The Antonov An-72 (NATO name Coaler) was designed in the mid-1970’s as a replacement for the An-26 (NATO name Curl), a turboprop powered light tactical transport aircraft that served in great numbers in almost every Soviet bloc country. The An-72 is an unusual design with its two 14,3000lb ZMKB Progress D-36 turbofans mounted high on the wing, enabling the engine exhaust to be directed over the wing to improve STOL performance. Capable of carrying a payload of 10 tons, or 68 passengers, the An-72 can also carry a 23mm gun pod, a UB-23M rocket launcher or four 100kg bombs internally. In military service since the mid-1980’s, the An-72 has proved to be an effective and reliable light tactical transport aircraft.
When the old Soviet Union was attempting to develop a ‘blue water’ navy in the 1980’s it was soon realised that large aircraft carriers operating fixed-wing aircraft were essential for a any credible ‘power projection’. This in turn created some difficulties as, taking the US Navy as the benchmark, fixed wing fighters need a both tanker and AEW support capable of operating from a carrier and the Soviet Union had neither. To address this shortfall an An-72 was modified and fitted with a radome. However, unless the aircraft is designed from the outset to carry a large radome, its very difficult to modify an existing aircraft as the radome cannot simply be attached above the fuselage.
To resolve this problem the designers came up with a novel and unique solution; the An-72 was completely re-designed and swept forward, rather than backward, and the radome housing the Kvant early warning radar was attached on top of the tailfin. The wingspan of the aircraft was also increased by about six meters. The finished aircraft was designated the An-71 (NATO name Madcap) and three aircraft were built before the project was cancelled in favour of the Yak-44 twin turboprop, which was later cancelled itself in 1995. Eventually, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the whole aircraft carrier programme was called into question and when one carrier did finally enter service it did so without a fixed-wing AEW aircraft. The first An-72 prototype flew on 12 Jun 85, only two were built and currently only one example of this unique aircraft is known to have survived and it is at the Aviant aircraft plant alongside Svyatoshino airfield near Kiev.
Another unusual variant of the An-72 which has recently been displayed at the Aviant aircraft plant is the An-72R. The An-72R was also designed to act as a carrier-born AEW aircraft, but with a phased-array radar mounted along both sides of its fuselage. A total of three aircraft were built, but when the requirement was cancelled the project was abandoned and this aircraft is believe to be only one of the three aircraft to survive.