Farewell to the Antonov An-225 Mriya, the world’s largest aircraft
The Antonov An-225 Mriya – the heaviest, arguably the largest and certainly one of the most iconic aircraft in the world – became another casualty of the war in Ukraine.
Of course, the loss of an aircraft is nothing in comparison with the monumental loss of life brought by the conflict. But there are many reasons to consider this an important loss as well.
For one, it was an iconic symbol for Ukraine: a source of national pride and one of the country’s greatest ambassadors abroad. It served in many humanitarian missions, providing aid and saving lives all over the world.
Its demise serves as a reminder that humanity’s greatest intellectual and cultural achievements are no less vulnerable to war than the lives of people who created them.
With that in mind, let’s bid farewell to the Mriya: the aircraft that will forever remain in the heart of all aviation geeks.
The birth of the dream
The history of the An-225 began in 1976, when the Buran – the Soviet Union’s response to the Space Shuttle program in the United States – took shape.
Both the Buran orbiter and the Energiya, a rocket that helped it get to space, were massive. But they somehow needed to be transported over two thousands of kilometers between the manufacturing facilities in the Western Soviet Union and the Baikonur spaceport in the current-day territory near Kazakhstan. There is no sea route between the two points, and building a new giant railway was not exactly viable.
Buran-Energiya (right) in comparison with the Space Shuttle (middle) and the Soyuz rocket (left). (Image: NASA / Wikipedia)
Buran’s team approached Antonov construction bureau, which just made a name for itself with the An-22 heavy airlifter, the largest turboprop aircraft that ever existed. However, even the massive An-22 was not big enough to haul the spaceplane.
The bureau had another idea though. It was exactly at that time that another of Antonov’s giants, the An-124, was finishing development, slated to rival the American Lockheed C-5 Galaxy and become the largest transport aircraft in the world.
However, the An-124 still had several more years of work before it could be finished. It was also clear that the new aircraft needed substantial modifications to haul the spaceplane. In the meantime, three Myasischev M-3 strategic bombers from the late 1950s were modified to carry Burans; as the bombers began their work in 1985, Antonov initiated the creation of its new magnum opus.
Artist’s impression of the Buran spaceplane atop the VM-T Atlant, a modified M-3 bomber (Image: Soviet Military Power / Wikipedia)
Although it was more of a deep rework of an existing jet, the work was not easy. The An-255 was not a straightforward enlargement of the An-124. A whole slew of improvements was added. The new jet couldn’t be just a big airlifter – it had to work as a real jack of all trades, capable of doing almost anything the Soviet space program might need.
Carrying the Buran was the foremost of those tasks. Yet, there was no chance – and no need – to put the spaceplane inside the fuselage. So, a whole system for mounting the spaceplane was installed on the back of the aircraft. This required reworking the tail too, as Buran’s large profile greatly disturbed the flow of air, and the An-124’s vertical stabilizer was not enough to deal with that. It was split into two, resulting in the iconic low-profile tail.
Inside, the new aircraft had to carry entire sections of the Energiya rocket – along with satellites, boosters or whatever other equipment the space program needed. Hence, the An-124’s fuselage was stretched, and the rear cargo door was removed to provide even more internal space.
But even that was not enough. Ever since the 1960s, Energiya bureau, which designed the Buran, had another spaceplane in mind. A smaller and more adaptable one, it would not need a sprawling spaceport and could be air-launched from a high-flying airplane. The spaceplane was called MAKS, and the upcoming An-225 was built with the idea of being the launch vehicle for the new spaceplane.
Taking off, and then taking off again
As the aircraft was taking shape, its chief designer – Ukrainian-born Petr Balabuev – offered up a nickname: Mriya, “dream” in Ukrainian. A fitting name for a project of the scale that had never been tried before.
True, there has been one aircraft with a larger wingspan – the Hughes H-4 Hercules, designed in the 1940s. But despite its impressive size, the H-4 conducted only one flight and was no match for the upcoming An-225 in every other category besides the wingspan.
Designed to haul up to 250 tons – over 550,000 pounds – Mriya became the heaviest ever aircraft to take off, after it conducted its maiden flight on December 21, 1988.
