Features

Published on April 25th, 2019 | by FII Reader

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East Midlands On Time

Trade and commerce have been aspects of humankind for as long as, well, as long as people have been interacting with one another. So an awfully long time then. Fast forward to more recent times and aviation, as in all walks of life, plays a significant role in the international trade of goods. Aircraft are an excellent method for transporting people but equally brilliant at delivering all forms of cargo.

From an enthusiasts perspective most are au-fait with the workings of commercial passenger aviation, indeed some even partake in the concept and enjoy it immensely. But what about our knowledge of the air freight industry, a bit more testing perhaps. Where better to gain an insight into this more elusive branch of aviation, than one of Europe‘s leading dedicated cargo airlines with a wealth of industry knowledge, West Atlantic UK.

The West Atlantic Group consisting of two individual entities, West Air Sweden based at Gothenburg and West Atlantic UK, located at East Midlands Airport, both positioned shoulder to shoulder under the West Atlantic umbrella. The Swedish branch prefers to operate Boeing 767-200F’s, Bombardier CRJ-200PF’s and the venerable British Aerospace BAe ATP-F, along with being a rare aircraft, a classic in its own right. The UK branch operates Boeing 737-300F’s, 400F’s and now 800F’s.

At first glance the English midlands location for this well respected cargo airline may appear humble and at odd’s with a major air freight player. However upon closer inspection East Midlands Airport is a ‘right-fit‘ for not only West Atlantic’s operations but power-house DHL have their main UK hub at this central location and include neighbours UPS, FedEx and TNT.

As alluded to, the East Midlands central location goes hand and hand with road & rail freight operations, linking in to the motorway network. Added to this, while it’s fair to say, East Midlands Airport would fall short in terms of passenger numbers when compared to some other UK airports (11th busiest by passenger traffic),  this only strengthens its position as a dedicated cargo airport, the largest in the UK and second only to Heathrow in terms of freight volume, handling 360,000 tons in 2018. This leaves an abundance of ramp space available to deal with cargo arrivals and departures.

Since 2001 Atlantic Airlines fleet has been on the increase. By 2008 the airline merged with West Air Sweden to form West Atlantic and had acquired a number of BAe ATP freighters bringing their total of the type into double figures. These were eventually passed to the Swedish branch of the airline in 2015 but visit UK airports on a regular basis including East Midlands. Another interesting type operated by Atlantic Airlines was the Lockheed L188 Electra the last of which was retired from the airline in 2013 and found a new lease of life with Buffalo Airways in Canada.

An airline favouring Boeing 737’s in the form of 300 & 400 series, in freighter configuration, its name officially became West Atlantic UK in November 2017 with 737’s numbering 24. Airliner Experience was interested in visiting West Atlantic UK at this stage for several reasons.

Being a cargo airline, holds a fascination for enthusiasts. Most are quite familiar with passenger operations and can experience commercial passenger aviation for themselves but cargo airline operations is a closed shop and gaining access by the enthusiast far more elusive. West Atlantic UK has its main maintenance facility at East Midlands Airport and what better way to inspect freighter aircraft than while receiving maintenance in the hangar.

A third and probably most important reason for visiting West Atlantic at this time was the introduction of the Boeing 737-800BCF (Boeing Converted Freighter) to the fleet. The launch customer for the newly converted type by Boeing, West Atlantic UK received its first 800 series (G-NPTA) last April, 2018 at a handover ceremony at East Midlands and were due to receive one every few months until the fourth and final in January 2019. Airliner Experience had this aircraft set in its sights…

Once permission was gratefully received from West Atlantic UK management for an enthusiast group visit, the initial plan for the tour was during delivery of 737-800BCF No.3. However arrival of this aircraft came earlier than anticipated which left the final 800 as ‘the one to catch‘. So no pressure then.

With West Atlantic UK consulting Boeing as to the ETA of this last in the current order 737-800BCF, our date was set, a Saturday mid January. One might expect freighter conversion work to be carried out at a Boeing facility in the States but not so. Boeing have strategic sites globally and one of those is at Shanghai Airport, China where Boeing Shanghai Aviation operate. This is where the West Atlantic UK 800’s received conversion from passenger aircraft to freighters.

The aircraft our group was visiting, a 2002 year, American Trans Air 737-800 and most recently with China Southern Airlines (B-5127). The conversion requires extensive engineering alterations overseen by Boeing. Once ready for delivery, leasing firm GE Capital Aviation Services ferried the aircraft as N835DM from Shanghai to Astana, Kazakhstan for a tech stop and then on to East Midlands Airport the next day, arriving about mid day the Thursday before our group visit. This was cutting it fine to say the least. Safely on the ground at EMA, the aircraft was towed into the hangar where preparations for its entry into service could begin. A weeks fettling would see G-NPTD ready for active duty within Europe with West Atlantic UK.

