Why Did Boeing Build The 747 Dreamlifter?

The Boeing 747 ‘Dreamlifter’ is the world’s longest cargo aircraft, and certainly one of the more visually striking as well. With just four having been built, it is also among the rarest freight aircraft in the world today. Boeing designed this mammoth aircraft to transport components for its 787 ‘Dreamliner’ from worldwide suppliers to its US factories.

Boeing 747 Dreamlifter Getty
To date, Boeing has produced just four examples of its 747 Dreamlifter. Photo: Getty Images

The solution to a logistical problem

Boeing began planning for its 787 Dreamliner in the early 2000s. As the project developed, it became evident that the conventional shipping methods for the aircraft’s components would take too long. This was because suppliers were located as far afield as Japan and Italy. As such, transporting the parts over land and sea would be extremely inefficient.

As such, Boeing elected to ferry these parts by air. However, many were too large for conventional shipping containers, and even for the largest existing cargo aircraft at the time, such as the 747-400F and Antonov An-225. This meant that Boeing needed to design a specialized aircraft for this purpose. Otherwise, its Dreamliner project would be subjected to slower land or sea-based shipping.

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Reconfigured passenger aircraft

Rather than producing brand-new aircraft, Boeing elected to convert four existing passenger configured 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 bulbous, NASA-operated Super Guppy, or the Airbus Beluga.

Boeing 747 Dreamlifter, Masks, Humanitarian Mission
The bulging nature of the Dreamlifter’s fuselage is especially evident when viewed head-on. Photo: Getty Images

The reconfiguration was a joint venture between Boeing’s Moscow outpost, Rocketdyne, and Spain’s Gamesa Aeronautica. They carried the reconfiguration in Taiwan with Evergreen Aviation Technologies Corporation. It was truly a global enterprise. The result was the iconic Boeing 747-400 Large Cargo Freighter (LCF), otherwise known as the Dreamlifter.

The first Dreamlifter rolled out onto the tarmac in Taiwan in September 2006. Boeing took it to its Seattle field to undergo flight testing. Its registration was N747BC. Previously, it had been at Air China since 1992, bearing the registration B-2466. The second aircraft (N780BA, formerly of China Airlines since 1990) made its first test flight in early 2007. Both these aircraft began transporting Dreamliner parts later that year.

The remaining examples enter service

The wings for the 787 Dreamliner were manufactured in Japan. To transport these components to Boeing’s US facilities used to take up to a month by sea. Overnight, the introduction of the Dreamlifter reduced this to just nine hours. By mid-2008, the third Dreamlifter began operating, with the fourth entering service in 2010.

The first Dreamlifters began flying 787 parts for Boeing in 2007. Photo: Getty Images.

Boeing didn’t operate the Dreamlifters itself. Instead, it outsourced this responsibility to Evergreen International Airlines. The Seattle-based freight airline lost the contract to Atlas Air in 2010, and subsequently sued Boeing. Unfortunately for Evergreen, it lost the lawsuit, and eventually ceased operations in 2013.

Comparing the Dreamlifter and the 747-400

Although their wingspans are identical, the Dreamlifter is marginally longer than the conventional 747-400 (71.7 m vs 70.6 m). It is also larger in terms of height (21.5 m vs 19.4 m) and fuselage width (8.4 m vs 6.5 m). However, the Dreamlifter’s maximum take-off weight (364,235 kg) is less than that of the 747-400 (396,890 kg). Its range when fully loaded is also just 4,200 nautical miles, compared to the 747-400’s 7,260 nautical miles.

Larger cargo can be loaded into the Dreamlifter from the rear. Photo: Getty Images

The Dreamlifter’s primary selling point is its space. Its main cargo compartment has a volume of 1,840 cubic meters, and its maximum payload capacity is 113,400 kg. This allows it to carry Dreamliner parts that are too big for conventional shipping means. Cutting supply shipping times and the subsequent decrease in production times were also crucial factors.

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner has proved a successful enterprise for Boeing, and it is a common sight at airports worldwide today. However, while the 747 Dreamlifter is a much rarer sight, it is important to remember that production of the Dreamliner would not have been possible at the speed that it occurs without this specialized freighter.

Have you ever seen a Boeing 747 Dreamlifter in person? Let us know your thoughts and experience in the comments!