On December 24, 1982, the unique AN-124 “Ruslan” freighter aircraft made a successful maiden flight from Svyatoshino airport near Kiev. The world's biggest cargo plane ever mass-produced was designed by the Antonov Research and Construction Bureau.
Initially designed as a military heavy transport aircraft, the Ruslan’s unmatched payload and range capabilities subsequently created a whole new commercial market for the international movement of heavyweight and outsize air cargo. Until the appearance of the AN-225, the AN-124 was the largest aircraft in the world, capable of transporting cargo weighing up to 150 tons.
The fact that the Soviet Union was able to build an aircraft this size came as something of a surprise to the West. In the early 1980s, Western authorities were not sure of the state of large jet engine development in the Soviet Union. They did not know whether the Russian turbofan engines were comparable to those of the West in terms of power and fuel economy.
The AN-124 dispelled any doubts. It made its first public appearance at the Paris Le Bourget Air Show in 1985. It was named “Ruslan” after the giant Russian hero immortalized in literature by Aleksandr Pushkin. NATO made an appropriate choice by naming it “Condor” – after the world’s largest flying bird.
Its four giant turbofans produced more than 220kn engine thrust each. They had very effective performance in the air. Since its launch, the AN-124 has set 21 official world records, including carrying the heaviest single load of over 170 tons to an altitude of 2000m. This was 53% greater than the previous record set by the American equivalent C-5 Galaxy plane, which was the leading aircraft in its class since the late 1960s. The Ruslan also took the world record for a long-distance flight, covering a total distance of 20,151 km.
The Ruslan is similar in appearance to the Lockheed Galaxy. The major difference is that the Galaxy has a T-tail arrangement with the tail plane mounted high on top of the fin, while on the Condor the tail is mounted low, on the rear fuse empennage. The Ruslan is a great leap in size compared to the Galaxy. Its wingspan of 73.3 meters is almost six meters wider than Lockheed’s model.
The aircraft entered the fleet of the Soviet Military Transport Aviation in January 1987. It was serially produced in parallel by two plants – the Ulyanovsk Aviation Industrial Complex “Aviastar” from 1984 to 2004 and by the Kyiv Aviation Plant “Aviant” in 1982-2003. Serial production ceased with the break up of the Soviet Union. While currently no An-124s are in production, Russia together with Ukraine have decided to resume production of the modified AN-124 in the near future.