Almost everybody has taken a plane at least once in his life, though few have seen how these planes are built. No surprise: there are not so many countries that practice aircraft manufacturing, and each of them protects its secrets. ForUm's got lucky to see and learn how Ukrainian aircrafts are born at the state enterprise "Antonov", which projects, tests and produces famous An.

Territory of the plant is enormous: it has its landing field, and to get from one department to another, one must take a bus.

First, we went to one of the computer halls of the designing department. It looks like an ordinary office with numerous computers, separated by partition walls. Deputy head of the computer and information department Ihor Pugach told us that the designing of aircrafts and constituent parts is made on computers. Drawing boards, pencils and papers are in the past.

"Our computers are pretty powerful, as we use 3D programs for modeling. We have dual core processors with 4 GB of RAM and 500 GB in hard drives," Pugach specified.

In order to prevent industrial espionage the computer system of the department and of the whole enterprise is not connected to Internet. "Our security policy provides for separation of internal and external nets. It is also impossible to bring out a flesh card with information, as the security service checks everyone thoroughly," the official explained.

The next department we visited was the hall of air tunnel. The huge air tunnel device blows out air with the speed up to 250 km/h to test the behavior of a model-plane under various aerodynamic loads. The model-plane hanging in front of the tunnel is an exact copy of a real cargo plane An-124 in miniature. External surfaces of the model proportionally correspond 100% to the real airliner.

Head of the department Mykhailo Melnikov explained that the model-plane is fixed to the aerodynamic load scales, which register and show results of testing. Not only models of new planes undergo such testing, but the models of the operating ones as well. Airplanes are being improved constantly, and if a new device, even the smallest one, is fixed to its surface, the plane must be tested for aerodynamic behavior due to the changes.  

There is another machine in the hall, which determines dangerous resonance frequencies. Model-plane An-70, covered with numerous sensors, is fixed to the machine. Using specific frequencies the machines sends chatter vibrations to the model as a whole and to its separate parts in particular to determine which frequencies brings risks for the plane. Taking into account testing results, airplanes are designed in such a way to avoid resonance vibrations under any flying conditions. Otherwise, there is a risk a plane will fall apart.

Then we went to see how they assemble real planes. The department of final assembly is located far from the designing department and we had to take a bus to get there. Having entered the hall, we saw five passenger planes An-148, An-158 and one cargo plane An-32.

The assembly process reminds house construction or ship building process. A plane is surrounded by stocks, and the assembly process itself starts with frame transverse beams on which the main body will be built up. The planes in the hall are almost ready, lacking only engines.

"Minimum four months are needed to build a plane - first to assemble it and then to test for leak integrity. We use special tools, not ordinary wrenches to assemble the parts. Then we pump in air for all skin components to set. If everything is ok, the plane undergoes repeated test for leak integrity," head of the department Viktor Melnychuk told us some details.

Continuing our tour, we went to the department of strength and fatigue testing. It is the most amazing and surprising department of the plant.

In a huge hall - 100 per 100 meters with 35 meters ceiling height - we saw woods of tubes, levers, carriers and heard a thunderous roar: metal monster An-148 held by various metal constructions was flapping wings.

Stunned by the picture we asked why they were torturing the poor plane. It turned out the plane was undergoing complex testing of materials, elements and accessories. "There are only three similar labs left on the territory of former USSR - here, in Moscow and in Novosibirsk," head of the department Oleksandr Kuzmenko explained.

According to the official, there are three types of testing: static, dynamic and endurance. Static tests are aimed at testing design loads - a plane is tested until it breaks down. During dynamic tests, a plane experiences loads it may get in the course of its operation, which are half as less than the design loads. Endurance tests are needed to find out the lifetime of the plane and its components - how many flying hours it can manage to serve before its parts get worn out. "With these tests we model the whole life cycle of a plane. Within two-three years we expose the plane to all possible loads it may experience for decades of operation. The tests enable us to reveal weak points of the plane in order to prevent possible failures," Kuzmenko explained.

In fact, developing a new plane, the plant manufactures not one, but at least three identical planes. One goes for flight-testing, while two others will never take off. They will be 'tortured' for strength and fatigue to keep the operating plane safe. "Antonov" plant, however, has managed to combine static and dynamic tests, thus saving one plane from 'torturing'.

At some point engineers drew our attention to a huge wing of An-124, and we saw a round dint with ripped out center of thirty centimeters in diameter. It turned out the plane was shot with a ...chicken. Yes, yes, you've read it correctly - a chicken. A chicken goes to a special wind-gun and then is discharged with hundreds of km/h speed. Not only wings are got shot, but all parts of the plane. In such a way engineers simulate a collision with a bird. Nowadays they use silicon chickens, so no living animals get sacrificed.

Unfortunately, there were no 'chicken testing' during our visit. Continuing the tour we learned that not only models of new planes undergo testing, but the operating ones as well. Holding tests for operating planes means to prolong their lifetime and service. Endurance tests for operating planes are one of income items for "Antonov", as only the developer can give an opinion on service life extension for An planes.

The final place to visit was the most exciting - flight simulation department with its cabins on hydraulic legs.

One cabin was moving and dancing chaotically - some pilots were making training. Having entered one of these cabins, we saw the exact copy of An-148 pilot cockpit with numerous levers, buttons and screens. It turned out the simulator can display almost any airport of the world - a pilot just needs to install corresponding software. Having looked out of the front window, we saw...Boryspil airport. It seemed very real. Our plane was standing on a landing strip ready to take off.

"An-148 flight simulator is installed only at our plant and Domodedovo airport in Moscow. Many pilots from Russia come to train here. The schedule of flights has been already made for years ahead," test pilot Valery Migunov said. The pilot also explained that the flight sim could simulate any situation - from a standard take off to extreme landing without landing wheels. In such a way, pilots get immune to any situation, which may happen during a flight.

The simulator itself costs almost as much as the real plane, as its system is very sophisticated and complicated. We could not refuse the invitation to take a flight. What are the chances to get to a cockpit someday again?

The simulator creates absolutely real illusion of a flight. The plane started the run-up and then took off leaving Boryspil somewhere down. Having made a turn we prepared to land. Though the pilot did not turn on the mechanical system, which makes the cabin move, the optical illusion of a steep turn made us to straighten up.

Loud female voice suddenly warned us about "unacceptable bank". In the process of landing the same voice was informing us about remaining height: 300 meters, 250 meters, 200 meters. Then we heard a loud beep of the alarm warning us we 'forgot' to put gear down. Five, four, three, two, one... and we landed.

We finished our tour and left the premises with imperishable impressions and understanding that Ukraine has people who can and do build THAT.

Dmytro Khyliuk, photos by Maxim Trebukhov


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