Air Transportation: Antonov Saved By Arabs

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February 28, 2016: Ukraine recently announced the completion of the fuselage for the first prototype of the new An-132 transport. This is actually a joint venture with Saudi Arabia. All the components will come from Ukrainian or Western suppliers and some of the final assembly will take place in Saudi Arabia. The An-132 is a much upgraded version of the 1960s era An-24, which currently serves mainly as the An-32. The An-132 is a 31 ton twin engine aircraft that can carry up to nine tons of cargo. First flight will be in late 2016. Saudi Arabia has already agreed to buy at least six An-132s (four for search-and-rescue operations and two for electronic warfare).

The Saudi Arabian connection is a life-saver for some Ukrainian aviation firms. That’s because the early 2015 Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine did a lot of economic damage to Ukrainian firms far from the combat zone. That’s because many Ukrainian defense firms were founded during the Soviet period when Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire. One of the best examples is Antonov. One of the three major Russian aircraft manufacturing firms, Antonov was headquartered in Ukraine. Ilyushin was in Uzbekistan and only Tupolev was in Russia. With some effort (cash and help with sales) Russia managed to persuade Ilyushin to move a lot of manufacturing back to Russia. Tupolev was merged with several military aircraft manufacturers, as part of the United Aircraft Corporation. Antonov was forced to reconnect with Mother Russia as well, given their inability to design and manufacture aircraft that can compete with AirBus and Boeing (not to mention many smaller Western firms). Ukraine was determined to keep Antonov going and make it profitable. That turned out to be quite difficult.

Antonov built the original An-24 series to be simple, rugged and easy to use and maintain. They succeeded. Half a century later it should not be surprising that over 500 An-24 series aircraft are still working. That's not the first time this has happened. After nearly 80 years, there are still over a hundred of the 16,000 American DC-3 transports built are 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. 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 now producing needed components. Quality of these parts varies, which adds to the sense of adventure one has when flying in these aircraft. India manufactures many spare parts and Ukraine remains a major source of An-24 series aircraft and parts. This included updated models like the An-26 and An-32.

 


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