MOSCOW, RUSSIA — Engineers at the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute in Russia (TsAGI) are working to enhance the aerodynamic configuration of a successor to the Antonov An-124 heavy-lifter, which is dubbed "Elephant."

The Antonov An-124 was the world's second-largest cargo aircraft before the iconic and the only An-225, the world's largest heavy cargo carrier, was destroyed by Russian attacks during the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

The An-225 and the An-124 were built on the same basic design, but the An-225 had six engines and more cargo capacity, while the An-124 has four engines and less cargo capacity.

The An-124 is the largest transport aircraft that is currently in service. Antonov produced around 55 copies of the aircraft, but a number of Ukrainian An-124, including the world's largest freighter An-225 Mriya, were destroyed during Russian attacks. On the other hand, Russia's An-124s have mostly been grounded because of the worldwide airspace closures for Russian-registered planes. The lack of those planes has reduced the number of high-capacity aircraft in the market.

Prior to 2014, Russia and Ukraine had plans to develop an An-124 successor together. However, The Russian seizure of the Crimean peninsula ended this collaboration.

The Antonov An-124 Ruslan was designed in the 1980s during the Soviet era by the Antonov design bureau in Ukraine, and made its first flight in 24 December 1982. The aircraft was largely used to transport medical equipment during the pandemic.

Also read: Rolls-Royce considers Airbus Beluga as An-124 alternative

Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute in Russia (TsAGI) has so far conducted two cycles of research to improve the aerodynamics of the aircraft at different flight speeds with the aim of identifying areas for optimization.

Based on the test results, the researchers have now modified the design to include a fuselage with a larger cross-section enabling the hauling of large cargo, a reduction in the fairings at the wing junction as well as different designs of wing tips.

Another important modification is the improvement of the profile of the nacelles to allow them to accommodate the PD-35 engines, the high bypass turbofan design that also powers the Ilyushin aircraft models.

The researchers aim to make an improved version of the An-124 that is capable of carrying a bulkier load of up to 180 tons as against the 120 tons the current models can carry. Additionally, the improved An-124 is expected to have a range of over 4,300 miles (7,000 km) with a top speed of 528 mph (850 kph).

The researchers at TsAGI are still working on improvements in the design. The special focus of this project is the wingtips, which can be removed to suit the various configurations of the aircraft being planned. This is being done to study the impact on "aerodynamic quality" during flight, following which the researchers will pick the best option.

"The Elephant is optimized primarily for civilian applications," said Alexander Krutov, a researcher at the TsAGI.

"Thanks to the enlarged fuselage, we will be able to offer customers the transportation of large volumes of cargo over the estimated flight range, and the wing with modified tips will provide high aerodynamic quality."

The aircraft models being developed will currently undergo wind tunnel testing later in 2022.