The Airliner Experience contingent of thirty enthusiasts arrived at East Midlands Airport after an early morning flight from Dublin. With a ‘Full English‘ on the minds of many it was direct to a land-side eatery where UK based enthusiasts joined the group. Before our main event at West Atlantic UK an extra ingredient awaited us. By prior arrangement with the Management and Chairman of East Midlands Aeropark a private group visit to this excellent collection of interesting aircraft had been secured. Closed during the bleak winter period, Aeropark staff kindly agreed to allow us time to explore the incredible exhibits on offer at this treasure trove overlooking the runway of East Midlands Airport. And indeed what treasure we found waiting!

Literally a stone’s throw from the airport terminal, we arrived to a frosty Aeropark but received a warm and hearty welcome from the staff and volunteers who braved the chill specially for our group visit.

Beyond the gates, familiar and unfamiliar shapes were just visible in the distance, teasing the group of winter-wrapped souls, eager to gain access. The calibre of aircraft in this collection is simply staggering. The site is a comfortable size for visitors to make their way around all exhibits although space is becoming a premium if new models find their way here.

The list of aircraft that have made their retirement home the Aeropark reads as any enthusiasts top-twenty would. Some are in the scarce category while others are most definitely extremely rare. Almost all are on display outdoors with a handful receiving care and attention inside hangars.

Headlining the list has got to be the Avro Vulcan B2 (XM575). Menacing in appearance, this Vulcan delivered to the RAF in 1963 sits pride of place in the centre of the park. Having taken part in the Falklands victory flypast over London in October 1982 it was retired shortly after, flying to East Midlands Airport to see out its days at the Aeropark. In remarkably good condition for an outdoor exhibit, with many of its systems in working order including airbrakes, APU and engines. A new coat of paint some years back helps keep it looking fresh. Probably the highlight of our group visit was gaining access to the cockpit of XM575. The narrow ladder climb to the flight deck was interesting to say the least, and a surprisingly snug and tight fit once there. The icing on the cake was being in the presence of a Vulcan pilot, one of the volunteers for our visit! Couldn’t experience a more authentic visit than that.

The list of aircraft present is quite extensive, each sharing the credit for bringing the visitor back in time.

The collection includes Armstrong Whitworth Argosy, Buccaneer, English Electric Canberra, De Havilland Dove, Aérospatiale Gazelle, Hawker Hunters, Jet Provost, BAC Lightning, Meteor, Sea King, Vampires to name a few.

Another significant exhibit and firm favourite is BAe Nimrod R1 (XW664) which also included a former Flight Operations crew member on hands to present the aircraft and conduct our internal tour. Only a handful of this type was manufactured for use in the ‘signals intelligence gathering’ role as opposed to submarine hunter and maritime patrol. Final flight of XW664 was to East Midlands in June 2011 where it joined the Aeropark after decommissioning of classified systems.

The knowledge imparted by the staff was simply incredible with many having had long illustrious careers within the aviation and aerospace industry, with some even being flight crew on board several examples preserved at the Aeropark. A wonderful tour of this fabulous facility with this classic collection and the work each receives, all helping to provide a special place for others to view and remember these truly great pieces of aviation history.

Our private group visit to the Aeropark – East Midlands Airport took many by surprise. The kindness of the staff and volunteers who braved the biting cold for us to view their amazing collection of classic aircraft was deeply appreciated. A refreshing reminder of a previous generation of aviation.

All too soon our Aeropark experience had come to an end and it was on to the main event. The group made their way back by bus to East Midlands Airport where we arrived at West Atlantic UK on the fringe of the airfield. We were warmly greeted by several senior staff members along with operations personnel, flight crew and engineering representatives.

We received an introduction to the airline itself, its history and background, its current market position and its future plans. The fleet both past and present was discussed along with an insight into air freight operations. A host of fascinating stories and accounts from piloting cargo aircraft to freight transportation in general – left us all longing for more and more.

As we progressed through the spare parts storage area into the enormous main engineering hangar we were met by current and new fleet members. An immaculate Boeing 737-400(F) G-JMCK with gleaming paint work to put many an aircraft of fewer years, in the shade and the latest fleet addition 737-800(BCF) G-NPTD – finally face to face and surprising for most, in FedEx livery. G-JMCK a 1998 year aircraft operated for the majority of its years, flying passengers for Thai Airways International before being converted to a freighter role in 2016, arriving at West Atlantic in January 2017. G-NPTD, the new arrival fresh from Shanghai, our group, its first well-wishers.

