Oleg’s airborne tractors
The Ukraine is a huge expanse of fertile steppe in Eastern Europe. This land with a long and turbulent history has been fought over for millennia. It is known as the breadbasket of the region, and possibly because of this has suffered two devastating famines in recent history. The Russian Famine in 1921 after the Revolution led to the deaths of an estimated 5 million and another caused by the collectivization of agriculture under Stalin in 1932, known as the Holodomor, killed up to 12 million more.
Neither these tragedies, nor the turbulent recent history of the region, is however the subject of this column.
The first tractor
Agricultural production, and its mechanization, was an obsession of Soviet planners. The humble farm tractor became an object of glorification, and a lot of art in the USSR was devoted to the subject. So a tractor is a Soviet metaphor for a practical, simple, robust and durable machine that produces something of value, not a frivolous object of desire.
A Soviet engineer named Oleg Antonov, born in Moscow, set up a production facility in Kyiv (Kiev) in 1952 with an emphasis on the design and construction of transport aircraft. The first product of OKB-153 (OKB is the Russian abbreviation of Research and Design) was the Antonov An-2 agricultural and utility aircraft — a true ‘tractor of the skies’. A robust, simple all-metal biplane with an enclosed cockpit and large single bay, it was capable of carrying cargo or 12 passengers. With high lifting power, the ability to fly out of unimproved airstrips, and extremely rugged construction, the An-2 was mass-produced for a remarkable duration of 44 years, with more than 18,000 built by the time manufacture ended in 2001, outdoing even the legendary DC-3/Dakota/C-47 for sheer numbers.
An astonishingly well-designed airplane, the An-2’s wing has no stall speed. At very slow speeds the leading-edge slats will deploy and the aircraft would gently sink at “a parachute rate of descent” at a forward speed of about 40 kph (21 knots) under full control. Given the right conditions, into a strong headwind for example, the An-2 is capable of flying backwards relative to the ground, an amazing feat.
In addition to widespread use by civil operators, the An-2 also saw combat during the Korean War. North Vietnamese forces used it for supplying troops and as an attack aircraft. The North Koreans supposedly still use the An-2 actively. Unmanned An-2 ‘drones’ have reportedly been deployed in the recent Nagorno-Karabakh fighting by Azerbaijani forces, but this is unconfirmed.
The Antonov design bureau went on to design increasingly bigger transport aircraft. A large turboprop twin, the An-8, built in relatively small numbers (approximately 150) from 1956, was soon supplanted by the four-engine An-10, a much more successful design. Only 104 of the latter type were built, but the basic design was adapted to military needs in 1957, becoming the An-12.
Looking not dissimilar to the Lockheed C-130 Hercules and serving a similar role, the An-12 proved to be the mainstay of the Soviet military transport fleet for many years, remaining in production until 1973. The type saw extensive service during the Soviet-Afghan war. More than 1,200 were built, and many remain in front-line service with civil cargo operators to this day. In fact, this also applies to the An-8 and An-10, with some examples of both reportedly continuing in service in Africa despite the manufacturer having suspended the types’ operating certificates.
In the 1960s, at the height of Sino-Soviet cooperation, China purchased several An-12s from the Soviet Union, along with a licence to assemble the aircraft. Relations subsequently soured and technical assistance was withdrawn, but the Xi’an Aircraft Company successfully reverse-engineered the design and produced it as the Yunshuji-8, a.k.a Shaanxi Y-8.
A number of improved models of the Chinese versions have been introduced, including one with a fully pressurized cabin. In excess of 69 have been built, and production continues. The Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) used Y-8s both in combat (as a makeshift ‘barrel bomber’) and the transport role. Tamil Tiger separatists shot down one, and another crashed due to suspected structural failure.
Back to a twin
The big Antonov An-12 was closely followed by a smaller twin-engine version in 1959, designated the An-24. Similar in configuration and approximate dimensions to Western high-wing twin-turboprops such as the Fokker F.27 Friendship and Handley Page Dart Herald, this was another simple and rugged Antonov design, built to fly out of unimproved strips.
More than 1,300 have been produced, a total which includes such derivatives as the An-26 tactical transport with a rear loading ramp, An-30 photo-mapping aircraft, and An-32 (with more powerful engines) — another type operated by the Sri Lanka Air Force — as well as those produced in China.
Similar to the An-12, the An-24 was also scheduled to be produced under licence in China by the Xi’an aircraft factory in 1966. However, turmoil during the Cultural Revolution period slowed progress and the first production aircraft was not completed until 1984. Designated the Xian Y-7, a later development similar to the An-26 for military use was named the Y-7H.
