Air Transportation: Why the An-26 Survives

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October 8, 2005: Congo wants to ban the use of Russian built An-26 transports. The reason is simple, AN-26's have had several fatal crashes when operating in the Congo, and lots of near misses. There have been three fatal An-26 crashes in one month. The Congolese government may be forced to change their minds, however. The An-26 is a rugged, twin engine prop transport that can land on short fields and be fixed with primitive tools. There's really nothing that can completely replace it.

The An-26 is actually the slightly more powerful military version of the An-24. The original design is from the early 1960s. Over 1,100 AN-24s were built, and over 800 are still in use. Nearly 600 of the An-26 were built, and over 400 are still flying. It's easy to confuse the An-24 and An-26, and journalists (and government officials) often do so. In the 1970s, even more powerful versions (An-30, An-32), entered service, but only about 200 of these were made.

Antonov built the An-24 series to be simple, rugged and easy to use and maintain. They succeeded. Four decades later, it should not be surprising that over a thousand An-24 series aircraft are still working. That's not the first time this has happened. After 60 years, there are still several hundred DC-3 transports working in odd (and often remote) parts of the world. But with age comes problems. Engines, and other parts of these aging aircraft, are prone to fail at bad moments. Operating in places like Africa, where you are lucky to find fuel (which may be diluted or polluted), it's too easy to skimp on maintenance with such a rugged (but not invincible) aircraft. The An-24 series can carry about five tons of cargo, and 50 or more passengers (if you squeeze them in, which will often happen out in the bush.) Range with a full load of fuel is about 2,500 kilometers.

When the Cold War ended, hundreds of military and civilian An-24/26 aircraft were suddenly surplus. Few were just junked, most were sold cheap to people who had new uses for them. For example, the world's most successful gun runner, Russian Victor Bout, bought several dozen of these aircraft, formed several "airlines," and has been operating dozens of An-24/26s in Africa, moving weapons, and other illegal cargoes, all over the continent for the last decade or so.

A major problem with the An-24 is the shortage of spare parts. The network of factories producing the parts, fell apart when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The parts supply network has been slowly rebuilt, with many factories outside of Russia producing the stuff. Quality of these parts varies, which adds to the sense of adventure one has flying in these aircraft.

 


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