For many years, Antonov Airlines was one of Ukraine’s great ambassadors. It is a subsidiary of the Antonov Company whose Soviet-era iteration, the Antonov Construction Bureau, manufactured some of the largest and most impressive aircraft in the world. As such, Antonov Airlines was tasked with operating those aircraft, and was admired by people who knew a thing or two about aviation.
However, the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine took a heavy toll on the company. Not only did it find itself cut off from the rest of the world, the carrier’s base at Hostomel Airport became one of the contested areas, and heavy battle raged there for more than a month. As a result, the world’s only Antonov An-225 Mriya was destroyed, along with many of the company’s other unique possessions.
Dmytro Antonov was the An-225’s captain, and the chief pilot at Antonov Airlines. He flew the entire range of the company’s airplanes including the An-124 Ruslan, which, after Mriya’s demise, holds the title of the world’s heaviest aircraft.
While he says he is not related to the founder of the Antonov Construction Bureau Oleg Antonov, (Antonov is a fairly common name in Ukraine), Dmytro became the face of the company, not least due to his presence on social media. Between making videos for YouTube and flying the world’s most impressive aircraft, he also holds a senior position at Antonov Company.
But he found time to talk to AeroTime. Here, he tells us about the company, its plans, and his own views on aviation.
AeroTime: What is the most pressing issue for Antonov Airlines?
Dmytro Antonov: I think the most important task is to reconstruct the infrastructure at Hostomel Airport. It is very important. We have to restore the office of our airline because it is completely destroyed. Now we have temporary offices at Leipzig Airport, but the main office should be in Kyiv, and we are working on it. Also, we have Antonov An-124s that fly all around the world, we have to think how to arrange their work so that they bring profit to the company. Finally, we have two An-124s that stayed in Ukraine, and we have to repair them as soon as possible, so they could join the other aircraft.
The damage to the office building, as you show in your videos, is severe. How difficult is it going to be to rebuild the company and the base at Hostomel?
We are actively working on it. Some documents were destroyed, although some of them can still be found. We have one advantage though. We belong to the company which manufactures our aircraft. This situation helps us a lot. Also, thankfully, we live in a modern world. A lot of information was digitized and stored away from Hostomel. So, restoration is possible and it is already going on. Everything is going to be restored, and we are going to return to our regular work. Right now we are in a transitional state, and it is quite difficult.
The rest of the infrastructure also took quite a beating. The hangars, for example. Are you working on restoring them?
Hostomel was liberated at the very end of March. April 1 was the first day we could get there. Since then, the de-mining operation has been going on. It was very difficult. There were a lot of ‘goods’ here, even now minesweepers are still working. At the same time, an investigation is being conducted, it is slowing down the process of the reconstruction as well. But at the end of April, despite the investigation, we were allowed to start working. We started clearing the territory, that’s how we found some documents that were scattered around. In the beginning of May a decision was taken to start restoring the concrete hangar and to disassemble the roof above Mriya so that it would not collapse. Later, when the Mriya itself is extracted from there, we will start reconstructing the place.
Also, we have presented an idea to the management to start a large-scale project to reconstruct the airport’s infrastructure, find investors and decide on the technologies that could be implemented. We could build a new cargo terminal, and a small passenger terminal for low-cost airlines with all the adjacent infrastructure for passenger service. On top of that, the base of our company has to be brought back, and the base for testing our aircraft. The project is going to be large.
And what about the fleet, what is its state?
Talking about aircraft that remained at Hostomel, some of them were destroyed. Antonov An-26, of which we had only one, An-74, and of course the An-225, the biggest one. Completely destroyed. As for the damaged aircraft, a decision to restore them has to be taken. Currently we have five airplanes outside of the country. They are conducting flights as usual.
Talking about the An-225 Mriya, there is a lot of buzz about rebuilding it. What is the state of this project?
We all have seen the pictures of the Mriya, it is completely destroyed. Now we have to decide which parts of it we can use for its next life. We have to make a step-by-step plan for building the second Mriya. Also, now, before the war ends, we have to start working with potential hardware vendors. We need to calculate the cost of all the equipment that will be installed on the Mriya-2, the cost of the work we are going to put into it. And also, we have to find a permanent advertising company which could inform the whole world about this situation, and also our plans for the second Mriya. And also, we have to create an investment fund to build the new aircraft. It should be done after we already have a plan what to do and how much it is going to cost, and all the steps of this long journey are going to be clear. The work is not going to be quick, it will take years, but we have to start right now.
