Antonov's Giant: the An-124 Ruslan

The uniquely capable Antonov An-124 is the world's largest production cargo aircraft, yet it was only built in small numbers due to the collapse of Communism in the early 1990s. Today this unique aircraft is the star performer of the international heavy-lift cargo market and is in such high demand that series-production is being resumed.

A Volga-Dnepr An-124-100 sits parked on the flight line at US Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina, United States, waiting to offload its cargo on July 26 2004. (US Marine Corps photo by Lance Corporal Serena J Defilippis) A Volga-Dnepr An-124 takes off from Moffett Federal Airfield, California, United States, on April 22 2007. The contracted An-124 transported 129th Rescue Wing deployment cargo to Afghanistan because the high operations tempos of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have kept C-17 Globemaster III and C-5 Galaxy aircraft fully engaged. (US Air Force photo by Master Sergeant Daniel Kacir) A Volga-Dnepr An-124-100 taking off from a wet airstrip. (Volga-Dnepr) Two Tupolev Tu-95 ‘Bear’ bombers, centre, and an A-124 transport aircraft of the Russian military, background, beside a Boeing B-52H Stratofortress of the 62nd Bombardment Squadron at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, United States on May 1 1992. (DoD photo by Technical Sergeant Fernando Serna)

The Aircraft




Development of the An-124 started in the late 1970s as a replacement for Antonov's turboprop An-22 transport. This giant aircraft had been the largest aircraft in the world for a time, until the title was taken over by the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy in 1968.

By mid-1977 work was well under way on what was initially called the An-40 (sometimes An-400) by the West and Condor by NATO. Five years later, on December 26 1982, the An-124's maiden flight took place.

The first production An-124 was proudly displayed at the 1985 Paris Air Show in what was the West's first view of the type. Once the Ruslan's awesome dimensions had been revealed, the An-124 snatched the title of world's largest aircraft away from the rival C-5 Galaxy and continued Antonov's tradition of building the world's largest aircraft.

The mighty Ruslan scored a number of Cold War points for the Soviet Union as it not only gained the title of world's largest aircraft, but also continued to trump its American rival by setting a string of 30 world records. On July 26 1985 the An-124 lifted an unprecedented payload of 377 473 pounds (171 219 kg) to 35 269 feet (10 750 m). In doing so it exceeded the C-5's record of lifting a payload to 6 560 ft (2 000 m) by 53%. The incredible An-124 went on to set around 30 world records; between May 6 and 7 1987 an An-124 set a closed-circuit distance record by flying a gruelling 12 521 miles (20 151 km) in 25.5 hours without refuelling. The previous record was held by a Boeing B-52H Stratofortress when it flew 11 337 miles (18 245 km). In 1993 the An-124 set yet another record by carrying a Siemens Company powerplant generator and cradle weighing 298 065 pounds (135.2 tonnes) from Dusseldorf to Delhi: the single heaviest commercial load ever transported by air. And in 1994 the Ruslan moved the heaviest commercial shipment in one flight when it carried a 321 875 pound (146 tonne) payload.

The An-124 entered service commercially in January 1986 and deliveries to the VTA (Russian Air Forces transport arm) began in the following year in spite of the fact the aircraft was developed as a strategic military transport with commercial operations intended to come second.

An An-124-100 from Volga-Dnepr lands at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base (NAS/JRB), New Orleans, Louisiana, United States, on September 12 2005 to deliver a diesel powered water pump in support of the Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. (US Navy photo by Wade G Mckinnon) A Volga-Dnepr An-124 is parked April 20 2007 at Moffett Federal Airfield, California. The contracted An-124 transported 129th Rescue Wing cargo to Afghanistan because the high operations tempos of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have kept C-17 Globemaster III and C-5 Galaxy aircraft fully engaged. (US Air Force photo by Senior Master Sergeant Christopher Hartman)

The aircraft

The An-124 was designed as a strategic military transport and as such is able to quickly load/offload cargo. This ability is facilitated by the upward hinging visor-type nose in addition to the rear fuselage loading ramp/door, allowing rapid roll-on roll-off cargo handling. The Ruslan has also been designed to operate from unprepared fields and its robust landing gear can handle rough ground, hard packed snow and even ice-covered swampland. The steerable nosewheels allow turns on runways just 148 feet (45 m) wide. With remote area operations in mind, the An-124 has hatches in the upper deck that provide access to the wing and tail unit to facilitate maintenance when proper equipment is unavailable.

