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Larger than Life

THE STORY OF THE ANTONOV AN-124

On 26 December, 1982, history was made as the first prototype of the Antonov An-124 took to the skies for the first time. The aircraft was engineered by the Antonov Design Bureau to replace the Antonov An-22 and satisfy the Soviet Air Force’s need for strategic heavy airlift capability. A total of 56 An-124s were built at the Antonov complex in Kiev, Ukraine as well as at the Aviastar factory in Ulyanovsk, Russia.

Production ceased after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but 26 An-124s remain in commercial service today, and they continue to evolve. Although the An-124 originally had a service life of 7,500 hours, adjustments have been made and derivatives such as the An-124-100, the version intended for commercial use, have been designed in order to extend service life as well as meet civil aviation requirements.

As the aircraft continue to remain in demand from both military and commercial sectors, this issue of LM is delving into the past, present and future of the An-124s. To find out more, we speak with two experts on the subject: Mr. Michael Goodisman, Business Development Manager for Ruslan International Ltd and Ms. Olga Manakhova, Marketing and Advertising Manager for Volga-Dnepr Airlines.

BLAST FROM THE PAST

For over twenty years, Volga-Dnepr Group has been a world leader in the unique, oversize and heavy cargo market

Antonov Airlines founded the market of unique, heavy and oversize air cargo transportation with the An-124’s predecessor, the Antonov An-22, and established the market for An-124s with several unique transports such as a 100 ton turbine wheel for Tagtagul Hydro Plant. “Then in 1990, Volga-Dnepr became the first private airfreight company in Russia to offer commercial operations using An-124 Ruslan freighters to provide air logistics solutions that were previously thought impossible. For over twenty years, Volga-Dnepr Group has been a world leader in the unique, oversize and heavy cargo market, and Volga-Dnepr Airlines operates chartered freight services within the Group,” explains Ms. Manakhova.

Chapman Freeborn and Volga-Dnepr deliver Argentina’s first satellite on AN-124 charter

Along with the An-124’s unique cargo loading capabilities comes a unique partnership for managing the An-124-100 fleets of two airlines. As Mr. Goodisman elaborates, “Ruslan International Ltd was established in 2006 as a joint venture between Antonov Airlines, the market-leading cargo airline division of Antonov State Company, and Volga-Dnepr Airlines. The purpose of the company is to manage and market the combined fleet of Antonov’s seven and Volga-Dnepr’s ten An-124-100s. When Ruslan International was formed, senior managers and key personnel were transferred from both airlines to jointly lead the company’s coordination process. From the outset, there was a strong effort to ensure that all departments could work equally effectively on either fleet.”

“The An-124-100, the civil derivative, has the unique ability to carry cargo with weight or dimensions that cannot be loaded into most other commercial aircraft. Nose door and tail door access provide no restriction to the cargo cabin. And with its wing above, rather than below, the fuselage, the An-124’s cargo cabin floor is only 3m off the ground. The aircraft can retract its nose gear to lower the cargo cabin floor to ground level in a process called kneeling. This means that no high-loader is required for onloading and offloading. Additionally, the cargo cabin itself includes an overhead crane that can lift 20 tons, and up to 30 tons with an adapter. Various loading ramps can enable loading of pieces heavier than 30 tons. Therefore, the cargo cabin can accommodate very large individual items such as 100 ton transformers, 4m high broadcast vans and 36m long wind turbine blades. The vast array of cargo types that can be accommodated by the An-124 is unmatched.”

Ms. Manakhova adds, “with Volga-Dnepr’s recently launched Engineering & Logistics Centre, we are able to offer complete multi-modal, door-to-door solutions for delivery of a wide variety of outsized cargo anywhere in the world. Volga-Dnepr regularly delivers Russian as well as foreign-made aerospace units, such as rocket boosters, satellites, fixed wings and aircraft engines. We’ve also seen a lot of demand for delivery of oil and gas equipment, electrical generators and turbines.”

Nose door and tail door access provide no restriction to the cargo cabin. And with its wing above, rather than below, the fuselage, the An-124’s cargo cabin floor is only 3m off the ground.

Since the An-124 was originally conceived as a military transporter, it was designed to land on short runways – making the aircraft very well-suited for transporting aid to hard-to-reach or disaster-struck locations. “For humanitarian purposes, our aircraft act as “flying warehouses” capable of landing in remote areas. We typically carry vehicles, such as ambulances, jeeps and trucks, as well as a wide range of smaller equipment, from office supplies to medical supplies. For instance, Ruslan International flew construction equipment to Haiti following the devastating earthquake in 2010,” explains Mr. Goodisman.

BACK TO THE FUTURE

With the An-124’s impressive versatility and ability to load cargo that other aircraft cannot, it has carved out its own niche – so it’s no surprise that they continue to remain in demand despite the economic downturn. Of course, the An-124 has had to constantly evolve in order to adapt to the modern-day market, and some of these changes have been incorporated into the design of the An-124-100. Since the An-124-100 targeted the commercial market, it was designed to meet or exceed civil aviation requirements. The An-124-100 not only meets the noise level requirements of Part III, Appendix 16, of the ICAO regulations, but these aircraft are also compliant in terms of aviation engine emissions and piloting accuracy.

As regulations continue to get stricter, fleet operators must constantly be prepared to adapt to further policy changes. Ms. Manakhova describes, “for the purpose of compliance with prospective ICAO requirements and even more efficient operations, Volga-Dnepr Group launched the tender for design activities on the AN-124-100 fleet. This modernization project, which will begin in 2014, will involve several companies, such as our partner Antonov, and will include research and development work followed by EASA and/or FAA certification and further modification of the current fleet.”

As the main prerogative of Antonov was and remains the design, modification and performance of aircraft, we will continue to develop our fleet

Furthermore, these aircraft are now expected to last 45 years. That’s because the An-124-100’s previous service life of 24,000 flight hours has been extended to 50,000 flight hours.  “This means that the first aircraft from our fleet is due to retire in 2027, with other aircraft retiring up to 20 years later. Additionally, maintenance costs for the An-124 are relatively low for an aircraft of this size, so we certainly don’t expect these costs to become uneconomical before the end of the aircraft’s service life. As the main prerogative of Antonov was and remains the design, modification and performance of aircraft, we will continue to develop our fleet,” explains Mr. Goodisman.

As demand increases and the market for outsize cargo continues to grow, the next logical step in replenishing the fleet of An-124s is resumption of production. Renewing production allows for even more modern innovations to be incorporated into new An-124s. According to Ms. Manakhova, “The aircraft designer, Antonov Design Bureau, Volga-Dnepr and other partners intend to resume production of a new, modernized version of the An-124-100 which will utilize a smaller flight crew and feature cutting-edge avionics, a modified power plant, increased payload capability of up to 150 tons as well as a longer operational range in order to comply with ICAO requirements. Design work on several An-124 variants is already under way, since Russian and Ukrainian partners agreed on the Priority Measures for Resumed Production and Phased Modernization of the An-124-100 in 2005.”

Steady progress continues to be made, as on 17th July, 2013, Ukraine’s Vice Prime Minister, Mr. Yuriy Boyko, announced that Ukraine and Russia have agreed to establish a joint venture to build new Antonov An-124 aircraft, for which Ukraine will provide the technological base and Russia will fund the production and do the marketing. It is a project that will not only strengthen the relationship between Russia and Ukraine, but also benefit both countries’ position in the global outsized air cargo market. It is a valuable opportunity to extend the legacy of this historic series of aircraft that continues to stand the test of time.