Russian air transport company gets US rockets to launch site

The AN-124 is the largest civil cargo plane in the world.

Volga-Dnepr Airlines, a Russian all-cargo carrier, has asked the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to authorize a domestic U.S. flight using its gigantic AN-124-100 cargo plane to transport an Atlas V rocket booster tank for a space mission.

According to the application filed this week, the 65,000-pound payload is too large to be accommodated by any U.S. commercial aircraft.

Volga-Dnepr has authority to operate between overseas locations and the U.S., but under U.S. aviation law foreign carriers are not permitted to make commercial flights within the country. 

The Russian airline said its services are urgently needed to deliver the Atlas V fuel tank from Huntsville, Alabama, to NASA’s Shuttle Landing Facility in Titusville, Florida, or Cape Canaveral, Florida, in mid-May.

United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing Co., manufactures the booster in Huntsville. It is on an urgent schedule to complete fabrication and launch schedules and due to the extreme size, fragility and high value of the rocket component it cannot be transported using surface transportation, according to the filing.

The Antonov 124-100 is the world’s largest civil cargo aircraft. With two loading entrances – front and back – it is capable of carrying outsize loads weighing up to 120 tons. 

The DOT may authorize a foreign air carrier to operate domestically if it determines the exemption is in the public interest, that U.S. certified carriers can’t meet emergency circumstances and that all possible efforts have been made to find a U.S. carrier to do the job.

The DOT previously granted similar exemptions to Volga-Dnepr to transport rocket components for United Launch Alliance.

The Atlas V is an expendable launch vehicle used to place satellites in orbit. Customers include NASA, the U.S. military, weather agencies, and commercial customers. The Atlas V is also being used to power Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, which is being developed to fly astronauts to the International Space Station.