Cargo Aircraft Antonov Through the Ages
Now, the word “Antonov” conjures images of cargo planes so massive they look like whales in the sky. But once, Antonov was nothing more than the name of a precocious student at Leningrad Polytechnical Institute.
Oleg Konstantinovich (O.K.) Antonov was still in school in 1930 when he had a line of training gliders in production. His expertise landed him a position at the Moscow Glider Factory as chief engineer and chief designer. When the firm closed in 1938, Antonov began working for A.S. Yakovlev, a well-respected Soviet designer. On 31st May, 1946 Yakovlev appointed Antonov as head of a subsidiary design firm that would eventually be known as Antonov Design Bureau.
The bureau’s first order of business was to develop a utility plane that could be powered by a 730-horsepower engine. The outcome was the An-2, which took to the skies for the first time in 1947. The An-2 was such a success Antonov and his team were awarded the Stalin Prize and 100,000 rubles in 1952. The aircraft was exported throughout the Eastern Bloc and the Third World and remained in production for 20 years.
With this success, Antonov continued to break barriers. At the time, Soviet aircraft manufacturing facilities were always separate from their design firms. Antonov, on the other hand, made its own prototypes – including the AN-26, AN-30 and AN-32 – in several plants throughout the region.
In 1955, Antonov started developing the AN-12, a mid-sized military turboprop that marked a major advancement in Soviet aircraft. On 16th December, 1957, the AN-12 took its first flight. In 1962, the plane won the Lenin Prize and O.K. Antonov was given the rank of General Designer. To this day, the AN-12 is used as a cost effective and versatile aircraft for transporting cargo. Outsized freight can be loaded quickly and easily using the plane’s built-in rear loading system.
The 1950s also saw the development of the AN-24. The AN-24 was a medium-haul twin-engine turboprop that was used at its peak for 30% of passenger flight volume in the Soviet Bloc. The advanced techniques first used on the AN-24 were further developed to build the AN-26. Now, the AN-26 is commonly used by ACS to transport single heavy pieces of cargo.
Antonov also worked on several smaller planes during this time period. The twin-engine AN-72 was initially developed for military purposes in the 1970s, and stayed in production for over 20 years. This aircraft was the forerunner to the AN-74, which has distinctive over-wing turbofan engines that improve the ability for short take-offs and landings.
In the late 1960s, Antonov went down a new path: they began work on an oversized cargo plane. The AN-22 debuted to much fanfare at the Paris Air Show in 1965. At the time, it was the largest aircraft in the world with the capability to carry the largest pieces of Soviet equipment, including tanks. To this day, the AN-22 remains the largest turboprop aircraft in the sky, powered by four turboprop engines.
As they entered the 1980s, techniques in transporting oversized cargo continued to press forward. Antonov once again changed the face of commercial air freight with debut of the AN-124. One of the largest aircraft in the world to this day, the AN-124 has an impressive cargo capacity, drive-on loading ramps and a range of built-in freight handling equipment. It was named the AN-124 Ruslan after Russian author Alexander Pushkin's giant. The maximum payload was 120 tonnes, which has since increased to 150 tonnes. ACS has organised charters using AN-124s on many occasions, one of the most memorable of which was to transport urgent oil well equipment from Osaka, Japan to Oslo, Norway.
O.K. Antonov died in 1984 at the age of 78. Petro Vasylovych Balabuyev took his place as General Designer. Balabuyev spearheaded the design of the Antonov AN-225, which remains the world’s largest aircraft today. The AN-225 first flew on 21st December 1988. It is the only aircraft in the world to feature six turbofan engines. The aircraft has the ability to transport up to 250 tonnes of cargo, including single pieces weighing up to 200 tonnes over short- and medium-haul routes.
In 2016, Air Charter Service’s charter flights experts were able to charter an Antonov An-225 to carry the heaviest single piece of air cargo to be flown in the Americas. The piece was a 182 tonne transformer that was flown from São Paulo to Santiago de Chile. To this day, the Antonov An-225 is the largest cargo plane in the sky. Several competitors are currently attempting to build something larger, but this feat has not yet been accomplished.