The battle between Russia and the Ukraine on the future of the giant Antonov AN-124 freighter remains unsolved. Ever since the political situation between both countries escalated, there has been no movement on any form of joint cooperation on the production, maintenance and expansion of the AN-124 product.
Started as a military project.
It was in the late1970s that the Soviet Union (USSR) as it was then called also included the territory of today’s Ukraine Republic. The Russian military at that time desperately needed a large transport aircraft to carry troops and equipment speedily to far reaching parts of the then Russian empire. The AN-124 Ruslan was born and the Antonov Design Bureau in Kiev was given the order to design a long range, heavy payload nose loading freighter for the military.
In total, 56 AN-124s were produced of which only 28 are in service today. The AN-124 has a take-off weight of around 400 tons and payloads ranging from 120 tonnes (civil transport) to 150 tonnes (military versions). Even bigger than the then mighty Lockheed C-5 Galaxy transporter.
Volga-Dnepr flies ten of them, Antonov Airlines (Kiev) a further seven and Abu Dhabi-based Maximus one aircraft. The remaining ten are still in service with the Russian military. Twenty-four aircraft are mothballed somewhere in Russia or the Ukraine and probably nowhere near being airworthy. When the Soviet Union folded up and relations with the Ukraine went sour in 2014, Russia insisted that they be able to take over further production of the AN-124 based on the production rights they held during USSR times. The dispute with Kiev on this subject is ongoing and there is little or no hope that both sides will reach an agreement. The cooperation between both was officially ended in 2015.
There were plans to open a new production model line for an Antonov AN-124-100M-150 series aircraft with 30 tonnes more payload than today’s version and modern cockpit avionics which would reduce the present flight crew from five to three.
Time is running out
It’s not just the Russian military who desperately need a replacement aircraft. Volga-Dnepr who have a lucrative heavy lift charter business, need a newer version as soon as possible in order to keep ahead in the still booming heavy mining and oil industry machinery flights around the globe. It is said that Volga-Dnepr can easily have work for at least 20 of a newer version of the Ruslan.
So who and where could a new version be produced?
Antonov has held discussions with various western aircraft manufacturers during the past two years, but nothing of substance has evolved. A large part of the Antonov works were shut down in 2017. Russia is getting nervous and the military bosses are insisting on a solution which runs in the direction of producing the aircraft on their own. Fact is that maintenance of the AN-124 is mainly carried out in the Russian city of Ulyanovsk (home of Volga-Dnepr) and there are discussions in Russia as to whether this location could be the start-up for a new aircraft.
This would entail building a complete new aircraft probably with western engines and avionics and a higher payload than today’s older version. But, who has the necessary knowledge to design, plan and build this aircraft in the next few years? Russian engineers don’t have the knowledge or experience compared to their once-time Antonov colleagues in Kiev.
Both Russia and the Ukraine are in a cul-de-sac on this issue, with no chance of reaching any agreement. At the present time and due to the political distrust between Russia and the west, there is also little hope of a Russian - American consortium to back a Russian military aircraft production.
The mechanics will need to keep maintaining the present AN-124s for some time to come.
It is sad to note that the veteran aircraft designer and father of the AN-124, Viktor Tolmachev, passed away on June 7, aged 83 years. He will not have to follow this sad story any longer.
John Mc Donagh