dreamlifter is all about cargo space. Photo: Yamaguchi Yoskiaki via Wikimedia Commons

The Dreamlifter was all about space. Its main cargo compartment has a volume of 1,840 cubic meters and its maximum payload capacity is 113,400 kg. The Dreamlifter was built to carry Dreamliner parts that were too big for conventional shipping means.

Cutting supply shipping times and the subsequent decrease in production times were also key factors.

That was a generation ago. Things didn’t go quite to plan when it came to getting the Dreamliners into the air. But they are a common sight at airports now. What is often overlooked when talking about Dreamliners is the role Dreamlifters played in getting them built.

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