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World's biggest cargo plane remains unrivaled 25 years on

The AN-124 Ruslan is the biggest cargo plane ever mass produced. Thursday sees the 25th anniversary of its first flight. With a maximum payload of 150 tons, this colossal flying warehouse became a leader among the world's outsize cargo planes.

Initially the task was to develop a plane that could provide the Soviet Red Army with a strategic airlift capability. And it had to be better than the U.S. C-5 Galaxy plane.

The plane's designers delivered the goods, producing a welcome gift on the USSR’s 60th anniversary.  The Ruslan took off in December, 1982. It can carry 30 tons more than its American equivalent – and travel 30 per cent further.

Pilot Andrey Rozanov says most people are stunned by the aircraft.

“Many people can’t simply believe that such a plane could be made and that it actually flies. Especially the size of our cargos amazes everyone,” Rozanov said.

The plane’s chief designer, Victor Tolmachev, remembers how challenging it all was.

“The project was top secret. Even transporting spare parts form one workshop to another was done during the night. And the KGB was making sure U.S. spy satellites didn’t spot us,” Tolmachev said.

But keeping such a giant secret for long was not an easy task. And in 1985 Ruslan made its first public appearance at the Le Bourge air-show in France. And in less than a year it was making commercial flights.

Since then the aircraft has set over 20 world records,  including carrying the heaviest single load – a 132 tonne power plant generator.

Aviation expert Nikolay Baranov says the plane still has a role.

“The AN-124 still remains a multifunctional aircraft. There's even a project to use them as an air platform for space launches. And this will reduce the cost to one third,” Baranov said. 

Meanwhile, last year NATO also joined in. They use the aircraft for transporting heavy equipment to Afghanistan.

During the MAKS 2007 air show Russia together with Ukraine decided to resume production of the modified AN-124.