Antonov's An-70 had its maiden flight in December, but funding shortages threaten its development.
A large crowd of workers, designers and officials received an early, but welcome, Christmas present at Svyatoshino airfield, Kiev, on 16 December, 1994, when the Antonov An-70 took off for the first time. It did so after a demonstratively short take-off run. Half an hour later, and earlier than initially expected because of worsening weather conditions, the transport - the first aircraft in the world to be flown powered by propfans only - landed at Gostomel flight-test centre ahead of an approaching snowstorm.
Bad weather is probably the least demanding of the challenges which threaten development of the An-70. The most obvious problem is one of funding, arising from the unstable political and economical climate of the CIS.
The An-70, now a co-operative effort between three states - Ukraine, Russia and Uzbekistan, was designed originally in the mid-1970sto meet the specification of the then-Soviet air force for an advanced, fuel-efficient, military transport which could be substituted for the 1960s-vintage Antonov An-12 Cubs still in service and take over a substantial part of transport operations from the heavier Ilyushin Il-76. With unique requirements for short-runway operations and very fast loading/unloading procedures, the An-70 should be a welcome addition for the Russian military to implement its new doctrine, which emphasises air mobility.
The Russian air force still wants such a transport, a desire confirmed by the presence of air force chief of acquisition Lt Gen Stanislav Nazarenko at the maiden flight ceremony. There are doubts, however, that the air force will have enough money to shoulder alone the burden of financing An-70 development and future deliveries. Hopes that Ukraine will provide the funding have even less substance. Of the 200 Il-76 transports now operational in Ukraine, 144 need urgent repair, but there is no money to pay even for that. Antonov has tried to find a solution by attracting commercial investors, who have been tempted by the perceived export potential of the aircraft.
Expectations that the An-70, and its future commercial variant, the An-70T, will conquer the international market appear to be based on unproven optimism. During the first flight, Boris Soldatenko, president of the Kievaviaprom association, said: "Today we have blown up the Euroflag FLA project. The whole West will come to us for such an aircraft." Nazarenko is equally optimistic, saying that even the US military may become interested in the new transport. Nazarenko estimates that the world market for this class of transport is 2,000-2,500 aircraft.
Although the An-70 performance is undoubtedly promising, it defies credibility that Western countries will be queuing up to order it, if only for political reasons. Despite this, the An-70 has already been cited as a project which could bring prosperity to one of the biggest Russian airframe manufacturers, AVI.S Samara. The plant was declared bankrupt in September 1994 following the continuing difficulties of selling the Tupolev Tu-154M airliner. AVI.S received a manager, Lev Khasis, who was appointed by a court on the suggestion of a creditors' meeting. Almost as soon as he arrived, Khasis ordered preparations for series production of the An-70.
Khasis says that the first production An-70 will be ready in the first quarter of 1997. To gear up for production, the Samara plant has established the Aviakor corporation, with the aim of attracting outside investors. Aviakor may be joined by the AvtoVAZ bank, one of the leading commercial banks in Russia, to form an industrial-financial group which will be able to take advantage of taxation privileges. AvtoVAZ president Petr Makhmanovich is already on the Aviakor board of directors, chaired by Lev Khasis. Piotr Balabuyev, Antonov general designer, and Konstantin Titov, Samara governor, is also a member of the board, together with Victor Gorlov, deputy director of Rybinsk Motors, and Valentin Klimov, Tupolev general director.
The Tupolev design bureau is probably the partner least interested in launching the An-70 for series production. The bureau has been lobbying for its own Tupolev Tu-330 twinjet freighter, stressing its "purely Russian" origin and, in April 1994, managed to force a resolution by the Russian Government, signed by prime minister Victor Chernomyrdin, calling for development and production of the Tu-330, powered by Perm Aviadvigatel PS-90 turbofans.
