In addition to the tragic loss of life that it incurred, the crash of the Russian An-124 cargo plane on December 6 could have repercussions in two areas that have been major sources of hard currency for Russia: arms exports and air charters. The giant Antonov plane is — except for the single six-engine version built to carry the Soviet Buran space shuttle on its back — the largest aircraft in the world. It was ferrying two Su-27UB jet fighters to Vietnam from the Irkutsk aircraft plant where they were built. This would have completed delivery of the four twin-seat trainer versions of the Su-27 that Vietnam had ordered in 1996. Seconds after takeoff the crew was said to have reported problems with two of their four engines, and then the plane slammed into an apartment building.
The plane belonged to the Air Force’s Transport Aviation branch, but was apparently under charter to an organization called Cargo-Trans, said to be located at the same airbase in Seshcha — 340 kilometers southwest of Moscow — where the aircraft was based. Cargo-Trans was also said to have at least partially insured the plane and its cargo. The two fighters were reported to have been sold for about $30 million each, so the losses to the arms export company Rosvooruzhenie and the other parties involved in the production and delivery of the jets will depend on the insurance payments. As the Irkutsk plant is busy fulfilling an order to build Su-27s for China, the Air Force might have to provide two of its own planes to Vietnam to make up for the lost jets.
A more serious loss of income could be triggered by this accident should it cause international traders to loose confidence in the giant An-124 "Ruslan" airlifters. Over the past several years Russian, Ukrainian, and British companies have cultivated a significant niche in the air cargo field by using these huge planes to carry outsize cargo. As an example, An-124s are regular visitors to the Seattle region where they deliver the large engines used on Boeing’s latest 777 airliners. They have also delivered heavy equipment to Africa for the United Nations and to Budapest, Hungary, for a Michael Jackson concert. But An-124s have been involved in three accidents prior to this one that incurred loss of life, including one near Milan, Italy, in October 1996.
The An-124 was designed by the Antonov design bureau in Kyiv, Ukraine, and its D-18T turbofan engines are built by the Motor-Sich company in Zaporizha, Ukraine. Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov — the Soviet Union’s last defense minister and now President Boris Yeltsin’s advisor on space and aviation matters — was quick to point to these engines as the An-124’s "weak spot." However, given the decrepit state of Russian military and civil aviation, there could be any number of other contributing factors, such as poor maintenance or inferior fuel. (Russian and Western media, December 6, 7)
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