In order to carry heavy loads, the Antonov design bureau made some use of advanced materials to make the An-124 as light and strong as possible in critical areas. The cargo hold floor is constructed of titanium, and composites make up more than 16 145 square feet (1 500 sq m) of surface area. These composites weight 12 125 pounds (5 500 kg) and save more than 4 409 pounds (2 000 kg). Otherwise the An-124's structure is conventional light alloy metal.

As previously mentioned, the An-124 has been designed to operate from unprepared airstrips and as a result has heavy duty landing gear with no less than 24 wheels. The two main units each have five inward retracting legs with two wheels each. In line with the aim of remote operations, the front two wheels on each main unit are steerable. The nose gear consists of two independent forward-retracting units with two steerable wheels each to improve manoeuvrability, giving a turning radius of just 64 feet 4 inches (19.6 m). The two nose units are mounted side by side. The main landing gear legs can retract individually for easy repair or wheel change.

The An-124 has a very useful feature for easy cargo loading and unloading: by retracting the nosewheels the aircraft can kneel on two extendable 'feet' and therefore give the cargo hold floor a 3.5 degree slope. The process takes 3 minutes to lower the aircraft and 6.5 minutes to raise it back up again. In addition, the rear fuselage can also be lowered by compressing the main landing gear oleos.

Because it is relatively easy to load, the An-124 can accommodate almost any payload up to 330 700 pounds (150 000 kg): main battle tanks, complete missile systems, oil well equipment, earth movers - even Airbus wings - have been transported in the Ruslan's cavernous 40 965 cubic feet (1 160 cu m) interior, which measures a humbling 119 feet 8.25 inches (36.48 m) by 21 feet (6.4 m) and is 14 feet 5.25 inches (4.4 m) high. The An-124 can also accommodate 12 standard ISO containers and military aircraft are able to airdrop up to 16 pallets each weighing up to 9 920 pounds (4 500 kg).

Further testimony to the An-124's massive cargo capacity is the fact that it has carried many unusual and interesting payloads, such as a 240 300 pound (109 tonne) locomotive (from Canada to Ireland in September 2001), a Lockheed EP-3 (in July 2001 during the US-China spyplane incident), Boeing Chinook helicopters (three at a time), yachts for the America's Cup races, and even the fuselage of a Tupolev Tu-204 passenger transport.

The An-124 is well-equipped with cargo handling apparatus, and this consists of rollgangs and retractable attachments for cargo tiedowns; two winches able to pull 6 614 pounds (3 000 kg) and two electric travelling cranes. The latter are mounted in the roof of the hold, each with two lifting points, and can in total lift 44 092 pounds (20 000 kg). To keep an eye on cargo in flight there is a narrow catwalk along each cargo bay sidewall.

The cargo hold is accessed from the front by the hydraulically operated upward hinged nose, which simultaneously extends a folding nose ramp. The nose takes seven minutes to open fully and is steadied against any wind by reinforcing arms. No links (such as hydraulic or electrical) are broken when the nose is open.

The An-124's simpler hydraulically operated rear loading doors open much faster than the nose, taking just 3 minutes, including the extension of a three-part folding ramp. Behind the ramp the centre fuselage undersurface hinges upwards whilst clamshell doors on each side open downwards/outwards.

In addition to the An-124 being able to carry an unprecedented 330 700 pound (150 000 kg) payload, the aircraft can also accommodate 360 troops (and two lavatories) in the cargo hold. Oxygen bottles also need to be carried, since the hold is only lightly pressurised and does not normally carry people. However, in September 1990 an An-124 carried 451 Bangladeshi refugees from Amman to Dacca. Alternatively the An-124 can carry no less than 268 paratroops in two masses. The aircraft also has an enormous medevac capability, being able to carry 288 stretchers and 28 attendants. Above the cargo hold, behind the wing carry-through is a passenger cabin for 88 people.

