Antonov's Giant: the An-124 Ruslan

The uniquely capable Antonov An-124 is the world's largest production cargo aircraft, yet it was only built in small numbers due to the collapse of Communism in the early 1990s. Today this unique aircraft is the star performer of the international heavy-lift cargo market.

By Guy Martin

A Volga-Dnepr An-124-100 sits parked on the flight line at US Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina, United States, waiting to offload its cargo on July 26 2004. (US Marine Corps photo by Lance Corporal Serena J Defilippis) A Volga-Dnepr An-124 takes off from Moffett Federal Airfield, California, United States, on April 22 2007. The contracted An-124 transported 129th Rescue Wing deployment cargo to Afghanistan because the high operations tempos of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have kept C-17 Globemaster III and C-5 Galaxy aircraft fully engaged. (US Air Force photo by Master Sergeant Daniel Kacir) A Volga-Dnepr An-124-100 taking off from a wet airstrip. (Volga-Dnepr) Two Tupolev Tu-95 ‘Bear’ bombers, centre, and an A-124 transport aircraft of the Russian military, background, beside a Boeing B-52H Stratofortress of the 62nd Bombardment Squadron at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, United States on May 1 1992. (DoD photo by Technical Sergeant Fernando Serna)

The Aircraft



Development of the An-124 started in the late 1970s as a replacement for Antonov's turboprop An-22 transport. This giant aircraft had been the largest aircraft in the world for a time, until the title was taken over by the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy in 1968.

By mid-1977 work was well under way on what was initially called the An-40 (sometimes An-400) by the West and Condor by NATO. Five years later, on December 26 1982, the An-124's maiden flight took place.

The first production An-124 was proudly displayed at the 1985 Paris Air Show in what was the West's first view of the type. Once the Ruslan's awesome dimensions had been revealed, the An-124 snatched the title of world's largest aircraft away from the rival C-5 Galaxy and continued Antonov's tradition of building the world's largest aircraft.

The mighty Ruslan scored a number of Cold War points for the Soviet Union as it not only gained the title of world's largest aircraft, but also continued to trump its American rival by setting a string of 30 world records. On July 26 1985 the An-124 lifted an unprecedented payload of 377 473 pounds (171 219 kg) to 35 269 feet (10 750 m). In doing so it exceeded the C-5's record of lifting a payload to 6 560 ft (2 000 m) by 53%. The incredible An-124 went on to set around 30 world records; between May 6 and 7 1987 an An-124 set a closed-circuit distance record by flying a gruelling 12 521 miles (20 151 km) in 25.5 hours without refuelling. The previous record was held by a Boeing B-52H Stratofortress when it flew 11 337 miles (18 245 km). In 1993 the An-124 set yet another record by carrying a Siemens Company powerplant generator and cradle weighing 298 065 pounds (135.2 tonnes) from Dusseldorf to Delhi: the single heaviest commercial load ever transported by air. And in 1994 the Ruslan moved the heaviest commercial shipment in one flight when it carried a 321 875 pound (146 tonne) payload.

The An-124 entered service commercially in January 1986 and deliveries to the VTA (Russian Air Forces transport arm) began in the following year in spite of the fact the aircraft was developed as a strategic military transport with commercial operations intended to come second.

An An-124-100 from Volga-Dnepr lands at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base (NAS/JRB), New Orleans, Louisiana, United States, on September 12 2005 to deliver a diesel powered water pump in support of the Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. (US Navy photo by Wade G Mckinnon) A Volga-Dnepr An-124 is parked April 20 2007 at Moffett Federal Airfield, California. The contracted An-124 transported 129th Rescue Wing cargo to Afghanistan because the high operations tempos of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have kept C-17 Globemaster III and C-5 Galaxy aircraft fully engaged. (US Air Force photo by Senior Master Sergeant Christopher Hartman)

The aircraft

The An-124 was designed as a strategic military transport and as such is able to quickly load/offload cargo. This ability is facilitated by the upward hinging visor-type nose in addition to the rear fuselage loading ramp/door, allowing rapid roll-on roll-off cargo handling. The Ruslan has also been designed to operate from unprepared fields and its robust landing gear can handle rough ground, hard packed snow and even ice-covered swampland. The steerable nosewheels allow turns on runways just 148 feet (45 m) wide. With remote area operations in mind, the An-124 has hatches in the upper deck that provide access to the wing and tail unit to facilitate maintenance when proper equipment is unavailable.

