Aircraft, awful and awesome :
Russia’s “C-5”

Dr. Marshall Michel
86th Airlift Wing historian

***image2***While it looks like a white C-5, the aircraft pictured above that occasionally makes an appearance at Ramstein is actually the Russian Antonov AN-124 Russian, and the resemblance to the C-5 is not accidental.

In 1973 the Soviet Union’s Antonov design bureau was fully involved in building a huge, four-engine turboprop cargo aircraft, the AN-22 Antei. By all accounts an excellent aircraft with very long range and the ability to carry the Soviet’s main battle tank or a complete SA-8 mobile missile system. However, in    October 1973 the Arab-Israeli Yom Kippur War broke out, and American C-5s were used to rush heavy equipment to the beleaguered Israel Defense Forces. After seeing these deliveries, the Soviet Politburo told Oleg Antonov to stop production of the AN-22, despite its outstanding characteristics, and to “develop a Soviet C-5.”

Antonov, no stranger to Politburo orders, complied and began development of the AN-124 in 1974. Not surprisingly, given the opportunity to work on a new airplane, there were numerous (and sometimes conflicting) inputs from various parts of the Soviet military and Aeroflot, the Soviet Union civil airline, resulting in a constantly shifting pattern of requirements as far as cross-section, floor strength, and short field landing capability.  The result of these debates was that the new aircraft did not make its first flight until 1982 and that year was shown at the Paris Air Show.  Production began slowly but the AN-124 set numerous records for load carrying over distances. Compared to the C-5 – which was fifteen years older – the AN-124 was slightly larger, had about 30 percent more thrust from its engines and thus could carry about 70,000 more pounds of cargo.

 In 1985, the Soviets produced a much larger version of the AN-124 − the AN-225, the largest and heaviest aircraft ever built − to carry the Soviet Buran space shuttle. The AN-225 flew at the Paris Air Show in 1989 with the Buran on its back and was the subject of many propaganda photos, but a few months later the Soviet Union collapsed and AN-225 was without a mission. (The Buran spacecraft never flew and is today an exhibit at Moscow’s Gorky Park, a tribute to Soviet propaganda and a condemnation of Soviet technology.) 

With the Soviet collapse it seemed that the 30 AN-124s already produced might also be an aircraft in search of a mission.  However, the AN-124’s load carrying capabilities made it an intriguing possibility for Western − and soon Russian − heavy cargo carrying airlines, and since the C-5 is limited to an entirely military use, it had virtually no competition in this category.

The AN-124 did have its problems since it was a fairly standard Soviet military aircraft, where cost efficiency was not part of the design equation, and it required a great deal of maintenance, but these characteristics were either solved or tolerated. 

Today the AN-124 is widely used worldwide for a variety of missions, including some for NATO.  AN-124’s have transported a locomotive from Canada to Ireland, moved a living whale from Japan to France, carried yachts and moved engines for the ultimate capitalist aircraft builder, Boeing.  But perhaps the AN-124’s most ironic mission was in 2001 when an AN-124 ferried a U.S. Navy EP-3 electronic intelligence aircraft forced to down in Communist China back to the United States, where it was rebuilt to fly more electronic reconnaissance missions.