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Supersize Matters

This essay is an updated version of an article I wrote for Uncube magazine in 2013, under the editorship of Sophie Lovell. It’s about the vast Soviet-developed AN-124 cargo plane. The original article can be accessed here:

or you can read the updated version below, but before that take a look at this film on Vimeo, by Jari Ylamaki:

The Cold War of 1945 to 1990 was fought on a number of fronts. There were some high-risk direct confrontations that could have led to nuclear war, there were lower risk proxy wars, the Space Race, the Olympic games. Even international chess played a significant propaganda role. To support their campaigns for political and ideological supremacy the global superpowers developed heavy cargo planes, some of which still fly today.

In 1969 the US military added the enormous Lockheed C5 Galaxy to its fleet of aptly named Skymasters, Globemasters and Starlifters. An airborne equivalent of the convoi exceptionnel, the C5’s vast belly permitted the transfer of oversize military ordnance and entire aircraft in secrecy. Boeing’s failed contender for the role was re-launched as a civil airliner to become the iconic 747 Jumbo Jet.

For the next 13 years the Soviet Union lagged behind the US military in what the CIA called ‘long-range heavy lift support’. Design work on a rival craft began in 1971, and the resulting Antonov An-124 Ruslan made its maiden flight in 1982. It was presented at the 1985 Paris Air Show, where previously the Tupelev Tu-144 supersonic rival to the Anglo-French Concorde had crashed before the eyes of the world in 1973.

The Antonov An-124 was in some ways superior to its American rival, with 20% more cargo space and a 25 per cent heavier payload of 150 tons. In May 1987 the An-124 also set a distance record, covering 20,151km without refueling. In 1989 a larger one-off variant, the six-engine An-225, was built specifically to piggy-back the Soviet Buran space shuttle.

Seeing the An-124 squatting on the tarmac with front and rear cargo doors gaping open, it is hard to imagine such a beast could fly. The swept wings and four jet engines, slung awkwardly over the two lane drive-in fuselage featuring its own 30 tonne internal crane, do nothing to convey a sense of airworthiness. The cavernous padded ribcage of the interior brings the story of Jonah and the whale to mind, and looks like a cross between a subterranean factory and a villain's sci-fi space silo from a Bond movie. This visual analogy persists on the flight deck, a separate pressurised entity perched high above the great belly, that resembles the sort of escape pod James Bond would reach just in time – blasting off to safety as the mothership implodes around its frustrated commander. There is even a twin-bedroom for him and the girl, complete with bedside telephone.

Whatever comparisons spring to mind, the An-124 is an apt reminder of the symbiotic relationship between airframe construction and building construction. What began as inspiration – those who built the ‘flying buttress’ could only dream of flying – became a veritable exchange of techniques in the 20th century. Architect (and aviator) Norman Foster writes thus: “Aviation started off as an offspring of the engineering that makes a work of architecture possible, borrowing freely at the time from the established disciplines. In a remarkably short period it has grown up to be bigger and faster, generating technology and a body of knowledge which are now invaluable to the parent.” (On Foster...Foster On, D. Jenkins ed., Munich, 2000)

The great modernist pioneer Le Corbusier was a contemporary of aviation pioneers and made enthusiastic, if naïve parallels of his own. In Vers une architecture (1925) he dedicates an entire section to aviation. The architectural poise of Le Corbusier’s Dom-Ino system, which became the blueprint for the cast concrete construction methods of the International Style, is juxtaposed with the spectacularly perpendicular Caproni 60 ‘Triple Hydroplane’ whose imposing multi-storey architecture barely permitted lift-off before plunging the craft straight back into Lake Maggiore on her maiden flight in 1921. So much for airworthy architecture…

Today, the enduring career of the An-124 is proof that buildings of a certain type can indeed fly and perform well. Around forty examples are in mainly civilian service around the world. In this role it has carried excavators, rail locomotives, yachts, elephants, whales, turbines and mini-production facilities to places otherwise unreachable. It is regularly commissioned by the oil, gas and aerospace sectors, as well as by the space programs of Japan, the US and Europe.

In an ironic post-Cold War twist, NATO has leased a number of An 124-100s from Antonov Airlines and Volga-Dnepr Airlines for the transport of military personnel, equipment and arms. They have played a significant (and controversial) role in the allied Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, earning considerable profit for their operators: at roughly $33,000 USD per flying hour, a single An-124 mission to Afghanistan was costing NATO around 250,000 US dollars.

The production of new variants of the aircraft has been planned, with increased payloads and a richer mix of components and avionics from diverse nations. At the time of writing the on-going conflict between Russia and Ukraine has hampered the aircraft’s future production program. Despite this the An-124 is still the enduring international heavyweight champion of the skies.

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