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Conflict Over An-124 Program Continues

 - November 11, 2019, 4:00 AM
Ukraine’s Antonov An-124 is at the center of a heated dispute between the former Soviet republic and Russia. Ukraine has demanded that Germany seize five of the mammoth transports that are operated by Russia’s Volga Dnepr. (Photo: Mark Wagner)

A conflict over Ukraine’s Antonov An-124 Ruslan that broke into the open last summer has escalated into a more heated dispute between the former Soviet republic and Russia. The row between the two has demanded that Germany, specifically the cargo operations center at Leipzig/Halle airport, seize five of the 12 An-124s operated from that facility by the Russian commercial cargo firm Volga-Dnepr.

The dispute began on July 17, 2018, when the National Police of Ukraine launched criminal proceedings against Rosaviatsiya, the Russian federal air transport agency, and Volga-Dnepr over charges that the three had forged airworthiness certificates for the An-124. The Kiev law firm Ilyashev & Partners, which defends the interests of Antonov, told AIN that there were 15 people listed as responsible for this criminal activity, including the CEO of Volga-Dnepr.

A pre-trial investigation specified by article 364(2) of the criminal code of Ukraine investigated charges that documents extending the airworthiness of An-124-100s were forged by Rosaviatsiya and the German company Amtes, the latter of which is an entity of Volga-Dnepr. Antonov obtained copies of the allegedly falsified documents and notified Volga-Dnepr they were withdrawing support for continued service life extensions of these aircraft.

“Antonov is the sole entity authorized to maintain the structural integrity of the type designs of the existing AN aircraft fleet throughout the entire period of its operation,” said Roman Marchenko, the law firm’s senior partner. “By bypassing Antonov and forging documentation, the persons responsible are jeopardizing the safe operation of these aircraft and the cargo on board,” read an official statement from Ilyashev & Partners.

Aerospace industry analysts in Ukraine point out that the primary motivation for the Russians falsifying these documents is that Antonov charges very large sums for inspecting the An-124 aircraft and issuing these certificates. Additionally, the Russian company, which severed relations with Antonov three years ago, would be unwilling to allow its aircraft to be flown to Ukraine for inspection because they feared that they would be impounded as part of these criminal proceedings.

Bait and Switch

In the year since these initial actions by Ukraine, the Russians have decided to go forward with developing their own version of the massive cargo lifter. Russia’s Ministry of Trade and Industry has turned to one of the former USSR’s other major military transport aircraft entities, Ilyushin Design Bureau.

Ilyushin has been reportedly working since 2017 on a deeply modernized version of the Antonov aircraft that would be designated An-124-100M. For its part, Antonov objects to major modifications being made without their approval. The company also has lodged a complaint against the aircraft still being labeled with an “An-” designation, implying it is an Antonov product.

The State Company Antonov in Kiev declared on August 30 that it was not involved in the development of this new aircraft from Ilyushin. Therefore, the Moscow-based firm should be required to assign a new designation without employing the An- prefix, according to a statement on the Antonov website.

“Antonov GP specialists do not deny the technical possibility of deep modernization of the An-124-100 Ruslan transport aircraft. However, the selection and installation of new modern equipment by Ilyushin Design Bureau will lead to significant changes in the aircraft’s flight performance [when] compared to the base model. Thus, this will be a new aircraft in the history of modern aerospace industry. Accordingly, it should receive a new designation without the use of the An- brand, since Antonov is not involved in its development and [we] will not be responsible for its flight safety certification,” said the company.

The Ukrainian aircraft firm also reported that from 2004 to 2007 Antonov had developed and certified three modifications of the Ruslan, one of which has already officially received the same An-124-100M designation. The other two—the An-124-100-150 and An-124-100M-150—are characterized by increased payload capacities up to 150 tonnes and thability to transport single cargo loads up to 120 tonnes.

Antonov has also emphasized that traditional practices in the world of aircraft design are for new modifications and variants of a given aircraft to be developed only on the basis of concepts that are created by that aircraft’s original designers.

Germany in the Crossfire

In the meantime, the original criminal case from 2018 has carried forward, and in late June of this year, a Kiev court ordered confiscation of five of the 12 An-124s operated by Volga-Dnepr. The Ukrainians accuse the company of maintaining these five aircraft without proper airworthiness certification and of using unlicensed, non-factory-authorized spare parts.

Ukrainian authorities are facing the complication that none of the aircraft are located in Ukraine. The court is relying on foreign aviation and transport safety authorities—to include the Germans—to enforce this court order.

The Volga-Dnepr aircraft are currently based in Leipzig and are serviced by the cargo company’s same subsidiary, Amtes. The German newspaper Leipziger Volkszeitung reports that the Ukrainian authorities are seeking seizure of these aircraft.

Antonov’s lawyers made a separate statement that all foreign airports and aviation authorities should forbid takeoffs and landings of these five An-124s. Privately, however, given what it says is the reluctance by German authorities to act against Russian interests, Antonov states that it has very little expectation of the decision of the Kiev court being enforced. Volga-Dnepr has described the Ukrainian court ruling as illegal and will be taking its own legal action to block these seizures.