SHARJAH // The rugged Antonov An-12 cargo plane has traditionally gone where other planes fear to land. Dirt roads, deserts, snow and unfriendly fire hold little terror for it. But the legendary Soviet-era plane has proved no match for UAE rules and regulations.
And that makes the pilots who work for Natalia Fridinskaya and other cargo operators from the former Soviet Union very unhappy. In the Ukrainian-made Antonov An-12, a four-engine turboprop relic of the Cold War, Russian and Georgian crews have braved surface-to-air missiles to fly supplies to Iraq and Afghanistan, dropped onto runways in Somalia that were little more than country roads, or narrowly cleared strips of jungle to deliver medicine and food to UN missions on several continents.
Along the way, the An-12 - Nato code name "Cub" - has delivered its fair share of aid to refugees. But now, due to a "temporary" ban that is beginning to assume an air of permanence, the aircraft operated out of the UAE by Mrs Fridinskaya and more than a dozen other operators have themselves become refugees. All An-12s were ordered out of the country by the General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) on January 8, following four incidents in as many months involving local operators in the Emirates and Iraq. The worst was in Iraq on November 13, when an aircraft operating out of Sharjah, with a cargo thought to include FedEx packages, crashed near Fallujah, killing all seven people on board. Three other incidents were reported at Sharjah in October and January.
Although the suspension was lifted on April 6, the Antonov operators say a de facto ban remains in place, imposed by a series of bureaucratic hurdles that they describe as unjustified and which they say is damaging the UAE's burgeoning status as a regional transport centre. As a result an estimated seven companies have either moved their operations to other countries or have simply gone bust. "With proper maintenance, with the proper care, this aircraft is practically indestructible," says Mrs Fridinskaya, general director of TransAviaService, a Georgian airline with offices in the Sharjah International Airport Free Zone.
"It can fly for another 20 years if it's kept well. If one or two airlines are having problems, why is it that all of us are made to suffer?" The Cub entered service with the Soviet air force in 1959, which makes this year the aircraft's 50th birthday. Production ceased in 1973, with more than 1,200 aircraft built. According to an article in Flight International magazine in 2006, at that time more than 170 remained in service with more than 70 small commercial airlines, operating between one and seven aircraft each.
The reinvention of the An-12 over its 50-year career is a testament to the history that has passed under its wings; it has gone from transporting Soviet weaponry and troops to servicing American soldiers in the Hindu Kush, the Afghan mountain range once considered the USSR's backyard. More than two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the An-12 maintains its reputation in aviation circles as a transport Goliath, capable of lifting more than 20 tonnes with a range of more than 3,000km - roughly a return flight from Sharjah to Baghdad.
In 2005, the aircraft even received a nod from Hollywood with an appearance in Lord of War, a film starring Nicolas Cage about the exploits of a Ukrainian-born arms dealer, in which it is seen performing a typically challenging landing on an African dirt road while being harried by hostile planes. "It was produced for military purposes, so you know it's designed to land in any environment," says Alexander Kolganov, commercial director at Transliz Aviation, which had operated five An-12s out of Sharjah before the ban.
"It can land on dirt paths, on ice, snow, grass. This aircraft is supremely versatile, and if maintained well, it will last a very, very, very long time." He and his colleagues say the An-12's simple design and durability give it advantages over its American equivalent, Lockheed's C-130 Hercules, another four-engine turboprop plane that is three years its operational senior but still in production.
The An-12 can withstand much more wear and tear, says Mr Kolganov, but it is in the profit margin that the former Soviet workhorse clinches the deal. For one thing, it can carry about five tonnes more than the Hercules, but it is also much cheaper to operate. An hour of flight time is priced by operators at roughly $3,000 (Dh11,000), a sum that includes everything from fuel to crew - and which is about $4,000 less than the Hercules.
