The An-124 is already a flying legend and will remain irreplaceable for some time to come

An air-freighter in the truest sense of the word

The An-124 was conceived in the late 1970s by the legendary Soviet design bureau Antonov as a large transport aircraft for the Soviet air force. At the time, the goal was to develop an aircraft capable of carrying large payloads as a counterpart to a comparable NATO aircraft. Well, even today the performance of the An-124 is still impressive. It is now used primarily for chartered cargo flights and enjoys tremendous success in this segment thanks to a near monopoly. Join us in taking a look at this imposing technical wonder, and learn why the “Ruslan” is still the leading aircraft in the world for civil heavy load transports.

A lion – or more like a condor?

The Antonov 124 “Руслан” (Ruslan is a male Russian first name of Turkish-Tartar origin that means “lion”) first took to the air on December 24, 1982. With a maximum take-off weight of over 400 tons, it was suddenly the largest aircraft in the world, stealing the title away from its counterpart in the west – the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy. It outdid its Western rival with a shorter fuselage, lower empty weight and higher payload. When it was first introduced to the West a year later, at the renowned Aérosalon in Paris in May 1985, it could not fail to inspire fascination. No wonder it was given the NATO codename “Condor” in recognition of its capabilities.

Versatile, robust – simply perfect for heavy load transports

In addition to the actual performance specifications, the design of the An-124 also reflected the untamed expanses of the former Soviet Union. The designers in Kiev knew what they were doing when they sat down at the drafting table. The Ruslan can land without difficulty at remote landing fields and can be loaded and unloaded even if the local infrastructure is lacking. Its robust landing gear and shoulder-wing design allow an An-124 to operate even on hard frozen snow and gravel runways. As it carries on board everything it needs for smooth loading and unloading, the aircraft is not reliant on a well-equipped airfield. This allows the An-124 to operate completely independently, which is an advantage not only for transporting military hardware. It also does dependable service bringing aid to crisis regions or areas hit by catastrophes as well as for transporting exceptionally large and bulky cargo.

The secret of the An-124’s success

In addition to the robust landing gear and the advantageous technical design, the An-124 owes its success to a few more details. The Ruslan can be loaded with out-of-gauge cargo either via the tail ramp or by lifting up the nose of the fuselage. This hinged nose is an unusual sight and also one of the aircraft’s greatest strengths. The Boeing 747, while comparable in terms of size and maximum load, was designed only for civilian use and, unlike the An-124, can only be loaded and unloaded with special lifting platforms since its cargo hold is located several meters above the runway.

On the other hand, the dual nose landing gear of the Ruslan can also be lowered to allow smooth loading straight from the ground. The aircraft practically “kneels down.” Vehicles of all kinds, including flatbed trucks and tanks, can drive right up the extendable ramp into the cargo space. Hardly a surprise, then, that even NATO has relied on the services of this massive craft in Afghanistan. 

It is also perfect for transporting heavy, bulky cargo: anything from multi-ton Siemens generators, rocket stages for the Atlas V, jet engines for the Boeing-777 or Airbus A-380, special boats for cleaning up oil spills or even a gigantic granite obelisk from the 4th century. If it can fit in the cargo space, the “Condor” can lift just about anything into the air.

Rocket parts, submarines and tanks: the AN-124 delivers

Untouchable in civil air freight

Just a few years after its first flight, the Soviet Union collapsed, taking with it much of the military demand for the aircraft. This turned out to be a great opportunity for the An-124 as just over two dozen (out of 55 that were built) were sold to civil operators. The aircraft were immediately put to use for special chartered cargo transports around the world and proved their worth in no time. The last civil operators today are Volga-Dnepr Airlines in Russia with twelve Ruslans, the Ukrainian Antonov Airlines with seven and Maximus Air Cargo with just one. In addition, there are often special charters of military equipment. One thing we might see more often in the future: After an engine failure in November 2020, Volga-Dnepr Airlines grounded all of its aircraft until the cause could be identified. No wonder thought is now being given to extending the lifespan of the existing Antonovs. And there are plenty of rumors about projects looking to imitate this unique aircraft model with improved and more modern internals. 

Rebirth through fine tuning?

As already mentioned, the success of the aircraft has led to many a discussion of resuming production. A new version with a payload of 30 additional tons and a longer range is considered technically achievable. More modern engines and improved avionics would also represent a major upgrade, considering that the last models were shipped in the early 2000s. One positive side effect of such modernizations would be a reduction in the required crew from five to three. 

Originally, Ukraine and Russia wanted to work together on the new generation, but there were disputes concerning the production site right from the start. Although Antonov has been a Ukrainian company since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia insists that any new production of the An-124 would have to take place in Russia in respect of the rights and contracts originating in the Soviet Union. The military hostilities that eventually arose between the two countries have now made any such cooperation impossible. Several grandiose plans developed by interested Russian parties have unfortunately come to nothing. 

Have you heard about her big sister?

There is also a successor to the An-124. Equipped with six engines instead of four, its fuselage and wingspan were each extended by roughly 15 meters while retaining the same cross-section. The An-225 Mrija (“Dream”) is the largest and heaviest aircraft in the world and had the largest wingspan until 2019. There is also only one. Originally designed to give the Soviet space shuttle Buran (“Snowstorm”) a piggy-back ride to the spaceport, it is now also used for chartered flights – but that is a story worthy of its own article.

cargo-partner recently made use of the “Ruslan”