The airframe of the second An-225 was almost finished a few decades ago, and some people assume that it is going to be used for restoration. What is the status of that?
Here is what I can tell you about this. Right now, we are evaluating what parts of the old Mriya can be transferred and used on the second one. The second airframe exists, although we can’t talk about its whereabouts right now. What is its state and how much of it has been finished, I really don’t know. I only saw the video footage of it, filmed a while ago. I think the details about it can only be published after the end of the war. What I can say right now, is that a lot of work has to be done to even start this project. There are a lot of possibilities, and everybody knows that we are going to do it no matter what. It is confirmed at the highest political level, so, things are in motion.
Now potential suppliers of the equipment have to be found. Some say that we can’t rebuild her alone, and that is true. We are not going to do it alone. We understand that this project can only be carried out with the help of people from all around the world. A special team has to be created for this project. Before the war ends, we have to have the plan, decide on the equipment, calculate the costs. Right now, the figures in official and unofficial sources vary a lot, almost four times over. And the sums are enormous. So, before we start, we have to deal with that, we have to have a clear understanding of the exact cost. It is going to be very important if we want to attract investors.
For many years, the question of finishing the second airframe has been raised. There were negotiations with companies from China, India, and Europe. Can some of that groundwork be used now?
There were some talks. But ‘to promise does not mean to marry’, as the saying goes. Nowadays it is very popular to remember the negotiations with China. I think mainly because the Chinese once bought an old bowl from us, and said they are going to make a casino out of it. Turns out, the bowl somehow turned into an aircraft carrier [Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning was purchased from Ukraine in 1998 under false pretense of turning its hulk into a floating casino – AeroTime]. The talks about Mriya often appear in this context. The Chinese said they want to finish building the An-225 at their own facilities. But it is impossible to transfer the airframe. It can only be finished here, there is no alternative. So, the talks went nowhere. And the real investor never appeared. As soon as you mention the sums involved, any enthusiasm disappears. Even Bill Gates would probably lose his desire to work on this project. We also have to understand that previously there was a lot of corruption involved. Even now it exists, despite the fact that they are fighting it very heavily. A lot of money that was intended for something simply disappeared between the investor and the product.
So, all these talks probably were empty, and nobody really wanted to take this project on. And we did not want to do it because the original Mriya was around. Here is a well-known fact: Mriya had five times less flight hours than An-124 Ruslans through the same period. She was irreplaceable because she could carry unique payloads, and often did. But the number of those unique payloads was many times smaller than the payloads for An-124s. So, the question of building a second one was never raised seriously.
And now this question once again became important, because there is a need in such an aircraft. In part, because of those unique payloads. In part, because of the wonderful space projects that might happen one day [the An-225 was built with the capability to act as an aerial launch platform for spacecraft – AeroTime]. And of course, because it is a symbol of Ukraine, a symbol of the new Ukraine. I think this is the main reason to take on this job, and we can’t consider it only on economic terms. I think this project can be considered in the same vein as all the others that had a political meaning and were done for prestige. The US space exploration program in the 1960s, is a great example of that. The Moon landings. The cost of Saturn [V rockets] was insane, they flew to the Moon, the goal was achieved. Nobody ever asked if it was profitable. Of course, that was unprofitable. But the country showed that it can do this. We have to show that we, together with the whole world, can do our project as well.
Coming back to the technical side, how similar you think the second Mriya is going to be to the first one? How much is going to be modernized?
I presume, to minimize the investments, to reduce the effort of building and testing it, on the outside she has to be an exact copy of the first Mriya. I think even our engineers do not have any doubts about that. And what concerns modernization of the insides, the components that do not affect her aerodynamics, of course we can do a lot. Many interesting ideas have appeared in recent times. The most modern equipment has to be installed. The latest aircraft – Boeing 787 Dreamliner, Airbus A380, A350 – their technology has to be taken into consideration. We have to start working with Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier, Embraer. We have to look for solutions, we have to show them what a wonderful project this is, that Ukraine, which itself wants to be a renewed nation, wants to rebuild such an amazing plane.
[To be continued in Part 2]