A later Ju 290
with the Trapoklappe
ramp lowered, first pioneered on the 1939 Junkers Ju 90
. Note the personnel stairway between the vehicular trackway ramps.
Aircraft were put to use carrying cargo in the form of "air mail" as early as 1911. Although the earliest aircraft were not designed primarily as cargo carriers, by the mid-1920s aircraft manufacturers were designing and building dedicated cargo aircraft.
In the UK during the early 1920s, the need was recognized for a freighter aircraft to transport troops and materiel quickly to pacify tribal revolts in the newly occupied territories of the Middle East. The Vickers Vernon, a development of the Vickers Vimy Commercial, entered service with the Royal Air Force as the first dedicated troop transport in 1921. In February 1923 this was put to use by the RAF's Iraq Command who flew nearly 500 Sikh troops from Kingarban to Kirkuk in the first ever strategic airlift of troops. Vickers Victorias played an important part in the Kabul Airlift of November 1928–February 1929, when they evacuated diplomatic staff and their dependents together with members of the Afghan royal family endangered by a civil war. The Victorias also helped to pioneer air routes for Imperial Airways' Handley Page HP.42 airliners.
The World War II German design, the Arado Ar 232 was the first purpose built cargo aircraft. The Ar 232 was intended to supplant the earlier Junkers Ju 52 freighter conversions, but only a few were built. Most other forces used freighter versions of airliners in the cargo role as well, most notably the C-47 Skytrain version of the Douglas DC-3, which served with practically every Allied nation. One important innovation for future cargo aircraft design was introduced in 1939, with the fifth and sixth prototypes of the Junkers Ju 90 four-engined military transport aircraft, with the earliest known example of a rear loading ramp. This aircraft, like most of its era, used tail-dragger landing gear which caused the aircraft to have a decided rearward tilt when landed. These aircraft introduced the Trapoklappe, a powerful ramp/hydraulic lift with a personnel stairway centered between the vehicle trackway ramps, that raised the rear of the aircraft into the air and allowed easy loading. A similar rear loading ramp even appeared in a somewhat different form on the nosewheel gear-equipped, late WW II era American Budd RB-1 Conestoga twin-engined cargo aircraft.
Postwar Europe also served to play a major role in the development of the modern air cargo and air freight industry. It is during the Berlin Airlift at the height of the Cold War, when a massive mobilization of aircraft was undertaken by the West to supply West Berlin with food and supplies, in a virtual around the clock air bridge, after the Soviet Union closed and blockaded Berlin's land links to the west. To rapidly supply the needed numbers of aircraft, many older types, especially the Douglas C-47 Skytrain, were pressed into service. In operation it was found that it took as long or longer to unload these older designs as the much larger tricycle landing gear Douglas C-54 Skymaster which was easier to move about in when landed. The C-47s were quickly removed from service, and from then on flat-decks were a requirement of all new cargo designs.
In the years following the war era a number of new custom-built cargo aircraft were introduced, often including some "experimental" features. For instance, the US's C-82 Packet featured a removable cargo area, while the C-123 Provider introduced the now-common rear fuselage/upswept tail shaping to allow for a much larger rear loading ramp. But it was the introduction of the turboprop that allowed the class to mature, and even one of its earliest examples, the C-130 Hercules, in the 21st century as the Lockheed Martin C-130J, is still the yardstick against which newer military transport aircraft designs are measured. Although larger, smaller and faster designs have been proposed for many years, the C-130 continues to improve at a rate that keeps it in production.
"Strategic" cargo aircraft became an important class of their own starting with the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy in the 1960s and a number of similar Soviet designs from the 70s and 80s, and culminating in the Antonov An-225, the world's largest aircraft. These designs offer the ability to carry the heaviest loads, even main battle tanks, at global ranges. The Boeing 747 was originally designed to the same specification as the C-5, but later modified as a design that could be offered as either passenger or all-freight versions. The "bump" on the top of the fuselage allows the crew area to be clear of the cargo containers sliding out of the front in the event of an accident.
When the Airbus A380 was announced, the maker originally accepted orders for the freighter version A380F, offering the second largest payload capacity of any cargo aircraft, exceeded only by the An-225. An aerospace consultant has estimated that the A380F would have 7% better payload and better range than the 747-8F, but also higher trip costs.