Future imperfect

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VLADIMIR KARNOZOV / MOSCOW

A programme of modernisation aims to prepare Soviet-era Antonov and Ilyushin outsized cargo freighters for new environmental requirements

Demanding International Civil Aviation Organisation environmental requirements threaten the outsized cargo market, as they could force out of service the aging and noisy Soviet-era Antonov An-124 and Ilyushin Il-76, which still dominate industry operations. Also continuing economic difficulties in Russia and Ukraine have so far not allowed the design houses to work seriously on a suitable replacement.

Since the Iron Curtain's fall, the former Soviet airline industry has gone to great lengths to integrate into the world's airline network. While passenger jets from Ilyushin, Tupolev and Yakovlev did not prove up to the competition, Antonov and Ilyushin freighters found niches in the global market, and even opened a new dimension in cargo service - the world's largest operational freighter in widespread use, the An-124, makes 95% of the commercial charter cargo flights outside the CIS.

This has not been easy, as theAn-124 and Il-76 were developed to demanding payload and field performance military design targets. When the An-124 entered service, its design airframe life was just three years; investment by the Ruslan's commercial operators has extended thatto 24 years. The aircraft's ZMKB ProgressD-18T engine initially had a time between overhaul of 1,000h; the operators' $60 million-plus investment has extended that to 8,000h.

The three commercial Ruslan operators - Russia's Volga-Dnepr and Polet and the Ukraine's Antonov Airlines - put 40-50% of their income back into the fleet. Polet, for example, had to sell 15 smaller aircraft to acquire a Ruslan in 1994. "It was a risk, but we saw a tremendous growth of the market and wanted to exploit it. The market lived up to our expectations, growing from $7 million in 1989 to $160million in 1998, so we never regretted our decision," says the airline's general director, Anatoly Karpov.

Polet is committed to restoring five ex-military Ruslans provided under a government order, at a cost of $60 million. The first restored aircraft entered Polet service in August and the remaining four are to follow within a year. This will boost the company's fleet to seven aircraft, thus challenging the dominance of Antonov Airlines and Volga-Dnepr, with eight and 10 Ruslans respectively. Polet and Volga-Dnepr each ordered a new Ruslan from the Aviastar factory in Ulyanovsk, while the KiGAZ plant in Kiev has resumed work on an unfinished Ruslan for Antonov Airlines.

This fleet expansion comes against a background of the downturn of the global cargo market development. In the first half of this year sales volumes fell by 20%, but the annual volume is expected to stabilise at $200 million within the next two years. The US terrorist attack in September and the retaliation to it will worsen the current situation, although so far losses to the Ruslan operator's business have been minimal. In 2004 the market is expected to start climbing again - to $500 million in 2010 and $1 billion in 2020. But even today the market "potential" is estimated at $400 million. Antonov Airlines' executive director Konstantin Lushakov says: "Growing awareness of the public about the Ruslan's capabilities is the key to the rise of the outsized cargo market."

Stable development

Since the An-124's first commercial charter flight on the international market in 1989 (while the first civil cargo operation was in December 1985) the outsized cargo market has passed the initial "establishing" stage and is now entering a new stage, "stable development", on the foundation of a solid customer base. The "stable development" stage is believed to be marked by a certain rise in prices, as the current pricing for Soviet-designed aircraft is not as high as for Western freighters available for charters. The hourly price for the Ruslan with 120t payload starts from $14,000-15,000 and for the Il-76 with 47t from $4,600/h, while the rate for a Lockheed L-100 commercial Hercules with a 21t payload is $5,400/h and an Airbus A300-600 Beluga with 47t payload is $20,000/h. Volga-Dnepr general director Alexey Isaikin believes prices for the use of Soviet types can be boosted by at least 50%. The higher prices will improve the operators' profitability, enabling them to invest more in fleet maintenance and renewal, including investments into the development of next-generation aircraft.

If the market for such services as the transport of oversized cargoes develops as predicted, development of a next-generation ramp freighter with a payload capability of 250-300t will be justified. Volga-Dnepr's technical director Victor Tolmachev, former An-124 chief designer at Antonov, says: "The time has come for the design houses to start working on new ramp freighters. The development cycle for an aircraft in the Ruslan class from the first line to the maiden flight is eight to 10 years and to service entry is 15-20 years. If they start now, then the aircraft can be ready in 2015-20, when the An-124 and Il-76 will be nearing retirement."

The Antonov An-225 Mriya, certified in May 2001 and due to start commercial flights by the end of the year, is by no means a new generation aircraft. Conceived as an enlarged Ruslan for external carriage of the Buran space shuttle, the Mriya uses six of the An-124's D-18T engines and has the same cabin cross-section (floor width 6.4m, height 4.4m), with the increase in the cabin length to 43.3m, against 36.5m. boosting the cabin volume from 1,160m3 to 1,300m3. Yet the Mriya will add a new dimension to the outsized cargo business with its 250t payload capability, and the ability to transport a 200t payload 4,000km. No plans have been made beyond completion of the second aircraft laid down in the late 1980s.

The only new-generation ramp freighter design now on the horizon and suitable for the airlines specialising in outsized cargois the propfan-powered Antonov An-70. Designed to replace the ageing Antonov An-12 and Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules medium-weight airlifters conceived in the 1950s, the new Antonov has a roomy cabin of 400-425m3 with considerable cross-section (height 4.1m, width 4.8m, on floor 4.0m), larger than the Il-76TD's 321m3 and comparable with that of the extended Il-76MF version (400m3). The An-70 consumes nearly half as much fuel as the Il-76TD, while able to carry a payload of 47t, close to the respective figure for the Ilyushin. The second stage of government acceptance trials on the airlifter began in July, with completion due next year. The Ukrainian defence ministry has placed an initial order for five aircraft, while Russian and Ukrainian forces are said to need a total of 229.

The military orders will help master production of the basic airframe on which a modified commercial version, the An-70T, is based. The latter has two 10,300kW ZMKB Progress D-27 propfan engines with contrary rotating propellers instead of the basic design's four. Yet Tolmachev believes the airlines might be interested in the four-engine version as well, which, despite being overpowered, provides 20-30% fuel saving at 405kt (750km/h) cruise speed over today's turbojets.

Ruslan soldiers on

Meanwhile Ruslan production was restarted after a five-year break, with a newly-built aircraft entering Volga-Dnepr service in August last year. Three more are on order, so the total commercial Ruslan fleet may one day exceed 30. So far, the An-124-100 has undergone two stages of modernisation.

The second stage was completed earlier this year and included noise-reduction measures on the D-18T engines to make them comply to ICAO Chapter 3 standards, installation of the Orlan radio with 8.33kHz channel spacing, the terrain collision avoidance system-2000, the reduced vertical separation minimum track-following and basic area navigation systems.

A third stage of modernisation is being prepared for implementation within the next three to four years. The major directions are follow-on steps on noise reduction and improvement of navigation to meet the upcoming international requirements and reduced separation standards. Tolmachev is convinced the D-18T's development potential will allow Volga-Dnepr to make in-service engines compliant to Chapter 4 without radical changes in the existing hardware.

If the aircraft remains compliant to the ever-growing international requirements, it can stay in service for at least 30 years. Antonov Airlines and Volga-Dnepr have agreed to join forces on the programme for lifetime extension to 40,000h and 40-45 calendar years, as well as an increase in payload capability to 150t.