DALLAS — The Antonov An-124 Ruslan made its first flight today in 1982 and was unveiled to the West in 1985 at the Paris Air Show. The Antonov Design Bureau in the 1980s developed the large strategic airlift aircraft, which was also known as the Condor.
The An-124 is the world’s heaviest gross weight production and second-heaviest running cargo plane, trailing only the one-off Antonov An-225 Mriya before its destruction at the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The chief designer of both the An-124 and the An-225 was Viktor Tolmachev.
During the 1970s, the Soviet Air Forces’ Military Transport Aviation Command (Komandovaniye Voyenno Transportnoy aviatsii, or VTA) faced a strategic heavy airlift capacity shortage. Its biggest planes were roughly 50 Antonov An-22 turboprops, primarily used for tactical missions.
Aviastar-SP (ex. Ulyanovsk Aviation Industrial Complex) in Ulyanovsk, Russia, and Kyiv Aviation Plant AVIANT in Ukraine produced the An-124 simultaneously. Design work began in 1971, and facility construction began in 1973. In 1979, the first airframe was put into production. Over 100 firms were contracted to produce systems and parts due to this operation.
During development, the type was named Izdeliye 400 (Product #400) in-house and An-40 in the West. On December 30, 1992, civil certification was issued ten years after its first flight. In July 2013, 26 An-124s were in commercial service, with another ten on order.
The An-124 features a twin-fuselage design, similar to the American Lockheed C-5 Galaxy, which allows for a rear cargo door to open during flight without compromising the structural integrity of the aircraft. It has a slightly shorter length and a slightly longer wingspan compared to the Galaxy, while also offering a 17% larger cargo capacity. Unlike the Galaxy’s T-tail, the An-124 has a conventional empennage similar to the Boeing 747.
The aircraft is equipped with oleo struts that suspend its 24 wheels, providing a tuned suspension system that allows for landings on uneven terrain. Additionally, the An-124 can kneel to facilitate front loading. It also includes an onboard overhead crane capable of lifting up to 30 tonnes of cargo and can handle freight weighing up to 120 tonnes.
In military configurations, the An-124 can carry up to 150 tonnes of cargo or accommodate 88 passengers in an upper deck located behind the wing center section. Its cargo compartment measures approximately 36×6.4×4.4 m (118×21×14 ft), making it about 20% larger than the main cargo compartment of the C-5 Galaxy, which measures 36.91×5.79×4.09 m (121.1×19.0×13.4 ft).
However, due to limited pressurization in the main cargo compartment (24.6 kPa, 3.57 psi), the An-124 is rarely used for transporting paratroopers.
Germany has taken the lead in a recent initiative to lease An-124 aircraft for NATO’s strategic airlift requirements. SALIS GmbH has secured the lease of two An-124s as an interim solution until the Airbus A400M becomes available. Additionally, as part of NATO’s SALIS program, NAMSA charters six An-124-100 transport aircraft.
Under the contract, Antonov Airlines and Volga-Dnepr An-124-100s are responsible for transporting cargo on behalf of 18 countries: Belgium, Hungary, Greece, Denmark, Canada, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, the United Kingdom, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Finland, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Sweden.
At the Leipzig/Halle airport (LEJ), two An-124-100s are always available for full-time charter. However, the contract also specifies that an additional two aircraft must be available within six days’ notice and two more within nine days’ notice if required.
Furthermore, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) utilizes the An-124 for transporting the Atlas V launch vehicle from its headquarters in Decatur, Alabama, to Cape Canaveral. The An-124 is also utilized for transporting the Atlas V launch vehicle and Centaur upper stage from ULA’s manufacturing site in Denver, Colorado, to Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg Air Force Base.
For each launch vehicle, two flights are necessary for transfer—one for the Atlas V main booster stage and another for the Centaur upper stage.
Space Payload Transport
The An-124 has also been contracted by Space Systems Loral to transport satellites from Palo Alto, California, to the Arianespace spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. SpaceX has also utilized the An-124 to transport payload fairings from Hawthorne, California, to Cape Canaveral. Notably, the cargo delivered to SpaceX was the heaviest ever carried by the Antonov giant in the space sector.
As of late 2020, there were three remaining civil operators of the An-124. Antonov Airlines operates seven aircraft, Volga-Dnepr Airlines (VI) operates 12, and Maximus Air Cargo operates one.
In November 2020, VI announced the indefinite grounding of its An-124 fleet to conduct inspections on the 60 engines, including spares, following an unconfined engine failure at Novosibirsk on November 13, 2020. However, as of December 29, 2020, the first VI An-124-100 had returned to service after completing the necessary inspections.
Canada Confiscates Stranded Antonov An-124
The last piece of news concerning the cargo aircraft revolves around Canada’s action in seizing an Antonov An-124-100 to utilize the proceeds to aid in the reconstruction of Ukraine. This action followed a legal development in March 2022, when a Ukrainian court issued an order for the confiscation of all Antonov An-124s belonging to the Volga-Dnepr Group for evidence preservation and compensation.
Antonov, the aircraft manufacturer, filed a complaint against Rosaviatsiya, the Russian aviation authority, accusing them of unlawfully authorizing a subsidiary to issue An-124 airworthiness certificates. Consequently, the stranded aircraft remained the property of the Russian cargo carrier, which had to bear the burden of paying parking fees amounting to nearly C$500,000. You can read all about the seized Antonov and the unfolding developments in the article below.
Featured Image: An-124 nose shot. Photo: Julian-Schopfer/Airways. Article Source: Antonov