In front of the passenger deck is a comprehensive rest/living area for the crew, which is useful on long flights or when operating in remote areas, as the An-124 was designed to do. The crew are provided with toilets, washing facilities, a galley and equipment compartment. There are also two cabins for up to six relief crew, with a table and facing bench seats convertible into bunks.

Forward of the crew rest area is the large flight deck, accommodating six crew in pairs, with place for a loadmaster in a lobby area. The crew consists of pilot and co-pilot, two flight engineers, a navigator and communications specialist. On commercial flights even more crew are carried: 10 to 12 cargo handlers and servicing staff.

Instrumentation for the flight crew is mostly conventional/analogue and does not include any electronic displays. On the pilot's centre console there is a moving map display as well as a weather radar screen. The displays are fed by two radars in the An-124's large nose: a forward-looking weather radar and a downward-looking ground mapping and navigation radar. Other navigation equipment includes quadruple Inertial Navigation Systems, Loran and Omega. In addition, there is a satellite navigation receiver above the fuselage.

Lifting the An-124's considerable bulk (around 882 000 pounds [400 000 kg] fully loaded) are four immensely powerful ZMKB Progress/Ivchenko D-18T turbofans each delivering 51 590 pounds (23 400 kg) of thrust. In line with the Ruslan's requirements to operate from basic airfields, the engines have thrust reversers which make the landing run surprisingly short for such a heavy aircraft: just 2 955 feet (900 m) at maximum landing weight.

The engines are provided with 76 714 Imp gallons (348 740 litres) of fuel in ten integral wing tanks. This provides a range of 2 795 miles (4 500 km) when fully loaded. However, range varies considerably according to the load carried. For example, when carrying an 88 184 pound (40 000 kg) payload the range is a much greater 7 456 miles (12 000 km).

For engine starting there is an Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) in the rear of each landing gear fairing. The APUs can also be used (both in the air and on the ground) to open the rear loading doors for airdropping freight, or for normal ground loading/unloading. They also supply the Ruslan's electrical, hydraulic and air conditioning systems.

The An-124 has supercritical wings to avoid buffeting at high speeds, with a sweepback of about 35 degrees on the inboard leading edge and 32 degrees outboard. The wing is relatively thick (12%) to give high aerodynamic efficiency and consequently give a long flight range. As a typical Russian aircraft expected to operate in cold climates, the An-124 has critical areas de-iced. Its wing leading edges are heated by engine bleed air whilst the fin and tailplane leading edges are electrically de-iced.

The Ruslan is a big, and therefore tricky, aircraft to fly, but this task has been made easier by a quadruple redundant fly-by-wire flight control system, with a fifth mechanical channel for emergency use. The hydraulically actuated flying controls consist of two-section ailerons, three-section single-slotted Fowler flaps and six-section full-span leading edge flaps on each wing. There are 12 spoilers on each wing forward of the trailing edge flaps, including four airbrakes. All control runs are channelled along the fuselage roof.

The Ruslan has many positive and expedient aspects to it, such as an unrivalled payload capacity, ability to operate in remote areas with cold climates, easy loading/unloading ability and good rough-field performance. However, the An-124 had one huge problem: a pathetically short airframe service life of just 7 500 hours and an engine life of just 1 250 hours. Apparently these ratings were so low because of the belief that such specialised aircraft would seldom be used. This led to a conflict between Antonov and commercial users of the An-124, especially the Russian heavy-lift airline Volga-Dnepr. And so in July 2000 Volga-Dnepr and Antonov signed a contract to extend the An-124's service life to 12 000 hours. Now aircraft delivered from 2000 onwards (An-124-100s) have much more realistic 24 000 hour airframe and engine lives. A service-life extension program is now in place for older An-124s and some aircraft from Volga-Dnepr and Antonov Airlines are being upgraded to the even better An-124-100M standard (see below).

