For the logistician, more than anyone, the ending of the Cold War brought a wholly unforeseen benefit. When the former Soviet military dismantled itself in the early 1990s, it sold off a large chunk of its fleet of giant transport aircraft. These airplanes immediately got snapped up, mostly by syndicates of private Russian investors who wasted little time putting them into commercial service.
Up until then, heavy airlift – the capability of transporting very large, very heavy objects by air – had been a strategic resource that most militaries and governments neither possessed nor had ready access to. But now, suddenly, it was available at competitive prices to anyone who could pay for it. And with that, the world changed.
Say you’re a factory in China and you’ve built a couple of two-hundred-foot-long wind turbine blades that need to be shipped to Denmark. Or you’ve just built a locomotive or a yacht or a factory unit and your customer is on the other side of the world. Perhaps what needs transporting is a lot of oilfield equipment, or a rocket booster or a satellite. Maybe there’s been a natural disaster and large pieces of emergency equipment have to be brought in on very short notice. Transporting them from one place to another used to be a very complicated matter, but now it has become much easier.
But if commercial heavy airlift has been a benefit to private companies, for the U.S. Department of Defense and many of the world’s other militaries and government organizations, it’s been nothing short of a godsend. In the last dozen or so years, Russian and Ukrainian commercial carriers have flown thousands of missions in support of American and allied military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and all over the globe.
Once known by its old NATO designation “Condor,” the An-124, now the “Ruslan,” was designed in the late 1970s as the Soviet answer to the American C-5A Galaxy, then the largest aircraft in the world. The An-124 was larger, with 25 percent greater cargo capacity than the C-5A. The Ruslan can carry 150 tons of cargo 3200 kilometers. Lighter loads can be carried up to 14,000 kilometers.
The smaller, but still gigantic Il-76, known as the Candid, was developed in the late 1960s as a primarily civilian aircraft capable of carrying heavy and outsized cargo to remote, poorly serviced areas with short, dirt landing strips. While only fifty-six An-124s were built, close to a thousand Il-76s were produced over nearly four decades, and they continue to fly all over the world in dozens of former Soviet and third-world militaries as well as with no one knows quite how many commercial charter services. The Il-76 can carry 50 tons up to 4,000 kilometers.
While there are many charter companies offering heavy airlift using Il-76s, only three operate An-124-100s. Of these, two are Russian, one is Ukrainian, and for all of them, business is very good. “It depends obviously on the economy, but this year has been extremely busy,” says Colon Miller, director of North American operations for Volga-Dnepr Airlines, a Russian carrier that operates ten An-124-100s. “The only time they stop is for maintenance. Other than that, we have them moving from one mission to the next.”
“We’ll go from an oil mission out of Houston, Texas to something out of Africa, or a mission to Central Asia, then to Europe and back to the United States, a military mission leaving Charleston Air Force base, head over to CENTCOM area, offload its cargo in Afghanistan, pick up additional cargo while it’s there and fly it back to Kuwait and then reposition to South America for an oil job back to the United States, then Indonesia, Australia, Russia. They’re hot moving, pretty much all the time.”
Volga-Dnepr, based in Ulyanovsk, is the largest carrier flying the Ruslan. The second biggest is Antonov Airlines, a Ukrainian company. Headquartered at Gostomel Airport near Kiev, it is a division of Antonov ASTC, the design bureau and aircraft manufacturer that built the An-124-100 and other aircraft. While Antonov and Volga-Dnepr often compete for jobs and contracts, the fact is, they spend most of their time working together as partners. The third carrier, Voronezh-based Polet Airlines, has only three An-124s in its fleet, and mostly confines itself to non-military work.
“We provide augmented airlift to military airlift that is either too busy or there’s not enough of it currently, or it’s in maintenance or whatever reason they need to outsource,” Miller says in describing Volga-Dnepr and Antonov. “There are only twenty four An-124s in existence and only twenty on the commercial market. We have ten and Antonov has seven. We can leverage seventeen of them to customers who need them.”
“In the last twelve years, we’ve been working for the U.S. government as a subcontractor under the CRAF (Civil Reserve Air Fleet) Program,” he says. “We’ve flown more than 15,000 missions supporting the war in Afghanistan and Iraq and other military deployments and redeployments worldwide, as well as exercises and things like that.”
While in flight, the An-124-100’s massive cargo area can be pressurized or not depending on the requirements of cargo being transported. Either way, the crew and whatever passengers accompany the cargo stay in separate, spacious topside compartments.
One unique feature of the An-124-100, besides its tremendous size and capacity, is its onboard crane system, built on rails that run from the nose of the aircraft all the way to the tail. As a result, flatbed trucks can drive up underneath it and the crane will pick up its load and place it aboard the aircraft. Offloading cargo works the same way. This feature, along with a special on-board winch system, were all developed by the Antonov design bureau and added on along with other modifications to optimize them for commercial service.
Over the last twelve years, the Pentagon has paid nearly $2 billion to commercial carriers for augmented heavy airlift services. But the cost to the taxpayer would most likely be far higher if it had been done with existing assets.
“Volga-Dnepr provides a valuable service in extending American’s global reach by providing very heavy and outsize airlift capacity to deploy cargo rapidly to very austere locations worldwide,” Miller says. “If you call us, right away, we already have an infrastructure in place. You don’t have to generate up crews, figure out staging, or provide airplanes for the military. You just have to pick up the phone and say ‘Hey, I want to go from A to B,’ and while we’re doing that, they can start up their military operations and put in their airplanes. It costs them less because anytime you outsource to existing resources and you leverage their existing networks instead of starting from scratch, you’re obviously saving a lot of money.”