UPDATE 4:45 pm: Defence has advised that, while the Antonov was conducting an ADF charter to the ADF’s main operating base in the Middle East, it was not related to the deployment of ADF troops to the United Kingdom to train Ukrainian recruits.
9 am: A gigantic Antonov AN-124 Ruslan transport aircraft’s visit to Canberra has been creating a stir amongst plane-spotters this week. It was reportedly on a charter to the Australian Defence Force in support of a deployment of trainers to the United Kingdom.
The aircraft – operated by Ukrainian freight charter company Antonov Airlines – arrived on the evening of 16 January from Germany via Malaysia, and spent most of Tuesday loading containers on the eastern side of the airport. It departed just before dawn on Wednesday morning (18 January) using an ADF ‘ASY’ charter callsign, arriving in Darwin at 8:45 am local (10:15 am Canberra) time.
The visit coincided with an announcement by the Albanese Government that 70 ADF personnel would be deployed from Darwin to the UK on Wednesday to participate in a multi-national training program for Ukrainian recruits, with the ADF personnel specialising in urban and forest warfare.
While the Royal Australian Air Force operates eight large Boeing C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft, it regularly charters AN-124s for the transport of outsize equipment such as containers and vehicles.
While the AN-124 isn’t the largest aircraft flying – the one-off Scaled Composites ROC and the Airbus A380 are larger – it is the largest dedicated commercial or military freighter in service.
The aircraft is 70 metres long, it has a rear cargo door and ramp, and its nose can be raised and it can kneel on its front undercarriage to make front loading easier.
The cargo hold has a crane which can travel the length of the hold, and it can carry a payload of about 130 tonnes. The aircraft has a complex undercarriage system with 24 wheels, and its rugged design, powerful engines, and high-lift wing allow it to operate from short or unprepared airports.
Antonov Airlines also formerly operated a single AN-225, a 30 per cent larger six-engined derivative of the AN-124, but this aircraft was destroyed in its hangar by Russian forces when they attacked the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv last February.
About 55 AN-124s have been built. About 25 are operated by the Russian military, about a dozen have been retired, with the remainder in service as commercial freighters with Antonov Airlines or Russia’s Volga-Dnepr.