Monday, April 15, 2013

Antonov An-70 transport aircraft again suffering delays

Mykola Azarov, the Ukrainian Prime Minister, has said that Ukraine will continue development of the Antonov An-70 aircraft even in Russia were to withdraw from the project.

The An-70 is a transport aircraft being developed by the Ukraine and Russia. Russia is reportedly again dragging its feet with regards to the An-70 and has already withdrawn from the project before, only for it to rejoin after some time.

The An-70 project dates back to the former Soviet Union and has suffered numerous delays over the years. These delays have really hurt the progress of the An-70 aircraft. Crashes involving test aircraft didn't help matters.

At one point during the nineties, the An-70 was considered to have great prospects. It was well ahead of the competition in terms of development. Since then, that lead has pretty much been squandered away to the point that the future of the An-70 is now increasingly in doubt.

The delays have allowed other aircraft to catch up and even surpass the An-70:
  • Russia itself favors its own upgraded Ilyushin IL-476 and has never really shown to completely support the An-70 project, but only halfheartedly.
  • China was once thought to be a prime customer for the An-70. But since then, the Y-9 and Y-20 projects have reached fruition. Both are backed by China and it's unlikely there is room left for another aircraft like the An-70.
  • The An-70 was once marketed to European customers. However, the homegrown Airbus A400M, which is the aircraft most similar to the An-70, is guaranteed to have the market in Western Europe.
All these aircraft are potential competitors the An-70 may have to face against. They have strong backing from their respective countries, while the only country to consistently back the An-70 is the Ukraine itself.

However, the Ukraine is a country with very limited resources. The An-70 project will almost certainly need at least one other customer to make the project worthwhile. Otherwise, it is doubtful the An-70 will be able to compete against other aircraft.

The An-70 aircraft is designed for short takeoff and landing. It can also takeoff and land on unpaved airfields. The An-70 specifications are:
  • a length of 40.7 m
  • a wingspan of 44.06 m
  • a height of 16.38 m
  • a maximum payload of 47000 kg
  • an empty weight of 66230 kg
  • a maximum takeoff weight of 145000 kg
  • a maximum speed of 780 km/hr
  • a ceiling of 12000 m
  • a range of 3000 km with 47000 kg payload
  • a range of 5100 km with 35000 kg payload
  • a range of 6600 km with 20000 kg payload
The An-70 is powered by 4 Progress D-27 propfans with 14000 hp each.

The An-70 is notable for its unique counter-rotating propfans. In theory, these would offer performance approaching those of turbofans, while maintaining the benefits of a turboprop engine.

For example, they can generate much more power than traditional turboprops allowing higher aircraft speed and increased payload. At the same time, they use much less fuel compared to normal turbofans.

In practice, the D-27 propfans have so far proved troublesome. It's possible that the engine could be refined and the problems solved. However, it doesn't look like the resources will be available to make that happen.

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