With the 76 ton subsea tree successfully loaded and secured in the hold beneath him, loadmaster Yrii Rudko’s job was done for now. Sitting in the cabin at the back of the An-124, seat belt fastened, he could feel how 400 tons of mighty flying equipment and cargo accelerated down runway 34 at Senai International Airport in Malaysia.
It was a special aircraft that was picking up speed at that moment, the An-124-100M-150. Only two aircraft of this specially modified version of an An-124-100 exist in the world. It can take 30 tons more payload than the regular version, 150 instead of the usual 120 tons. For the plane to be able to accommodate the additional weight, designers and engineers from Antonov made modifications to the aircraft. They strengthened the fuselage structure and fitted 24 reinforced wheels and tires.
The entire cargo for this extraordinary mission consisted of the subsea tree, the main frame, the upper frame and the stump on which the tree sat. Total weight: 112.6 tons.
“We knew that this was going to be what we call a very dense package: big weight with relatively small dimensions. But we only got the exact weight and dimensions one week before the planned flight”, says Martin Rickenbacher of Panalpina’s Charter Network. “Once we got the final specifications, we immediately knew two things. One: Only the An-124-100M-150 could fly our subsea tree from one side of the world to the other. Two: Only our in-house transport engineering team could get the tree into the plane in the first place.”
Considering a whole lot of determining factors such as the payload, the aircraft’s range and the airports that can actually accommodate it, refueling options and costs, crew duty hours, weather and wind, as well as safety margins, Martin’s team finalized the route planning. “We had ten technical stops for refueling and crew rests all nicely lined up on the shortest possible northern route between Malaysia and the Caribbean, but it was the final destination in Trinidad and Tobago that was hardest to organize”, says Martin. “Piarco International Airport in Port of Spain was not approved for the An-124, simply because they had never before received this type of aircraft.” In order to get the landing rights, Antonov had to conduct a thorough risk analysis and, with the help of Panalpina, presented the results to the airport authorities. “There were many things to consider: runway length, width and strength, but importantly also the fire safety capability of the airport. And given the size of the aircraft, we had to figure out where to park it and how to get there. For safety reasons, the final parking position could not be close to an active runway because we were going to use a 50-meter tall crane for unloading”, explains Martin.
The airport accepted the aircraft and granted the landing rights. The only thing that now stood between the Antonov with its valuable cargo and Port of Spain were 13,400 nautical miles and ten airports, many of them with unfamiliar names:
#1 U-Tapao-Rayong-Pataya, Thailand
#2 Hazrat Shahjalal in Dhaka, Bangladesh
#3 Sialkot, Pakistan
#4 Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan
#5 Burgas in Sarafovo, Bulgaria
#6 Leipzig / Halle, Germany
#7 Keflavik close to Reykjavik, Iceland
#8 Goose Bay in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Canada
#9 Dulles in Washington DC, U.S.
#10 Miami, U.S.
“Contrary to what the name suggested, tech stop number eight turned out to be the least fun”, says Martin with a touch of irony in his voice. “Organizing every aspect of a charter is one thing, executing it is another. More often than not, we have to resolve challenges along the way. This mission was no different”, he adds. The Antonov and crew got caught up in a snowstorm at the remote ex-military Goose Bay Airport in Newfoundland. When the pilots geared up to depart a white runway, they noticed a problem with one of the four engines and heard a noise that sounded like what is known as a pop-surge. Temperatures in Happy Valley-Goose Bay had fallen to unfriendly -20°C during the snowstorm, which is why the crew suspected the build-up of ice in engine number 4. It had to be inspected and fixed, so departure was called off.
While the Antonov was grounded and the snowstorm intensified, the team realized they had another challenge to overcome. The very low temperatures threatened to freeze components inside the subsea tree. The equipment provided by the airport was not sufficient to keep the temperature in the hold above 0°C. Lorne Grant of Panalpina’s nearby Newfoundland and Labrador office was called into action to help the Antonov maintenance crew quickly find an alternative. Battling the biting wind and flurries of snow, they searched downtown. Many local shops had closed down because of the snowstorm but a hardware store was still open for business and rented out what was needed: a heater and diesel generator. The equipment was rushed to the airport and installed. It did the job, protecting the subsea tree from the extreme cold.
Three days later, when the engine was repaired and the weather had cleared, the Antonov took off again and headed south. From here on it would only get warmer.
In the morning of March 26, 2016, seven days after the departure in Malaysia, the Antonov touched down safely in the Caribbean. As the doors opened and the crew felt the tropical breeze wash over them, Yrii knew it was time to get back to work. He assembled his team to start unloading the cargo.