The proof, says Mr Kolganov, is in the world's hotspots. "Why are Antonovs taking all the American supplies to their own battle zones? Why don't they use their own aircraft? Because the Antonov is considerably cheaper." Cheaper or not, the Antonov appears to remain unwelcome in UAE airspace. Mrs Fridinskaya's lone An-12 has been based in Sulaimaniya, a city in Kurdish Iraq, since mid-February. "My crew was performing maintenance to the plane when the authorities came over and told us to leave - immediately," says Mrs Fridinskaya, who is spending her days in Sharjah hoping to be reunited again with her "Anton".
"They say the ban was made in the interest of safety, but literally my crew was forced to leave on the spot to Iraq - they didn't get to finish their inspection. What kind of safety measure is that, if I had to fly a plane [that] should not have been flown?" Other aircraft have returned to their native Ukraine, or are being kept along with skeleton maintenance crews in far-flung locations, such as Uganda or the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Among them are four of Mr Kolganov's five An-12s, transferred to Uganda along with spare engines, propellers and fuel, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dirhams. He also had to trim his staff of 40 foreign nationals to three. The GCAA has said its ban is a necessary safeguard to review the An-12's airworthiness, but has said nothing publicly about the investigation since it was announced. However, in a document seen by The National, issued to operators on April 6, the day the ban was officially lifted, the authority cited deficiencies in crew performance, design flaws with the aircraft's steering system and an unknown number of An-12s used in the UAE that may not have been airworthy.
The document has puzzled the operators; it is not clear to which aircraft or incidents it refers. Since then, they say, the authority has been sending mixed messages. On April 9, three days after the ban was rescinded, a notice was issued by the GCAA dated April 5 and apparently extending the ban until July 4. At the same time, preconditions for a return to flights have been issued, including demands for a range of documents and certificates in English, relating to pilot training and items of equipment that the operators say never existed.
"Russian is an official language of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, so does this mean GCAA doesn't recognise ICAO authority?" says Alexander Smolin, general manager of Sky Support Service in Sharjah and a spokesman for An-12 cargo companies. The ICAO is the UN body that codifies global aviation standards. Although getting on in years, the An-12 is certified as airworthy by the Antonov Design Bureau in Ukraine, and flown with the approval of local aviation authorities throughout Europe, Asia and Africa.
The reputation of some An-12 operators around the world is less cast-iron. Rumours abound of "cowboys" who regularly exceed the aircraft's 20-tonne payload limit, sometimes by up to 10 tonnes, earning it the nickname the "flying truck". "You'd hear stories about these guys just throwing stuff into it until it was completely full, until it blocked things like [the] hydraulic system," says Saleem Majid, operations manager for an airline that used to fly the An-12 out of Fujairah.
"It was to a point where they couldn't reach things during flight. Then you wouldn't have access to emergency points when you needed them." Even so, says Jean Paul Henrotte, an aircraft crash investigator for the European Commission in Brussels, that generally would not be justification to issue a blanket ban on all aircraft. Authorities in Europe typically punish only airlines and cargo operators responsible for violations.
The An-12, he says, probably does experience a higher rate of accidents than other aircraft, but this could be because of the type of environment and missions it typically flies rather than inherent flaws. "You will never land a Boeing 777 or an Airbus A320 on a grass strip in the jungle, but you'll do it with an Antonov 12. There is also the operation factor. These aircraft operate very far from a place where they can be well maintained according to manufacturer standards. When they are somewhere in the middle of Africa, where you have little controls and regulations, then of course it's the law of the jungle."
Saif al Suwaidi, director general of the GCAA, said the newly imposed conditions were the "minimum acceptable standards" and that they were "permanent conditions, not temporary". "These conditions are made to ensure high standards of safety because we cannot jeopardise safety," he said. "Do you think it's acceptable to have an aircraft's documentation written in Russian in a country like the UAE? If the operators are stationed here, then it should be the language of the country. In the UAE, English is the language of aviation."