A Volga-Dnepr An-124 takes off from Moffett Federal Airfield, California, USA, on April 22 2007. The contracted An-124 transported cargo of the 129th Rescue Wing, California Air National Guard, to Afghanistan. (US Air Force photo by Master Sergeant Daniel Kacir)


Between the onset of production in the mid-1980s and 1995 a total of 55 An-124s were built, or almost completely built, but only 52 had flown by mid-2000. Production stopped in 1995 but, because of the An-124's success with commercial operators, production of the last five unfinished airframes left over from Soviet times was resumed in mid-2000. The last three were completed in 2004.

The Russian Air Forces procured 22 An-124s, but 11 were put in storage and one was sold (to Polet in 2003). The military An-124s that were in service were grounded in December 2005 at an air force base near Bryansk. It seems that they were underutilised and very expensive to maintain, and so in August 2007 the Russian Minister of Defence apparently offered to sell the entire military fleet, starting with an initial batch of four aircraft. However, it appears that some of the aircraft may be upgraded first, since the Russian Air Force ordered 10 D-18T engines for its Ruslans in early September 2007.

The main civilian operators are Antonov Airlines, Polet And Volga-Dnepr. Antonov Airlines operates seven aircraft and Volga-Dnepr operates ten An-124s. Polet's fleet consists of eight Ruslans.

There are also a couple of smaller operators. Libyan Air Cargo, based at Tripoli International Airport in Libya, operates two An-124-100s that were bought and delivered in 2001/2002. Maximus Air Cargo based in Abu Dhabi operates a single An-124-100, which was purchased and delivered in 2004. This aircraft was originally destined for Atlant Soyuz Airlines but Maximus Air Cargo offered more than the contractual price and obtained the An-124.

The first international commercial user of the An-124 was the British AirFoyle based at London Stansted Airport, which operated in partnership with Antonov Airlines from July 1989. The second international operator was Heavylift from the UK, which began operating in collaboration with Volga-Dnepr in the early 1990s. However, this alliance later ceased in 2000. Heavylift then teamed up with AirFoyle in February 2001 to become Air Foyle Heavylift and operated seven aircraft.

At the end of June 2006 Antonov did not renew its contract with Air Foyle Heavylift and instead teamed up with Volga-Dnepr to form a joint venture called Ruslan International. The new company now jointly markets the 17-aircraft fleets of both Antonov Airlines and Volga-Dnepr and aims to reduce costs and improve the services offered, especially to the short-notice demand cargo market. It also allows Antonov and Volga-Dnepr to better serve its long-term customers and finance and develop better variants of the An-124.

In what can be regarded as a compliment to the capable An-124, NATO is now operating a couple of Ruslans under the Strategic Airlift Interim Solution (SALIS), with four more available on request. The aircraft are from the company Ruslan SALIS GmbH, which represents Antonov and Volga-Dnepr. The two An-124-100s are based at Leipzig airport and provide a guaranteed 2 000 flying hours per year. The lease contract was signed in February 2006 and came into effect in late March. It is valid for three years, but will be renewed every year until 2012, when the Airbus A400M transport finally enters service and the stopgap An-124 is no longer needed.

In addition to NATO, the United States Air Mobility Command has been using the Ruslan to transport outsize cargo, even though they have in service the C-5 Galaxy, the second largest serially-produced cargo aircraft in the world! Since 2003 Air Mobility Command has been chartering An-124 aircraft from Volga-Dnepr. These aircraft have been flying into Iraq for the last four years, although when the security situation is bad flights are temporarily halted. One significant flight into Iraq occurred on February 17 2006 when an An-124 delivered four Polish-built Mil Mi-17 helicopters for the Iraqi Air Force. In addition to Volga-Dnepr, Polet's An-124s also fly into Iraq on occasion.

Of the more than 50 An-124s that have been built over the last 25 years, four have been involved in major crashes, resulting in 50 deaths. All crashes occurred before 2000 when former-Soviet bloc aviation was in a bad state and since 2000 An-124s have logged thousands of flight hours without incident. The first Ruslan crash occurred on October 13 1992 when an Antonov Design Bureau aircraft came down near Kiev, Ukraine, during flight testing. There were eight fatalities. On November 15 1993 an Aviastar Airlines Ruslan crashed into a mountain at Kerman in Iran while in a holding pattern. 17 people died in the tragedy. Two people died when an An-124 owned by Aeroflot (but operated by Ajax) crashed at Turin, Italy, during a go-around on October 8 1996. The fourth and final Ruslan crash took place on December 5 1997 when a Russian Air Force aircraft crashed after takeoff in Irkutsk, Russia, resulting in 23 fatalities.

