There is a reason why wide-body airliners have an aura of prestige around them. Many of them offer comfort and luxury rivaled only by business jets or fly to the world’s most prestigious destinations. They are some of the largest and farthest-flying aircraft ever, constituting tremendous engineering achievements, built only by a handful of elite manufacturers.
Engineers within the Soviet Union tried to develop larger and larger jet airliners even before the emergence of the first wide-body aircraft, the Boeing 747. But its grand entrance in the late 60s offered a clear template to follow. Thus, the Soviet answer – the Ilyushin Il-86 – appeared.
Its development was long and difficult, to the point that Aeroflot even briefly considered acquiring a fleet of Boeing 747s. The new aircraft was lacking range as well, therefore its long-range brethren – the Il-96 – was being developed almost simultaneously.
The Il-86 entered service in the early 80s, the Il-96 – in the early 90s. To this day they remain the only wide-body airliners built in Soviet and post-Soviet space, the latter one still remaining in production and awaiting an upgrade.
But they are not the only ones that were designed. Although in the 60s and the 70s no other design bureau had willingness to compete with Ilyushin, the situation changed in the 80s. Two new trends appeared, expanding the wide-body concept in both capabilities and diversity.
One of them was the seeming dawn of an era of superjumbos – giant airplanes with the passenger capacity between 500 and 1000 seats, or sometimes more. The only result of that trend was the Airbus A380, but there were lots of other projects, many of them – of Soviet origin.
Another trend was that of wide-body twinjets, ushered in by the success of the Airbus A300. Although it had started earlier, by the mid-80s the impending emergence of the Boeing 777 prompted many to look for large, modern and efficient long-range aircraft powered by just two engines.
Tupolev, Antonov and later even Sukhoi’s attempts to enter the market were direct results of these two trends and Ilyushin tried to follow them as well. They all planned to make entire families of new large airplanes. Those planes were designed, developed, marketed to both domestic and foreign airlines; in some cases, plants even started building them.
As the Soviet Union crumbled in the early 90s, the new, capitalist system emerged from the ruins of the previous one. Design bureaus were reformed into companies, but the work did not stop. For many formerly-Soviet manufacturers, the new era brought new possibilities in the form of open foreign markets and international partners. But new hardships were there too: foreigners were wary of new, unproven post-Soviet technology; some considered it as sub-par and sometimes it was so, due to lack of resources, outdated manufacturing techniques, or equipment. Back at home, the economy disintegrated, the state could not and did not support large workforce, and domestic airlines were interested only in exotic Western jets.
That was the context in which many of these new jets appeared, almost destined to never see the light of day.
An-180: the mini-wide-body
It entered the design phase in 1991 at the newly reformed Antonov bureau, which soon found itself in the new Ukrainian republic. Previously, Antonov was mostly focused on transport aircraft and their new project was inspired by one.
It had to be medium-range turboprop airliner seating between 163 and 172 people. Rather mysteriously, a seating scheme of six-abreast with two aisles (2+2+2) was selected. The reason behind that may have been an idea to use an almost unmodified fuselage of the An-70 transport plane, high-wing and all. With time, the idea changed: the position of the wing was lowered, engines were relocated to the back, yet the seating scheme remained.