On February 27, 2022, it was officially confirmed that Ukraine and the world had lost a special plane – the Russian invaders destroyed the world’s largest commercial aircraft Antonov An-225 Mriya. An-225 has carried hugely impressive cargo for decades and was loved dearly by millions of aviation enthusiasts around the world. It definitely had a guaranteed place in any aviation museum as it was a completely unique aircraft, unmatched in its capability, design and history. Perhaps after the dust of war has settled what is left of the An-225 will still tell its extraordinary story. Now, however, it’s not just a story about aviation and engineering, but about the incredible strength of Ukraine and its people as well.
Antonov is a Ukrainian aircraft manufacturer and aviation services company. The geographical starting point of its history is actually not in Ukraine, because back in 1946 the OKB-153 (Опытно-конструкторское бюро – Experimental Design Bureau) factory was established in Novosibirsk, Soviet Russia. The state-owned company was then headed by engineer Oleg Antonov, after whom it was later named.
The OKB-153 was relocated to Kiev in 1952 and after the collapse of the Soviet Union Antonov became a state-owned Ukrainian company. Antonov made several impressive planes. For example, the agricultural An-2 became the world’s most popular biplane. However, nothing compares to the Antonov An-225 Mriya, which is one of the greatest planes in the history of aviation. Or at least it was.
The Antonov An-225 Mriya was not created from scratch. In fact, the An-225 is closely related to another Antonov’s cargo plane An-124 Ruslan. At the end of 1960’s the Soviet Union was in dire need of large cargo aircraft capable of performing tactical tasks. And so in 1971 they started the An-124 project, which became an opportunity to cultivate the soviet aviation industry.
More than a hundred different industrial facilities contributed to the production of the An-124 Ruslan, which took off for its maiden flight in 1982. The An-124 Ruslan, which is still in use today, has become the solution to the problem – the Soviet Union finally had a large and highly capable cargo plane. The An-124 remained in production from 1982 to 2004 and in total 55 planes of the type were produced.
The Antonov An-124 Ruslan is a 69 meters long four-engine airplane with a wingspan of 73.3 meters. The An-124-300 of the Russian Air Force can carry as much as 150 tonnes of cargo. The An-124 can be loaded through huge nose and tail doors – its open fuselage resembles a tunnel that trucks can pass through.
While the An-124 Ruslan is an aircraft of impressive dimensions and capabilities, even it was too small for one function – it couldn’t carry the soviet spacecraft Buran.
The Buran reusable spacecraft system project began in 1976. The Buran was unashamedly copied from the American Shuttle project. This type of spacecraft can only be transported on the roof of an airplane because it simply does not fit in any cargo compartment. Buran has a wingspan of 23.4 meters and a height of 16 meters. Therefore it was decided to build a large cargo plane which could carry the Buran spacecraft or Energia rocket-carrier components on its roof. This was the very premise of the An-225 concept. And the creation of the largest cargo airplane ever became the job of the senior An-124 engineer Viktor Tolmachev.
Was the An-225 just a larger version of the An-124?
The Antonov An-225 Mriya was based on the An-124 and inevitably had a lot of identical features. Generally speaking, if you extended the fuselage and wings of the An-124 you would get something very similar to the An-225. This was done by adding two new fuselage sections – one in front of the wings and one behind them. This made the An-225 Mriya 15 meters longer than the An-124. Additional sections were added at the wings as well, making the An-225 more than 15 meters wider. Two additional engines were attached to the grown wings – the An-225 had a total of six D-18T power plants.
Antonov An-225 Mriya – the largest commercial aircraft in the world:
Length – 84 m;
Wingspan – 88.4 m;
Height – 18.1 m;
Empty weight – 285 t;
Maximum takeoff weight – 640 t;
Cargo capacity – 254.8 t, 1300 cub. m.;
Maximum speed – 850 km / h;
Range – 15400 km;
Service ceiling – 11 km.
However, Mriya had many features that it didn’t share with the An-124. Because the An-225 was built for outboard cargo, this aircraft had a completely different tail. The Buran spacecraft or some rocket section would have hidden the tail of the An-225 in an aerodynamic shadow, which is why the central vertical tail stabilizer was substituted by two side ones. The larger and heavier tail of the An-225 forced engineers to get rid of the rear cargo compartment door. Contrary to what is sometimes claimed, the two large bumps on Mriya’s shoulders were not intended to secure the Buran spacecraft. These bumps would have secured large round objects (such as rocket parts).
