The giant Ruslan continues to perform well in the niche super heavy and outsize cargo market it created itself nearly 20 years ago. Alexander Mladenov reports
ANTONOV An-124 COMMERCIAL
The An-124 was developed in the late 1970s by Kiev-based Antonov Design Bureau to meet a Soviet Air Force requirement for a super heavy transport aircraft with better performance than its US rival, the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy. Its design was launched following a Soviet Council of Ministers decree dated February 1972. Initially, Antonov proposed a rather conservative design, which was shelved in 1976. Instead, much more advanced technical solutions were conceived for the new machine, which was externally similar to the C-5 and borrowed some design specifics from it, such as the upward-hinging nose and kneeling landing gear to facilitate easier cargo hold access. The new four-engine military transport, dubbed Ruslan and known in NATO as Condor, featured a raft of cuttingedge technologies never used before on such a class of aircraft in the Soviet Union. The list of novelties included supercritical wing profile and a fly-by-wire flight control system to enhance performance, together with advanced production methods and materials for the large-size airframe structure components to save weight. In addition, the new aircraft got an all-new engine, the Ivchenko-Progress D-18T high-bypass ratio turbofan, the first of its kind to be designed and built in the Soviet Union.
The first Ruslan prototype, c/n 01-01, wearing the Soviet civil registration CCCP-680125, entered assembly at the Antonov experimental plant in Kiev in 1979 and was rolled out on October 24, 1982, while the maiden flight followed suit on December 24, 1982; Antonov test pilot Vladimir Tersky was the captain on board. The initial period of testing was plagued by the disappointingly low reliability of the D-18T engine, which continued to be a serious issue even at the type entry into service with the Soviet Air Force in 1987, and persisted in the following decade.
The second airframe built at Antonov, c/n 01-02, was used for static tests, while the first production-standard aircraft, 01-03, was produced at Kiev, in the plant now known as Aviant, with the first flight made in December 1984. Sadly, it was lost in crash on October 13, 1987, due to a bird strike and a subsequent destruction of the nose radome with fragments of it ingested by three engines causing catastrophic damage.
The second plant in the Soviet Union engaged in the An-124’s series-production was newly built in Ulyanovsk in Russia, now known as Aviastar-SP. Its first aircraft, c/n 01-07, took to the air for the first time in October 1985. A total of 96 Ruslans were originally planned to be built for the Soviet Air Force, 36 of these at the Kiev plant and 60 more in Ulyanovsk, in addition to two Antonov-built airframes. In the event, the Soviet Union abrupt break-up shelved these plans and in the 1990s the An-124 production was sharply reduced; in the 2000s, only single aircraft were rolled out at both plants, delivered to civilian customers only.
The total production run accounted for 54 series-produced Ruslans, including 18 in Kiev and 36 more in Ulyanovsk. The final machine built at Aviant in Kiev took to the air for the first time in October 2003, while the last Aviastar- SP-built Ruslan made its first flight in April 2004.
Currently, the biggest An-124 operator is the Russian Air and Space Force (RuASF), with a total fleet of 26 aircraft operated by the 566th VTAP (military air transport regiment) at Sescha in the west of the country. There are 20 civil aircraft in active operation at present, including 12 in the fleet of Russian operator Volga-Dnepr and seven more in the fleet of Antonov Airlines of Ukraine, while another one is operated by Maximus Air Cargo of the United Arab Emirates.
In military service
The An-124 was designed to accommodate all heavy weapons systems of the Soviet Army, such as main battle tanks, heavy guns and missile systems. In the civil service, its cargo hold can take 12 ISO containers and any heavy and bulky cargoes fitting into a cross-section 6.4m (21ft) wide, 4.4m (14ft 5in) high and 36.5m (119ft 9in) long, and weighing up to 150 tonnes, with a normal payload set at 120 tonnes. Loading and unloading of the cargo hold, offering a total volume of 40,965ft3 (1,160m3), can be undertaken via the fuselage nose or the rear door ramp. The cargo hold floor height can be adjusted, as can its slope, to kneel the aircraft forward or aft in order to make loading and unloading easier and faster. The cargo hold comes equipped with two electrical winches and four electric hoists of common capacity of up to 30 tonnes. Hourly fuel consumption is 10 tonnes in cruise flight, increasing to 17 tonnes when in climb out to cruise level.
