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US military enlists commercial cargo airlines in logistics blitz to send weapons to Ukraine

Atlas Air, Kalitta freighters spotted with military cargo at Air Force base

U.S. airmen at Dover Air Force Base load an Atlas Air cargo plane with supplies for Ukraine on May 24, 2021. (Photo: U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Cydney Lee)

At least three commercial cargo airlines are ferrying lethal U.S. military equipment to Ukraine as part of a massive logistics operation to get weapons to front-line fighters and push back Russian invaders.

An NBC News segment on Saturday showed Atlas Air (NASDAQ: AAWW) and Kalitta Air 747 freighters flying out of Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, headed to Poland with munitions for Ukraine. The Biden administration has committed more than $3.4 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since the beginning of Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24.

As previously reported, Orlando, Florida-based National Airlines has also been flying 747 cargo jets with weapons and equipment since before the outbreak of hostilities in late February.

Operating under existing contracts with the Defense Department, the three cargo airlines are carrying ammunition for 155mm howitzers, Javelin anti-tank missiles, Stinger shoulder-fired antiaircraft systems, pistols, body armor and other equipment, according to NBC and the Pentagon.

A 747 can fit about 42 pallets of artillery shells or about 3,000 rounds, NBC said.

Unmarked tractor trailers are delivering explosives to Dover Air Force Base, the hub of the Ukraine resupply effort, from ammunition depots across the country. 

Pallets containing ammunition, explosives and other supplies are loaded into a cargo plane.
Pallets containing ammunition, explosives and other supplies bound for Ukraine are loaded onboard an aircraft at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, on March 20. (Photo: U.S Air Force/Staff Sgt. Mario Gomez.)

A military officer in charge of warehouse and loading operations at Dover said on NBC’s report that  the U.S. has shipped more than 7 million pounds of material to Ukraine on more than 60 flights.

The Pentagon, Atlas Air, Kalitta Air and National Airlines did not respond to email requests for further information.

During a call with analysts to discuss first quarter earnings, Atlas Air CEO John Dietrich said the company has been supporting the U.S. military’s supply efforts for Ukraine.

Atlas Air has the largest fleet of 747 cargo jets in the world. Kalitta operates 22 Boeing 747-400s, according to Flightradar24 and National has six 747-400s.

All three airlines are part of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, which gives participants priority for Defense business in exchange for making their fleets available for national security emergencies. 

(Updated May 5, 6:47 p.m. ET)

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch. 

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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals and a Silver Medal from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government and trade coverage, and news analysis. He was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. In December 2022, he was voted runner up for Air Cargo Journalist by the Seahorse Freight Association. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]