When I was a teen I went on a beach vacation with a friend’s family. The drive took us past Dover Air Force Base. As we approached the base I was mesmerized by a line of impossibly-huge airplanes that seemed to hang suspended in mid-air, completely defying the laws of physics. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! My friend’s father told me that they were C-5s and I was immediately smitten with them. Thus began my love affair with really big planes.
Here I am many years later, working for an airport authority that not only runs a passenger airport where my office is, but also a nearby cargo airport where the big planes go. Every so often I get a chance to visit the cargo airport, which is always exciting because I never know what I might get to see. One such opportunity arose recently when we had a department outing to visit our new FBO.
The Boeing 747-8 is a frequent visitor to the cargo airport and is one of my favorite airplanes. I hoped that during this visit I would finally get a chance to see one up close. Unfortunately the 747 that was supposed to be there had been delayed. Darn! The FBO Manager said he’d be happy to take us out to see the Antonov instead. He said a bunch of other things after that, but I didn’t hear a word because OMG THERE’S AN ANTONOV! WE’RE GOING TO SEE AN ANTONOV!!!! AN ANTO-FREAKING-NOV!
Before visiting the plane we took a tour of the newly-renovated FBO facilities. I have only visited a couple of FBOs over the years so I’m definitely not an expert, however I have to say that our new FBO is pretty darn nice. It is spacious, with plenty of places to sit and work, or kick-back and relax. There is a separate lounge for flight crews, off of which is a sleeping room with lay-flat recliners, and a couple of bathrooms complete with showers. Plus there are kitchens everywhere. I swear I saw at least three on the main floor and then another one upstairs by the offices. Oh – and did I mention there’s a fireplace? AND a cookie oven! Yes, you read that correctly – an oven just for baking cookies. I’d never heard of such a thing, but now I’m convinced I can’t live without one.
After the tour we headed out to the ramp and boarded a shuttle bus. We didn’t drive far before I could see the Antonov, looming in the distance. While the An 124-100M is very similar in shape to the C-5, the white, blue and yellow livery gives it a very distinctive appearance. At any other airport the plane would have stuck out like a sore thumb. However the cargo airport is big and it doesn’t get much traffic from passenger planes, so the Antonov actually fit in better than I expected. And by “fit in” I mean it dwarfed everything in the vicinity.
Since the plane was parked we were permitted to walk up to it and take a look around. Standing under the wing and gazing up towards the cockpit far above us just reinforced how ridiculously huge this airplane is. Everything seems super-sized, including the landing gear which has something like a million tires. OK, actually I think there are 20 tires on the main gear (10 on each side) plus another four on the nose gear, but 24 tires is still a lot! To put it in perspective, that’s enough tires for four 737s!
Why on earth did someone feel compelled to make a plane this big? So it can haul cargo, of course! And people. But mostly lots and lots of cargo. It has a rear door for loading and unloading. Its nose opens up as well and the plane has the ability to “kneel” (lower the suspension) to make the front ramp easier to use. The Antonov also has an on-board crane that is capable of winching items weighing up to 120 tonnes.
You might be wondering what cargo this ginormous airplane was delivering to us. Well I’m told that the Antonov is often used to haul jet engines because it is one of the few planes big enough to carry them. However, in this case the plane brought… nothing. And after a week of sitting on the ramp it departed with… nothing. That’s right – the Antonov flew in and out with no cargo whatsoever! The sole purpose for this particular visit was simply to park. It is apparently cheaper to park it here than to fly it home to Russia between assignments.
I wish I had been around to see it take off – that must have been quite a sight! The ramp agents claim it is so loud that it shakes the buildings. Hopefully it will come back again soon. Or perhaps the An-225 Mriya (which is even bigger and has SIX engines) will stop in for another visit. If it ever does, the FBO front desk has my number on speed dial along with strict instructions to fire up the cookie oven and call me right away.