In order to carry heavy loads, the Antonov design bureau made some use of advanced materials to make the An-124 as light and strong as possible in critical areas. The cargo hold floor is constructed of titanium, and composites make up more than 16 145 square feet (1 500 sq m) of surface area. These composites weight 12 125 pounds (5 500 kg) and save more than 4 409 pounds (2 000 kg). Otherwise the An-124's structure is conventional light alloy metal.

As previously mentioned, the An-124 has been designed to operate from unprepared airstrips and as a result has heavy duty landing gear with no less than 24 wheels. The two main units each have five inward retracting legs with two wheels each. In line with the aim of remote operations, the front two wheels on each main unit are steerable. The nose gear consists of two independent forward-retracting units with two steerable wheels each to improve manoeuvrability, giving a turning radius of just 64 feet 4 inches (19.6 m). The two nose units are mounted side by side. The main landing gear legs can retract individually for easy repair or wheel change.

The An-124 has a very useful feature for easy cargo loading and unloading: by retracting the nosewheels the aircraft can kneel on two extendable 'feet' and therefore give the cargo hold floor a 3.5 degree slope. The process takes 3 minutes to lower the aircraft and 6.5 minutes to raise it back up again. In addition, the rear fuselage can also be lowered by compressing the main landing gear oleos.

Because it is relatively easy to load, the An-124 can accommodate almost any payload up to 330 700 pounds (150 000 kg): main battle tanks, complete missile systems, oil well equipment, earth movers - even Airbus wings - have been transported in the Ruslan's cavernous 40 965 cubic feet (1 160 cu m) interior, which measures a humbling 119 feet 8.25 inches (36.48 m) by 21 feet (6.4 m) and is 14 feet 5.25 inches (4.4 m) high. The An-124 can also accommodate 12 standard ISO containers and military aircraft are able to airdrop up to 16 pallets each weighing up to 9 920 pounds (4 500 kg).

Further testimony to the An-124's massive cargo capacity is the fact that it has carried many unusual and interesting payloads, such as a 240 300 pound (109 tonne) locomotive (from Canada to Ireland in September 2001), a Lockheed EP-3 (in July 2001 during the US-China spyplane incident), Boeing Chinook helicopters (three at a time), yachts for the America's Cup races, the Obelisk of Axum back to Ethiopia from Rome in April 2005, and even the fuselage of a Tupolev Tu-204 passenger transport. United Launch Alliance uses the An-124 to transport its Atlas V lauch vehicles to Cape Canaveral.

The An-124 is well-equipped with cargo handling apparatus, and this consists of rollgangs and retractable attachments for cargo tiedowns; two winches able to pull 6 614 pounds (3 000 kg) and two electric travelling cranes. The latter are mounted in the roof of the hold, each with two lifting points, and can in total lift 44 092 pounds (20 000 kg). To keep an eye on cargo in flight there is a narrow catwalk along each cargo bay sidewall.

The cargo hold is accessed from the front by the hydraulically operated upward hinged nose, which simultaneously extends a folding nose ramp. The nose takes seven minutes to open fully and is steadied against any wind by reinforcing arms. No links (such as hydraulic or electrical) are broken when the nose is open.

The An-124's simpler hydraulically operated rear loading doors open much faster than the nose, taking just 3 minutes, including the extension of a three-part folding ramp. Behind the ramp the centre fuselage undersurface hinges upwards whilst clamshell doors on each side open downwards/outwards.

In addition to the An-124 being able to carry an unprecedented 330 700 pound (150 000 kg) payload, the aircraft can also accommodate 360 troops (and two lavatories) in the cargo hold. Oxygen bottles also need to be carried, since the hold is only lightly pressurised and does not normally carry people. However, in September 1990 an An-124 carried 451 Bangladeshi refugees from Amman to Dacca. Alternatively the An-124 can carry no less than 268 paratroops in two masses. The aircraft also has an enormous medevac capability, being able to carry 288 stretchers and 28 attendants. Above the cargo hold, behind the wing carry-through is a passenger cabin for 88 people.

