Air Transportation: China Will Revive An-225 Production

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September 6, 2016: In August China signed a contract with Ukraine to revive production of the An-225 transport and have the first new one in service by 2019. This first one will be the An-225 that was about 60 percent finished when work was halted in 1991. Ukraine has granted a license to resume production of the An-225 in China. More details will be made public in the future including any plans to resume An-124 production.

The An-225 is the largest air transport in the world and the holder of a growing number of air transport records. The latest one was in May 2016 when an An-225 set the record for the heaviest cargo (a 117 ton generator) carried by air over a long distance. The An-225 had moved this load from the Czech Republic to Australia. The heaviest load an An-225 ever carried was 253 tons (four Russian tanks) moved over a shorter distance. A Ukrainian firm owns and operates the An-225.

Reviving production is a big deal because only one An-225 was built and it entered service in 1988. The six engine 640 ton An-225 is a scaled up version of the earlier four engine 405 ton An-124. Until 2014, when Russian went to war with Ukraine, the Antonov Aircraft Company was in the midst of supplying the Russian Air Force with more An-124s and there was still hope for reviving the An-225. Russia and Ukraine are still at war but despite that China has continued to buy military equipment made in Ukraine.

This odd state of affairs was one of the side-effects of the 1991 demise of the Soviet Union, which was replaced by a much reduced Russia and 14 new nations that had been part of the old empire. The dissolution deal had whatever Soviet assets were in the new nation belonging to it. Most of the civil aircraft manufacturing facilities were outside of Russia in Ukraine and Uzbekistan. Of the three major Soviet aircraft manufacturing firms, Antonov was concentrated in Ukraine, Ilyushin in Uzbekistan and Tupolev in Russia. Cash and other inducements persuaded Uzbekistan to allow 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 remained independent despite political and financial pressure to reconnect with Mother Russia as well, given the fact that only Antonov could design and manufacture commercial aircraft that could compete with AirBus and Boeing (not to mention many smaller Western firms).

The An-124 was designed in the 1970s, first flew in 1982 and entered service in 1988. Only 55 were built before the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. The An-124 was originally created as a military transport but Russia and Ukraine found in the 1990s that there was a much larger commercial market for transports as large as the An-124 and An-225. The An-124 and the U.S. Air Force C-5 were the only two transports that could handle oversize material. But the An-124 was the only "jumbo" available for civilian charter demand kept growing. Sensing an opportunity in 2006 Russia and Ukraine began working on a joint effort to resume An-124 production. Another fifty, or more, aircraft were to be produced, starting in 2008 and mostly for Russia. That was delayed because there were problems raising the required cash (at least half a billion dollars). By 2012 the money and all the resources (suppliers of components) have been found. Demand for An-124s had increased and now the plan was for at least 70 to be produced initially, and sold for about $200 million each. The Russian invasion halted production in 2014.

The An-124 is the world's largest production aircraft and can carry a payload of up to 150 tons. The An-124 cruises at a speed of around 800 to 850 kilometers per hour. It can carry a maximum payload of around 4,500 kilometers, or carry ten tons of cargo and more fuel for up to 14,000 kilometers. There are around 28 An-124s doing commercial work, with another 25 in military service with the Russian Air Force.

In the late 1980s, a modification of the An-124, the slightly larger An-225, was built. With two extra engines and a larger wing, the An-225 can carry over 250 tons. A second An-225 was being built when the Cold War ended. New An-225s would cost over $250 million each. These are a bargain compared to the $225 million cost of a new American C-17 cargo aircraft. The C-17 also only carries around 79 tons of cargo.

 


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