They’re big. They’re in demand. But they’re getting old, and availability is becoming a problem. That’s why Volga-Dnepr Airlines (VDA) has been pushing so hard for more An-124 Ruslan heavylift freighters to be built. But despite the aircraft’s commercial success since the end of the Cold War, it’s not clear whether renewed production is a priority for Russia’s newly formed, state-owned United Aircraft Co. (OAK).
VDA owns 10 of the 25 An-124s that are flying commercially and on military charters. Western aerospace enterprises use the aircraft extensively to move major aircraft subassemblies, large engines and satellites.
Since March 2006, two An-124s have been permanently on call for NATO, based at Leipzig, Germany. They can be joined by another four on short notice. VDA bid jointly for this Strategic Airlift Interim Solution (SALIS) contract with Antonov Airlines, previously its main competitor with seven An-124s of its own, as well as one even larger An-225. Since then, VDA and Antonov Airlines have become partners for commercial business as well, through a joint venture called Ruslan International.
Although their lifting capacity is impressive, the An-124s are expensive to operate, with a crew of at least six, and fuel-guzzling Progress D-18T engines. Commercial charter rates exceed $20,000 per hour, and fuel is now 50 percent of the cost. The 16 countries that signed up to SALIS have committed to buying a minimum 2,000 hours per year, at a reported cost of $220 million. The contract lasts for three years, with an option to renew in 2009. The Ruslans fly frequently to Afghanistan and have also flown for NATO to Pakistan (earthquake-disaster relief) and the Sudan (in support of the African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur).
SALIS was originally conceived as a stop-gap plan, pending the introduction of the Airbus A400M. Last September, however, NATO began negotiating with Boeing for three or four C-17s to be operated from Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany as a permanent “strategic airlift capability.”
Unlike the SALIS deal, the C-17s would be acquired–at a cost of up to $589 million if all options (such as defensive aids and night-vision goggles) are excercised. Sixteen nations are involved, but NATO’s goal to cut a deal in six months and get the first aircraft by late this year has failed. Boeing told Aviation International News that negotiations continue and it has bought long-lead items for the aircraft.
For the past three years, Boeing has been fighting to keep the C-17 line open, as the U.S. Air Force struggled to fund production beyond the planned 180. With recent orders from Australia and Canada (four each), the UK (one) and the U.S, (10), the line can be kept going until mid-2009.
Will NATO abandon the An-124 if and when the C-17s arrive? Volga-Dnepr managing director Valery Gabriel told AIN he is confident the SALIS contract will be renewed. VDA has moved its European maintenance base from Shannon, Ireland, to Leipzig, and claims good technical reliability. But defense executives at Boeing have, in private, expressed doubt about the political reliability of the SALIS deal, should NATO embark on a military action to which Russia (or Ukraine) objects.
Ironically, the commercial airplanes side of Boeing recently boosted the An-124 by lining up VDA to help with the logistics for its new Dreamliner. Such has been the demand for the 787, that the conversion by Boeing of three 747-400s as large cargo freighters (LCFs) to carry major sections from Italy, Japan and three U.S. locations to Seattle for final assembly will not be enough. VDA already has long-term contracts with Lockheed Martin, MiG, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Rosboronexport and Rolls-Royce to move aerospace equipment.
Volga Dnepr Group president Alexei Isaikin said recently that the group would need $500 million to relaunch production of the An-124. Two partially built fuselages are already available at the Aviastar factory at Ulyanovsk. They are leftovers from Cold War production, but they require new wings and horizontal stabilizers. The former were previously built at Tashkent in what now is Uzbekistan, and the latter in Ukraine. The plan is to build new wings at Aviastar.
In a recent briefing on future production, OAK president Alexei Fedorov outlined plans to build 28 Il-96s, 150 Tu-204/214s and 490 regional jets over the next 10 years. He mentioned only two An-124s, but Gabriel predicted that a positive decision to build more would be made “soon.” They will be built to the An-124M-150 standard that raises payload from 120 to 150 tons, reduces the crew to four and introduces modern avionics to the latest ICAO standards.
However, Isaikin’s dream of re-engining the Ruslan with Western high-bypass turbofans and achieving U.S. or European certification has foundered. Last December, VDA formed a joint venture with Motor Sich, the Ukrainian manufacturer of the D-18T engine. Gabriel told AIN that the joint venture will fund new D-18 engines that meet the latest emissions and noise standards (that is, Chapter 4).
There will be a modest 5-percent improvement in fuel consumption. VDA said that the Antonov Design Bureau, Aviastar and Progress will take shares in this joint venture later.