In front of the passenger deck is a comprehensive rest/living area for the crew, which is useful on long flights or when operating in remote areas, as the An-124 was designed to do. The crew are provided with toilets, washing facilities, a galley and equipment compartment. There are also two cabins for up to six relief crew, with a table and facing bench seats convertible into bunks.

Forward of the crew rest area is the large flight deck, accommodating six crew in pairs, with place for a loadmaster in a lobby area. The crew consists of pilot and co-pilot, two flight engineers, a navigator and communications specialist. On commercial flights even more crew are carried: 10 to 12 cargo handlers and servicing staff.

Instrumentation for the flight crew is mostly conventional/analogue and does not include any electronic displays. On the pilot's centre console there is a moving map display as well as a weather radar screen. The displays are fed by two radars in the An-124's large nose: a forward-looking weather radar and a downward-looking ground mapping and navigation radar. Other navigation equipment includes quadruple Inertial Navigation Systems, Loran and Omega. In addition, there is a satellite navigation receiver above the fuselage.

Lifting the An-124's considerable bulk (around 882 000 pounds [400 000 kg] fully loaded) are four immensely powerful ZMKB Progress/Ivchenko D-18T turbofans each delivering 51 590 pounds (23 400 kg) of thrust. In line with the Ruslan's requirements to operate from basic airfields, the engines have thrust reversers which make the landing run surprisingly short for such a heavy aircraft: just 2 955 feet (900 m) at maximum landing weight.

The early Series 0 and 1 D-18T engines were prone to compressor surge and consequent engine shutdown; these are believed to still be in Russian Air Force service. Civilian aircraft transitioned to the Series 3 engines in the 2000s, which require less maintenance (the Series 0 and 1 engines need an overhaul every 500 and 1 000 hours respectively).

The engines are provided with 76 714 Imp gallons (348 740 litres) of fuel in ten integral wing tanks. This provides a range of 2 795 miles (4 500 km) when fully loaded. However, range varies considerably according to the load carried. For example, when carrying an 88 184 pound (40 000 kg) payload the range is a much greater 7 456 miles (12 000 km).

For engine starting there is an Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) in the rear of each landing gear fairing. The APUs can also be used (both in the air and on the ground) to open the rear loading doors for airdropping freight, or for normal ground loading/unloading. They also supply the Ruslan's electrical, hydraulic and air conditioning systems.

The An-124 has supercritical wings to avoid buffeting at high speeds, with a sweepback of about 35 degrees on the inboard leading edge and 32 degrees outboard. The wing is relatively thick (12%) to give high aerodynamic efficiency and consequently a long flight range. As a typical Russian aircraft expected to operate in cold climates, the An-124 has critical areas de-iced. Its wing leading edges are heated by engine bleed air whilst the fin and tailplane leading edges are electrically de-iced.

The Ruslan is a big, and therefore tricky, aircraft to fly, but this task has been made easier by a quadruple redundant fly-by-wire flight control system, with a fifth mechanical channel for emergency use. The hydraulically actuated flying controls consist of two-section ailerons, three-section single-slotted Fowler flaps and six-section full-span leading edge flaps on each wing. There are 12 spoilers on each wing forward of the trailing edge flaps, including four airbrakes. All control runs are channelled along the fuselage roof.

The Ruslan has many positive and expedient aspects to it, such as an unrivalled payload capacity, ability to operate in remote areas with cold climates, easy loading/unloading ability and good rough-field performance. However, the An-124 had one huge problem: a surprisingly short airframe service life of just 7 500 hours and an engine life of just 1 250 hours. Apparently these ratings were so low because of the belief that such specialised aircraft would seldom be used. This led to a conflict between Antonov and commercial users of the An-124, especially the Russian heavy-lift airline Volga-Dnepr. And so in July 2000 Volga-Dnepr and Antonov signed a contract to extend the An-124's service life to 12 000 hours. Aircraft delivered from 2000 onwards (An-124-100s) have much more realistic 24 000 hour airframe and engine lives.

