The request for permission to land was favourably received by the air traffic controller in the tower. “Permission granted – but please land only on the northern part of the runway. On the southern section, rebels and the military are currently engaged in a gunfight!” The crew in the cockpit of the cargo airliner had to act with lightning speed: manoeuvring the aircraft into the hail of bullets on landing in Burundi was no option for the experienced pilot Nigel Ironside. With the help of a daring full braking action, he achieved the seemingly impossible and brought the DC-8 to a standstill on the northern section of the runway in a huge cloud of dust. The cargo remained undamaged.
Men like the Lufthansa Cargo pilot Nigel Ironside have shaped the 100-year history of airfreight in Germany – with their courage, their passion and their constant search for new challenges. From 1988 the British-born man began training newly formed flight teams for the airfreight company German Cargo, a predecessor of today’s Lufthansa Cargo. Ironside, who has flown pretty much everything in his career – from military helicopters to the MD-11 – ranks today as one of the forefathers of the cargo pilots in Germany.
A mere 20 years before the masterly landing manoeuvre in the steppe, airfreight was not really taken seriously as a market of the future. Until the 1970s, the cargo business was often viewed as a mere by-product of an airline’s passenger business.
Wilhelm Althen was one of those who foresaw at an early stage the great potential of airfreight as an independent line of business. The first Chairman and CEO of Lufthansa Cargo AG, which was founded in 1994, was the equivalent to Ironside on the management side. From 1977, as Managing Director of the newly founded airfreight company German Cargo, Althen paved the way for the future. At the time, he had a fleet of four Boeing 707Fs, each with a payload of just 26 tonnes. In the first financial year, Althen and his team of 16 generated the equivalent of 32,000 euros in profit – a sure sign that further success was definitely attainable.
The whole history of airfreight, however, really began with a PR stunt. In November 1910, an American businessman came up with the brilliant idea of flying ten bales of silk from Dayton, Ohio to Columbus, Ohio. He soon reached agreement with the pioneers of American aviation, the Wright brothers, who took on the job for 5,000 dollars. The flight distance was only 100 kilometres. On arrival at the destination, they set about cutting the silk into small pieces and gluing them onto postcards as souvenirs. These little gems, ennobled by the flight at head-spinning heights, sold like hot cakes and became much sought-after collector’s items. Nine months later, in August 1911, the first chapter of German airfreight history began when the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper hired a biplane to fly from Berlin-Johannisthal to Frankfurt an der Oder.
Its cargo consisted of a few bundles of newspapers with the latest edition of the Berliner Morgenpost. When pilot Siegfried Hoffmann landed, he also made media history: the newspapers fresh off the press arrived a whole hour earlier than was possible by rail. There was definitely no way at the time of being more up-to-date. The pioneers in the early days of aviation had to do without navigation standards such as the artificial horizon on the instrument panel. The first cargo pilots set their course by the sun – and by railway lines, trains being the hitherto fastest means of transport, which aviators were keen to surpass. Even the likes of Captain Nigel Ironside still had to compile the flight plan himself at the beginning of his career and update the navigation en route by feeding the coordinates individually into the system – laborious tasks that have long since been taken over by a high-precision flight management system.
The volcanic eruption on Iceland in 2010 showed just how extensively airfreight drives the global economy forward today. The Europe-wide ban on flights meant that many German industrial companies were short of supplies of components, resulting in assembly lines temporarily coming to a standstill, for example, at BMW. More than that: airfreight saves lives – as was shown by the great historic achievement of the Berlin Airlift between 1948 and 1949 and by the humanitarian relief flights to the crisis regions of the world today. Lufthansa Cargo’s success would undoubtedly be unimaginable without the dedication of individual personalities such as pilot Nigel Ironside and Lufthansa Cargo CEO and Chairman Wilhelm Althen.
With their work they laid the foundations for the company that exists today. Althen, in true pioneer style, also had to pull out all the stops to save more time and increase security for his cargo customers. In Burma, modernday Myanmar, flyover rights
would have shortened flight time on the route to Hong Kong by 20 minutes and saved kerosene. Althen attached great importance to on-the-spot negotiations. To his surprise, the people in authority requested three Quelle mail order catalogues in return for granting rights to fly over the country. Althen personally supplied the “precious items” to his negotiating partners, who subsequently ordered goods from the mail-order company to the value of approximately 3,000 DMarks shortly afterwards. And from then on, cargo from distant Germany flew even faster to Hong Kong.