July 19, 2012: The Russian Air Force ordered another six An-140-100 transports. These twin turboprop aircraft were designed in Ukraine and are built in Russia. Since introduced in 2007, the 19 ton An-140 has been used mainly as a civilian aircraft (it can carry 52 passengers). The An-140s sold to Russia are modified for military use. The civilian version sells for about $9 million each, but the militarized version (sturdier landing gear, more electronics, configured to carry five tons of cargo) increases the price to about $12 million. This is about half the price of a similar Western aircraft. That economy comes at a cost, as five of the 35 An-140s delivered so far have crashed. However, two of those were An-140s built under license in Iran.
The 19 ton An-140 has a range of 1,300 kilometers and a cruise speed of 460 kilometers an hour. The military version will probably be able to carry about five tons of cargo. There are 30 An-140s on order from several countries. Russia is buying them, in part, to improve diplomatic and economic relations with Ukraine. But the Russian Air Force also wants to rebuild its air transport fleet and replace existing An-24s and An-26s. The An-140 is a radical upgrade of the 21 ton An-24.
While first developed in the late 1950s, the An-24 design was upgraded in the 1960s, to the An-26 and the latest version is the An-32. The original An-24 transport entered service in the early 1960s. Over 1,100 AN-24s were built and over 500 are still in use. About ten percent of An-24s were lost in accidents.
Before the end of the 60s, some 600 of an improved version, the An-26, were built and over 200 are still flying. In the 1970s, even more powerful versions (An-30, An-32) entered service but only about 360 of these were made. The crew consists of two pilots and a loadmaster. The An-140 also carries a loadmaster when in all-cargo mode.
Antonov built the original An-24 series to be simple, rugged, and easy to use and maintain. They succeeded. Fifty years later it should not be surprising that nearly a thousand An-24/26 series aircraft are still working. That's not the first time this has happened, as after 70 years there are still several hundred DC-3 transports working in odd (and often remote) parts of the world. One problem with the An-24/26 is that since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, spare parts have been difficult to get. Some Western and Indian firms eventually got into that business but by the late 1990s, lots of the An-24/26s were grounded because parts were not available.
With age comes other problems. Engines, and other parts of these aging aircraft, are prone to fail at bad moments. There is still a problem with spare parts or at least the quality of those parts. The network of factories producing the spares fell apart when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The parts supply network has been slowly rebuilt, with many factories outside of Russia now producing needed components. Quality of these parts varies, which adds to the sense of adventure one has when flying in these aircraft.