By Andrew Curran

In the wake of a spectacular runway excursion earlier this month, Russian cargo airline Volga-Dnepr has grounded its fleet of Antonov An-124 aircraft. According to the airline, the grounding is a proactive and pre-emptive decision made in-house.

A near catastrophe earlier in November for the An-124

NOVOSIBIRSK, RUSSIA – NOVEMBER 13, 2020: An Antonov An-124 Ruslan heavy transport aircraft owned by Volga-Dnepr Airlines has skidded off the runway during an emergency landing at Novosibirsk Tolmachevo Airport only ten minutes into its flight to Vienna, no casualties reported. Kirill Kukhmar/TASS (Photo by Kirill Kukhmar\TASS via Getty Images)

On Friday, November 13, a  Volga-Dnepr An-124 (registered as RA-82042) was due to fly from Novosibirsk to Vienna, carrying 84 tonnes of spare car parts. As Simple Flying reported, the Antonov successfully took off. But at around 1800 feet MSL, all contact with the aircraft was lost. The Antonov then turned back towards the runway with smoke coming from one engine.

It was later found, debris from a fractured turbine damaged cabling. Among other things, it took out the communications system.

In a statement, Volga-Dnepr said the Captain decided to return to Novosibirsk because of “technical issues” with the plane.

Footage shows the Antonov having difficulties braking, and it overshot the runway by some distance. As the aircraft leaves the runway and hits snow, the nosegear breaks off, leaving the Antonov’s nose down in the dirt and snow.

As to the “technical issues,” parts of the plane’s cowling and fragments from engine two fell to the ground following what seems to be an uncontained engine failure. A fractured turbine caused damage to the wing. Debris from that damaged the inboard left wing slats and parts of Antonov’s fuselage’s left side.

Volga-Dnepr An-124s grounded with immediate effect

Now Alex Lennane in The LodeStar is reporting on a letter sent by Konstantin Vekshin, newly installed Chief Commercial Officer at Volga-Dnepr, to Russian aviation. In that letter, Mr Vekshin says Volga-Dnepr is taking it upon themselves to ground the AN-124. He calls the decision to do so considered and well thought out.

“We want to be proactive and pre-emptive and demonstrate that we are a responsible airline where safety comes first.

“We have not received any official notifications or service directives yet, and there are no preliminary conclusions, so we have to suspend the entire AN-124 fleet with immediate effect.”

Volga-Dnepr operates a fleet of 12 Antonov An-124s with an average age of 26.9 years. The plane involved in the incident, RA-82042, has been with Volga-Dnepr since July 1991. The grounding leaves Volga-Dnepr without planes big enough to service much of its cargo market niche. Volga-Dnepr is a world leader in the unique, oversize, and heavy cargo market. Their Antonovs are a familiar sight at airports around the world.

“We don’t care how much revenue we will miss. It’s not even relevant right now. Safety is more important than any potential benefits from the peak season”, says Mr Vekshin.

Volga-Dnepr wants authorities to pick up the pace

The Chief Commercial Officer also piled the pressure on Russia’s aviation safety bodies and Antonovs, suggesting they were dragging their feet on the investigation.

“We need to hear from the Russian aviation authority and from the manufacturer of the engines, which we think is now overdue. We need to see the directives and the results of the investigation,” he said.

Mr Vekshin says they know what happened with the Antonov. But Volga-Dnepr wants to know why it happened and how to prevent another incident like this down the track. He acknowledges this will take time but says time is of the essence.

“Hopefully, this (the investigation) will be a question of weeks, but it has to be as perfect as possible, so guesswork on timing is not good enough.

“Public safety and airworthiness go beyond politics. We need to work together to tackle this; the market needs it. The AN-124 offers a very important service.