The world's largest transport aircraft that made its first flight in 1982 was designed by Russian aircraft designers and to this day remains a record holder in terms of capacity among serial models. This aircraft is the legendary AN-124 designed for the needs of the army. For a long time, Ruslan has been forgotten, but now its production may be resumed.
The giant's outstanding technical parameters played a bad joke on it. "Ruslan" has been unjustly forgotten, and was out of demand for decades. Today, after the completion of the first phase of the negotiations on the joint Russian-Ukrainian production of a modified version of AN-124, one may speak of its rebirth.
The reasons for the long oblivion are quite understandable. The completion of a troubled era of Cold War slowed down the development of weapons in Russia. There was no longer a need to carry heavy military vehicles - intercontinental ballistic missiles, mobile launchers, trucks, etc. The demands of peacetime proved to be too light for the "Russian miracle" (as "Ruslan" was called at a French Airshow in 1985). Civilian work was only enough to maintain a small handful of these aircraft. Civil orders came rarely and irregularly, and a few units serving the Ministry of Defense were idle.
In the new millennium, there were only a little over 20 machines operated by three airlines - "Polyot", "Volga-Dnepr" and "Antonov Airlines." All of them were "oldies" and it was difficult to maintain them at the appropriate technical level. The production of new AN-124 units was suspended long time ago, and by 2004 the production of spare parts was also stopped. Due to the lack of spare parts at the Ulyanovsk aircraft factory the assembly of two almost finished aircraft was frozen.
In recent years, there has been a tendency towards the revival of the unique aircraft. It is clear that the production in its original form did not make sense, and a major upgrade in line with the current realities was needed. The load capacity of over 80 tons, ("Ruslan" was originally capable of lifting up to 140 tons at a time) exceeds the needs of even the largest customer, the Ministry of Defense. Reduction of this parameter would allow more efficient use of the power of the aircraft as well as would solve the issue with airfields. The lack of electronics in the control of the aircraft served as an undoubted advantage in time of war. The aircraft remained resistant to electromagnetic pulses, but the size of the crew was increased to six people. Noise level and environmental performance of the engine no longer met the international standards.
Yuriy Boyko, Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine, said that at the last July meeting in Sochi an agreement was reached between Russia and Ukraine on the establishment of a joint venture for serial production of the modified model of "Ruslan" taking into account all of the above considerations. AN 124-200 will replace AN 124-100 and will be equipped with an advanced D18T engine with a digital control system that will reduce the crew to three people. The founding documents of the new joint venture are expected to be signed bilaterally by September of this year. After that it will be possible to more accurately forecast the timing of the release of the first aircraft.
The location of production facilities and the company that will be entrusted with the implementation of the project has not been fully defined, but it is very likely that it will be the Russian "Aviastar-SP" in Ulyanovsk. The co-production will allow avoiding competition between the parties to the contract and will assist in promoting the products to the foreign market that according to analysts is ready to welcome the new aircraft giant. Boyko has no doubt that each of the countries participating in the agreement will contribute to the advancement of the project. Ukraine will bring innovation and technology, while Russia will provide financial support and assistance in negotiating sales contracts.
Both countries are equally interested in the soonest start of the joint venture and are ready to start work immediately. In the case of successful implementation of mass production and the integration of the modified model AN-124, the experience can be transferred to other aircraft, both passenger and specialized. The production of the first machines will take a long time, especially considering lengthy technical tests.