Further improvements were made in China, long after Antonov ceased production in 1978. The Y-7200A was an interim type, replaced by the MA60, a stretched version with Pratt & Whitney Canada PW127J turboprop engines and four-bladed Hamilton Sundstrand propellers replacing the earlier Soviet Ivchenko AI-24 and AV-72 propeller/engine combination.
International civil users
The smaller Antonovs proved to be as popular and enduring as their venerable bigger brothers, with numerous examples continuing in service in remote parts of Africa and Asia.
Xi’an Aircraft have been aggressively marketing the MA60, which with its more reliable engines and EFIS avionics appears to be an attractive low-cost alternative to much more expensive Western aircraft such as the ATR-42/72 and Bombardier Q400 series. Examples are in service in locations as diverse as Djibouti, Myanmar, Nepal, Tajikistan, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka. The exact number of MA60s produced and in service is difficult to ascertain, but it appears to be approaching 100 aircraft, with the majority being in China.
Lack of recognized certification
The Soviet Union scorned having to seek type approvals from ‘capitalist’ regulators for its aircraft, so the entire stable of Antonov’s designs is not certified outside the Russian sphere. This means that any civil user of the aircraft must retain the Russian (or other former USSR nation, such as Ukraine) registration, precluding almost all passenger applications.
China too has tended to ignore certification from any outside agencies. The Civil Aviation Administration of China granted initial type certification to the MA60 in June 2000. There has been no attempt to validate this by seeking a similar endorsement from the US Federal Aviation Administration, or Europe’s regulator EASA. In the absence of approval from a regulator outside China, the MA60 and all other Chinese aircraft are restricted from commercial use to any great extent. With the exception of Embraer (based in Brazil), no other manufacturer from a country outside North America or Europe has successfully certified a type in the recent past.
The Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac) flew its flagship C919 at an airshow in November 2020; the first time the aircraft had been demonstrated publicly. Equipped with CFM LEAP-1C engines, the C919 is a direct competitor to the Airbus A320 and has been in development since 2009. The aircraft will have to be certified under the rules of a ‘western’ regulator, (be it the US FAA, Europe’s EASA or Brazil’s CANAC) if it is to fly passengers outside of China. Success in accomplishing this will be a ‘coming of age’ moment for China’s industry. Conversely, reluctance to seek certification from another regulator will impede progress severely.
Antonov’s jet transports
Oleg Antonov passed away in 1984, before the disintegration of the USSR. Viktor Tolmachev became the principal designer, and his products include the An-124 Ruslan large transport (similar to the USAF’s C-5 Galaxy), launched in 1982. This was later enlarged in 1989 to become the gigantic An-225 Mriya, with six engines, which remains the world’s largest and heaviest airplane.
The Mriya was designed to transport Russia’s Buran-class space vehicles (similar to the US Space Shuttle), and only one example was built. Antonov Airlines, a business venture established during Soviet times operating out of London’s Luton airport, used a fleet of An-12s and An-124s for cargo operations. When the gigantic An-225 was added to the fleet, it set a record in 2009 for carrying a generator for a gas power plant that weighed 189,000kg (417,000lbs) — a feat that is unlikely to be matched.
Today the An-225 Mriya continues to be used for carrying outsized cargo, and has operated several US military contract flights too, a sign of the changing times for a design developed at the height of the Cold War. The An-225 enjoys a cult following as it carries oversize cargo to many parts of the world, with large numbers of aviation enthusiasts and sightseers turning up to see the colossal aircraft. A crowd estimated to number in excess of 15,000 was at Perth Airport (Western Australia) to gawk at the gargantuan aircraft in 2016.
This is part of a series on the historic propliners that are on Propliner magazine. We follow the birth to the airline industry, the aircraft that made it possible and the slow transition to the jet age. It all began with the DC-3 of course, and my columns move through the other Douglas propliners, the Boeing 377, Lockheed’s Electras and the elegant Constellation. The Brabazon Committee which sparked such a wave of innovation in the UK with the Vickers Viscount, the Bristol Britannia and the ill-fated de Havilland Comet. Many other significant aircraft, such as Avro Canada’s innovative but aborted C-102 passenger jet and the Sud-Aviation Caravelle, which led us into the start of the Jet Age have columns too. Soviet types with their simple and robust characteristics have not been neglected, with Tupolev’s designs paid homage to as well.
A few quirky segues I couldn’t resist: the ‘Double Sunrise’ flights between my two homelands Ceylon and Australia; the wonderful Carvairs and that very British habit of taking your car on holiday. I also had to write a paean to my beloved A380 and all my pilot friends in the Gulf as COVID ended that little dream.
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed the series as much as I have relished writing them. My special thanks to my old friend, mentor, editor and repository of knowledge Roger Thiedeman, for all the encouragement and support throughout this project.