A Volga-Dnepr An-124 is parked April 20 2007 at Moffett Federal Airfield, California. The contracted An-124 transported 129th Rescue Wing cargo to Afghanistan because the high operations tempos of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have kept C-17 Globemaster III and C-5 Galaxy aircraft fully engaged. (US Air Force photo by Senior Master Sergeant Christopher Hartman)



The designation An-124 is applied to the basic military transport, which has remained unchanged over the years, but a number of civil variants of the aircraft have been developed. The An-124-100 was the first commercial version to appear and was granted a civil type certificate in December 1992. It remains very similar to the standard military An-124, except that maximum takeoff weight is restricted to 864 200 pounds (392 000 kg) and maximum payload is reduced to 'only' 264 550 pounds (120 000 kg).

A number of minor An-124 variants have been developed or proposed. For example the An-124-102 with EFIS flight deck and just three crewmembers (two pilots and a flight engineer). Another relatively minor variant is the proposed An-124FFR water-bomber, which would be able to drop an astounding 441 000 pounds (200 tonnes) of fire retardants. It would have a dual role and could be converted to carry freight.

A Volga-Dnepr An-124-100 at night. (Volga-Dnepr)


A greatly improved civil variant of the Ruslan has been developed that should appeal more to international operators: the An-124-100M (also known as the An-124-100M-150). Main performance changes include payload being increased to the 330 700 pounds (150 000 kg) of military variants, takeoff weight has been increased from 864 200 pounds (392 000 kg) to 886 260 pounds (402 000 kg) and the flight range has been extended from 2 890 miles (4 650 km) to 3 230 miles (5 200 km) with a 264 500 pound (120 000 kg) payload. To handle the increased weights a new digital antiskid braking system has been installed, together with strengthened tyres. The front loading ramp has also been strengthened to handle heavier payloads.

Other modifications include a switch to Western avionics, such as Litton INS, Rockwell Collins GPS and weather radar and Honeywell ground proximity warning system. Eliminating the radio operator and navigator reduces the number of crew to four. In addition, the D-18T engines have been improved and now have a 24 000 hour life with a 6 000 hour time between overhauls. They also meet international noise and nitrous-oxide emissions regulations. Future variants (D-18T series IV) will have Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC) and produce even more thrust (around 56 880 lb or 25 800 kg) without increasing fuel consumption.

In addition to the engines, the life of the An-124-100M's airframe is increased to 60 000 hours, with 80 000 flight hours planned for the future.

The prototype of the An-124-100M was completed in late 1995, but the aircraft was only flown in June 2000. Test flights were conducted between 2005 and 2006 with the new equipment being checked during thousands of hours in the air. Finally, after further testing, the An-124-100M received its Type Certificate on June 19 2007.

In September 2004, the governments of Russia and Ukraine announced that the An-124 would be put back in series production. An important step on the road to achieving this was the formation of a new joint venture company, called GLA Cargo Aircraft, on December 15 2006. The company is a collaboration between Volga-Dnepr and the Ukrainian company Motor Sich OJSC. Aviastar, Antonov Design Bureau and the Progress Design Bureau will also become shareholders in the company. Motor Sich and Progress are responsible for D-18T engine production on the An-124-100M.

On August 21 2007 a significant milestone was reached when Antonov, Volga-Dnepr and Motor Sich signed an agreement on the resumption of An-124 production, at the MAKS-2007 International Airshow. 17 new An-124-100Ms are on order, with 12 being for Volga-Dnepr. The agreement also plans for the modernisation of existing An-124-100s to An-124-100M standard. In addition, Antonov announced it would join GLA cargo aircraft, in line with the original plans.

Although no production timetable was given at MAKS-2007, in May 2008 it was stated that the production line will open up sometime after 2010. The An-124-100Ms will be constructed at the Aviastar-SP plant in Russia and Aviant State Aircraft Plant in Ukraine. In fact, Aviastar is already working on completing two unfinished An-124s to An-124-100M standard and will build around two or three new An-124-100Ms a year.

