A Russian plane that usually flies military supplies to Syria just brought aid to New York

Apr 2, 2020

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What was a Russian Air Force giant cargo plane doing at New York’s JFK airport on Wednesday?

Aviation Twitter has been abuzz with the news that an Antonov 124, one of the biggest airplanes ever made, was headed for New York from Russia. U.S. media, including The Washington Post, reported the news as a major development; it’s not every day that the Russian Air Force arrives in America’s largest city. This time, it was bringing medical supplies related to the coronavirus outbreak.

Tracking site Flightradar24 showed that the plane landed at 4:02 p.m and that it left JFK at 10:24 a.m. Thursday, eastbound over the Atlantic. It had come to New York from Chkalovsky, a military airfield near Moscow, via Shannon in Ireland and Goose Bay in Canada, where it had stopped for fuel.

Screenshot from Flightradar24

Video from the Russian Defense Ministry, as reported by Reuters, showed an Antonov 124 being loaded. The images showed what appeared to be boxed supplies inside what looked like the jet’s cargo hold.

Seeing an An-124 in the U.S., or anywhere in the Western Hemisphere, is exceedingly rare — another consequence of the pandemic’s worldwide disruption of aviation. It was one of the last airplanes to be designed and built in the Soviet Union before its 1991 collapse, and was intended mostly as a military airlifter capable of flying heavy equipment such as tanks.

That ability to take big loads through its front and back cargo doors is why the plane that landed at JFK on Wednesday has another, very different job: It’s used to send weapons, ammunition and supplies to the Russian forces fighting in Syria.

The An-124 that came to New York bears the Russian registration RA-82038. Tracking that registration on Flightradar 24 shows that the very same jet has made several trips to Latakia, Syria, over the past year. Military aviation expert David Cenciotti wrote on his The Aviationist blog that An-124s have played a relevant part in keeping Russian forces in Syria supplied. Latakia is the airport where Russia’s main base in Syria is.

Russian state media published a video of the airplane, surrounded by police officers and airport workers, being unloaded at JFK. Its tail showed a badge with the number 224 — the same badge seen on other Russian Air Force cargo planes photographed at other times. That badge is consistent with membership in a special unit of the Russian military, the 224th Flight Unit, whose planes have been spotted around the world carrying the vehicles in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s motorcade ahead of state visits. The 224th also advertises on the web its services as a freight carrier for civilian customers, in a unique reversal of the Soviet-era policy of dual use of civilian airliners, which could be called upon to do double duty as military airlifters.

Reuters quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying that U.S. president Donald Trump “gratefully accepted this humanitarian aid.” However, the supplies brought to New York were actually purchased by the U.S. government, according to the State Department. 

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted Wednesday that “the U.S. agreed to purchase urgently needed personal protective equipment from Russia to help FEMA respond in New York City,” seemingly suggesting that the aid coming into New York had been bought by the U.S. government. In response to a request for clarification about whether Pompeo was referring to cargo from the plane that landed at JFK on Wednesday, the State Department emailed a statement by spokesperson Morgan Ortagus.

“We are a generous and reliable contributor to crisis response and humanitarian action across the world, but we cannot do it alone,” the statement said. “As a follow-up to the March 30 phone call between President Trump and President Putin, the United States has agreed to purchase needed medical supplies, including ventilators and personal protection equipment, from Russia, which were handed over to FEMA on April 1 in New York City.”

Featured photo by Mustafa Kamaci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

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