Russia’s An-22, The Biggest Turboprop Plane Ever Flown, Heads For Retirement

Reports from Russia indicate that the Soviet-era An-22 heavy transport aircraft is headed for retirement before the end of this year. Only a handful of the Ukrainian-designed, turboprop-powered airlifters are still operated by the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS), where their continued presence points to enduring problems in fielding new-generation heavy transports.

A dramatic study of a Russian Air Force An-22 at Tver in April 2007. Sergey Krivchikov/Wikimedia Commons

A recent TV report from Russia’s state-owned VGTRK broadcaster quoted Lt. Gen. Vladimir Venediktov, the commander of Military Transport Aviation, a branch of the VKS, as saying that the An-22 will cease operations in 2024. The same report provided a look around one of the final examples of these aircraft flown by the 12th Military Transport Aviation Division, based at Migalovo in the Tver region of western Russia.

At last count, only five An-22s were still active with the division’s 196th Military Transport Aviation Regiment.

The survival of these aircraft for so long is somewhat surprising, since they were rendered obsolescent by more modern equipment way back in the 1970s.

A general study of a Russian Aerospace Forces An-22. The H-shaped tail unit was another defining feature of the design. Navigator-avia/Wikimedia Commons

Designed and built by the Antonov company based in Kyiv, in what then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, the prototype An-22 took to the air on February 27, 1965, piloted by Yuri Kurlin. At the time, it was the world’s heaviest aircraft, leading to its nickname Antey, after the giant Antaeus of Greek mythology. NATO forces assigned it the less complementary reporting name Cock. Just two months after its first flight, the An-22 was shown to the world at the Paris Air Show.

A crowd gathers around the An-22 prototype making its debut at the 1965 Paris Air Show, held at Le Bourget Airport near Paris, in June 1965. Photo by Reg Lancaster/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Journalists and press photographers inside the An-22 at Paris Le Bourget Airport, in June 1965. Photo by AFP via Getty Images

Among the key features of the An-22 were its four huge Kuznetsov NK-12MA turboprops, each rated at more than 14,805 horsepower and driving eight-blade contra-rotating propellers, more than 20 feet in diameter. A version of the same engine, again with contra-rotating propellers, also powers the Tupolev Tu-95 Bear bomber.

NK-12MA turboprops on an An-22. Doomych/Wikimedia Commons

The distinctive roar of the powerplant can be heard in the video below.

Other unusual features included landing gear tailored for rough-field operations. The undercarriage doors opened only briefly to allow deployment of the wheels, before closing to protect the internal workings from dust and mud.

Meanwhile, there was provision for four flare bombs, to illuminate the landing area, while a range of other bombs could be carried under the wing, turning the An-22 into a (very) makeshift bomber if required. Anachronistic to Western eyes, this has long been a feature of Soviet and Russian military transport planes. Unlike other Soviet/Russian transports, the An-22 was not armed with defensive guns in the tail, but it could be fitted with launchers for radar and infrared countermeasures.

Reflecting the distributed nature of the program, series production of the An-22 was entrusted to a factory in Tashkent, in what was then the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. Between 1966 and 1976, a total of 68 aircraft were completed, including two prototypes built in Kyiv. After 38 of the initial An-22 versions, the Tashkent factory switched to the improved An-22A model, addressing various problems that had emerged early on in the program, including a pair of high-profile fatal accidents in 1970.

Wearing a unique camouflage scheme, this Russian Aerospace Forces An-22 was nicknamed Parrot. It is seen here at Migalovo in February 2012. Dmitriy Pichugin/Wikimedia Commons

The first An-22s were delivered to the Soviet military in January 1969 and the type played an important role until the demise of the Soviet Union. Especially useful was the aircraft’s ability to accommodate outsized loads, including complete missile systems, as well as large and heavy military vehicles. Up to more than 132,000 pounds of cargo could be carried. Alternatively, the An-22 cargo hold had space for 151 paratroopers or 292 standard troops, carried on two decks. However, the main cargo hold was not pressurized, except for a forward cabin with seating for 29 personnel.

The cargo hold of one of the last Russian military An-22s. Alex Beltyukov/Wikimedia Commons

Loading and unloading of large cargo items and vehicles was made easier by the large loading ramp below the tail. While traveling, cranes were available to move cargo within the freight hold. Equipment was also provided to airdrop loads via the ramp, after which they would descend under parachutes.

The An-22 supported the Soviet military around the globe, including operations in Afghanistan and Chechnya, and was regularly used to deliver arms and materiel to Moscow’s allies. They were employed for humanitarian roles, too, including as part of the response to the Armenian earthquake in 1988.

A military An-22 transport is unloaded at Kabul Airport during the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. Getty Images

By the early 2000s, there were fewer than 30 An-22s left in service at a single air base — Migalovo — with only nine of them airworthy. However, the Russian military planned to overhaul most of them, to extend their operational careers.

At this point, however, Russia already operated a roughly similar number of An-124 Condor ‘super heavy transports,’ which had entered service in the 1980s as the world’s heaviest production transport aircraft, capable of carrying a normal load of 300,000 pounds. Available in a much greater number was the Ilyushin Il-76 Candid, able to carry more than 105,000 pounds.

An An-124 accompanied by a pair of Su-27s as part of the flyover contingent for the 2010 Moscow Victory Day Parade. Sergey Kustov/Wikimedia Commons
A Russian Aerospace Forces Il-76 landing. Dmitry Terekhov/Wikimedia Commons

The reason for the Russians clinging onto the veteran An-22 was the fact that its cargo hold was more capacious than that of the Il-76, while it was cheaper to operate, on a flight-hour basis, than the heavier An-124.

Modernization plans failed, however, and by now only five An-22s are still in service at Migalovo and are now headed for retirement. A sixth was still operated by the Antonov Design Bureau in Kyiv until it reportedly sustained heavy damage during fighting at Hostomel Airport during the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion.

The Antonov-owned An-22 takes off during a demonstration flight from Hostomel in May 2016. Photo by Vladimir Shtanko/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Fighting at Hostomel also led to the loss of the sole An-225, the world’s biggest transport aircraft, which was an enlarged An-124 originally designed to transport large elements of the Buran space shuttle and Energiya rocket.

The Ukrainian origins of the An-22 and An-124 take on something of a dark irony today, especially given the continued importance of the latter type to the Russian Armed Forces.

The antiquated flight deck of the An-22. Pavel Adzhigildaev/Wikimedia Commons

With ongoing demand for heavy-lift air transport, Russian has attempted to reinstate production of the An-124 but has been repeatedly frustrated by the lack of suitable engines — the original D-18T turbofan is manufactured by Motor Sich at its plant in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. Motor Sich is also the only company capable of overhauling these engines, reducing the availability of the Russian An-124 fleet. Plans to develop an all-new successor to the An-124 have so far also failed to materialize. This also spells a problem for NATO, and other Western nations, which rely on chartered An-124s for many of their super-heavy transport needs.

With these problems in mind, it’s conceivable that dwindling numbers of An-124s will have to see out a military career as long as that of their turboprop predecessor, the legendary Antey.

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Thomas Newdick

Staff Writer

Thomas is a defense writer and editor with over 20 years of experience covering military aerospace topics and conflicts. He’s written a number of books, edited many more, and has contributed to many of the world’s leading aviation publications. Before joining The War Zone in 2020, he was the editor of AirForces Monthly.