Air Transportation: Red Wings Over The World


September 21, 2009: The rough and tumble Russian military aircraft leasing business has made another hard landing, this time in the American Midwest (at the former Sawyer Air Force Base in northern Michigan, which is now a commercial airport for general aviation, and some local passenger flights). Two months ago, a Russian Il-78 aerial tanker aircraft, being leased by an American firm and flown by a Ukrainian crew, landed at Sawyer, on its way to Canada. But the Canadians would not grant permission (reason not given). Within a week, the Ukrainian crew had gone back to Ukraine, and the Il-78 was impounded at Sawyer because of an unpaid maintenance bill down in Texas. The Il-78 is still impounded there, and creditors are asking a local court to allow the Il-78 to be auctioned off to pay about $100,000-200,000 in outstanding bills.

Wayward Russian military transports have been turning up like this since the end of the Cold War in 1991. There were over a thousand former Soviet Air Force transports that suddenly had no work. Several able, but shady, operators got possession of hundreds of these aircraft and put them to work. Some of these transports ended up flying a lot of illegal (smuggling) or semi-legal missions. Even the legit ones often had an obscure or shady company running the "home office" (which was usually in Eastern Europe.)

The Russian transports that went into commercial service were a varied group. There is the An-12 Cub, which has four turboprop engines, a range of 3600 kilometers, and a top speed of 640 kilometers per hour. It can carry a hundred troops. It is also in service with 16 countries. Over 900 were built, with production ending in 1973, after a first flight in 1961. Some versions of the An-12 have a "stinger" with two 23-millimeter cannon in a tail turret.

Then there is the Il-76 Candid. This is comparable to the U.S. C-141 Starlifter. It has four turbofan engines, a top speed of 850 kilometers per hour, and a range of 3800 kilometers. This plane is still in production, and a new version, the Il-76MF, has a 21.6-foot extension. It can carry up to 225 troops, 128 paratroopers, or three air assault vehicles (like the BMD). Like the An-12, some versions of the Il-76 have a "stinger" in the form of a twin 23mm cannon in a tail turret. A variant of the Il-76, the Il-78 Midas, is fitted out as a tanker.

The An-22 Cock has four turboprops, and is similar to the An-12. It has a top speed of 740 kilometers per hour, a range of 10,950 kilometers, and can carry 88 tons. This plane is not a passenger carrier (only 29 passengers are carried). It usually carries armored vehicles and cargo. The An-22 is in service with Russia, which has roughly 40 units in use, and it is sometimes leased out for overseas jobs.

Then there is the An-124 Condor. This is the largest cargo plane in military service. It has a range of 16,500 kilometers, and a top speed of 865 kilometers per hour. Like the An-22, it does not primarily carry passengers. Instead, it carries outsized cargo and usually only does legit work.

But the most common Russian aircraft to work outside the system is the An-26 (which is actually the slightly more powerful military version of the An-24, which is also around in large numbers). The original design is from the early 1960s. Over 1,100 An-24s were built, and over 800 are still in use. Nearly 600 of the An-26 were built, and over 400 are still flying. It's easy to confuse the An-24 and An-26, and journalists (and government officials) often do so. In the 1970s, even more powerful versions (An-30, An-32), entered service, but only about 200 of these were made.

Antonov built the An-24 series to be simple, rugged and easy to use and maintain. They succeeded. Four decades later, it should not be surprising that over a thousand An-24 series aircraft are still working. That's not the first time this has happened. After 60 years, there are still several hundred DC-3 transports working in odd (and often remote) parts of the world. But with age comes problems. Engines, and other parts of these aging aircraft, are prone to fail at bad moments. Operating in places like Africa, where you are lucky to find fuel (which may be diluted or polluted), it's too easy to skimp on maintenance with such a rugged (but not invincible) aircraft. The An-24 series can carry about five tons of cargo, and 50 or more passengers (if you squeeze them in, which will often happen out in the bush.) Range with a full load of fuel is about 2,500 kilometers.

When the Cold War ended, hundreds of military and civilian An-24/26 aircraft were suddenly surplus. Few were just junked, most were sold cheap to people who had new uses for them. For example, the world's most successful gun runner, Russian Victor Bout, bought several dozen of these aircraft, formed several "airlines," and has been operating dozens of An-24/26s in Africa, moving weapons, and other illegal cargoes, all over the continent for the last decade or so.


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