Enlarged wings and additional engines allowed Mriya to be almost twice as capable as the An-124 it was based on, although the aircraft was not intended to use its capabilities for regular cargo transportation.
A few test flights later, on March 22, 1989, the An-225 took off with the heaviest cargo that was ever carried by an aircraft at that point – 156.3 tons. Over the course of the next few decades, carrying even heavier loads would become routine for Mriya.
Rollout of the An-225 at Hostomel airport, Kyiv. (Image: Antonov / Airwar.ru)
Two months later it conducted the first flight with the Buran orbiter on its back, flying it from Baikonur to the Paris Air Show, with several stops on the way. Each stop attracted a crowd of people, starting what later became a real cult following. Who could resist the urge to see such a magnificent aircraft landing at a nearby airport, and who could be left unimpressed by it?
The rise of Mriya’s fame came at both the right and the wrong time. The Soviet Union was on the verge of breaking up and the Iron Curtain would soon no longer keep the world split in two. Antonov could easily show off its massive aircraft in the West, and so it did – with Mriya visiting every major airshow in Europe, US and Canada in the coming years.
But at the same time, the Soviet space program was falling apart. After conducting its first spaceflight in 1988, Buran never took off again, and its unfinished prototypes were left to decay in crumbling hangars. Mriya never had another chance to carry its main passenger.
In the early 1990s, its use as a heavy freighter began. Some of the test flights involved hauling cargo, and it turned out, there was a good use for such a plane even without a space program. By the middle of the decade, as the economies of post-Soviet states disintegrated, some attempts were made to sell the jet to the West to be used for aerial launches of upcoming European spaceplanes. Those never materialized.
However, offers to lease the An-225 to ship heavy cargo between far-flung destinations were flowing in, and Antonov quickly understood this new business model might become the salvation of the Mriya.
Some reports state that by 1995 the aircraft was not in a flyable condition, with some of its parts being salvaged to sustain An-124s. In addition, the aircraft was not yet certified, and test flights had to be done before any real commercial use could begin.
In 2000, Antonov managed to gather enough money to start working on the An-225 again. Under the leadership of chief designer Balabuev, a new floor capable of supporting more weight was installed and the aircraft also received some western-made avionics components. It could finally be certified, and started being displayed at airshows again.
Cargo hold of the An-225 after modernization. (Image: Antonov / Airwar.ru)
In a league of its own
In September 2001, Antonov performed a publicity stunt involving Mriya taking off with three tanks – weighing a total 254 tonnes – in its cargo hold. The aircraft not only broke the world record (yet again), but finally showed it could perform to the capabilities that had been imagined from the beginning.
And so began Mriya’s career as the world’s heaviest freighter. Since the early 2000s, it has performed hundreds of flights all over the world, carrying anything from trains to wind turbines to components of nuclear power plants to incomprehensible amounts of humanitarian aid.
The aircraft was costly to operate, but it also offered capabilities no other cargo airline could provide. Soon, it was marketed as the flagship of Antonov Airlines – the commercial freight arm of the Antonov Company, which was formed from the Antonov construction bureau.
Wherever the An-225 flew, it attracted crowds of people. (Image: Sergey Kohl / Shutterstock.com)
The chart below shows the capabilities of the An-225 in comparison with other super-sized cargo aircraft. Even three decades after the aircraft was completed, it was unrivaled when it came to carrying loads over distances of up to 10,000 kilometers, and there was nothing else that could lift over 160 tonnes.
Can it fly again?
There is a common misconception that the plan was to build two An-225s , but only one was finished. That is not true: while two airframes were planned, one of them was intended for ground testing. At some point, Antonov decided to conduct those tests on the airframe that later became the Mriya that graced the skies for decades.
Attempts to turn the second airframe into a flyable aircraft started in the early 1990s. As the first Mriya was being modernized, Antonov was also investing money into bringing the second one closer to reality.
While a lot of work was done, it was not enough. Countless promises of funding from foreign investors – including from Russia, the UK, China, Turkey and elsewhere – also did not materialize.
So, the second Mriya remained in a state of near-completion. It was stored in the same hangar at Hostomel where, in 1988, Mriya was first shown to the public. It was also the same hangar in front of which the iconic aircraft was parked on the day of the invasion.
As long as that airframe remains, there is indeed a chance for another dream.
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