The larger and heavier An-225 required a stronger chassis. Mriya had 32 wheels while the An-124 was happy with 24. This chassis was more sophisticated than it looks and the giant An-225 could turn around on a 60-meter-wide runway. Like the An-124, Mriya was able to squat on its front wheels making it easier for forklifts and trucks to access its enormous cargo compartment.
By the way, the name Mriya means Dream in Ukrainian. And what a big dream it was!
Someone will surely comment that there were larger planes. For example, the Hughes H-4 Hercules The Spruce Goose, which took off for its single flight in 1947, had a wingspan of 97.82 m. However, it wasn’t a commercial plane and it has flown only once. The wingspan of the Scaled Composites Stratolaunch is even more impressive – 117 meters. However, this prototype of the double fuselage aircraft has a very specific purpose (spacecraft launch) and it flew only a few times after its 2019 maiden flight. The Scaled Composites Stratolaunch is more of a prototype than a commercial plane. The An-225 Mriya was heavier, longer and more useful than these other large planes as well.
By the way, an interesting fact – a double fuselage version of the An-225 was considered. This giant plane, called Antonov AKS, was going to feature a wingspan of 153 meters. It would have served as an airborne rocket launcher, but this plan never left the drawer.
The giant dream An-225 Mriya
The Antonov An-225 Mriya took off for its maiden flight on December 21, 1988. The very next year it was already participating at the Paris Air Show. At the 1989 Farnborne Aviation Festival, Mriya did some demonstration flights for the crowd in awe. The following year the An-225 returned to Paris with a Buran spacecraft on its roof. At that time the work on a second An-225 was already under way, but that aircraft was never completed.
The An-225 Mriya’s tests with the Buran spacecraft on its roof were successful, but this ability soon became redundant. After the rightful death of the Soviet Union, the Energia-Buran system was abandoned and forgotten. The Antonov company, together with the An-225 and other aircraft, became the property of the Ukrainian government. Mriya remained dormant for a while, but was later woken up, repaired and upgraded for carrying record-size cargo. The An-225 was certified in 2001 and completed its first commercial flight in 2002 – it took 375 pallets of food for the US soldiers from Germany to Oman. The total weight of that cargo was 187.5 tonnes.
The An-225 Mriya has been carrying huge objects for a couple of decades. It was often called to take objects that couldn’t fit any other cargo plane. For example, the An-225 has flown many giant industrial generators and turbines. In 2004, Mriya transported a large segment of a chimney duct from Denmark to Kazakhstan. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the An-225 carried medical cargo from China to other parts of the world. This plane was often used to transport objects that were not necessarily heavy but very large – the volume of its cargo compartment was 1,300 cubic meters! In 2010, the An-225 was loaded with the longest single object in the history of any aircraft – it swallowed two 42.1 m long wind turbine blades.
There were other records as well. During testing in 2001, the An-225 took four main battle tanks, weighing a total of 253.82 tonnes, for a short flight. In 2009, Mriya transported an 189-tonne generator to Armenia – this is still the heaviest single item to be flown by any plane.
But these records are now a part of the history of a dead plane. On February 24, 2022, after a long and open preparation Russia invaded Ukraine. At the beginning of the invasion military and industrial sites across Ukraine were targeted, including the Antonov plant and airport. On February 27, the destruction of the An-225 Mriya was confirmed. There was another unfinished An-225 at the Antonov plant, but it is likely that it was also destroyed or at least heavily damaged. The chances of the An-225 flying again are now very small.
Although the Antonov An-225 Mriya was a special aircraft and was planned to continue working at least until the early 1930s, it was an old design. The demand for a cargo aircraft of this size wasn’t very big, which is why Antonov never bothered to complete the second An-225. It is likely that in a world where the Boeing Dreamlifter and the Airbus Beluga are flying, Mriya will be just a memory.
You can’t mourn the loss of an object when people are being killed. The destruction of the Antonov An-225 Mriya is nothing compared to the suffering of Ukrainian people. But Ukraine will prevail. You can destroy every airplane, every airport and every building, but the wings of the Ukrainian Dream are immune to the fire of the evil one.