Air Transportation: Iran Introduces a Questionable New Transport


June 19, 2023: Iran recently announced it has successfully flight tested its new Simorgh transport. The new aircraft will soon enter service, thanks in part to the war in Ukraine. That’s because Iran is an ally of Russia and supplies them with weapons to use in Ukraine. That means the Ukrainians are unable to interfere with the Iranian theft of Ukrainian aircraft technology essential to building Simorgh.

Less than a year earlier Iran announced they had designed and built a new twin-engine military transport aircraft called Simorgh. As with most Iranian announcements like this, the reality of the situation was somewhat different. Simorgh is actually a rebuilt Russian-designed An-140 transport. Iran assembled fourteen of these from component kits supplied by Russia and called their version the Iran-140. Only 39 An-140s were built and none remain in service. Most were built in Russia and two of these were lost in crashes. The first crash, in 2002, involved a Ukrainian airline An-140 carrying a delegation of top Ukrainian Antonov aircraft designers and engineers to a ceremony in Iran to commemorate the assembly of the first Iran-140. Iran went ahead and assembled fourteen Iran-140s and was planning to begin building its own. The plan was abandoned in 2014 when a second Iran-assembled Iran-140 crashed. In 2005 an Azerbaijan An-140 was lost in a crash. The 2015 Iranian announcement ended the brief career of the An-140. None remain in service and most have been retired, perhaps in the hope that someone will come up with a safe updated version. This is what Iran claims to have done. But to enhance confidence in the Simorgh there is no official mention of the Iran-140. None is needed, anyone who has seen an Iran-140 will note the resemblance. If the Simorgh turns out to be a safe and reliable, Iran will be praised. If the Simorgh runs into problems, it will be seen as another Iranian bait and switch.

The Antonov An-140-twin turboprop aircraft was designed in Ukraine and built in Russia. Entering service in 2007, the 19 ton An-140 was used mainly as a civilian aircraft, as it can carry 52 passengers. The An-140s sold to Russia are modified for military use. The civilian version sold for about $9 million each, but the militarized version has sturdier landing gear, more electronics and is configured to carry five tons of cargo. This increased the price to about $12 million. This is about half the price of a similar Western aircraft. That economy comes at a cost, as five of the 35 An-140s delivered so far have crashed, killing 111 people. Four of the crashes resulted in total destruction of the aircraft.

The 19 ton An-140 has a range of 1,300 kilometers and a cruise speed of 460 kilometers an hour. The 39 An-140s were delivered to four nations, including Russia and Ukraine. Russia bought them, in part, to improve diplomatic and economic relations with Ukraine. But the Russian Air Force also wants to rebuild its air transport fleet and replace existing An-24s and An-26s. The An-140 is a radical upgrade of the 21 ton An-24.

While first developed in the late 1950s, the An-24 design was upgraded in the 1960s, to the An-26 and the latest version is the An-32. The original An-24 transport entered service in the early 1960s. Over 1,100 AN-24s were built and over 500 are still in use. About ten percent of An-24s were lost in accidents.

Before the end of the 60s, some 600 of an improved model, the An-26, were built and about 200 are still flying. In the 1970s, even more powerful versions (An-30, An-32) entered service but only about 360 of these were built. The crew consists of two pilots and a loadmaster. The An-140 also carries a loadmaster when in all-cargo mode.

Antonov built the original An-24 series to be simple, rugged, and easy to use and maintain. They succeeded. Fifty years later it should not be surprising that nearly a thousand An-24/26 series aircraft were still working. That's not the first time this has happened, as after 70 years there are still several hundred DC-3 transports working in odd (and often remote) parts of the world. One problem with the An-24/26 is that since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, spare parts have been difficult to get. Some Western and Indian firms eventually got into that business but by the late 1990s, lots of the An-24/26s were grounded because parts were not available.

With age comes other problems. Engines, and other parts of these aging aircraft, are prone to fail at bad moments. There is still a problem with spare parts or at least the quality of those parts. The network of factories producing the spares fell apart when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The parts supply network has been slowly rebuilt, with many factories outside of Russia now producing needed components. The quality of these parts varies, which adds to the sense of adventure one has when flying in these aircraft.




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