Air Transportation: The Silk Road Behemoth

April 18, 2020: In March 2020 the world's largest air transport, the AN-225, took to the skies again after an 18 month refurbishment plus upgrades. The electronics were upgraded, one engine was replaced and various minor structural and mechanical repairs of upgrades were performed. The two hour test flight appeared to be a success but there was no news on when the only AN-225 in service would return to work.

The worldwide covid19 quarantine has halted the many major construction projects that provide most of the work for the AN-225, which is often the only aircraft that can carry large or very heavy items. Within a few weeks of that test flight, the AN-225 was cleared for regular service and got a contract to fly medical supplies from China (where most of this stuff is manufactured) to Poland and apparently there are several other customers waiting to book the AN-225, which can move 350 tons per trip. Most air transports can't move much more than 25 tons per trip and often less than that.

The only AN-255 in service will be doing the ancient, and somewhat moribund, Silk Road (China to Europe) run. The An-225 is the holder of a growing number of air transport records. The latest one was in May 2016 when an An-225 set the record for the heaviest cargo (a 117 ton generator) carried by air over a long distance.

The An-225 had moved this load from the Czech Republic to Australia. The heaviest load an An-225 ever carried was 253 tons (four Russian tanks) moved over a shorter distance. A Ukrainian firm owns and operates the An-225 and now has several Chinese partners.

AICC (Airspace Industry Corporation of China) wants to build new An-225s that will regularly carry rocket payloads as large as 180 tons to 12,000 meters (39,000 feet) altitude for release and launch into orbit. This project is said to be underway but there has been no confirmation. The An-225 will then land and do it again, and again.

This makes it a lot cheaper to put heavy loads into orbit. The first An-225 was built for this purpose, to put the Russian Space Shuttle (the 105 ton Buran) plus booster rockets into orbit. China has a similar project underway.

The AICC deal was initially only for reviving the production of the An-225 transport and have the first new one in service by 2019. Getting a new An-225  that quickly was possible because there was a second An-225 that was about 60 percent finished when work on it was halted in 1991. Ukraine has granted a license to resume production of the updated An-225 in China.

This deal may still involve resuming An-124 (the smaller version of the An-225) production as well. China and AICC is mainly interested in the An-225 and using it for their space program. The uncompleted AN-225 is still not finished and in 2017 the Antonov company was reorganized again.

This was described as a liquidation but it was, in fact, a reshuffling of Antonov assets. Reviving production is a big deal because only one An-225 was built and it entered service in 1988. The six-engine 640 ton An-225 is a scaled-up version of the earlier four-engine 405 ton An-124.

Until 2014, when Russian went to war with Ukraine, the Antonov Aircraft Company was in the midst of supplying the Russian Air Force with more An-124s and there was still hope for reviving the An-225. The war between Russia and Ukraine did not interfere with China continuing to buy military equipment made in Ukraine, but it did bring a halt to all cooperation with Russia. This odd state of affairs was one of the side-effects of the 1991 demise of the Soviet Union, which was replaced by a much reduced Russia and 14 new nations that had been part of the old empire.

The dissolution deal had whatever Soviet assets were in the new nation belonging to it. Most of the civil aircraft manufacturing facilities were outside of Russia, mainly in Ukraine and Uzbekistan. Of the three major Soviet aircraft manufacturing firms, Antonov was concentrated in Ukraine, Ilyushin in Uzbekistan and Tupolev in Russia.

Cash and other inducements persuaded Uzbekistan to allow Ilyushin to move a lot of manufacturing back to Russia. Tupolev was merged with several military aircraft manufacturers, as part of the United Aircraft Corporation. Antonov remained independent despite political and financial pressure to reconnect with Mother Russia as well, given the fact that only Antonov could design and manufacture commercial aircraft that could compete with Airbus and Boeing, not to mention many smaller Western firms.

The An-124 was designed in the 1970s, first flew in 1982 and entered service in 1986. Only 55 were built before the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. The An-124 was originally created as a military transport but Russia and Ukraine found in the 1990s that there was a much larger commercial market for transports as large as the An-124 and An-225.

The An-124 and the U.S. Air Force C-5 were the only two transports that could handle oversize material. But the An-124 was the only "jumbo" available for civilian charter and demand for that kept growing.

Sensing an opportunity in 2006 Russia and Ukraine began working on a joint effort to resume An-124 production. Another fifty, or more, aircraft were to be produced, starting in 2008 and mostly for Russia. That was delayed because there were problems raising the required cash, as in at least half a billion dollars.

By 2012 the money and all the resources (suppliers of components) had been found. Demand for An-124s had increased and now the plan was for at least 70 to be produced initially, and sell them for about £200 million each. The Russian invasion halted production in 2014.

The An-124 is the world's largest production aircraft and can carry a payload of up to 150 tons. The An-124 cruises at a speed of around 800 to 850 kilometers per hour. It can carry its maximum payload for around 4,500 kilometers, or carry ten tons of cargo and more fuel for up to 14,000 kilometers.

There are around 28 An-124s doing commercial work, with another 25 in military service with the Russian Air Force. In the late 1980s, a modification of the An-124, the slightly larger An-225, was built. With two extra engines and a larger wing, the An-225 can carry over 250 tons.

A second An-225 was under construction when the Cold War ended as the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991. New An-225s would cost over £300 million each. These are a bargain compared to the £225 million cost of a new American C-17 cargo aircraft.

The C-17 also only carries around 79 tons of cargo and is about to cease production.

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