It is an ungainly looking bird, but it could become the utility freighter of the future.
It is the Antonov AN-70, a four-engine prop-fan aircraft designed to provide a payload of 47 tonnes.
A joint initiative between the Ukraine‘s Antonov Company, in co-operation with Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation recently announced a $4 billion joint venture to put the AN-70 into full production. The catalyst for the project will be an order placed by the Russian defense ministry for 60 of the aircraft. Another user may be the Ukrainian air force.
A brand new production plant is to be set-up by JSC Gorbunov Kazan Aviation Production Association in Kazan in Russia to produce the freighter. But, the aircraft’s wings, tail surfaces and engine nacelles will be built by Antonov in Kiev. With a follow-on civil variant, it is expected that the Kazan plant will produce 80 aircraft by 2020.
The aircraft will be powered by four counter-rotating Progress D-27 propfan engines designed to accommodate shorter take-off and landings and will provide an operating range of nearly 8,000 kms. The ramp-loading aircraft, with a 20 metres length hold, provides 425 sq metres of cargo space.
Significantly, the AN-70 will be built in compliance with the AP-25 norms of Russia’s Interstate Aviation Committee, to guarantee airworthiness standards, which conform with the West’s JAR-25 standards. This will allow civil aviation certification of the AN-70 in Western European and North American markets.
But the AN-70 project has had a troubled history.
Work on the project began in Soviet Union in the early eighties as a replacement to the outmoded AN-12 transporter. There were plans to establish serial production of the model in both Kiev in the Ukraine and Samara in Russia The Soviet government, at the time, was reportedly interested in purchasing 160 planes for its military.
But in the post-Soviet era of reduced military budgets funding for the AN-70 was cut. In 2002 Russia and Ukraine agreed on a 50–50 risk-sharing deal on serial production of the aircraft. But then in 2006 Russia announced its complete withdrawal from the project.
The project now appears to be back on track as a joint Ukrainian-Russian initiative, with what is described as a newly modified version of the aircraft. This was after a series of mishaps with earlier prototypes. The first prototype was lost during its fourth flight in 1995 in a mid-air collision with an AN-72 aircraft being used as a chase plane. The second AN-70 prototype was force to make a crash landing in 2001 after losing power in two engines on take-off during cold weather testing in Omsk, and was severely damaged.
Even so the project limped on to the extent that it attracted the attentions of military observers in Europe as a potential military transport replacement. The AN-70 took part in the tender process for Europe’s new military transport programme and very nearly won, but was thwarted by political considerations.
Ironically, the nearest potential Western equivalent to the AN-70 is considered to be the Airbus A400M Atlas military transporter, the aircraft which went on to win the European military transport tender.
But the Airbus aircraft has not been without its own development problems and is years behind schedule. It is only now about to enter service with European defense departments.
The A400M will carry a payload of 37 tonnes, 10 tonnes less than the AN-70. But, more significantly, its market price, according to Russian sources, has been put at $180 million, as compared to a $67 million price tag for the AN-70.
Some Western cargo charter brokers are citing the AN-70 as the most likely candidate to become the future workhorse of the cargo charter business. It provides the right capabilities and with its 47-tonne payload capacity would be a good market fit, they argue.
They also say that demand for the outsize capabilities of the larger AN-124-100 transporter, with its 150-tonne uplift potential is limited and does not warrant the suggested re-start of serial production of the aircraft.
A better market replacement, it is argued, would be a possible commercial variant of Boeing’s C-17, with its 80-tonne payload. However, cessation of the C-17 military program, looks likely to jeopardize any future for the aircraft in the civil market.
Russia’s own heavy lift provider Volga-Dnepr has been a strong proponent of re-starting production of the AN-124-100, but it also operates a second-tier fleet of five upgraded IL-76TD-90VD aircraft, offering a 50 tonne payload.
Even so, Volga-Dnepr has reportedly shown interest in ordering five AN-70 variants to its fleet mix.
The AN-70, therefore, has the opportunity and the potential to carve a niche for itself as the next-generation heavy lifter if it can surpass its early teething problems.