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Field Trip --> Panalpina Charter Air Hub Huntsville


"Bill, I'm talkin' imminent rueage"
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Fayetteville, AR
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Hello everyone!

So a little secret about me is that I love airplanes of all shapes and sizes. I had planned to obtain my pilots license one day but have had some medical issues throw a wrench into those plans. However, over the past few years I've been lucky to have been involved in several programs and customer events that have sent me to Delta HQ in Atlanta, NASA Armstrong Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, the streets of Los Angeles and Compton with the shuttle orbiter Endeavour and now Panalpina Charter Air Hub at Huntsville International Airport. That international title has often been the butt of jokes but today I have a clearer understanding of what a major role Huntsville plays in moving the world's cargo.


So let me start with a few thank you notes. Matthais Reiser, Sr. VP Global Head of Strategic Business Development at Panalpina HQ in Switzerland is who started the ball rolling and his associate James Beck who is the Gateway Manager for Panapina in Huntsville who handled my visit today are great guys. They both gave me a wealth of information that quickly made me realize just how big their operation is. Special appreciation to all their handlers that work at Huntsville for not getting too upset with a few extra people standing around and admiring their work. Matthais reached out to me after I left a comment about this picture he posted on LinkedIn talking about the Boeing 747-800 and Antonov AN-124 meeting up in Huntsville recently to help make an urgent delivery to the Middle East. Needless to say it resulted in a 30 minute phone conversation and the tour I took today.


"Big Boys' meeting": 2 B747-8F + 1 Antonov AN-124 come together at Panalpina's HUB in Huntsville, AL. The 2 Jumbos operate their scheduled flights between Europe, USA, Mexico, HongKong and Brazil. The Antonov is about to load an urgent Oil & Gas equipment for the Middle East, too big for a 747. The only thing which separates your truck from these 3 aircraft: the Panalpina tarmac warehouse on the left! Panalpina Charter Network - a Passion for Solutions ✈️✈️✈️

So let's start with the plane! She is a beauty to say the least. I've only flown on a Delta 747 once and you could tell it was a huge aircraft. The 747-800 model that Atlas Air operates for Panalpina really makes you appreciate how big the aircraft really is. The plane that I got to inspect was actually in Huntsville on Thursday which is where today's crew met up with it. They flew it from Huntsville to Mexico City on Thursday, then a quick hop this morning to Guadalajara, Mexico and then a 3 hour flight back to Huntsville today. The plane today was GTI306 going by the callsign GIANT 306. The Boeing 747-800 is the most recent modified cargo version of the 747 aircraft and was actually tested in Huntsville during the FAA certification phase.

First thing we immediately noticed as GIANT 306 taxied to the cargo ramp was how quiet she is. She isn't going to sneak up and scare anyone but to she was much quieter than several other aircraft landing and taxing in the background which is amazing when you consider she has 4 GE engines capable of 975,000 lb of maximum take-off weight.

Once she arrived US Customs agents and USDA agents met the flight and spent a few minutes checking documentation of the aircraft, cargo and crew including two corporate passengers from Mexico on their way to London.

Soon after the agents cleared the arrival we got to go up the shaky stairway and take a look inside the main cargo deck and then up to the upper deck. Now, here is the bad news, I couldn't take pictures in the cargo hold or the upper deck due to security considerations and contract considerations of the companies that use their services. However, I have some links to help you understand what I was seeing.


On the upper deck there were a total of 10 seats available. 6 were very nice business class type seats and the other 4 were in the cockpit. There is of course a lavatory (nothing special) and a galley area. The funny thing I noticed was that everything in the galley area was labeled. I mean everything. The clip that holds paperwork... "Paper Clip". There is also a crew rest area that has two beds that we didn't get to see. In the cockpit everything is digital. There was a rep from Atlas Air that was programming in the next flight leg to London and changing out the printer paper which is like a thermal printer built into the console between the pilots. You can see the galley below from another great imagine thanks to Amazing-Aviation <<click here for image>>

Made our way back to the main cargo deck where a few of the cargo items were pointed out to me. Nokia had shipment heading to Germany that was at the very front of the plane, next we had several large pallets of fresh berries from Mexico heading to various destinations in Europe. They were wrapped in reflective covers to help keep the shipment cooled. How do they keep the cargo cold during flight? They just set temp low! I know simple answer right. With cargo like the berries the main cargo hold will be around 40 degrees during the flight. Next were some servers and VW SUV's that were also heading to Europe. Because the cargo waiting in Huntsville was a bit more urgent two of the SUVs had to come off using the cargo door located just behind the wing. It was amazing to see the crew move the pallets via a built in wheel system on the floor. Each cargo pallet sits on what they call a cookie sheet which is pretty accurate representation. Each sheet is controlled via large wheels that pop up from the floor and move the cargo to the next set until they get to the door. As you can see from the photo from http://www.Amazing-Aviation.com the inside is like a flying warehouse. The shot below is from the nose looking backwards. You will notice the bar (in red) hanging from the ceiling. That is where the upper crew cabin ends and allows taller cargo to be stored such as helicopters.
<<click here to see the image mentioned thanks to Amazing-Aviation>>

Remember those VW SUVs I mentioned? Here is a picture of one being removed from the aircraft via the back side door. Other interesting cargo they see from time to time? Horses. They actually have collapsible stalls for them and of course the temperature is well controlled for them. From Huntsville one of the most common pieces of cargo are pharmaceuticals made in Huntsville. They even have a temperature control common storage area and a refrigerated cargo area approved by the FDA to keep those shipments cool and ready to go when the plane arrives.


Huntsville gets several international flights a week including Luxembourg, Brazil, Hong Kong, Mexico City and the occasional special flight. It is amazing to think all that cargo just flows through Huntsville. The cargo that is stays in Huntsville is transferred to trucks in their cargo warehouse and sent off to far away destinations. The Huntsville International Airport is currently working to build a second refrigerated cargo area that will be allowed to house food awaiting clearance or another ride. Proof that they see growth potential in the long run.

Thanks for taking the time to read all this and if you have any questions let me know with a post below. I really wish I could have taken some interior shots but totally understand their security protocol. Hoping in the future they host an open house event and maybe I can get some more pictures.

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Mike S

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Meridianville, Al
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Neat stuff. HSV became a Point of Entry a couple of decades ago(roughly) when the air cargo business took off, hence the change from Jetplex to Huntsville International Airport. The west runway is the second longest in the southeast, behind Miami.

As the son of an airplane enthusiast I've spent a lot of time in and around airliners, especially when I was younger. We'd fly just to fly a particular type of plane.