The RuASF’s overall An-124 fleet numbers 26 aircraft, including 14 upgraded to the An-124-100 standard suitable for worldwide commercial operations. In the previous decade, the fleet of military-operated Ruslans suffered from very poor serviceability rates, with a maximum of four aircraft available at any given moment; their main mission was to support head-of-state visits abroad, flown by Fflight Unit 224 and maintaining aircrew currency. Since 2008, the military An-124 fleet has been cycled through structural overhauls, life-extension and avionics upgrades (and where necessary to the An-124-100 standard) at Aviastar-SP company in Ulyanovsk, at a rate of one to two units per year. Currently, the upgraded fleet numbers 11 aircraft, all of which are in active operation. During the life-extension effort, carried out together with the upgrade works, the type’s service life has been increased to 50,000 flight hours, 10,000 flight cycles and 45 years.
The first upgraded Ruslan redelivered to the RuASF in January 2010, while the second example followed in 2011. The An-124- 100(VTA) avionics/equipment and structural upgrade package results in a range increase with a 120-tonne payload from 2,508 nautical miles (4,650km) to 2,913 nautical miles (5,400km) and the aircraft was also made able to transport single loads weighing up to 120 tonnes. The upgraded Ruslan for the RuASF also sports a new flight/navigation suite, similar to that of the civil version, and the list of the other improvements includes new, more effective wheel brakes for shortening the landing roll by some 20% and more powerful self-loading/ unloading equipment in the cargo hold.
In April 2018, Ilyushin announced that it was appointed by the Russian government as the new design authority for the militaryoperated An-124 fleet in Russia and it has already discussed with the Russian MoD a deep upgrade for the type, mainly centred on the integration of an up-to-date Russiandesigned digital flight/navigation suite. It is expected this fleet-wide upgrade to be given a go-ahead in the early 2020s, as the aircraft are expected to continue in military service until the mid/late 2040s.
In civilian operation
It is noteworthy that the mass use of the An- 124 in the commercial air transport world since 1991 has become possible thanks to the very low purchase price of the aircraft at the time. This enabled the aircraft to be utilised in a very profitable manner from the very beginning.
Volga-Dnepr and Antonov Airlines have been operating the type in a very successful manner since the early 1990s. In the mid- 1990s, Polet Airlines became the third major airline in this business and the Ruslan was also operated by no less than eight more airlines, albeit for brief periods. This kind of business, however, proved too diicult for all these new players, with Polet Airlines being the last among them to discontinue operators and go into bankruptcy in 2014.
The civil Ruslan version, designated An- 124-100, was certiicated in December 1992 by the Intestate Aviation Committee (a civil aviation certiication body, recognised by a number of former ex-Soviet states, including Russia and Ukraine) with a maximum takeof weight of 392,000kg (864,212lb) and maximum payload of 120,000kg (330,693lb).
All civilian-operated An-124-100s are hushkitted and Stage 3 compliant, with up-to-date navigation and communication equipment to cope with the increasing air traic and airport demands for higher level of flight safety during their global operations.
The An-124-100 leet in operation today comes powered by the Ivchenko-Progress D-18T Series 3 turbofans with a maximum thrust rating of 51,654lb (229.78kN), featuring a time between overhauls of 6,000 hours (1,000 or 4,000 hours for the previous D-18T derivatives, Series 1 and 2 respectively) and a total life of 18,000 hours.
The An-124-100-150 is an enhanced version that boasts an increased payload to 150,000kg (330,693lb), while its maximum take-of weight is 402,000kg (886,008lb) and range is between 2,567 and 3,513 nautical miles (4,750 and 6,500km). One aircraft, c/n 01-06, was modiied in 2004 by Antonov, after it had logged 12,000 flight hours; it is operated by Antonov Airlines and also featured a service life extended to 24,000 flight hours and it was made capable of self-loading monocargoes weighing up to 40 tonnes.
The improved An-124-100M civil version with cockpit crew reduced to four than to the modern avionics suite compared to six on the non-upgraded version (pilot, co-pilot, two flight engineers, navigator and radio operator). There are two such aircraft, both operated by Antonov Airlines.
Ulyanovsk-based Volga-Dnepr was established in 1990, initially as a commercial joint venture between several Soviet stateowned enterprises, with the main mission to support the An-124’s production at Aviastar- SP.and headed by Alexey Isaikin, a former deputy chief of the MoD military acceptance oice at the company. The following year it got its first Ruslan from Aviastar-SP free of charge and launched commercial operations with it in November 1991. Volga-Dnepr rapidly grew into a global business and not after long the company went in full into private hands, with Isaikin being the biggest shareholder in it.
