Houston's sunny skies had turned cold, drizzly and overcast, perhaps to make the huge Russian bird feel at home.
As gray as the weather, the giant Antonov-124 let down almost centimeter by centimeter toward Houston Intercontinental Airport. Below, a tentative but fascinated crowd was growing. Mechanics, customs agents, baggage handlers - anyone with an airport badge -wanted to get as close to the Antonov as its crew would allow. The AN-124 is, after all, the world's largest transport aircraft, and this was its first commercial landing in the United States.
Half again the size of a Boeing 747, the four-engine AN-124 is the ultimate flying workhorse, rated for a payload of 150 metric tons (330,700 pounds) and with at least one record 171-ton lift in its logbook. In contrast, a 747 can carry only 100 metric tons (220,500 pounds) of cargo, and the US Air Force's big-lift C-5A, 110 tons (242,500). The Antonov's wings span 73.3 meters (240 feet), and its cavernous cargo hold measures 36 by 6.4 by 4.4 meters (118 by 21 by 14 feet). The only larger aircraft is the six-engine AN-225, of which only one copy has been built to haul the Soviet Union's space shuttle.
The USSR built the 1982-vintage Antonov for the same military reasons the US built its C-5A. But instead of supplying troops at war or on maneuvers, the flight of the Antonov into Houston last February assisted in a different kind of battle - the fight to contain the massive oil spills in the Arabian Gulf.
To support Saudi Aramco's spill-cleanup efforts, Houston-based Aramco Services Company (ASC) airshipped some 680 measured tons (more than 1.5 million volumetric pounds) of equipment to Saudi Arabia on commercial and chartered flights, finally turning to Air Foyle, a British-owned company with exclusive rights to charter the Antonov. Without the new spirit of cooperation between the superpowers, the parties agree, the US landing of the Soviet craft would never have occurred - and evenglasnost' couldn't cut all the red tape. It took over a week to work through the communications barriers, and the original departure time from Kiev slipped several times while the crew awaited clearance from a central dispatch point in Moscow.
From Kiev, the Antonov flew to London, where it picked up aircraft brokers Charles Heather and Anthony Bauckham of World Aviation Group, as well as two US Air Force officers, who were to ensure that the craft kept to a closely defined flight path. Those four passengers had the uncommon experience of an Antonov takeoff: In the dark of a nearly windowless cabin, they rattled like beans in a can as the four huge engines ran up to their full 206,000 pounds of thrust and the crew let off the brakes.
Creature comforts, Heather noted, were not abundant aboard the Antonov. The only memorable one, apparently, was the crew's fare: sausages, salamis, cheeses and bread, hanging from the plane's bare ribs.
Thirteen hours and many headwinds later, the Antonov's 24 wheels - designed to land on lumpy fields, hard-packed snow or ice-covered swampland as well as concrete - stretched downward to support its controlled bellyflop onto the Houston runway.
Surrounding 747's and 707's became Cessnas; 18-wheelers loaded with containers and crates shrank to toys. From standard-size cockpit windows set in its giant fuselage, the beady-eyed Goliath stared at the wet, waiting bystanders. To their surprise, the Soviet crew welcomed them warmly, offering them free run of the curious craft. Sitting in the cockpit, visitors found themselves four stories off the ground. Were it parked in front of a building, the Antonov's tail fin would reach almost to the 10th floor.
A heavy lifter by design, the Antonov-124 has none of the bright lights, shiny surfaces and avionic refinements of the 747's. Its dark interior appears to offer no palleting capability: In lieu of automatic clamps that rise up to lock freight into place, the titanium cargo deck sports only chain-and-strap cargo tie-downs. And while there are four electronic inertial navigation systems on board, well-used slide rules also lie on the navigator's table. Even the loading crew, wearing old wool caps and no uniforms, looks to have descended from a construction company's truck rather than from the plane that NATO dubbed "Condor," after the world's largest flying bird.
Yet the Antonov's simplicity is deceptive. The lack of automatic pallet-handling equipment is by choice: The power of this plane is in its payload, an advantage significantly reduced by bulky, heavy palleting systems. Though they are available on the Antonov, most customers prefer to have them removed to leave more space for the outsized cargoes they pay to ship.
And even without automatic loading, the Antonov provides unmatched door-to-door service for the kinds of job it was designed to do. Its unobstructed cargo deck is nearly twice the width of that on the next-largest charterable plane, and unlike any other sizable aircraft, it is equipped with four overhead traveling cranes which can lift up to 20,000 kilograms (44,100 pounds) of cargo into the hull at a time. The Antonov travels with its own loading crew of 15, who themselves work like machinery to place, secure and unload cargo. Ramps that unfold from both nose-cone and rear, along with the plane's ability to "kneel" on its nose gear to give the floor of the hold a 3.5-degree slope, virtually eliminate any need for the elevated platforms, cranes and extensive ground crews necessary to load and unload traditional freighters.
The AN-124 has hauled sheep from Australia to New Zealand, elephants and giraffes from Africa, a 150-head herd of cattle, palm trees, bridge girders, riverboats and pipe-laying and earth-moving equipment. On this trip, though, the cargo was critical oil-spill-fighting equipment. Awaiting the Antonov were two 12- by 4-meter (40- by 14-foot) skimmer boats, one from Seattle and another from Long Beach, California, as well as oil-containment boom from as far away as Nova Scotia. Bill Ruiz, who supervised the loading of ASC's freight, intentionally prepared far more cargo than he thought the Antonov could hold; in addition to the skimmers, six 20-cubic-meter (720-cubic-foot) containers, another 14 crates, and more than 40,000 meters (132,000 feet) of polyethylene beach-protection sheeting waited on the tarmac.
"Even after looking at the plane once it got here, I thought we had significantly more freight than it could handle," Ruiz said. Behind the skimmers came the containers, then the crates. "And they loaded them, and they loaded them, and they loaded them," he marveled. Its interior packed to the top, the Antonov swallowed every crate offered.
Intent on its work, the Soviet crew interacted little with the Aramco staff and onlookers, in part because of the language barrier. But glasnost' had arrived in Houston nonetheless. The Aramco Services employees understood that the Soviets shared their concern over the oil spill: When Ruiz explained to the Russian load-master what the cargo was for, he willingly shifted items already loaded to make room for two more crates. The Americans gave the crew some caps embroidered with the logo of ASC's oil-spill response team, and ASC Traffic Supervisor Pat Hughes received a US-USSR flag pin from the captain of the AN-124.
"We're doing something good here," was the way broker Charles Heather put it. "If we could have more instances where [military] equipment were being used for these purposes, the world would be a better place."
At 9:30 p.m., about eight hours after landing, the plane was loaded to the roof. Ruiz phoned Peter Thompson, his counterpart in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, who was eager to line up the equipment and ground crew needed to handle the incoming shipment. "All you need is several flatbed trucks and maybe a forklift. They do everything else," Ruiz told him.
"You're kidding me!" Thompson replied.
"Nope. Just go out there with three people, tops. Then sit back and watch."
With the Houston leg of their job complete, the Russians went out for some Texas barbecue. By six the next morning, they were headed for a fuel stop at Shannon, Ireland, then on to Dhahran for another first-ever landing. Less than 17 hours after touching down in Houston, the Antonov was flying back out of US air space - but probably not for the last time.
Donna Drake is the editor of Focus, ASC's employee newspaper.