Thursday, 21 January 2021

Giants Of The Skies - The An-124 in Libyan Service


By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
 
The Libyan Civil War has had a devastating impact on the country's civilian aviation sector, and its two giant An-124 cargo aircraft have not eluded their fair share of suffering. Libya's aviation industry came to a near standstill during the 2011 revolution, and even after the cessation of hostilities it took Libyan airline companies anywhere from months up to a year to restart their operations, while some never flew again. Those that did in doing so expressed their renewed confidence for the future, but insecurity and political turmoil in the wake of the civil war ultimately brought an end to any optimism, and soon the Libyan aviation industry was fighting for its very survival.
 
As the civil war ravaging Libya continued with no prospect of relative stability in sight, the threat of extinction loomed large over the An-124s. At a time when the single aircraft that was still present in Libya was dodging artillery fire left and right, the other An-124 was facing the possibility of being auctioned off by Ukraine in 2017 if the Libyan government failed to pay the $1.2 million it owed to Antonov for storage and routine maintenance of the aircraft since 2009 at the Antonov facility in Kiev.
 
Then in a surprise announcement by Antonov in 2019, it was disclosed that negotiations had been held with the internationally-recognised government of Libya (GNA) to return one of the An-124s to airworthy status. [1] As per the agreement, the aircraft was to be modernised and its service life extended. Since then little has been heard however, and it's unknown if a deal was ever actually reached. Nevertheless, it affirmed that Libya still intends on operating the An-124, for better or worse.
 
While it appears that the Libyan government has successfully secured the fate of the An-124 stored in Ukraine, thus preventing its auction to the highest bidder, the battle on the ground had already claimed yet another victim as Libya's commercial aviation is slowly consumed by the unabating demands of war.
 

                                                                                         Libyan operations
 
Libya had originally acquired two An-124s (5A-DKN' 'Sabrata' and 5A-DKL 'Susa') for Libyan Arab Air Cargo in 2001, and began using these behemoths for international charter services for cargo that required oversized aircraft. While the country had previously suffered from almost complete isolation from the outside world as the result of international sanctions for orchestrating (amongst others) the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, the An-124s were now hauling heavy cargo loads around the world as Libya began normalising relations with its former arch-enemies.
 
When the 2011 revolution broke out, 'Sabrata' was captured intact by rebel forces at Tripoli IAP while 'Susa' was at the Antonov facilities undergoing maintenance. 'Susa', built in 1992, had previously been in service with Air Ukraine (1992-1999) before it was taken over by Libyan Air Cargo in December 2001. 'Sabrata', built in 1994, saw service in Russia with Trans-Charter Airlines (1996-1999), which operated the aircraft on behalf of Titan Cargo, and Volga-Dnepr (1999-2001) before being delivered to Libya in March 2001. [2] [3]


Throughout their (limited) active career Libya rented out its two An-124s via a Libyan-owned company based in France called FLATAM (Franco-Lybienne D'Affretement Et De Transport Arien Et Maritime - Franco-Libyan Air Chartering for Air and Maritime Transport). FLATAM was owned by businessman Jalal Dira, a former Mirage pilot in the Libyan Air Force, military attaché to France and businessman who later became a procurement lobbyist for the French aircraft group Dassault, which unsuccessfully attempted to sell its Rafale fighter aircraft to Libya before the fall of the Gaddafi regime. [4] 
 


This charter construction remained active until February 2011, when the Libyan revolution and subsequent Civil War took a heavy toll in commercial aviation in the country. Although both aircraft escaped destruction in 2011, a lack of initiative and finances to restart operations of Libyan Air Cargo meant that An-124 'Sabrata' remained idly at Tripoli IAP while An-124 'Susa' was never recollected from the Antonov facilties in Kiev, Ukraine where it was stored since 2009.

And as normal operations by Libyan airlines faced their demise and the destruction of commercial aircraft became a common sight as a result of continued infighting throughout the country, the future for the An-124s in Libyan service began to look increasingly grim. This however appears to have not deterred Libyan Air Cargo staff from replacing the green Jamahiriya flag with the new Libyan flag.


 
                                                                                         Death of a giant
 
Parked in the same spot on a maintenance ramp in a corner of Tripoli IAP since early 2014, the An-124 'Sabrata' had miraculously survived previous attacks on its home base after warring parties battling for control over the airport targeted nearby facilities and destroyed several aircraft situated close to the An-124 in the summer of 2014.
 
Among the destroyed aircraft were no less than four Il-76 cargo planes parked on the adjacent ramp just some 300 metres away. Although the An-124 escaped with minor shrapnel damage only, the heavy clashes completely destroyed the passenger terminal, resulting in the airport's closure and redirection of the few remaining flights to Mitiga airport located in Tripoli proper.
 

But after managing to escape the relentless onslaught sweeping across Libya for some eight years, the luck of '5A-DKN' 'Sabrata' ultimately ran out on the 22th of June 2019 when it was hit by shrapnel and destroyed in a subsequent fire at Tripoli International Airport.
 

The smoldering remains of the behemoth can only be described as a sad end to a career that was cut short by the outbreak of the Libyan Revolution in 2011 and the ensuing difficulties in restarting the operations of the massive aircraft.
 

The destruction of the An-124 came as Libya's second An-124 still remains in storage at the Antonov State Company's facilities in Kiev, with plans in 2018 and 2019 to bring the aircraft back to Libya apparently on halt. [5] [6] Interestingly, the 2018 and 2019 negotiations were held with the Libyan Blue Bird Aviation Company rather than with Libyan Air Cargo, which might indicate that the operations of Libya's oldest cargo airline have now finally ceased.
 
With no apparent breakthrough for Libya's An-124 in Kiev in sight, and storing and maintenance fees continuing to mount up, '5A-DKL' could prove an attractive aircraft for either Antonov's own cargo airline or other operators of the An-124 should Libya relinquish possession of the aircraft, either through a voluntary sale or a forceful court order.
 

                                                                                          Hope remains 
 
Whether the Libyan government deems the remaining An-124 an asset it intends on keeping and utilising will undoubtedly be tied to finances and an actual requirement for a cargo aircraft as large as the An-124. But amidst an increasingly stable security situation in Tripoli and its surrounding areas, the Libyan government can now at least attempt to restart operations of the surviving An-124 and employ it for international cargo flights again. 
 
Furthermore, Libya could partner up with one of the few countries that's currently willing to support it: Turkey, which already enjoys very warm ties with Ukraine and has recently discussed potential cooperation on several Antonov projects. These include production of the An-178 and An-188, but also completing work on the second An-225, which has been left in an unfinished state since 1994. [7] [8] [9] Turkish involvement could mean a breakthrough in not only finally securing the fate of the An-124, but also in actually providing the stimulus and funds to bring the aircraft back into service. Although it remains unlikely that the sanctions implemented against Libya will be lifted in the foreseeable future, it could in the short term ferry goods and equipment between the two countries, which enjoy warmer relations than ever before. And so, hope yet remains for these enigmatic giants, the unfortunate casualties of a war that has outlasted all pretense of sanity.
 

[1] ANTONOV Company will begin works on renewal of Libyan Ruslan https://antonov.com/en/article/dp-antonov-rozpochne-roboti-z-vidnovlennya-liviyskogo-ruslana 
[6] Libya tracks file of Antonov under 7-year maintenance in Ukraine https://www.libyaobserver.ly/inbrief/libya-tracks-file-antonov-under-7-year-maintenance-ukraine 
[9] Turkey interested in completing An-225 Mriya – Dpty PM https://en.interfax.com.ua/news/general/698799.html
 


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