[UPDATE – Antonov will support Russia’s AN-124 fleet]
News from both Ukraine and Russia indicate the two countries are possibly going to start talking about the AN-124. Both sides need to do this because the AN-124 is a product of the Soviet era. The current political abyss that the two nations find themselves staring across does not help either side with respect to solving the AN-124’s unique capabilities. And it’s capabilities are impressive.
Russia has a dozen AN-124s in service where Volga Dnepr is the big user. On the Ukraine side, we have Antonov Airlines with seven aircraft. Both these fleets find a lot of work moving extra heavy cargo all over the world. The AN-124 is unique in commercial cargo service. The big engine makers need them to move engines to the aircraft OEMs. Given the demand for the Airbus neo program, there is an AN-124 in Hartford regularly. We saw two parked in Detroit waiting for the next call.
Both sides in the embroglio thought they could go their own way. Antonov (Ukraine) is the certificate holder of the AN-124 and requires flight worthiness checks every 4,000 flight hours. The Russians were not going to send any of their aircraft to Kiev for this. Indeed one Volga Dnepr airframe went to the UK (Marshall Aerospace) for maintenance and other work, details of which have never been made public. Antonov was challenged by the Russians for the transfer of its certificate rights for maintenance of the aircraft to Russia’s Ilyushin Aviation Complex. While the airframe and engines are Ukrainian, the flight deck and systems are all Russian. Indeed we have heard from Volga Dnepr that without the Russian inputs the AN-124 could not fly. The impasse between the two sides is entirely political and, frankly, shortsighted.
In the Soviet era, work on aerospace projects was spread over various facilities across the system. This gave everyone a share and stake and kept thousands of skilled people at work. Economics was not a consideration. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought overnight change, with economic reality immediately becoming the primary consideration. The impact was brutal to those thousands of people in Soviet aerospace jobs. Russia moved to combine its aerospace assets in UAC and UEC. Ukraine only had Antonov and its engine maker. There was not enough work to keep the Ukraine side busy. Antonov started an airline to employ its assets. Recently it even refurbished an AN-22 which is now based in Leipzig, Germany for cargo charters. Here you can see it, unpainted, on a test flight.
For both commercial operators, some sort of collaboration is essential. Politics must get out of the way. If the two sides can sort this out, the current AN-124 fleet can be refreshed. Antonov started to work on an update in June 2007 and got an updated certificate for the AN-124-150. Tweaked engine work continues. Russia has the bigger fleet and possibly the greater financial clout to move the project forward. Will the Ukraine allow this to move forward? Antonov told us they have 14,000 skilled people in Kiev that are under-employed. The solution is staring both sides in the face.