A Volga-Dnepr An-124 takes off from Moffett Federal Airfield, California, USA, on April 22 2007. The contracted An-124 transported cargo of the 129th Rescue Wing, California Air National Guard, to Afghanistan. (US Air Force photo by Master Sergeant Daniel Kacir)


Between the onset of production in the mid-1980s and 1995 a total of 55 An-124s were built, or almost completely built, but only 52 had flown by mid-2000. Production stopped in 1995 but, because of the An-124's success with commercial operators, production of the last five unfinished airframes left over from Soviet times was resumed in mid-2000. The last three were completed in 2004.

The Russian Air Forces initially intended to acquire 156 Ruslans, built in Ukraine and Russia, but in the end only procured about 27 An-124s, although one was lost in a 1997 crash. In its early years, the An-124 was unreliable and suffered from teething problems - eleven were put in storage and one was sold (to Polet in 2003). The military An-124s that were in service were grounded in December 2005 at an air force base near Bryansk. It seems that they were underutilised and very expensive to maintain, and so in August 2007 the Russian Minister of Defence apparently offered to sell the entire military fleet, starting with an initial batch of four aircraft. However, in 2008 a contract was signed with Russia's Aviastar-SP for the modernization of ten aircraft by 2015 – by 2021, at least 14 aircraft had been modernised to An-124-100 (VTA) and An-124-100 standards. During life-extension engineering, carried out alongside upgrade works, the Ruslan's service life has been increased to 50 000 flight hours, 10 000 flight cycles and 45 years, whichever it reaches first.

Presently, most Russian Air Force Ruslans are operated by the 566th VTAP at Seshcha in the west of Russia, with only a few aircraft taken by the 235th VTAP at Ulyanovsk-East (the first of these was delivered in early 2018). It has been used in Syria (five An-124s were used to transport military equipment to Syria in 2015).

Nearly two dozen An-124s are in commercial service, with the main civilian operators being Antonov Airlines And Volga-Dnepr. Antonov Airlines operates seven aircraft and Volga-Dnepr operates 12 An-124s. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and subsequent sanctions against Russia, Volga-Dnepr ended up with one An-124 being stuck in Canada and three more in Germany. The Russian company has been paying parking fees, most likely hoping it will get its aircraft back when the conflict is over.

Maximus Air Cargo based in Abu Dhabi operates a single An-124-100, which was purchased and delivered in 2004. This aircraft was originally destined for Atlant Soyuz Airlines but Maximus Air Cargo offered more than the contractual price and obtained the An-124.

The company, together with the Ukrainian Justice Ministry and the Foreign Ministry, is doing everything possible to significantly increase Ukraine's An-124 fleet by confiscating one Russian Ruslan in Canada and three more in Germany.

Libyan Air Cargo, based at Tripoli International Airport in Libya, operated two An-124-100s that were bought and delivered in 2001/2002, but one was seized by Ukraine in 2017 over unpaid debt and one was destroyed by shelling at Mitiga International Airport in June 2019.

The first international commercial user of the An-124 was the British AirFoyle based at London Stansted Airport, which operated in partnership with Antonov Airlines from July 1989, but the joint venture was dissolved in 2006. The second international operator was Heavylift Cargo Airlines from the UK, which began operating in collaboration with Volga-Dnepr in the early 1990s. However, this alliance later ceased in 2000. Heavylift then teamed up with AirFoyle in February 2001 to become Air Foyle Heavylift and operated seven aircraft.

At the end of June 2006 Antonov did not renew its contract with Air Foyle Heavylift and instead teamed up with Volga-Dnepr to form a joint venture called Ruslan International, marketing the 17 aircraft in both fleets. Antonov announced the heavy lift joint venture would cease operations in December 2016.

Other former operators have included Aeroflot Soviet Airlines, Antonov AirTrack, Titan Air Cargo, TransCharter Titan Cargo, Transaero Airlines, Rossiya Airlines, Polet Airlines, and Ayaks Cargo. They either retired their An-124s or ceased operations.

In what can be regarded as a compliment to the capable An-124, NATO has been using the An-124 since 2006 under the Strategic Airlift Interim Solution (SALIS). Two An-124-100s are immediately available, with three more available on request. The lease contract was signed in February 2006 and came into effect in late March that year. Over the years it has been extended multiple times, most recently in November 2021 when the NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPSA) and Antonov signed on for the SALIS programme for another five years.