In the mid-1990s, Volga-Dnepr became the premier Russian cargo airline and leader in its speciic niche for global transportation of super heavy and outsize cargo. It became possible thanks to the partnership with the UK company Heavylift, which ofered its sales expertise in the west. The joint venture, dubbed Heavy Lift – Volga-Dnepr, was formed in 1992 and during its first year of operations the revenues accounted for $31 million, growing to $102 million in 1999. In 2000, however, the partners split, as they had diferent views on the development of the joint venture business. The US invasions in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 led to a welcome spike in the business, as the company won lucrative contracts for transporting military cargoes. As the same time, Volga-Dnepr has managed to retain and even expand its customer base in the civil world, mainly coming from the aerospace, mining and energy sectors. By 2008, its cargo charter operations, carried out by a leet of ten An-124s and ive Il-76s, generated a revenue stream of about $1 billion, with a high proit margin.
As Isaikin claimed, the An-124 is unique aircraft for unique operations as it has managed to create an entirely new segment in the aviation transport business, with nearly 90% of the company operations outside Russia. By 2000, the An-124 hourly rate offered by Volga-Dnepr was $14,000, while in 2008 it rose to $40,000, chiefly due to the huge increase in the expenses needed for fleet maintenance, upgrades and service life extensions.
Since the early 2010s, Volga-Dnepr has faced the serious issue of maintaining the airworthiness of its ageing and well-utilised An-124 which is a subject of a rather high utilisation – between 1,000 and 1,500 flight hours a year, with a record monthly utilisation reported in May 2010, accounting for 300 flight hours. By 2015, its fleet leader aircraft racked-up 26,000 flight hours, which is almost half of the service life for the type as per the last extension granted by Antonov Design Bureau, the design authority for the type, together with the Russian Central Aero and Hydrodynamics Institute – 50,000 flight hours, 45 years and 10,000 flight cycles. During the aircraft design in the late 1970s, the original Soviet Air Force requirements called for a service life of 16,000 flight hours, 25 years and 4,000 flight cycles only, which was deemed as more than enough for a military transport.
The company, established in 1989, is based in Kiev, Ukraine. It is a fully owned subsidiary of Antonov Design Bureau (now known as Antonov State Enterprise), which that year had already requested ownership of four An-124s to use for commercial operations in order to support the design bureau financially. The request expressed by Antonov’s long-time head, Piotr Balabuev, was satisfied by the Soviet Union’s Council of Ministers. In the beginning, two aircraft were rented from the Soviet Air Force and these were immediately rushed in commercial service, generating much needed cash for Antonov. The profits from the commercial air transport business were invested in research and development activities in times when the government funding was at a bare minimum level in the 1990s and early 2000s. Two more An-124s were purchased from the Kiev plant and then two more ex-Soviet Air Force machines, undergoing testing at Antonov, and considered Ukrainian property following the break-up of the Soviet Union, were added to the fleet. In the event, the company’s fleet gradually grew to seven aircraft and in the 2000s their operator, initially dubbed Ruslan and later on renamed as Antonov Airlines, generated an annual profit of between $100 million and $150 million used to keep Antonov aloft and fund the design of both An-140 and An-70.
In 2018, Antonov Airlines held 35% of the world market in the oversized and super heavy segment, with most of the rest held by Volga-Dnepr, and a very small share claimed by Fflight Unit 224 and Maximus Air Cargo.
Production resumption mission impossible
On July 30, 2018, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov, responsible for supervising the military industrial complex, told the press that there were no plans to resume An-124 production at Aviastar-SP for the Russian military. According to him, the RuASF has a big enough fleet, with a lot of service life remaining, which is now earmarked for upgrade. These An-124s, according to Borisov, could be good for operation until 2015. This statement could be considered as the last news in the series referring to the resumption of the Ruslan production, with the main driving force being Volga-Dnepr. In order to ensure sustainability of its booming global business with the type, since 2004 it has made repeated attempts to convince the Russian government to resume production of the type at Aviastar-SP, but in the event these proved fruitless.
Volga-Dnepr originally planned to increase its Ruslan fleet to 40 aircraft by 2020, but this proved impossible because of the lack of new production. In 2008, Volga- Dnepr’s Isaikin estimated that the unit price of a newly built An-124-100M-150 could be about $150 million, making it sensible to put the aircraft in commercial operation; by 2018 there were estimates the unit price could increase to $300 million. In addition, the abrupt political breakout between Russia and Ukraine since 2014 has rendered the technical implementation of this huge effort next to impossible