By Colin Salt
In the long, tangled struggle to introduce new tanker planes to the U.S. Air Force (which has been ongoing since the development of aerial refueling), one small footnote stands out. Because it was a Ukrainian effort to break into the American market. This was back in 2010, long before the current war and even before the realignment after the Maidan protests.
The U.S. Air Force's 2007 KC-X program had the aim to procure a next-generation aerial refuelling tanker aircraft. Boeing put forward the KC-46 and Airbus the A330, leading to a bitter battle. The contract was originally awarded to Airbus in 2008 but Boeing got it overturned in court, based on the process being unfair, later that year and the Air Force reopened bids in 2009, eventually selecting Boeing's KC-46 in 2011, though the KC-46 would be plagued with difficulties, with Boeing paying the government nearly 2 billion dollars in penalties for missing deadlines. But that isn't the story of this article.
Because while Boeing and Airbus continued their airborne Verdun one little competitor had tried to slip through the cracks, with their own entry. The Antonov Design Bureau (a Ukrainian state-owned commercial company) along with a suspiciously small American firm called U.S Aerospace (to provide a domestic factory for legal/political reasons, presumably), pushed what they called the An-112KC in 2010 for the second round of bids. A variant of the existing Antonov An-70 transport, its most noticeable change on the outside was replacing the four propellers with two jets. The An-112KC could carry around sixty tons of fuel and, in addition to being a tanker, could hold either 33 tons of cargo or 300 passengers.
The An-112KC had about as much chance of making it in the USAF as Zambia had of winning the race to the moon. But the audacity of its proposals, in going up against aviation giants for a vast military contract, matches that of these other even more quixotic dreamers. Antonov at least was a legitimate firm with legitimate expertise, they knew how to make planes, even if the pre-2014 Ukrainian defense industry had one of the biggest gaps between imagination and execution (like in everything else, whatever bad happened economically to Russia post-USSR happened even worse to Ukraine).
Given what would happen to Ukraine since 2010, it is still tempting to wonder how a successful bid for that contract would have changed the Ukrainian defense industry and so global geo-politics.
There are other aviation dreamers, often mixing talent with a lack of resources and a fixation on something different, who had even less chance of executing their dreams. Soviet/Tajik designer Fatahadin Mukhamedov was obsessed with circular wings and proposed everything from advanced fighter jets to monster airlifters with them. Vincent Burnelli (no relation to Bernoulli) was obsessed with lifting bodies to the point where he and his successors alleged conspiracies to suppress his dream by Big Aviation. Stavatti continues to produce paper wunderplanes and very little else to this day.
And then there are the lone wolves, the ones whose work lives on only in patent applications and archived documents. This is where the truly exotic (and unworkable) stuff often shines, often in the field of tilted geometry vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (think the V-22 for the biggest genuine application).
If the aviation establishment rule something out as unworkable, chances are some crank inventor has tried and fill the gap themselves. And if Boeing and Airbus prove unable to deliver a US Air Force project on time and without breaching laws about a fair process then some small foreign supplier will offer to shoot their own shot at the contract. These unrealistic ambitions would never happen, but they still provide a fascinating glimpse into the possibilities of the industry.