The project dubbed ‘Elephant’ is still in its early stages, but main parameters of the future giant transporter have been presented by aviation experts at the recent air show MAKS, held at Moscow’s Zhukovsky Airport from 18 to 23 July. If constructed, it will succeed the Ukraine-built AN-124-100 freighters of which Volga-Dnepr is operating 12 units.
The plans are driven by two main cognitions: Firstly, there is increasing market demand in the years ahead for transport by air of heavy and outsized cargo, as surveys indicate. Experts speak of
a need for a fleet in the range of 40 to 100 new super freighters from 2040 onwards.
"The growth of the aerospace, mining and oil industries shows that the requirement for transporting large and heavy items by air will go up constantly,” General Director of Volga-Dnepr Airlines, Mikhail Smirnykh, told the media during MAKS 2017.
The end of the AN-124Fs is foreseeable
Second reason is that the lifespan of the current AN-124 fleet, designed in the seventies and which have been constantly technically modernized ever since their launch, is coming to a natural end, despite proper maintenance. ICAO estimates that the last AN-124s will come to their physical limits in about 20 years from now.
Two more decades in service - that sounds like an awful lot of time. However, developing and manufacturing a successor model, which won’t be just a variant of the legendary “Ruslan” but a completely new freighter, might take almost as long, Russian aircraft engineers predict. This view was agreed by Volga-Dnepr’s chief designer Victor Tolmachev in an interview with Moscow-based Air Transport Review ATO.ru by stating that the current fleet of AN-124s “should be replaced by a fundamentally new, more promising aircraft in all aspects.”
Nonstop across the Pacific
Regarding the technical and operational capabilities Volga-Dnepr experts speak of an aircraft with an uplift capacity of 150 to 170 tons per flight and an operating range of something between 8,000 to 10,000 kilometers with full load. In comparison, the current AN-124 can carry 120 tons over a distance of 4,500 kilometers without refueling. Tolmachev added to this that the freighter must be fully compliant with ICAO requirements and powered by newly developed, more cost-efficient engines as the D-18T, created by Ukraine-based Ivchenko-Progress Design Bureau 1982 for powering the AN-124 freighters. “The yet-to-be-built turbine could be similar to the General Electric GEnx-2B67 engine, which is powering the Boeing 747-8F, but it should be even more efficient," the manager stated. A main stipulation is that a fully loaded latest generation freighter must have an operating range for flying nonstop across the Pacific Ocean.
To get the projected ‘Elephant’ off the ground, the manager advocates building an industrial consortium, including Russian and international companies. “The technical, financial and coordination tasks cannot be shouldered by a single enterprise,” Mr Tolmachev exclaimed, indirectly addressing Moscow, asking for state support.