Air Transportation: Ukraine Makes Another Friend

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July 5, 2017: In June 2017, after two years of development, the Ukrainian aircraft manufacturer Antonov presented its new An-132 transport at a major international airshow. In many respects this is one very unique aircraft. The An-132 made its first flight only two months earlier and that was largely because Antonov had a new foreign partner; Saudi Arabia. Thus during 2016 Saudi Arabian technical, production and financial personnel were heavily involved in what is basically a joint venture between Antonov and Saudi Arabia. For Ukraine this makes Saudi Arabia a major partner and investor in the Ukrainian aviation industry. An earlier such partner (at least for engines) was (and apparently still is) China.

The Saudi Arabian connection is a potential life-saver for Antonov and other Ukrainian aviation firms. That’s because the early 2015 Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine did a lot of economic damage to Ukrainian firms far from the combat zone. That’s because many Ukrainian defense firms were founded during the Soviet period when Ukraine was an unwilling part of the Russian Empire.

One of the best examples is Antonov. One of the three major Russian aircraft manufacturing firms, Antonov was headquartered in Ukraine and many of the production facilities were there as well. Ilyushin was in Uzbekistan and only Tupolev was in what is now Russia. With some effort (cash and help with sales) Russia managed to persuade Ilyushin to move a lot of manufacturing back to Russia. Tupolev was merged with several military aircraft manufacturers, as part of the United Aircraft Corporation. Antonov was forced to reconnect with Mother Russia as well, given their inability to design and manufacture aircraft that can compete with AirBus and Boeing (not to mention many smaller Western firms). Ukraine was determined to keep Antonov going and make it profitable. That turned out to be quite difficult although foreign customers like China and East European nations have found the Ukrainian made equipment effective and priced to sell.

Saudis now accept that working like this with Ukraine is not just a worthwhile goal but an essential one. Saudi Arabia must diversify its economy but the proposed partnership with Ukraine was tentative at first. Back in 2015 the Saudis thought they had a chance of regaining their decades old control of world oil prices (as the largest individual producer and head of the OPEC cartel). The Saudi effort to cope with the impact of fracking and unexpected growth of American production failed and the Saudis who had long urged more energetic efforts to diversify the Saudi economy were now seen as the best hope and probably only one for the future. Recent changes in Saudi leadership put younger men in control with the goal of doing more deals like the one with Antonov and rapidly bring more manufacturing and non-oil jobs to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have also noted the UAE (United Arab Emirates) successfully doing this for years. The UAE industries have been able to produce vehicles and modern weapons that, while not the best in the world, are adequate and getting better as more are put to work by largely Moslem majority nations who want to be less dependent on the West for all this stuff.

Meanwhile in early 2016 Ukraine announced the completion of the fuselage for the first prototype of the new An-132 transport and confirmed that this was actually a joint venture with Saudi Arabia. All the components will come from Ukrainian or Western suppliers and some of the final assembly was to take place in Saudi Arabia. That arrangement has evolved and now an An-132 assembly facility will be built in Saudi Arabia and share production with a similar facility in Ukraine. To make this work the Saudis have basically guaranteed customers (military and civilian) for the first 300 An-132s. If the aircraft performs as advertised there are plenty of potential customers in the Middle East, the biggest one being Saudi Arabia itself.

The An-132 is a much upgraded version of the 1960s era An-24, which currently exists mainly as a much evolved (from the An-24) An-32. The An-132 is a 29 ton twin engine aircraft that can carry up to 9.2 tons of cargo, 75 passengers or 27 stretchers (casualties). Cruising speed is 550 kilometers an hour and endurance is about seven hours. Max altitude is 9,000 meters (30,000 feet). The An-132 will be optimized for hot and dusty environments.

In early 2016 Saudi Arabia has already agreed to buy at least six An-132s (four for search-and-rescue operations and two for electronic warfare). This order will be expanded once the first production models arrive in 2018 and perform as expected. Ukraine and Saudi Arabia have a tremendous incentive to succeed with this joint venture. One could say that failure is not an option for either partner. Unfortunately, for a host of reasons, failure is still a possibility so this project is one to keep an eye on to see how well both countries can do trying to escape their troubled pasts.

Antonov built the original An-24 series to be simple, rugged and easy to use and maintain. They succeeded. Half a century later it should not be surprising that over 500 An-24 series aircraft are still working. That's not the first time this has happened. After nearly 80 years, there are still over a hundred of the 16,000 American DC-3 transports built are 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. A major problem with the An-24 is the shortage of spare parts. The network of factories producing the parts, 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. Quality of these parts varies, which adds to the sense of adventure one has when flying in these aircraft. India manufactures many spare parts and Ukraine remains a major source of An-24 series aircraft and parts. This included updated models like the An-26 and An-32. Ukraine has made it clear that An-132 will be built with components (like engines) from American manufacturers as well as those in Europe and India. These suppliers have much better reputations when it comes to responsiveness and customer service.

 

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