An An-124 taking off in cold weather. (Antonov)


In 1998 the Russian government gave approval for the modification of a Ruslan for a very unusual mission: launching satellites. Under the guise of the An-124-100VS (also called the An-124AL) the aircraft was intended to carry the Vozdushny Start booster rocket, able to place a 3 593 lb (1 630 kg) satellite into 124 mile (200 km) high orbit. The booster would be extracted from the back of the Ruslan's fuselage by parachute. It now seems that a two-stage Polyot rocket will be used, giving payload weights of between 1 300 pounds (600 kg) and 8 800 pounds (4 000 kg) and orbits from near-earth to geostationary. The rocket weighs 220 500 pounds (100 tons) and the associated onboard equipment weighs another 44 000 pounds (20 tons).

Launching a satellite from an aircraft has a number of benefits. It is much cheaper and more efficient than vertical ground launching and it allows a heavier payload to be carried, since less rocket propellant is required. Launching does not depend on weather conditions because the launch aircraft can fly above the weather and the launch site can be anywhere - it is easy to fly to remote areas where launching can take place. And instead of a cosmodrome all that's needed is a runway.

Behind the satellite launching venture is the Russian/Ukrainian joint venture company Air Launch Aerospace Corporation. It was established in May 1999 by Polet Cargo Airlines and the Khimavtomatiki Design Bureau. Initial operational capability of the An-124-100VS was expected by early 2003, but Air Launch has seen a number of delays, including launches being postponed until early 2005. However, although 2005 has come and gone and no launches have taken place, Air Launch is intending to begin launching rockets in 2010.

In December 2006 Air Launch began finalising a launching site for the An-124-100VS in Indonesia and in early December the presidents of Russia and Indonesia met in Moscow to discuss the Air Launch project and agreed on further co-operation. Nearly a year later Russian president Vladimir Putin made his first visit to Indonesia where he reached an agreement with the country on space technology co-operation on September 6 2007. The launch site was finalised as being Frans Kaisiepo Airport on the island of Biak. A special airport will be constructed and is to include rocket and satellite facilities, a satellite maintenance unit, mission control unit and other supporting facilities. Biak was chosen because the island is right on the equator and is thus an ideal place to launch satellites.

Frans Kaisiepo Airport can easily accept the An-124 since it's 11 700 foot (3 570 m) runway is 1 640 feet (500 m) longer than the An-124 requires. A typical launch pattern would be for the An-124-100VS to take off from Biak airport and fly to a point on the equator north of the island. Once at around 36 000 feet (11 000 m) the aircraft would release the Polyot rocket through the rear doors and 2.7 seconds later a parachute would open to align the rocket for its flight into space. The first launch is scheduled to take place some time in 2010.

A Volga-Dnepr An-124 arrives at the Kennedy Space Centre Shuttle Landing Facility on January 15 2007 to deliver hardware for the Japanese Experiment Module (JEM) destined for the International Space Station in 2008. (NASA/Dimitrios Gerondidakis)

The future of the An-124 looks bright, especially now that the An-124-100M is entering production. More and more An-124s will be available to the outsize cargo market, which is growing at around nine per cent every year and is forecast to grow in value from $0.77 billion per year now to more than $3 billion by 2020. The Ruslan should not only appeal to the outsize cargo market, given its unrivalled payload capacity and very low price tag of around $40 million (although the An-124-100M could cost between $120-200 million). Although the Ruslan has been around for more than a quarter of a century, it is only now reaching its full potential and, since no other aircraft can replace it, is guaranteed a long and prosperous future.


An An-124 arrives at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on May 20 2005 to deliver the CALIPSO spacecraft, which will be used to investigate weather and climate systems. (NASA-KSC) An An-124 arrives at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on May 20 2005 to deliver the CALIPSO spacecraft, which will be used to investigate weather and climate systems. (NASA-KSC)

Back to articles

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

© Copyright 2005-2011 Guy Martin /


Top Aviation Sites