This resolution orders the State Committee for Defence Branches of Industry (SCDBI) to fund production of an initial batch of ten Tu-330s at the Gorbunov plant in Kazan by 1998. Until then, Tupolev had been proceeding with the design using its own money. The SCDBI, the transport ministry and inter-state aviation committee MAK have now been ordered "...to ensure certification flight tests, leading to operational service in 1998". It is due to take deliveries of the Tu-330 from the Kazan plant even before the end of certification tests "according to the specification and requirements of the Tupolev design bureau".
Perm Aviadvigatel has also been ordered to modernise the PS-90A turbofan for installation on the Tu-330, and NPO Era of Penza must deliver a Tu-330 flightcrew simulator for state acceptance tests in 1996.
Tupolev chief designer Valentin Bliznyuk claims that the Tu-330 transport "...has significant advantages" over the An-70, although it is being developed to similar flight-performance requirements. Bliznyuk says that the Tu-330 will be "...cheaper and less complicated in production and operation". The bureau is building a full-scale mock-up in preparation for a major design review. Bliznyuk admits that the An-70 was developed to meet military specifications for loading/unloading time, for operation at short runways and scarcely prepared airfields, and that these specifications have been eased for the Tu-330 design.
Observing some reluctance by the Russian authorities to support development of the An-70, Ukraine is looking for other CIS partners. While visiting Kiev in October 1994, Uzbekistan's president Islam Karimov discussed the possibility of producing the An-70 in his country's capital Tashkent at the Chkalov plant, where the Il-76 is manufactured. Having met Ukrainian defence industry minister Victor Petrov and Antonov general designer Piotr Balabuyev, Karimov expressed optimism about staging An-70 production in Uzbekistan "...where all the necessary conditions are present".
Karimov, on the other hand, obviously wants to keep final assembly of the An-70 in Russia, saying at the time that launching series production at other locations "...will delay its availability for two or three years, during which time the design will become outmoded and will lose its competitiveness".
In the meantime, the Tashkent plant, which has a long history of co-operation with Antonov, is producing wings for the An-70 prototypes.
The Tashkent plant is now manufacturing Il-76s and, in co-operation with the Ilyushin design bureau, is nearing the end of assembly of the second Il-76MF prototype, with a stretched fuselage and powered by four Perm Aviadvigatel PS-90A turbofans. The programme does not have Government financing and the design bureau and the factory are continuing work on their own. This is the reason why the first Il-76MF has not yet been flown, as the two companies do not have enough funds to pay for the delivery of the engines.
Maximum load capacity of the Il-76MF is 50t, but operational practice shows that an average commercial load of cargo flights in the CIS is only 31t, which would be within the capability of the An-70. The An-70, powered by four Progress D-27 propfans, is claimed to consume 45% less fuel than an Il-76 in a typical transport mission, carrying 20t of cargo 3,000km (1,600nm).
Regardless of decrees issued by the Russian and Ukrainian Governments, the reality of the post-Soviet political and economical environment suggests that, of all three programmes competing for funding, the one which depends least on Government support will have a better chance of reaching production status. From this point of view, the management of the An-70 programme so far seems to be showing more resourcefulness and non-standard approaches than those of the two other teams. These include possible foreign participation, with assistance coming not from the West, but from the East.
In March 1994, Kim Jung, president of South Korea's Daewoo, visited Kiev and signed an agreement to establish a joint venture with Antonov, to produce transport aircraft "...based on the An-70 design". The two sides expressed the hope that the South Korean-Ukrainian joint venture could provide the basis for the establishment of a European-Asian corporation involved in the production of modern transport aircraft.
In March 1995, the An-70 is planned to be flown to the flight research institute at Zhukovsky, near Moscow, for its flight-test programme to be continued. Its international debut is scheduled for the Paris air show in June. The appearance of the An-70 there is likely to attract strong attention from all those who are thinking of buying substitutes for their ageing transports.
Of similar programmes worldwide, the An-70 is the only next-generation transport to have been flown with three flags on its board- two European and one from Central Asia. The collection of national insignia which it may eventually carry is much wider.
Source: Flight International