KYIV, UKRAINE — When Russia launched a massive military campaign against Ukraine in the early hours of February 24, the Antonov An-225, the world's largest aircraft, was under regular maintenance at Hostomel Airport near Kyiv. At that time, Antonov's engineers and technicians were in a rush to make the giant freighter ready to fly to a safer place. But they were late. 


Around 8 a.m. local time, 30 Mil Mi-8 and Kamov Ka-52 helicopters from the Russian armed forces descended on Hostomel. Besides An-225, many An-124 heavy lifters were stationed there as well. Ukrainian air defense units couldn't stop them because the helicopters flew at a low altitude and used Belarusian airspace before penetrating Ukrainian airspace. Following the heavy fire of Ka-52 attack helicopters, Mi-8s carrying Russian troops landed on the ground, and the airport was captured by Russian soldiers. The same day, rumors spread on mainstream and social media that the An-225, dubbed Myria ("Dream" in Ukrainian), could be destroyed.

Antonov Airlines, the owner and operator of the iconic heavy lifter, was not able to assess the situation at Hostomel until the airport was recaptured by Ukrainian forces after three days. On February 27, the company confirmed the world's largest and one-of-a-kind aircraft had been eradicated during the Russian air strikes.

History

The Soviet Union built  Antonov An-225 in the 1980s while it was on the brink of collapse. The mission of the aircraft was to transport the Buran space orbiter developed by the USSR. NASA had successfully transported its space shuttle on a Boeing 747, and the US left its biggest rival far behind in the space race by sending Columbia into orbit and getting it home again in 1981. The Soviet Union desperately tried to delay the collapse and gain its reputation back within and outside of the Iron Curtain. Myria was born amidst this turmoil.

The An-225 carrying Buran (1.01) in 1989

Design

The An-124 (Ruslan), which made its first flight in 1982, was taken as a baseline in the development of the An-225 Myria. Designers stretched the An-124's fuselage by 23 ft enabling a 141 ft-long cargo hold. The rear ramp was deleted to save weight, reduce drag, and increase range. The wing was also extended by 30 percent to increase the lift force and add two more Progress D-18T turbofan engines, which were also used to power the An 124 quadjets. The landing gear was also modified to accommodate two additional tandem bogeys, bringing the total number of wheels to 32. A few changes were made to the avionic systems, including extra gauges and throttles associated with the additional engines.

First flight and operations

The An-225 left the final assembly line on November 30, 1988, and made its first flight on December 21. The aircraft was introduced to the world in February 1989 and began smashing world records for the heaviest payload transported by a cargo plane and maximum take-off mass. However, the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, and the Buran space shuttle program was terminated in 1993. From May 1989 to 1991, the An-225 carried out 113 flights, including the transportation of Buran from Baikonur space base in Kazakhstan to Kyiv with a four-hour, 25-minute flight. The giant jet was also occasionally used for the transportation of outsized cargo within and outside of the country. On August 24, 1991, Ukraine declared its independence from the Soviet Union, and the aircraft was based in Kyiv.


Six years of grounding

After being based in Kyiv, Antonov Airlines looked for ways to make the An-225 a revenue generator for the company. They assessed different concepts, including the aircraft's raison d'être as an air-launch-to-orbit platform. The most daring idea was to transform it into a three-deck, 300-seater plane, but the idea was shelved quickly due to the complicated certification process for the colossal heavy lifter as a passenger airliner.

In the same period, Antonov Airlines' An-124s became highly popular among governments and companies from all over the world. Their huge capacity made them very attractive to clients who wanted to transport vast cargo, such as military equipment or humanitarian aid. At first, Antonov managers thought to use the An-225 as a space part source for An-124s. It was stored in a remote corner at Hostomel Airport in 1994.

Return to the skies  

After six years of deep storage, Antonov Airlines saw an opportunity amid the growing cargo market. Ukraine's Dream underwent a full restoration program thanks to a $20 million fund borrowed from global investors. The engines were renewed, and the cargo cabin was strengthened.

Myria made its first post-storage flight on May 7, 2001. On September 11, it put its stamp on the record books again by carrying the heaviest payload ever: five war tanks weighing 249,81 tons on a 540 NM-long route. March 2023 became a turning point for aircraft to demonstrate its value as a heavy cargo lifter. It transported an electric power transformer from Linz, Austria, to Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport in Arizona, USA. Just a week later, it moved a 133-ton air conditioning unit from Houston, Texas, to Dubai. Despite its remarkable performance, it operated fewer than 20 flights per year until it was idled again in 2017.

In early 2018, the aircraft returned to the skies after receiving an upgrade to its navigation systems. Later that year, it ferried 121 tons of humanitarian aid to Guam in the Pacific after Typhoon Mangkhut. The demand for aircraft soared during the COVID-19 pandemic as the need for "Personal Protective Equipment" (PPE) skyrocketed. 

                                                                                                    An-225 flies 110 tons of test kits to Austria

Plans to rebuild the world’s biggest plane

Last month, Ukraine's state-owned aircraft manufacturer, Antonov Co., announced that it had started the initial work for building a new An-225 at the Antonov aircraft plant outside Kyiv. The project would require the support and participation of foreign partners, the statement added without elaborating.

The company said the plane will be built under the auspices of the Antonov Group of Companies, an international airline, and the government of Ukraine. But it is unclear how the company plans to overcome adverse conditions caused by the ongoing war with Russia and the current economic situation of the country. Antonov estimates the cost to construct the gigantic aircraft would be at least $500 million, acknowledging that it could grow further as it is too early to talk about specific costs. After the aircraft was destroyed, Antonov's parent company, state-run Ukroboronprom, stated that restoring it would take more than five years and cost more than $3 billion.

According to Antonov, around 30% of the components from the original plane are currently available and can be used in the construction of the second model. But one thing is obvious: Ukraine cannot finish such an expensive project without support from abroad. According to sources who are familiar with the matter, Antonov and the officials from the Ukrainian government are in talks with investors, companies, and governments that are interested in the development of a cargo business in Ukraine and are ready to invest in the project and be the long-term users of the iconic heavy-lifter.

A little-known secret in a remote corner of the Antonov factory

When the An-225 took to the skies in 1988, the Soviet Union had already started the construction of a second An-225. But the aircraft was never completed. The Soviets were on the brink of collapse, and the construction of the aircraft was left unfinished. During the post-soviet era, Ukraine maintained its hope to finish the aircraft one day. We know that the second An-225 was about 70% complete and stored somewhere in the Antonov factory. All the essential components of its superstructure had already been manufactured, including the fuselage, wings, nose gear, and tail.

                                                                                                              The unfinished An-225
What we don't know is whether it shared the same fate as its predecessor during the Russian strikes.