The Antonov An-26 (NATO reporting name “Curl”) was originally designed for “Aeroflot” – the Russian national airline and biggest carrier in Russia – to meet its requirement for a light passenger/cargo transport aircraft capable of replacing its ageing fleet of Li-2s and Il-14s.
The development of such an aircraft commenced as early as the late fifties at the Antonov design bureau. This early work resulted in the creation of the An-24, a 44-seat twin-turboprop transport. First flown in 1959, it was ordered into production in 1972, and soon became a valued acquisition for local airlines. The design dominated air-passenger transport in the USSR over medium haul distances.
In the meantime, the Antonov design bureau had begun work on a military version of the aircraft. Its fuselage was slightly reshaped and fitted with a rear-loading ramp. Designated An-24 TW, it first flew on 21st May 1969. The aircraft proved to be a very effective means of transporting up to 40 troopers and light combat vehicles (up to 5 tons in weight). Furthermore, it could equally well serve as an airborne ambulance, with enough room to accommodate 24 injured personnel on stretchers whilst operating from forward landing grounds.
In 1969 a machine from the pre-production series was demonstrated at the 25th Paris Salon, provoking great interest amongst potential buyers. The success of the An-24’s export version was assured. Branded the An-26, it was put into mass production at Antonov’s Kiev plant towards the end of 1969. The aircraft featured a highly original means of augmenting thrust – an auxiliary powerplant (a dry thrust Tumanskii RU-19A-300 turbojet of 8.8 kN thrust) was housed in the rear part of the starboard engine nacelle.
Under normal operating conditions this additional turbojet engine serves as a starter motor for the An-24 WT’s main engines, but whenever the aircraft is on a short runway and/or overloaded, the RU-19A-300 provides much needed extra thrust on take-off. Of interest is the fact that the rear-loading ramp can be operated in two modes. When the aircraft is on the ground, it serves as a regular platform for unloading the cargo bay: when the machine is involved in a parachute airdrop, the ramp can be slid beneath the fuselage to give more room.
The An-26 was reliable, simple to operate and performed well in the air. Thanks to these qualities it quickly became an export hit for the Kiev plant. Before it was phased out of production in 1978, some 1400 AN-26s had rolled off the assembly lines.
Amongst the many operators of this versatile design were: Afghanistan, Algeria, Bulgaria, China, Congo, Cuba, Czech Republic, Ethiopia, Germany, Hungary, Iraq, Laos, Libya, Mozambique, Peru, Poland, Romania, Somalia, Syria, Tanzania, Zambia, Yugoslavia – and, obviously, the numerous republics of the Soviet Union.