In 2022, a total of 2 103 flight hours were provided through the SALIS contract. SALIS participating countries (Belgium, Czechia, France, Germany, Hungary, Norway, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia) have used Antonov aircraft in the past to transport equipment to and from Afghanistan, deliver aid to the victims of the October 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, and airlift African Union peacekeepers in and out of Darfur.

In addition to NATO, the United States Air Mobility Command has used the Ruslan to transport outsize cargo, even though they have in service the C-5 Galaxy, the second largest serially-produced cargo aircraft in the world! Since 2003 Air Mobility Command chartered An-124 aircraft from Volga-Dnepr, with these aircraft flying into Iraq. One significant flight into Iraq occurred on February 17 2006 when an An-124 delivered four Polish-built Mil Mi-17 helicopters for the Iraqi Air Force.

Of the more than 50 An-124s that have been built, four have been involved in major crashes, resulting in 50 deaths. All crashes occurred before 2000 when former-Soviet bloc aviation was in a bad state and since 2000 An-124s have logged thousands of flight hours without serious incident (apart from a November 2020 engine failure on a Volga-Dnepr Airlines aircraft that ended in a runway excursion and landing gear collapse).

The first Ruslan crash occurred on October 13 1992 when an Antonov Design Bureau aircraft came down near Kiev, Ukraine, during flight testing. There were eight fatalities. On November 15 1993 an Aviastar Airlines Ruslan crashed into a mountain at Kerman in Iran while in a holding pattern. 17 people died in the tragedy. Two people died when an An-124 owned by Aeroflot (but operated by Ayaks) crashed at Turin, Italy, during a go-around on October 8 1996. The fourth and final Ruslan crash took place on December 5 1997 when a Russian Air Force aircraft crashed after takeoff in Irkutsk, Russia, resulting in 23 fatalities.

A Volga-Dnepr An-124 is parked April 20 2007 at Moffett Federal Airfield, California. The contracted An-124 transported 129th Rescue Wing cargo to Afghanistan because the high operations tempos of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have kept C-17 Globemaster III and C-5 Galaxy aircraft fully engaged. (US Air Force photo by Senior Master Sergeant Christopher Hartman)



The designation An-124 is applied to the basic military transport. A number of civil variants of the aircraft have been developed: the An-124-100 was the first commercial version to appear and was granted a civil type certificate in December 1992. It remains very similar to the standard military An-124, except that maximum takeoff weight is restricted to 864 200 pounds (392 000 kg) and maximum payload is reduced to 'only' 264 550 pounds (120 000 kg).

A Volga-Dnepr An-124-100 at night. (Volga-Dnepr)
A number of minor An-124 variants have been developed or proposed. For example the An-124-102 with EFIS flight deck and just three crewmembers (two pilots and a flight engineer). Another relatively minor variant was the proposed An-124FFR water-bomber, which would be able to drop an astounding 441 000 pounds (200 tonnes) of fire retardants. It would have a dual role and could be converted to carry freight. Other variants that never saw the light of day include the An-124-200 with General Electric CF6-80C2 engines, An-124-210 with Rolls-Royce RB211-524H-T engines and Honeywell avionics, and the An-124-300 – a new production version proposed by Russia's United Aircraft Corporation.

A greatly improved civil variant of the Ruslan was developed: the An-124-100M (also known as the An-124-100M-150). Main performance changes include payload being increased to the 330 700 pounds (150 000 kg) of military variants, takeoff weight increased from 864 200 pounds (392 000 kg) to 886 260 pounds (402 000 kg) and flight range extended from 2 890 miles (4 650 km) to 3 230 miles (5 200 km) with a 264 500 pound (120 000 kg) payload. To handle the increased weights a new digital antiskid braking system was installed, together with strengthened tyres. The front loading ramp was strengthened to handle heavier payloads.

Other modifications include a switch to Western avionics, such as Litton INS, Rockwell Collins GPS and weather radar and Honeywell ground proximity warning system. Eliminating the radio operator and navigator reduces the number of crew to four. In addition, the D-18T engines were improved with a 24 000 hour life with a 6 000 hour time between overhauls. In addition to the engines, the life of the An-124-100M's airframe was increased to 60 000 hours.