Dispersed into smaller numbers, we set about inspecting both aircraft simultaneously only pausing to switch planes when we really had to. With some viewing the 400 series while others the 800, a comparison could quite easily be made between the two generations of 737 freighter.

External viewing commenced with knowledgeable staff members talking us through nose wheel, main undercarriage, engines, various wing areas and surfaces, tail and APU. Most braved the darkened main upper deck hold of the 737-400, an airliner area foreign to many and for some a first to step inside the vast voluminous space of a cargo aircraft. The same hold on the newer aircraft was a brighter affair and had obviously not witnessed cargo carrying duties yet. To say its inner quarters were fresh is an understatement.

The crew door from cabin to hold displayed a slight redesign on the 800 series. One of the more obvious aspects of the conversion work required along with strengthening hold floor and the addition of roller-floor to receive cargo containers is the large loading door on the forward fuselage. A highly technical inclusion and vital to the working performance of any freighter.

The final region of interest was of course the business end. It was interesting to compare both cockpits of 737-400 and 800, each separated by a generation of Boeing 737 design evolution. Always the most time consuming part of Airliner Experience tours, to sit in either ‘hot seat’ is a favourite with enthusiasts. With flight crew on hand to answer questions and recall personal accounts flying freighters, once wedged into the cockpit it’s no wonder some needed to be prised back out.

737 Classic Flight Deck

737 NG Flight Deck

A position on the flight deck in both aircraft was at the same time similar and yet different. The basic architecture remains common to both the Classic Series and Next Generation (NG). The most obvious visual difference is the inclusion of five LCD screens in the NG model and the reduction of analogue dials and switchgear from the 400 series. The 737-400F retains that classic look enthusiasts seek out and while it’s a busier work place in appearance when compared to the 800 series which is now more familiar with a clearer interface common across current airliners.

Alas our visit had taken up more than enough time of the ever-so-patient West Atlantic UK staff. Final photos snapped, group photos in the bag and last glances snatched of these two 737 freighters. The newest member of the 24 strong West Atlantic UK fleet, G-NPTD only days away from joining the team and venturing into European skies.

With each of us having thanked our hosts for giving of their time and allowing us to view inside West Atlantic UK’s maintenance facility, we reluctantly departed and made a direct line back to the Terminal. Over dinner, chat and discussion flowing among the group – the main topic, (apart from what to pick from the tasty desert menu) our aviation packed day of both Aeropark treats and freighter insights at West Atlantic UK and catching that newly converted 737-800(BCF).

While our UK fellow enthusiasts made their way home by road the majority of the group boarded another Boeing 737-800 of the day, for our late evening flight to Dublin. Tired but thrilled with a tremendous day enjoyed by all. Of our two venues experienced, both the Aeropark and West Atlantic UK possessed a common thread. The older aircraft now exhibits at Aeropark East Midlands while no long flying, continue with a purpose, to educate and deliver immense pleasure to all who visit them.  The West Atlantic UK fleet of 737-300F’s, 400F’s & 800(BCF)’s may not be passenger carrying airliner’s anymore but continue a flying career operating as freighters – a new lease of life, a second wind.

Having spent a few shorts hours in the company of West Atlantic UK staff, the knowledge and enthusiasm for aviation and aircraft maintenance our host’s conveyed was acutely obvious. With so many airlines now operating similar aircraft within their fleets, it’s the aircraft with West Atlantic titles on the fuselages that refreshingly stand out. For enthusiasts, modern classics are of enormous interest and pleased to say West Atlantic operates these in abundance. While acknowledging a requirement to progress with the times, the cargo airline has begun its fleet renewal with the introduction of the 737-800(BCF).

Airliner Experience and its enthusiasts were privileged to gain access to the maintenance facility and the team who keep this workhorse fleet active and flying. The condition and presentation of the older classic 737’s was nothing short of exemplary, highlighting the calibre of staff under its wing. While passenger air transport is a notoriously difficult industry to survive in, the air freight segment can be even tougher. Tough conditions require dedicated people and from our appreciative visit to West Atlantic UK the 737 fleet are in good hands – a dedicated workforce.

A tremendously satisfying experience for us all………West Atlantic UK – Onwards & Upwards.

Written by Aidan Nolan – Airliner Experience

Photo’s by Kevin Horgan & Rob Edson

A very special thanks to Rob, Nick, Mark F & Mark H & Colin. The Management & Staff of West Atlantic UK – East Midlands Airport. And also thank you to Mike & Dave, the Staff & Volunteers at Aeropark – East Midlands Airport

Some other photos from the Day

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