Heavylift / Breakbulk
East and west – what next?
It was hardly surprising but quite in line with the current political climate that Russia’s Volga-Dnepr Group announced its withdrawal from Nato’s strategic airlift programme. Whether the West will take up the succession offering from the Ukrainian manufacturer of the Antonov AN-124 remains uncertain. In the meantime, both former partners are very busy at it is.
Everything went well for ten years. From 2006 onwards, Russia’s Volga-Dnepr Airlines and Ukraine’s Antonov Airlines provided twelve Nato states and the EU members Finland and Sweden with up to six large Antonov AN-124 freighters, operating from Germany’s Leipzig / Halle airport.
The joint undertaking was to be based on a more permanent footing from 2016 onwards, with the programme’s acronym Salis no longer standing for ‘Strategic Airlift Interim Solution’ from then onwards, but rather for ‘Strategic Airlift International Solution’. But by then the conflict over the Crimean Peninsula and eastern Ukraine had long erupted.
Victim of political developments
The cancellation of the joint venture Ruslan Salis, established by Antonov Airlines and Volga-Dnepr, was one immediate consequence. What followed was the withdrawal of Volga-Dnepr, the biggest civil operator of AN-124 aircraft, from the Salis programme. This does not by any means indicate that the Russians are bidding farewell to Germany specifically, or to Western Europe in general.
Within the Volga-Dnepr Group, there are clear developments that have given rise to the opposite conclusions. AirBridgeCargo Airlines (ABC), its scheduled freight arm, is gaining an ever larger market share, and is clearly on the lookout for a second Boeing B747 hub outside Moscow. What is more, the group is diversifying its range and establishing new subsidiaries. It is currently becoming increasingly apparent that CargoLogicAir, which was established in the United Kingdom in 2015, will soon be given a sister on the European mainland, most likely with a German aviation certificate and based in Leipzig.
Nothing is official yet, however, and so Volga-Dnepr Airlines is again on assignment in spectacular charter projects. This was the case at the end of April at the Dutch airport of Amsterdam, when one of VD’s AN-124s flew the first elements for the Bepicolombo ESA mission to French Guyana.
After completing three more Antonov flights and the same number of transports by maritime vessel, the spacecraft set off on its journey from the European spaceport of Kourou to Mercury, where it is scheduled to arrive in autumn 2025.
Alternative Antonov Airlines
The Antonov Company, in turn, has emphasised that it has the capacity to support the Salis programme with the AN-124s required. An official reply from the European partners is still outstanding. With the landing and presentation of the world’s biggest freight aircraft, the AN-225, at the ILA air show in Berlin at the end of April, the Ukrainian state company provided the most tangible emphasis of its announcement so far.
In the meantime, Antonov Airlines continues to be busy with charter orders. One of them recently involved flying two 17 m boring towers from the United States of America to Australia. Originally the parts, weighing in at 21 t, had been scheduled to be transported by vessel, but the customer, a mining company that is active in an iron pit in the Pilbara region in the federal state of Western Australia, had to switch to processing the transport by aircraft at short notice, in order to be able to meet its deadlines.
During the loading in Houston, the charter company Chapman Freeborn, which was also involved in the project, and the Antonov team used the AN-124’s ramp system, and secured the process with two external cranes. After stopovers on Hawaii, the Fiji Islands and in Brisbane the freight was safely delivered to Perth in good time.