Volga-Dnepr Group / Press-center / Media Coverage

2,000th issue - Ship of the skies

09/17/2008

People scoffed when, in the late 1980s former Soviet Airforce lieutenant colonel Alexey Isaikin had the idea of commercialising the USSR's freighter aircraft fleet.

At that time, little was known about commercial aviation in what was still the Soviet Union, still less about the potential market for moving giant loads by air rather than by sea or land.

However, the sceptics reckoned without the Antonov 124, still the mainstay of Volga-Dnepr Airlines' fleet. It remains the world's biggest commercial operator of the huge aircraft, with 10 operational examples on its books, nowadays jointly marketed as part of the 17-strong Ruslan International fleet in conjunction with Antonov Airlines.

Single-handedly, the AN-124 has carved out a whole new niche in the international logistics market, making it possible for the first time to fly large loads – of 120 tonnes, or in some cases even over 130 tonnes – across seas, mountains, disputed regions and troublesome borders.

The cavernous 1,027cu metre cargo hold of this flying Noah's Ark is more reminiscent of the inside of a ro-ro ferry than an aircraft.

There are few countries of the world where the AN-124 has not operated. As a self-sustaining aircraft with its own onboard handling equipment, it can get cargo into places that would be difficult, if not impossible to reach by other means, and on occasion it even flies the road trailers needed for onward transport. There are few types of cargo it hasn't handled – generators, railway locomotives, turbines, helicopters or yachts.

While the giant AN-124 inevitably steals the show because of its sheer size, the carrier also operates 14 of that other former Soviet aircraft that has become a mainstay of the outsize air cargo industry, the 45-tonne capacity IL76.

Volga-Dnepr is one of two companies that has also ordered the completely rebuilt IL-76TD90VD version. The new production should ensure that this key aircraft can continue to operate long into the future.

Volga-Dnepr is currently lobbying the Russian and Ukrainian governments on a possible restart of AN-124 production.

While there is plenty of support forthcoming from the world airline industry – Antonov group commercial director, Dennis Gliznoutsa, estimates that if production were to restart, there would be firm orders for 28 to 30 aircraft – some government finance would be needed to get the ball rolling.

But both Moscow and Kiev appear keen to reinvigorate the region's once thriving commercial aircraft industry, and are supportive of the initiative.

Mothballed or completely dismantled production facilities would have to be recommissioned, which would take two to three years.

"But with the market growing by an estimated 8-10% a year and with the increasing age of the existing aircraft, the demand is there, " says Gliznoutsa.

He stresses however, that there is no immediate crisis.

Even the oldest aircraft in the AN-124 fleet have another 12,000 flying hours on their airframes, which could be extended by a further 10,000 hours. The younger aircraft have currently amassed only 6,000 hours, so have plenty of useful life ahead of them.

Volga-Dnepr is also carrying out market research on behalf of Russia's United Aircraft Corporation for a possible short and mid-range cargo aircraft. It is also developing a flight deck simulator for training AN-124 flight crews.

Modernisation

Meanwhile, the AN-124 is being modernised as the AN-124-150, including engine modifications and new avionics.

The resultant aircraft has a potential payload of up to 150 tonnes or a significantly longer range. It also needs fewer flight crew. Volga-Dnepr has completed conversion of two aircraft and at time of writing was finishing certification of a third. The plan is to eventually convert the entire fleet over the next three or four years.

One AN-124 may also be selected for conversion into a AN124-102. This would be a much more radical alteration with a greatly enlarged upper fuselage, enabling it to carry very high volume cargo.

"We've identified interest in the aerospace and aviation sectors, as well as other shippers of outsize equipment and we think it would be possible to create a consolidated pool of customers who do not need dedicated aircraft, " says Gliznoutsa.

While the idea of giving a conventional freighter an extended fuselage is not new, unlike all the existing alternatives the AN-124-102 would not be primarily the tool of an aircraft manufacturer with limited general availability. It would also, uniquely, offer the "ro-ro" capability of a standard AN-124 – all the alternative aircraft have to be loaded by elevated platform.

In line with its history of opening up new frontiers for air freight and logistics, Volga-Dnepr has also been developing ground facilities in Russia, including its new hub at Krasnoyarsk in Russia's Far East, in partnership with Swissport and a local airport operator. A cargo development of an existing airfield, it hosts regular VolgaDnepr IL-76 flights three times a week to Sakhalin Island, as well as flights by other airlines.

When Volga-Dnepr first arrived in the commercial world in 1991, the jury was certainly out as to whether a Russian airline operating a freighter previously unknown in the West could have any chance of survival.

The group exceeded sales of US$1bn in 2007 and today sits at the heart of the global supply chains of many of the world's biggest corporations and government organisations, having helped change the logistics world's perceptions of what is possible.

Array

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