Spaceport, airliner, Putin’s plane: past ideas for second An-225 Mriya
The An-225 Mriya is unique in many aspects: it is the heaviest and arguably the largest operating aircraft in the world, it holds hundreds of records thanks to its immense cargo capacity, and exists only in the form of a single aircraft.
It was never meant to be mass-produced, itself being a greatly enlarged version of the Antonov An-124 Ruslan. Intended as a spacecraft carrier for the Soviet space program, Mriya was resurrected as a freighter for extra-large cargo in late 1990s, and currently is the flagship of Antonov Airlines.
Since its refurbishment, the plane has been transporting massive wind turbines, train carriages, battle tanks, and other oversized objects across the globe. In the process, it gathered a no-small cult following among aviation enthusiasts, who flock in their thousands to whichever airport’s runway the massive Mriya intends to grace with its presence.
There is also a fact which is not so well known to the wide public, but no doubt occupies an important place in the heart of each of those enthusiasts: the second An-225.
A sister plane to Mriya has been in the works since the completion of the first one. According to the memoir by Anatoly Vovnyanko, one of the engineers who worked on the plane, it was never supposed to be flyable, intended for static experiments only. Its massive titanium fuselage was completed, but barely anything else was done, as the assembly completely stopped in the early 90s.
Some additional work was done on it in the early 2000s, and as Antonov claims in every sales pitch, the plane is 70% complete. Still, those additional 30% are crucial: engines, avionics, hydraulics, cabin, landing gear – some of those components were interchangeable with An-124, but others weren’t. If the plane is to be finished, a lot of work has to be done and a lot of money has to be invested.
The figure the company pitches to various investors shifts every year, slaved to inflating Ukrainian hryvnia, cargo market, and the overall state of the economy. Anything ranging from $100 million to $460 million is often thrown around, each time clarifying that the cost only includes the use of technologies already existing on the old An-225, dating back to the 80s. New avionics, engines, or even communications equipment would increase the price further.
Nevertheless, there were a lot of those pitches, some even predating the renewal of the first Mriya.
As mentioned, the second A-225 was originally not intended to fly. But as its fuselage was slowly being completed in the now-crumbling Soviet Union, many understood the worth of the asset they were building.
Transporting the Soviet space shuttle Buran was not the only intended purpose of An-225. Along with Buran, a smaller space plane was developed, intended for an aerial launch from the back of the massive aircraft – similarly to Scaled Composites Stratolaunch or Virgin Cosmic Girl. The program was called MAKS, and it, quite predictably, was cancelled in 1991.
But in its place a lot of other programs emerged, aiming to exploit Mriya’s capability to detach externally-carried cargo in flight. Firms from Russia, Germany and the UK briefly considered using An-225, and Antonov even managed to acquire some funding for finishing the second Mriya with purely space-oriented ambitions. In 1993, the unfinished wings of the giant were transferred from Tashkent to Kiev, but the work did not progress any further.
Since then, the fuselage of the plane, its detached wings, as well as some smaller components remain in one of Antonov’s hangars. From time to time, when the space inside is needed for some urgent repairs or other tasks, workers take the enormous hulk “for a walk”, briefly transporting it to some other place in the premises.
Challenging Airbus A380 or transporting Vladimir Putin
As the first Mriya was being refurbished in 2000, there were reports that the works on the second one were to be resumed as well. At least something was done, although most likely it was just some conservation procedures, to prevent the fuselage from decaying.
But the first concrete information about the intentions of Antonov came out only a decade later. In 2010, a press release came out claiming that the company was going to challenge the Airbus A380, world’s largest airliner. A passenger version of An-225 would supposedly be manufactured soon, with a capacity between 605 and 715 seats.
Since the first Mriya was already up and flying at the time, and Antonov’s Soviet-era manufacturing and supply network was long gone, the only real possibility to implement this ambitious idea was to resurrect the second aircraft.
Just one of many unrealized ideas to enter the superjumbo market at the time, it was quickly forgotten and never mentioned by Antonov again.
Nevertheless, it may have reminded the world about the unfinished plane. In 2011, the possibility to sell it to Russia was brought up during a visit of Russian defense minister Anatoly Serdiukov, who, reportedly, was interested in acquiring it for either military or commercial needs.
At the same time, Antonov’s press releases started mentioning Mriya’s sister more and more, sometimes in quite unexpected contexts.
