China provides boost to An-178 program with fifty-unit order

A Chinese company has placed an order for fifty Antonov’s An-178 freighters, shown here on its first flight.

During this year’s Paris Airshow, executives from a trio of Ukrainian firms – aircraft designer Antonov, state-owned engine design bureau Ivchenko Progress, and engine manufacturer Motor Sich, met with a “Chinese customer” and signed an agreement for fifty An-178s.

The first twelve An-178s will be delivered fully-assembled, with subsequent units in kit form for final assembly in China.  A release from Motor Sich did not explicitly state whether the order was at the commitment stage, or already a firm order, but implied the latter, “We have decided on the terms of the transfer, financial receipts and shipment of real and material parts for the production of this aircraft in China.”

Azerbaijan-based Silk Way Airlines launched the An-178 program in February 2010, with a ten-unit order for the twin-jet freighter to replace its ageing fleet of An-12s. The An-178 is based on a modified design of Antonov’s 99-seat An-158 passenger aircraft. In the past, Antonov has said it expects to produce “hundreds” of the -178, and although orders were slow at first, interest picked up following the aircraft’s first flight in May 2015. The Royal Saudi Air Force signed an LOI for thirty An-178s, and the Iraqi Army placed an order for two. Perhaps most importantly however, was a twelve-unit order from China’s Beijing A-Star Science & Technology Company. Along with this order, was an agreement for “joint serial production for the An-178 in the RPC.” Like the fifty-unit deal announced in Paris, the first two units bound for A-Star will be made elsewhere, with subsequent units assembled in China.

Production in China is not a major digression from Antonov’s typical strategy, which has usually been focused on design. Production meanwhile, has almost always been left to other companies, mostly in Russia. As relations between Ukraine and Russia have deteriorated in recent years, Antonov’s production partners have shifted to other parts of the world, notably China, Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan.

As for the customer, we suspect the units could end up in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force. The order would not only fulfill part of the Air Force’s fleet modernization and expansion initiatives, but also reinforce efforts by the Chinese Government to increase the country’s aerospace manufacturing capacity. Last year, the PLA Air Force said it would take delivery of between two and five An-225 Mriya super-jumbo freighters. Fifty additional transporters of a smaller size, would not seem outlandish.

Compared to the An-158 passenger jet, the -178 will be modified with a rear loading ramp, an upgraded wing, and the capability to land and take off from short and unpaved airstrips. Maximum payload is about 18 tonnes, with range at max payload of about 1,000 km (extending to about 4,000 km with a 10-tonne load). Operational ceiling will be 12,200 meters, and the cargo hold will be pressurized.

Antonov sees the An-178 as a competitor to the Alenia C-27J Spartan, EADS CASA C-295, Lockheed Martin C-130J, and Embraer KC-390 in the military realm. On the commercial side, Antonov says the An-178 will be a much-improved replacement for the aging quad-turboprop An-12, which has a similar payload, but more limited capabilities, an unpressurized cargo compartment, and vastly inferior operating economics.

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