Flight Unit 224: Russian MoDís Commercial Airline
Flight Unit 224 (Lyotny Otryad 224) is a very curious entity within the Russian Armed Forces. It is essentially a state-owned commercial outfit offering non-military and commercial air transport services to the government and other customers using aircraft of the Russian Air Forceís Military Transport Aviation (MTA) service.
Flight Unit 224ís history
FU 224 was formed as part of the MTA service in 1971 to perform two main tasks:
Provide transport services for domestic and foreign trips by top Soviet officials. The officials themselves are of course flown by passenger planes operated by a special flight unit that has always been part of Civil Aviation. But the heavy equipment, cars and sundry other stuffs that follow the officials on their trips has to be hauled by military transports.
International haulage of military and non-military cargos for Soviet/Russian government customers. One of the main types of cargo was weapons and other hardware destined for exports.
In both cases MTA transports had to be used for international flights. That required certain legal arrangements, special training for the crews (including English language training), etc. To address all those issues, the MoD set up Flight Unit 224 within the MTA service, with offices at the MTA headquarters in Moscow.
The unitís fleet is made of transports normally assigned to other MTA formations and re-assigned to FU 224 on a temporary basis. The crews, usually made of the best-trained pilots available, are also rotated using a similar mechanism. Initially FU 224 operated mainly An-12 and An-22 transport aircraft. In the late 1970s those were replaced by the Il-76 and, in the late 1980s, the giant An-124 Ruslans as well. The An-12 and An-22 transports are no longer being used. FU 224 was also assigned a unit number of the civilian Soviet airline Aeroflot. In Soviet times all its planes had a traditional Aeroflot color scheme so as to appear as normal civilian liners.
As its home base FU 224 has always used the Migalovo airfield near Tver, which is one of the main MTA airbases. In 2009 the unit was formally relocated to the Chkalovskoye airfield near Moscow Ė but most of its flights still appear to use Migalovo.
The unit has always played a major role in Soviet international air haulage operations, including weapons deliveries to Soviet allies abroad. It was actively involved in supplying the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan in the 1980s. But by that time commercial haulage had already become an important part of its operations. That included transport services provided under contracts with foreign countries, although in Soviet times the unit itself had nothing to do with the actual signing of those contracts.
On the haulage market
Things changed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In January 1993 Boris Yeltsin signed a decree authorizing FU 224 to operate as an independent state-owned airline. In April 1993 the government set up the Flight Unit 224 State Airline, with Federal State-Owned Unitary Company (FGUP) status, authorized to work independently on the commercial market. Formally, however, the company remains part of the Russian MoD.
With a large fleet of heavy-lifting Il-76 and An-124 transports equipped with cargo loading ramps, and with almost the entire MTA fleet at its disposal as a reserve, Unit 224 has become an important player on the international market for air haulage of oversized cargos. It has also retained its role in providing air transport services during trips by Russian dignitaries, especially the president himself.
But the bulk of its custom still comes from Russian government customers who need international air transport services. An especially important area is weapons deliveries under Rosoboronexport contracts. In essence, FU 224 is an element of the Russian international arms trade system. In that light, periodic speculations in the foreign media about alleged secret deliveries of Russian weapons to foreign customers under state contracts look quite naïve.
Meanwhile, commercial contracts with foreign customers are becoming an increasingly important part of FU 224ís business. Heavy transports equipped with loading ramps are in great demand on the international haulage market. That is especially true of the An-124; Unit 224 is one of the very few carriers (along with Volga-Dnepr, Polet and Antonov Airlines) operating these aircraft. The Il-76 also remains a popular workhorse, used quite heavily in the 1990s and 2000s on flights between China and Russia.
In the 1990s FU 224ís commercial operations helped to keep the Russian Military Transport Aviation flying despite painful budget cuts. The revenues it generated were used to finance the rest of the cash-strapped MTA service. Unit 224 flights also helped MTA pilots to clock up the required minimum number of flight hours, since the rest of the units could not afford to buy enough fuel. Finally, international flight experience and familiarity of the pilots with many foreign airfields had some practical uses for the Russian Air Force.
In another step towards commercialization, the companyís status was changed in 2009 from FGUP to JSC, a joint-stock company, although it is still fully owned by the Russian MoD.
As of early 2011, Flight Unit 224 operated five An-124 and An-124-100 transports and 18 Il-76MDís, all belonging to the Russian Air Forceís MTA service.
In recent years FU 224, acting as a fully commercial venture, has been working to win new foreign customers for oversized military cargo haulage. It is now offering its services directly to the armed forces of leading Western nations, capitalizing on the fact that their own military transport fleets are stretched by military campaigns all across the globe.
In January 2011 FU 224 received a Foreign Operations Specifications clearance from Americaís Federal Aviation Authority for Il-76md and An-124-100 charter flights between Russia and the United States. It then chose a local partner company from among the participants of Americaís Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) program, and applied to the United States Transport Command (USTRANSCOM) to become a participant of the CRAF program. In early September 2011 the Transport Command decided that Flight Unit 224 should be included in the program, and that the company should submit to a mandatory audit, which is scheduled for early 2012.
The French, meanwhile, are not fully satisfied with the air transport services they receive under NATOís Strategic Airlift Interim Solution (SALIS) program. The program relies on An-124-100 transports leased from Russian and Ukrainian civilian airlines. In late 2010 the French MoD announced its own independent contract, inviting bids from accredited brokers. Franceís ICS company, which represented Flight Unit 224, was announced the winner. It has now signed a four-year contract for air transportation services with the French MoD. In April-September 2011 FU 224ís An-124-100 transports performed more than 100 flights from France (from airbases in Vatry, Mont-de-Marsan, Pau and Istres) and the United Arab Emirates (Al Dhafra) to Afghanistan (Kabul, Bagram and Kandahar) and back, hauling a total of over 8,000 tonnes of cargo.
Britain chose not to participate in SALIS from the very beginning, opting instead for its own contracts for airlifts of heavy military cargos. FU 224 has been bidding for these contracts in partnership with Britainís ACS brokers since 2010. In 2010 it won contracts for seven flights from RAF Brize Norton to the Falklands, Nairobi and Kandahar. So far this year it has won nine flights from Prestwick to Bergen (Norway) and from RAF Brize Norton to Kandahar.
Cooperation between FU 224 and the American and NATO militaries seems set to expand. This means that the Russian Air Forceís MTA service is already working for the armed forces of leading Western nations as part of this little-known partnership program.
In 2008 the Russian MoD approved and launched a large-scale upgrades program for its reserve fleet of An-124 aircraft. FU 224 is taking part in the program; its responsibilities include:
Compiling a list of requirements to the MoDís An-124 transports the company needs for its international operations
Procuring equipment necessary to comply with ICAO requirements
Investing into modernizing the reserve stock of D-18T turbofan engines
Maintenance of the aircraft leased out to FU 224, financed from the companyís own funds
Profitable commercial operation of the aircraft leased out to the company
Training of MTA flight crews working for FU 224
According to preliminary estimates, the program will enable FU 224 to operate 10 upgraded An-124-100M transports by 2015, and to continue to increase its fleet by leasing more An-124ís still remaining in the MoDís reserve.