Russian specialized cargo and charter airline Volga-Dnepr has been a permanent fixture in the commercial air services community since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The company was formed in August 1990 in the waning days of the USSR, originally as a cooperative venture between the Aviastar aircraft production plant in Ulyanovsk, Russia, and the Ukrainian firms directly involved with production of the Antonov An-124 Ruslan cargo heavy lifter. These were the Aviant plant in Kiev and the Motor Sich production plant and co-located Ivchenko/Progress design bureau in Zaparozhye.
From the time of Volga-Dnepr's first successful commercial cargo flight in October 1991, the company was known as the operator of the An-124. There were 12 of these aircraft in the fleet of the Russian half of the partnership, and the company was known as almost the only option for those customers looking to move unique or outsized cargo shipments. Among customers in years past was Lockheed Martin, which occasionally used the An-124 to transport a pre-production era full-scale flight line mockup of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
In the intervening years, Volga-Dnepr separated from its Ukrainian partners for various reasons that pre-dated the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. Until the time of that action by Russia against Ukraine—and the subsequent Moscow-backed separatist war in the Eastern Donbas regions of Donetsk and Lugansk—the company had a long-term contract to supply special air cargo services for NATO, in which it once again cooperated with its Ukrainian competitor and former partner, Antonov Airlines.
The three-year contract was originally let in 2005 and was part of the alliance’s Strategic Airlift Interim Solution (SALIS) and contained options for renewal through 2012. Under the terms of the agreement, the contract could be renewed through 2012 and required the partnership to maintain two An-124s to be based in Leipzig and to be ready to launch at any moment. An additional four An-124s were required to be on standby if required at some point.
The Crimea invasion caused the contract, which had been due to run through the end of 2014, to be terminated. Since that time Volga-Dnepr has been engaged in expanding its business in other areas, one of which is transferring entire helicopters over long distances.
One of the more high-profile and recent such contracts was in March, when Volga-Dnepr worked with helicopter shipping firm Panalpina, a long-term partner, to transfer several helicopters between Australia and Scotland. The contract, which was carried out on behalf of Babcock, required the cargo airline to ship two AgustaWestland AW139s from the UK to a customer location in Melbourne, Australia and then transfer two Sikorsky S-92s from Darwin, Australia to Aberdeen, Scotland.
“Over almost three decades, Volga-Dnepr Airlines has accumulated vast experience and knowledge from the deliveries of more than 40 types of helicopters. Our team of professionals has organized and performed the transportation of over 5,000 machines of various manufacturers for humanitarian missions, medical, fire-fighting, law enforcement, tourism, and other civil purposes, as well as for aerospace exhibitions and airshows, and they know the special transportation requirements of each of them,” said Rinat Akhmetov, commercial executive.
“In our fleet, we have not only Antonov 124 freighters which, for example, can carry up to six AW139s on one flight, but also the modernized IL-76TD-90VD ramp aircraft for deliveries of smaller and lighter types of helicopters. On this latest occasion, we were delighted to be able to support Panalpina and Babcock in their mission and to achieve all their objectives,” he continued. The company has carried out an average of 40 helicopter transfers per year.
The company is also working on playing a more active role in humanitarian airlift operations and other disaster relief activities. On May 21, at Germany’s Leipzig/Halle Airport, Volga-Dnepr Group and the Akkon University of Human Sciences sponsored an international conference on humanitarian logistics, which took place concurrently with the OECD’s International Transport Forum.
Götz Ahmelmann,who is the chief executive of Mitteldeutsche Flughafen and chairman of the board at Leipzig/Halle and Dresden airports, said “We’re happy to share our wealth of experience in handling cargo flights for disaster and aid missions so that we can continue to develop processes with all those involved in order to be able to act more quickly and efficiently in an emergency.”
Some of the topics covered during the conference included specific requirements that global disaster operations place on the entire supply chain of entities responsible for transporting and delivering that aid. This includes the aid organizations themselves, logistics companies, airports, and airlines. The conference attendees also exchanged ideas on the logistics challenges involved in combating deadly epidemics such as those caused by the Ebola virus.
Speakers briefed participants on the capabilities of the Volga-Dnepr Group’s An-124 and Ilyushin IL76-TD-90VD. Both aircraft can carry large cargo loads to locations that lack properly surfaced runways or that are not set up with special equipment for loading and unloading. The capabilities of these aircraft therefore make them ideal for this role in disaster-relief operations.
“We were able to demonstrate the unique ramp loading features of our An-124-100 and IL-76TD-90VD fleet as well as the access possibilities into our wider group partners with Boeing 747 and 737 freighters," said Stuart Smith, director for global humanitarian operations at Volga-Dnepr Group. "The aircraft tours at our Leipzig operational base were also able to show the different loading and preparation methods for medical and disaster-response cargo. We are often among the first responders to disaster events, such as recently in Cyclone Idai where we [carried] over 350 tonnes of cargo across 10 urgent flights.”