If it does not have the majesty of the late An-225 Mriya, the largest aircraft ever built and which was destroyed by Russia in February, the An-124 Ruslan has a more significant career and has just completed 40 years since its maiden flight.
The massive four-engine aircraft took off for the first time from Sviatoshyn airfield near central Kiev, Ukraine, on December 24, 1982. It was the culmination of a long development process that motivated the Soviet aerospace industry to overcome several challenges.
The history of the AN-124 actually began in the mid-1960s, when it became clear that the huge An-22 turboprop would not be enough to supply the Soviet Air Force with the necessary mobility in times of the Cold War.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the US was developing the C-5 Galaxy, an airlifter of dimensions never achieved before. As was common at that time, the communist response would follow, seeking to outdo Lockheed’s rival.
But developing an aircraft of this size was something the Soviet Union was not prepared for. For this, important programs were initiated, such as the one that gave rise to the D-18T engine by the Lotarev office.
The manufacture of the An-124 would be done in two factories, one in Kiev and the other in Ulyanovsk. Interestingly, it was this last plant in Russia that produced the most aircraft, with 36 Ruslans completed against 18 in Ukraine.
More advanced than the C-5 Galaxy
With the advantage of being able to improve its plane by observing the C-5 Galaxy, Antonov also developed a four-engine jet with a high wing, but with a conventional tail instead of a “T”, as in the US Air Force jet.
The An-124, however, also had huge front and rear cargo doors, a flight deck over the cargo bay and a robust set of landing gear.
The wings have a supercritical profile, the structure received 5% of parts in composite material and a small part made of titanium. The flight controls are fly-by-wire, however, with redundancy offered by a hydraulic system.
In addition, the AN-124 can carry much more cargo than the C-5 – 150 tons against 127.5 tons, although it is slightly shorter than the Galaxy. The cargo bay, however, is 20% larger, and in 1985 it set a world transport record by carrying 171,219 tons to an altitude of 10,750 meters.
Special missions around the world
The An-124 experienced a new phase in its career after the end of the Soviet Union. Part of the five dozen aircraft produced for military purposes ended up migrating to the special civil cargo segment, circulating around the world on charter flights.
One of the specialists in this type of service is Antonov Airlines, an airline associated with the Ukrainian manufacturer. Currently, its An-124s carry out cargo flights, however, without being identified, due to fears caused by the conflict started by Vladimir Putin.
Russian Ruslans are also frequently seen traveling around Asia on unclarified missions. The country’s industry, however, intends one day to build a replacement for the An-124, the “Slon” project, which is still in the wind tunnel study phase.