On April 1, 2013, the company announced that the aircraft would be turned into a VIP transporter, and become the new Russian presidential plane. Supposedly, in MAKS 2011 airshow talks about adapting An-124 for this purpose were held, but President Vladimir Putin deemed it too small. An-225 was just the right size though.
The date of the release, as well as the outrageousness of such an idea (there are very few airports that can accommodate the massive Mriya, making its use for such purpose highly impractical) hints at it being an obvious joke. Nevertheless, it makes for an interesting concept.
The Chinese offer
The first serious talks regarding the restoration of the second Mriya started in 2016. In August, a memorandum of understanding was signed between Antonov and AICC, Hong Kong-based subsidiary of Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), with an intent of “marrying Mriya into China”, as the Chinese press put it.
There would be two steps to the Chinese plan: first, the company would finance the resumption of works on the unfinished An-225 within Antonov’s facilities, and acquire rights to produce it under license. Later, the world’s largest aircraft manufacturing facility would be built in Sichuan and Guangxi provinces with the purpose of mass-producing An-225s and smaller Аn-178s.
The peculiarities of the memorandum are unknown and highly debated though. Nobody named the price of the proposed deal, but it was supposed to be in the billions of dollars. The Chinese side boasted of agreement to acquire technical documentation and intellectual rights to the plane in the future, while Antonov denied those claims and explained that Chinese Mriyas can only be manufactured under license.
Even more contested was the reason why China would be interested in such a development. All kinds of versions, from an intention to use the gargantuan plane for purely military purposes, to the whole agreement being a fluke and a cover for some old fashioned corruption, were discussed.
One of the most realistic versions, once again, involved space. There were some quite convincing arguments that China was interested in aerial launch capabilities of An-225, purchasing the plane for its growing space program. On the other hand, the possibility that China was not even interested in actual An-225s, and just wanted to get its hands on technical know-how of building large planes could not be dismissed.
Whatever the intention might have been, it was never realized. AICC dissolved the year after the memorandum was signed, and Antonov never mentioned the deal again. The memorandum of understanding was never followed up by an actual deal, and as far as it is possible to tell, no further talks were held between the Ukrainians and the Chinese.
There are many versions of why the plan failed, one wilder than another. Some claim that the Chinese company backed out because of the difficulties of transporting the second Mriya; others say that it got discarded because of the lack of appropriate airports in China. None of those variants seem realistic enough, and the actual reasons may forever remain unknown.
The Turkish offer
After the talks with China, there was no news about the development of the second An-225 at least until 2019, when Antonov employees started talking about the company looking for funds to finish the plane. It was not official information though – just several interviews and a lot of speculation. But in 2020 the situation changed.
At first, in April 2020, Antonov CEO Oleksander Donets said that finishing the plane is economically unviable: it would never recoup its investments. Seeing how the construction would cost over $400 million, and that the existing plane conducts approximately 20 operations per year for an average cost of $1 million each – with, presumably, a rather thin profit margin – the math is clear.
Nevertheless, Donets admitted that the only way to actually make the plane profitable is to make it perform according to one of its primary purposes – as an aerial launch platform. And so far, with the failure of Scaled Composites Stratolaunch, as well as a drop in the price for conventional rocket transportation, such a development is doubtful.
There were people who wanted to challenge that though. In late 2020, a series of high-level talks between Ukraine and Turkey resulted in some quite unprecedented agreements of industrial cooperation that included a major defense component.
The question of the second An-225 was brought up. Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seemed to be interested in it personally. “Despite the sum of how much that would cost, the Turkish side said they are still determined to discuss it further,” the Ukrainian minister of strategic industries said.
There was no information on the reason for such interest, but the country's intention to procure large cargo aircraft for its defense industry was known for a while. It is possible that the insistence was a mix of a real need, an ambition to show off, and an attempt to show good will.
At the same time, the view within Antonov changed too. In early 2021 the newly appointed CEO Sergyi Bychkov said he is certain that the second plane is going to be finished, reversing the earlier stance of the company. Several days later Yuriy Husyev, CEO of state-owned company UkrOboronProm to which Antonov belongs, said they are not only open to investments, but quite actively looking for them.
The company was participating in Aero India 2021, the largest Indian air show, and the only one of such scale to happen since the start of the pandemic. According to Husyev, Ukrainians were there to look for investors that would be interested in the unfinished An-225.
While it quite definitely means that the Turkish offer fell through, it is also the most outspoken the company has been on the issue since the early 90s. Whatever the outcome of the talks in India, it is clear that from now on the possibility to see the rebirth of the second giant may be closer than ever before
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