It was a day of high challenge for Barloworld Equipment’s technical team on Thursday October 21, 2016, when Barloworld Equipment was tasked with moving two disused 150-ton Boeing 747-300 aircraft from open veld to the tar apron at OR Tambo International Airport.

A request had come in from Nevergreen Aircraft Industries – an aircraft dismantling, demolishing and maintenance company, for assistance in moving two old Angolan Airlines aircraft that had been stationed on the grassy patch for the past seven years.  The aircraft, previously owned by a Botswana company, had recently been sold to the Universal Recycling Company, which was planning to cut them up and melt them down for scrap metal.

Nevergreen had been tasked with stripping the aircraft of all avionics and electronic components, making sure it was free of any hazardous material and that it met all of Boeing’s safety regulations before it was handed over for recycling. Barloworld Equipment was to tow the aircraft off the uneven soft terrain to the tar apron, where tugs could then take over and pull the two aircraft to Nevergreen’s warehouse at the airport. 

William Horne, Barloworld Equipment Product Application Specialist focusing on Articulated Dump Trucks, Hydraulic Excavators and Forestry Products, said Barloworld Equipment was really excited to take up the challenge as it was something the company in South Africa did not get to do every day. “We were involved in a similar operation at Rand Airport many years ago when an SAA Lebombo 747 aircraft was retired and had to be positioned off the runway as a display for The South African Airways Museum Society.”

Horne says to move the aircraft at OR Tambo, Barloworld Equipment had to decide what Caterpillar equipment would be best suited for the job.

“Barloworld Equipment’s used equipment division agreed to make two used CAT 740B articulated dump trucks available for the operation. We decided on Articulated Trucks instead of track dozers so as to minimise the impact to the airport ground. These trucks are built for very poor underfoot conditions, have very good flotation, wide tyres and a very strong drawbar pull of up to 38 tons, which we believed would be sufficient to pull the aircraft.”

While the task looked simple, Horne foresaw that it was not going to be without its challenges as the second aircraft was parked in a ditch. He was proved right.

The initial plan was to tow the aircraft backwards because of the way they were positioned and because they had no steering or brakes. The movement would be controlled using two CAT 740B ATs – one on each side. A coordinator would stand behind the plane and communicate by two-way radio with the two truck drivers - who could not see each other - and instruct them when to move forward, slow down, turn this way or that. While the planes were being moved they also had to be turned so that their noses faced the tarmac. 

The moving of the first plane went exactly as planned and was parked on the tarmac in no time. 

As the Barloworld Equipment team started moving the second plane, the aircraft’s wheels got lodged in the soft dirt in the ditch and would not move. There had been heavy rains the previous evening. 

The team had to rethink their plan. They decided on a course of action that would see the plane pulled away from the soft soil to hard ground and then towed to the tarmac. This necessitated first connecting a tug to the front wheels under the nose and pulling the plane forward. Then a 12m sling was tied to the front wheels and connected to one of the 740B ATs. This way, they were able to pull the aircraft sideways and then to face in the opposite direction and tow it down to the tarmac.

Only one 740B AT was required to tow the aircraft for most of the way, until there was a dip in the terrain. The team then connected the second 740B AT to back of the aircraft to act as a brake so that the aircraft’s forward roll could be controlled where required. 

A delighted Milenko Krsmanovic, Nevergreen Aircraft Industries Accountable Manager, said: “I just want to thank Barloworld Equipment and Caterpillar for an absolutely phenomenal job in towing these aircraft. It was not an easy job. The ground was extremely soft and we had to use our ingenuity. But with the great help received from the experts at Barloworld Equipment and two phenomenal Caterpillar machines, we managed to move 150 tons of metal through very difficult terrain onto safe hard ground.”

Horne added that Barloworld Equipment was very excited that the operation was such a success. “It shows that our team at Barloworld Equipment can take on any challenge and that Caterpillar’s equipment is world-class standard. It’s part of our day-to-day cooperation with customers to find solutions and offer machine packages to suit their operations. Through this we build long-term relationships.”