Russian-owned outsize cargo specialist Volga-Dnepr has many years experience moving all types of helicopters around the planet, whether in support of contracts or on delivery flights for manufacturers. The company (Booth No. C702) was founded in 1990 and can transport anything from MD 500s up to Mil Mi-8s/17s and Sikorsky CH-53s or S-64s.
“The company has been moving helicopters almost since day one,” said Axel Kaldschmidt, a senior account executive based in Houston, “perhaps not surprisingly as they are sensitive and high value. We are pretty niche in using the An-124 and new Stage 4 [noise compliant] Il-76. We have ten Antonovs and five Il-76s.” Volga-Dnepr is the world’s largest An-124 operator.
Georgy Sokolov, Volga-Dnepr sales manager at the parent company’s base at London Stansted Airport in the UK, told AIN, “Just to give a rough idea, our Antonov 124-100 aircraft can load four Mi-17 helicopters in one flight–just the blades have to be removed–or two Chinook helicopters in one flight. We fly helicopters for Sikorsky, Agusta, Eurocopter, Kazan Helicopter and many others all the time. The range of routes is without limit–pretty much anywhere to anywhere, the longest ones being from Europe via the U.S. or Canada to Australia for the Australian military.”
The company is at Heli-Expo because, said Peter Baldauf, sales executive at Houston-based Volga-Dnepr Unique Air Cargo, “we get to see all the manufacturers and operators. The manufacturers know us and the operators are beginning to know us.” The company has been exhibiting at Heli-Expo “for at least the last five years. It’s a very relevant show for us, and we often have to answer the question, ‘Why are you guys here?’” said Baldauf.
“Our smaller aircraft, the Ilyushin 76TD-90VD, is not that impressive in terms of volume but it can transport two Mi-17s or a Super Puma, although more deeply dismantled,” said Sokolov.
“We can get a Super Puma into [the Il-76] so you don’t necessarily have to charter a full An-124, said Baldauf. “That’s to move one at a time, whereas a 124 can get three in. [Or] you can get six Bell helicopters in; for example, 212s. Once we did six 212s and a 222 in one lift.” The Il-76 is “about half the size” of the An-124, he explained.
Volga-Dnepr carried out about 80 helicopter transport missions last year. “It’s a mix between new aircraft deliveries and operators moving assets for their next contractual obligation,” said Kaldschmidt. Volga-Dnepr is often called in because there have been delays, and shipping via ocean freight is no longer a fast-enough option to meet contractual obligations. With helicopters (which account for around 10 to 15 percent of Volga-Dnepr’s work), air shipping tends to be a preferred method due to their high value and need to take care to avoid any damage.
“Operators face the same challenge we do,” said Baldauf. “If it’s not flying, it’s not making money, not to mention the exposure to loading, unloading, etc. With us, we put it in and open the doors at the other end and it’s exactly as we left it [which could be] just hours later, on the other side of the planet.” Up to 12 cargo attendants can also go along with the shipment, he added, to look after the load and assemble/reassemble at the destination.
Helicopters aren’t a challenge weight-wise for Volga’s aircraft, with the An-124 capable of transporting up to 120 metric tons. “Our engineering side kicks in to calculate loading and to design shipping supports to meet the floor requirements,” said Kaldschmidt. Helicopters are “one of the more sensitive pieces of equipment, so there is more attention to detail especially keeping the operators informed.”
“We’ve done so many uplifts we’ve amassed a great amount of knowledge–a library, in fact,” said Baldauf. “So we know not only whether it will fit, but all the specifics; for example, that the vertical stabilizer and rotor need to come off. It takes a lot of guesswork out.”
Volga also has a sister company, Air Bridge Cargo, which operates 12 Boeing 747s (including three 747-8s) plus it owns Air Cargo Germany. Most of the maintenance of the fleet is carried out at Volga-Dnepr Technics in Ulyanovsk, Russia, where the company operates the only An-124 simulator. Based in Moscow, the maintenance arm also has a hangar at Leipzig Halle Airport in Germany, which was opened in January. Two of the An-124s are based at Halle.