Volga-Dnepr grounds An-124 super-freighter fleet after accident

A massive white cargo jet inches from touching down on runway.

Russian all-cargo carrier Volga-Dnepr Airlines said Friday it has temporarily suspended all commercial flights with ultra-large Antonov-124-100 freighters until the investigation into the cause of an accident two weeks ago is complete.

One of the company’s An-124 cargo aircraft experienced engine failure and loss of control after taking off from Tolmachevo airport in Novosibirsk on Nov. 13. The crew managed to turn back and make an emergency landing, which damaged the aircraft when it skidded off the runway. None of the 14 crew members were injured.

Russia’s Federal Agency for Air Transport is conducting the investigation, with assistance from Volga-Dnepr. The investigation is focusing on a fan disk that blew apart in one of the engines, scattering shards of metal in all directions.

The giant ramp-loader was carrying 84 tons of auto parts and full fuel tanks when the accident occured.

Antonov Airlines also operates a fleet of An-124s, raising questions about whether it will be forced to suspend operations too until the cause of the accident is determined.

The grounding of the An-124 fleet comes in the middle of the peak shipping season leading up to the holidays in many parts of the world and is likely to exacerbate extreme capacity shortages for airlift caused by passenger airlines sidelining most international flights because of the coronavirus crisis and associated travel restrictions. Logistics specialists said project cargo and other large shipments that can only be carried on super-size aircraft will be impacted the most, but there could be indirect effects if a rush of COVID-19 vaccines in the coming weeks displaces other cargo that could have found an alternative home with Volga-Dnepr.

Volga-Dnepr said in a statement it will “take all actions to fulfill contractual obligations and resume safe commercial operations” with the An-124s. The company, which also operates a fleet of 18 Boeing 747 and 737 freighters, is trying to reroute customer shipments. 

The An-124 is one of the largest civil cargo aircraft in operation today, with the ability to carry extra-heavy and oversize shipments such as turbines, trucks, helicopters and large machinery. It has a payload capacity of 120 tons. It has two loading entrances, at the nose and tail of the aircraft. For loading nonstandard cargo, the cabin is equipped with two electric winches and four electric hoists. 

Multi-leg landing gear equipped with 24 wheels allow the angle of the fuselage to be changed to simplify loading operations. 

Volga-Dnepr Group is also positioning itself to move COVID-19 vaccines, although any such shipments likely will be handled by AirBridge Cargo, its scheduled Boeing 747 cargo service. The airline said it  transported more than 55,000 tons of personal protective equipment, medical supplies, vaccines and other humanitarian items for the fight against COVID-19 during the first nine months of the year. Earlier this year it operated 48 An-124 flights to airlift 3,000 tons of face masks, surgical gowns and other protective gear from China on behalf of the French government.

The Volga-Dnepr groundings won’t have an immediate impact on vaccine distribution because the aircraft have limited ability to support specific temperature requirements, according to logistics experts, although the planes could be a last resort if capacity remains tight and vaccines that don’t need to be kept frozen reach the market.

The Loadstar first reported that Volga-Dnepr had notified Russian aviation authorities of its decision to immediately ground its eight operational An-124 aircraft. The company’s website says the company owns 12 of the super-size freighters.

Chief Commercial Officer Konstantin Vekshin told the publication that customers may face delays, but that Volga-Dnepr had to prioritize safety. 

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