Could helicopters solve the Suez canal blockage?

AeroTime News

With the Ever Given container ship blocking the Suez canal ‒ and 10% of the world’s trade with it – we can’t help but wonder: would helicopters help?

The problem is that the ship is deeply lodged in the walls of the canal: at the front, its bulbous bow is calculated to be as much as five meters deep in the sand, while the stern sits on the sand too.

For now, the prime solution seems to be the removal of sand – the deepening of the canal – all around the vessel. A difficult endeavor, since an incredible amount of sand has to be moved, much of it – from underwater.

Another solution would be to make the ship lighter, so it would lift itself from the bottom of the canal. That means reducing its weight somehow.

A heavy problem

While the exact number of cargo the Ever Given carries is not published, its capacity is over 20,000 20-foot-long (6.1 m) intermodal containers, although in its current configuration – as photos of the vessel show – the ship is mostly loaded with double-size, 40-foot-long (12,2 m) containers.

One empty 40-foot-long container weighs 2,400 kilograms (5,290 pounds) and can fit a maximum of 28,8. kilograms (61,910 pounds) of cargo, for a total maximum gross weight of whopping 30,480 kilograms (67,200 pounds). 

While there is a high chance not all of the Ever Given’s containers are filled to the brim, logistics companies typically try to maximize the load of their containers, as shipping empty space is not exactly efficient. Also, from the photos it appears the ship sits very close to its waterline, meaning that it carries almost as much as it possibly can. 

Normally, those containers are put in place by massive cranes that are the defining feature of ports all around the world. Tall and powerful, the cranes are built to lift fully-loaded containers with ease. But there is a problem: they are huge and can’t be shipped to the middle of the desert.

Mobile crane barges exist – vessels equipped with cranes capable of loading container ships while parked by them. There is a high chance that right now a whole slew of such barges is steaming towards the Suez canal from various points of the World.

But there are difficulties with this solution. First off, those barges are slow and every hour spent waiting for them means colossal losses for the whole worldwide economy. Also, using them in such a situation may be dangerous: as a result, we can have two ships stuck in the canal, instead of just one. 

There has to be an easier solution, right?

So, helicopters

Some Egyptian officials have actually mentioned this solution: if nothing else works, removing some of theEver Given’s cargo with helicopters, to make the ship lighter and thus easier to get unstuck.

Can it be done? The fully-loaded 40-foot-long container weighs over 30 tons (67,200 pounds). For a regular helicopter, lifting it is simply impossible: the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk has a maximum cargo capacity of 1,200 kilograms (2,640 lb); the Mil Mi-8, a considerably heavier helicopter, can barely lift 4,000 kg (8,800 lb).

The iconic tandem-rotor Boeing CH-47 Chinook is heavier, still, it can lift only 10,886 kg (24,000 lb) – a third of a fully-loaded container.

We need something more powerful. The Sikorsky CH-53K King Stallion, the most powerful helicopter in the US arsenal, can lift 16,329 kg (36,000 lb) ‒ only a half of what is needed. The Mil Mi-26, the most powerful and the heaviest mass-produced helicopter in the world can lift… only 20,000 kg (44,000 lb).

While all of these are military helicopters and there are rotary-wing aircraft that are designed to work as cranes – the Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane and the Mil Mi-10, for example – they are still not designed to lift more than 10,000 kg.

While the Mi-26 is the most powerful helicopter that is currently operational, at one point in time there was, actually, something even heavier – the Mil V-12, world’s heaviest and most powerful helicopter. It could lift 40,000 kg (88,000 lb) of cargo and would have no difficulty in transporting even the fully-loaded 40-footer off the deck of the Ever Given.

But it was only a one-off prototype, and even if anybody would be interested in taking it from the museum and restoring it, that would likely take years. 

So, to sum up – no, there is no helicopter in the world that could lift a fully-loaded container off the deck of the Ever Given. If at least some of its containers are only filled to two-thirds, a fleet of Mi-26s would help. Some of those giants are even in the vicinity of the Suez canal: the Royal Jordanian Air Force operates two Mi-26s, and several more could probably be shipped from India or Russia, although that would take weeks. 

For many containers, using helicopters would probably mean at least partially unloading their cargo, which is a difficult and time-consuming endeavor. The process of removing containers by helicopters would be even more difficult, dangerous, and time-consuming, so it is very, very unlikely we will see it implemented unless the situation gets really desperate.

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