The prototype of the An-124-100M was completed in late 1995, but the aircraft was only flown in June 2000. Test flights were conducted between 2005 and 2006 with the new equipment being checked during thousands of hours in the air. Finally, after further testing, the An-124-100M received its Type Certificate on June 19 2007. However, only the one aircraft was converted.

An An-124 taking off in cold weather. (Antonov)

In September 2004, the governments of Russia and Ukraine announced that the An-124 would be put back in series production. In August 2007 a significant milestone was reached when Antonov, Volga-Dnepr and Motor Sich signed an agreement on the resumption of An-124 production, at the MAKS-2007 International Airshow, with An-124-100Ms to be constructed at the Aviastar-SP plant in Russia and Aviant State Aircraft Plant in Ukraine. However, these grand plans were abandoned in 2018 due to insurmountable technical, financial and political issues. These mainly related to the impossibility of Ukraine's participation, a key partner in the design and production process of the project, after the Crimea annexation of 2014 and its catastrophic political consequences.

As the An-124's original design authority is Antonov in Ukraine, An-124 design support has been handed over to the Moscow-based Ilyushin company, which acts as the new design authority for military-operated Ruslans. Russia also attempted to transfer engine overhaul from Motor Sich in Ukraine to UZGA, but the process proved to be challenging. Nevertheless, Russia hopes to start D-18T production in 2027. It is also working on a proposed Ruslan replacement, the An-124-102 Slon, to be built by Aviastar-SP, but with sanctions biting, it is unlikely much progress will be seen before 2030.

In January 2020 Ilyushin was awarded a Russian Ministry of Defence contract for the life extension, upgrade and airworthiness restoration of two Russian Air Force An-124s, with work to be undertaken at Aviastar-SP. This will increase the An-124-100 and -100(VTA) fleet to 16 examples. Ilyushin was also awarded a contract for an upgrade of the entire Russian Air Force fleet to address obsolescence issues and replace all Ukrainian-made systems onboard, with go-ahead for the upgrade expected around 2023 but the status of this is unclear. Russia hopes to keep the An-124 in service until the mid-2040s.

In 1998 the Russian government gave approval for the modification of a Ruslan for a very unusual mission: launching satellites. Under the guise of the An-124-100VS (also called the An-124AL) the aircraft was intended to carry the Vozdushny Start booster rocket, able to place a 3 593 lb (1 630 kg) satellite into 124 mile (200 km) high orbit. The booster would be extracted from the back of the Ruslan's fuselage by parachute. This was then substituted for a two-stage Polyot rocket, giving payload weights of between 1 300 pounds (600 kg) and 8 800 pounds (4 000 kg) and orbits from near-earth to geostationary.

Launching a satellite from an aircraft has a number of benefits. It is much cheaper and more efficient than vertical ground launching and it allows a heavier payload to be carried, since less rocket propellant is required. Launching does not depend on weather conditions because the launch aircraft can fly above the weather and the launch site can be anywhere - it is easy to fly to remote areas where launching can take place. And instead of a cosmodrome all that's needed is a runway.

In May 1999 by Polet Cargo Airlines and the Khimavtomatiki Design Bureau established the Air Launch Aerospace Corporation joint venture, with a first launch scheduled for 2010, but their plans never got off the ground.

A Volga-Dnepr An-124 arrives at the Kennedy Space Centre Shuttle Landing Facility on January 15 2007 to deliver hardware for the Japanese Experiment Module (JEM) destined for the International Space Station in 2008. (NASA/Dimitrios Gerondidakis)

Despite the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its ramifications for Antonov, the An-124 continues to appeal to the outsize cargo market, given its exceptional payload capacity. As it has no rivals at present, it is guaranteed to be a star performer on the heavy lift market for decades to come.

An An-124 arrives at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on May 20 2005 to deliver the CALIPSO spacecraft, which will be used to investigate weather and climate systems. (NASA-KSC) An An-124 arrives at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on May 20 2005 to deliver the CALIPSO spacecraft, which will be used to investigate weather and climate systems. (NASA-KSC)

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