The Antonov An-124 is a very large cargo aircraft for the transport of heavy and/or outsize freight. For some time it was the largest operational aircraft type in the world, until the six-engined An-225 took over.
The Ukrainian Antonov Design Bureau developed the An-124 'Ruslan' (NATO-nickname 'Condor') as a strategic military freighter for the transport of missiles, tanks and other heavy equipment. The aircraft was the Sovjet answer to the United States Air Force's Lockheed C-5A Galaxy, but the An-124 is heavier and carries 25 percent more payload. Its first flight was on 26 December 1982 and it started operations with Aeroflot in January 1986.
With its high wing, the shape of the fuselage and its four engines, the An-124 looks much like the C-5A. The main difference is the low tail; the C-5A has a T-tail, the An-124 has a conventional tail attached at the end of the fuselage, which is unusual for high-wing cargo aircraft. For easy loading and unloading the fuselage nose can be hinged upward. There is also a rear ramp cargo door. The aircraft has the ability to 'kneel' (to bend forward) for easier front loading. Behind the wing is a passenger upperdeck with up to 88 seats. The undercarriage has 24 wheels: ten main bogies with two wheels each, and two nose leg struts, also with two wheels each. With this undercarriage the An-124 can operate from semi-prepared strips.
It is no surprise that the An-124 set a number of payload/distance records. Although a fully loaden An-124 doesn't have an impressive range, it can fly much further when the payload capability is partially used for fuel. In May 1987, an An-124 flew a world distance record of 20,151 km (10,881 nm) without refuelling. The aircraft was in the air for 25 hours and 30 minutes. The previous record was 18,245 km (9,852 nm) set by a Boeing B-52H Stratofortress bomber. In July 1985, an An-124 lifted a load of 171,219 kg (377,473 lb) 10,750 m (35,269 ft) into the sky, but with such a heavy load it cannot fly far.
Although civil An-124s are operated by Russian and Ukrainian users like Volga-Dnepr and Antonov Airlines, the aircraft are often chartered by Western companies and also even by NATO armed forces. The An-124 has unique capabilities not offered by any Western airliner. The cargo bay is much larger than that of the Boeing 747F and the aircraft can carry more payload.
The first version, designated 'An-124', is the military variant. The civil version is designated 'An-124-100'. Series production ended with the break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, although five unfinished airframes were completed in the years 2001-2004. Plans exist to restart production with a much modernised 'An-124-150', which should carry 30 tons of extra payload up to a total of 150 tons (330,700 lb). This proposed version also incorporates more powerful engines, a modernised cockpit and other improvements. The idea is also to convert older aircraft to this new standard.
Other proposals are for a stretched aircraft, the An-124-300, and a shortened version, the An-124-102 with a higher fuselage and a taller cargo bay. Many other versions have been proposed, including aircraft fitted with western engines and a firebomber, but these haven't been built so far. From the An-124 Antonov developed the even bigger, six-engined An-225 'Mriya'.
Around sixty An-124s have been built, including military variants. In 2016, around twenty are in airline service.
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