It has been likened to raising the Titanic off the ocean bed. But the project to restart production of the modern-day Titan of the skies, in the shape of the AN-124-100 freighter, appears to be moving determinedly ahead.
As a precursor to that momentous step, Russia’s Volga-Dnepr Airlines and Antonov Co. of the Ukraine have agreed to initiate a program to upgrade the first of Volga-Dnepr’s fleet of AN-124-100s. Volga-Dnepr is the world’s largest commercial operator of the heavy-lift transporter, with a fleet of 10 aircraft.
Under the terms of the agreement, the modernized AN-124-111VD will have an increased payload of 150 tonnes, compared to its previous 120-tonne payload. The primary change in the upgrade program will be achieved by re-equipping the AN-124 with new 3M-series D-18T engines. The environmental characteristics of the engines will be upgraded to meet international standards in accordance with the International Civil Aviation Organization’s stated emission levels and noise requirements. Much of the aircraft’s avionics and operating systems will be replaced with digital systems.
The engine lifetime of the upgraded version is to be extended to 50,000 hours. This is expected to be expanded to 60,000 hours, the equivalent of 12,000 flights, which, according to Volga-Dnepr officials, will give these reinvigorated aircraft a typical service life of up to 50 years.
Valery Gabriel, CEO of Volga-Dnepr, pointed out that the carrier has already undertaken extensive upgrade work of its AN-124-100 fleet in recent years. “This has included upgrading five aircraft in the fleet to 150-tonne-payload capability as well as installing new avionics and inertial systems,” Gabriel said. “This has required an investment of up to $4 million for each aircraft.”
He confirms that the agreement with Antonov will require Volga to commit $400 million to the further deep modernization of its entire AN-124-100 fleet, a program expected to take four years to complete. “It is planned that the upgrade of each aircraft will take six to eight months, with only one aircraft being taken out of service at a time,” Gabriel said.
The investment by Volga-Dnepr will also help fund a major research and development program, which will be undertaken simultaneously. This, it is said, will act as the catalyst for ultimately relaunching serial production of a new-build AN-124-300 freighter. “The modernization of the AN-124-100 fleet and upgrade of the D-18T engine will provide the platform for production relaunch,” Gabriel said. “We hope that will happen in 2016.”
Volga-Dnepr Group’s ebullient president, Alexey Isaikin, has already stated that he is ready to order up to 40 of the new-build AN-124-300s, based on the strategic requirements for oversize and heavy-cargo transportation. It is a market segment, according to company estimates, that is growing at a rate of 10 percent to 12 percent per year in cash terms. That means it will be valued at $3 billion by 2020 and $7 billion by 2030. Currently, Russian operators, with their monopoly of AN-124-100 lift, retain a 75-percent market share.
But what are the chances of the renovated AN-124-300 getting airborne?
“It is going to be a big task, requiring billions of dollars to get an aircraft production line like this going again,” said one analyst. “Added to which, you need to ensure you have all your component suppliers in place.” That level of investment, he added, could never be recovered by the relatively limited order potential of such a unique aircraft.
Typically, it has been revealed, restarting production may be hampered by the simple lack of tooling machines used to build the original aircraft. “The AN-124 has a unique wing design, manufactured from a single piece of aluminum, the tooling machine for which has been destroyed,” one observer commented.
The only real hope for the comeback of the re-invented AN-124, commentators have said, would be if the Russian military saw a strategic need for such a transporter and were to place orders in significant numbers. After all, the aircraft was originally designed to serve in a frontline military role. “That is not the case today,” said one analyst. “The current Russian military machine is designed to fight small local wars, without the need for an extensive strategic airlift requirement.”
The only other alternative for the Russians, in seeking to offset new-build costs for the aircraft, would be to embrace a joint production program with a Western aircraft manufacturer. A project like this has been hinted at before, with talk of Boeing becoming involved in final assembly of the aircraft. But Russian build quality still has a ways to go to convince Western operators to grapple with such a beast as the AN-124, sources have said. Added to which, Boeing has its own potential heavy-lift contender with a possible commercial variant of the C-17, although its 80-tonne payload makes it a relative lightweight in the market.
Ultimately, questions are raised over the actual size and scale of the outsize market. “Realistically, around 75 percent of all project charters could be accommodated with an aircraft the size of a C-17, with only 25 percent requiring the capabilities of the AN-124,” said one charter broker.
To add to Russian woes, it would also appear that the Western market now views the comeback of the airship as a genuine prospect for the handling and movement of outsize loads.