Big (Boeing 747-400), bigger (An-124), behemoth (An-225).
The world’s largest operational cargo plane, nicknamed Mriya, or “Dream” in Ukrainian, is returning from a short hibernation to help address a global shortage of heavy-lift air transport.
The massive, six-engine plane can carry 225 tons of cargo, such as huge electrical transformers. It was originally built in the 1980s to transport rockets and space shuttles for the Soviet space program. The Antonov-124, the largest commercial aircraft in regular operation, is puny by comparison, holding a mere 120 tons.
Ukraine’s Antonov Airlines on Monday said it is redeploying the An-225 to support customers in the project cargo market, where capacity is in high demand.
The move comes 10 days after Russian all-cargo carrier Volga-Dnepr grounded its An-124 fleet following an engine failure that forced one of the freighters to make an emergency landing in Russia. Volga-Dnepr said it will sideline its eight available An-124s until an investigation into the cause of the accident is complete. The company possesses four other units that are undergoing heavy maintenance and not flying.
Commercial Director Andriy Blagovisniy said the decision to reactivate the An-225 is a temporary response to high market demand.
“Taking into consideration the current very limited availability of An-124 aircraft on the market, we are giving priority to time-critical cargo and to give additional lifting capacity, we will enter our An-225 aircraft into commercial operation after running routine maintenance,” he said in a statement.
Both ramp-loaders typically move large items like aircraft parts, helicopters, yachts and power generators. Antonov Airlines uses the An-225 for unique loads the An-124 can’t handle or when one An-225 is cheaper than chartering two An-124s.
Antonov officials say there is no need to follow Volga-Dnepr in grounding its fleet because the airline ensures proper maintenance and airworthiness by complying with manufacturer standards, as well as national and international regulations.
“We are a responsible airline and put flight safety first,” Blagovisniy said in an email to FreightWaves. “There is a surge in demand for An-124 aircraft at the present time and Antonov Airlines is doing its best to help the customers in this difficult situation. Taking into consideration the current very limited availability of An-124 aircraft on the market, we give priority to [time-critical] cargo.”
The end of the year is traditionally busy for the heavy-lift sector as companies look to complete infrastructure projects on time and within budget, but demand is even greater in 2020 because the grounding of passenger fleets eliminated a huge amount of cargo space and put a squeeze on traditional freighters.
“There has been a knock-on effect from the loss of belly freight, meaning more freighters have been booked for more general cargo, which then further knocks onto the heavylift sector,” Blagovisniy said. “Additionally, there have been scheduling issues with different projects across the globe because the pandemic has delayed required work.”
The overall freight market is expected to tighten further in the coming weeks as freighters get pulled into commitments to transport COVID-19 vaccines once they are approved by regulators.
Earlier this year, Antonov flew missions with the An-225 to deliver humanitarian aid and medical supplies to combat the coronavirus outbreak, including ultrasound and digital X-ray machines.
The An-225 is based on the An-124 design, with fuselage extensions fore and aft of the wings. It also has similar nose gear, which allows it to “kneel” so that cargo can be easily loaded and unloaded. The landing gear consists of 32 wheels, allowing the plane to turn on a narrow runway. However, unlike the An-124-100, which has a rear cargo door and ramp, the An-225 is only loaded through the nose It has a twin-tail, swept-back horizontal stabilizer that enables it to carry heavy loads on top of its fuselage. Its cargo compartment can be pressurized, extending its transport capability.
The An-225 entered commercial service in 2001. Antonov Airlines says an extensive overhaul has extended its service life through 2033.
Even though An-124 and Boeing 747-400 and B747-8 have similar payloads they are not comparable. The An-124 was created to transport unique and oversized cargo for complicated logistics projects, while the 747 is a more standard cargo plane that mostly carries palletized cargo. With an internal crane system and two cargo loading entrances for out-of-gauge shipments, it is self-sufficient when it comes to on/offloading. And Antonov and Volga-Dnepr have each made modifications to increase the payload of two planes to handle up to 150 ton. The 747s unique nose loading capability allows it to carry extra-long cargoes and its temperature and humidity settings create favorable conditions for temperature and time-sensitive items, dangerous goods, perishables, and live animals.