MIAMI – Today in Aviation, the Antonov An-124 Ruslan made its first flight in 1982. It would be unveiled to the West in 1985 at the Paris Air Show.

The Antonov An-124 Ruslan (Russian: нтонов н-124 услaн, lit. ‘Ruslan’; NATO reporting name: Condor) is a large, four-engined strategic airlift aircraft developed by the Antonov design bureau in the Ukrainian SSR, then part of the Soviet Union (USSR), in the 1980s.

Trailing the one-off Antonov An-225 Mriya (an enlarged design based on the An-124), the Condor is the world’s heaviest gross weight production cargo plane and second heaviest running cargo plane. The type is still the world’s largest military transport plane. Viktor Tolmachev was the chief designer of both the An-124 and the An-225.

Antonov Airlines UR-82009 Antonov An-124-100M-150. Photo: Alberto Cucini/Airways

Development


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, which were mostly utilized for tactical missions.

Two plants, 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 as a result of this operation.

During development, the type was called Izdeliye 400 (Product #400) in-house, and An-40 in the West. On December 30, 1992, civil certification was issued after 10 years of its first flight. In July 2013, there were 26 An-124s in commercial service, with another ten on order.

Antonov AN-124 reg. RA-82042 on final at Turin International Airport (TRN). Photo: Alberto Cucini/Airways

Design


The An-124 has a twin-fuselage, similar to the American Lockheed C-5 Galaxy, which allows for a rear cargo door (on the lower fuselage) to open in flight without compromising structural integrity. It has a 17% larger cargo and is slightly shorter with a slightly longer wingspan than the Galaxy. The An-124 has a conventional empennage, comparable to that of the Boeing 747, instead of the Galaxy’s T-tail.

The aircraft’s 24 wheels are suspended by oleo struts. The suspension has been tuned to allow for landings on uneven terrain and can kneel for simpler front loading. The type also includes an onboard overhead crane that can lift up to 30 tonnes of cargo and can lift freight weighing up to 120 tonnes on board.

Additionally, up to 150 tonnes (150 long tons; 170 short tons) of cargo can be carried in a military An-124; it can also carry 88 passengers in an upper deck behind the wing center section. The cargo compartment of An-124 is 36×6.4×4.4 m (118×21×14 ft), ca. 20% larger than the main cargo compartment of the C-5 Galaxy, which is 36.91×5.79×4.09 m (121.1×19.0×13.4 ft).

Due to limited pressurization in the main cargo compartment (24.6 kPa, 3.57 psi), it seldom carries paratroopers.

Volga-Dnepr An-124 during unloading of an Atlas V rocket main stage. The United Launch Alliance booster for NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover is offloaded from the Antonov 124 cargo aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) in Florida on May 19, 2020. The Launch Services Program at Kennedy is responsible for launch management. Photo: By NASA/Kim Shiflett – https://images-assets.nasa.gov/image/KSC-20200519-PH-KLS01_0051/KSC-20200519-PH-KLS01_0051~orig.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=90646061

Operations


The recent endeavor to lease An-124s for NATO strategic airlift requirements was led by Germany. SALIS GmbH has leased two aircraft as a stopgap until the Airbus A400M becomes available. NAMSA charters six An-124-100 transport aircraft as part of NATO’s SALIS program.

As per the contract, Antonov Airlines and Volga-Dnepr An-124-100s transport cargo on behalf of 18 countries: Belgium, Hungary, Greece, Denmark, Canada, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, United Kingdom, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Finland, France, Germany, Czech Republic, and Sweden.

Two An-124-100s are always available for full-time charter at the Leipzig/Halle airport, but the contract stipulates that two more aircraft are to be available at six days’ notice and two more at nine days’ notice if necessary. NATO found the aircraft to be incredibly valuable, particularly during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Furthermore, United Launch Alliance (ULA) employs the An-124 to transport the Atlas V launch vehicle from its Decatur, Alabama headquarters to Cape Canaveral. The Atlas V launch vehicle and Centaur upper stage are also transported by the An-124 from ULA’s manufacturing site in Denver, Colorado to Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Each launch vehicle requires two flights to be transferred (one for the Atlas V main booster stage and another for the Centaur upper stage).

Ukrainian An-124 Ruslan aircraft has delivered a SpaceX satellite in a specially built container designed by Airbus weighing 55 tonnes from France to NASA Shuttle Landing Facility airport, Titusville, USA. Photo: r/SpaceXLounge via Reddit

Space Payload Transport


Space Systems Loral has also hired the type to transport satellites from Palo Alto, California to the Arianespace spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana while SpaceX has hired it to transport payload fairings from Hawthorne, California to Cape Canaveral. The cargo delivered to SpaceX was the heaviest ever carried in the space sector by the Antonov giant.

As of late 2020, three civil operators of the An-124 remained. Antonov Airlines with seven aircraft, Volga-Dnepr Airlines (VI) with 12, and Maximus Air Cargo with one.

In November 2020, VI reported that it was indefinitely grounding its fleet of An-124 aircraft to inspect the 60 engines (including spares) following the November 13, 2020, unconfined engine failure at Novosibirsk. As of December 29, 2020, the first VI An-124-100 was back in service.


Featured image: Antonov UR-82008 Antonov An-124-100M-150. Photo: Aidan Pullino/Airways. Article source: Antonov