Who says whales can't fly?
An Antonov-124, one of the world's largest cargo-carrying aircraft, landed late Friday morning at Prince George Airport and drew a throng of aviation enthusiasts in the process.
Those who lined Boeing Road - as well as the dignitaries and media assembled at the runway's north end - saw a silver sliver grow into a massive belly with wings as the aircraft closed in and then touched down on the tarmac.
Once on the ground, the leviathan's sheer scale became even more evident as it taxied to the airport's new fueling area where seven helicopters were waiting to be loaded for transport to Angola, where they'll fly officials overseeing the nation's election around the African country.
Able to carry up to 120 tonnes, the Antonov-124 is the world's third largest aircraft in terms of cargo carrying capacity. With a wingspan of 73 metres and a length of 69 metres, its physical size was not lost on anyone at the scene.
"Look at how high that tail fin is sticking up in the air," said Wade Rasmussen as he watched from Boeing Road as a crew loaded a helicopter. "That's got to be what, seven storeys?"
It's only the second time an Antonov-124 has landed in Prince George. The last time was in 1995 to drop off some heavy industrial equipment but it left empty due to the shorter runway at that time.
The now longer runway means planes of that scale can now land and take off with a full load, and Prince George Airport Authority cargo development director Allan Ridgway hopes the Antonov-124 and other aircraft of its type will become a common sight.
"The one thing we want to prove to a lot of the carriers is we're capable of bringing in all the big equipment for mining or forestry or any of the big construction jobs coming up," Ridgway said.
Those on the apron were given earplugs and experienced a blast of jet air as the craft was positioned to take on its payload - six Bell 212 and one Bell 222 helicopters.
Onlookers were also struck by the fact that the plane has the capacity for front-end loading. The nose was lifted, a ramp was pulled out and the plane "kneeled" to ease the process.
Those lucky enough to get a tour of the plane's cargo area before the loading began came as close as anyone to knowing what plankton might face as the abundant space and the interior ribbing made those who entered feel like they were inside a whale.
This being Canada, the plane's Russian-speaking flight crew was presented with Tim Horton's donuts and coffee upon their arrival while the plane's load crew started work almost immediately after the tour was completed.
The plane is owned by Antonov Design Bureau, based out of Kiev, Ukraine, and the flight was being conducted in partnership with Volga Dnepr, which specializes in transporting unique cargo by air.
Peter Baldauf, a sales executive for Volga Dnepr who lives in Houston, Texas, was in Prince George to work with VIH Helicopters Ltd. to get the helicopters ready for transport. He was impressed with the airport's facilities.
"I think strategically, you're in a good location, being north of other traditional airports in Canada," Baldauf said. "The future looks good for you guys, you're definitely headed in the right direction."
VIH also sent helicopters to Angola in 2008-09 but Vancouver was used as the staging point last time. But because VIH's Bell 212s are based here and with the longer runway now in place, Prince George just made more sense said VIH maintenance director Russell McGowan.
He noted an Antonov-124 will be used to bring the choppers back once the work is completed, likely in three months, and indicated similar work in the future is a possbility.
"We seem to be doing more and more of the international type of work," McGowan said.
The plane is scheduled to leave this morning, tentatively at 10:30 a.m., stopping in Edmonton and then flying onto The Azores before arriving in Luanda, Angola.
See video at www.pgcitizen.ca.