Aviation enthusiasts and plane spotters, whose wish list invariably included the world’s largest and heaviest plane, will be sad that they will probably never see Mriya again
Remarkable products often materialise from intense business competition or fierce military rivalry. The Antonov An-225 Mriya (“dream”) was one such aircraft that emerged from the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 20th century. It was initially developed as an enlarged version of the Antonov An-124 to transport Buranclass spaceplane orbiters. Buran, the Soviet equivalent of the United States’ Space Shuttle, was intended to be flown from Moscow to the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, riding piggyback on the An-225. The An-225 strategic airlifter was the heaviest aircraft ever built. It was bigger and heavier than the Airbus A380 airliner and the Boeing 747 freighter. It also had the largest wingspan of any aircraft in service.
The An-225 began life as a military airlifter, but following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it was mothballed in 1994. Thereafter, it was refurbished and reintroduced in a civilian role with Antonov Airlines. Its first commercial flight took place in January 2002. The plane held the absolute world record for an airlifted single-item payload of 1,89,980 kg – an electrical generator ferried from Frankfurt, Germany to Yerevan, Armenia. It also held the world record for airlifting payload of 2,53,820 kg – five Ukrainian army T-80 tanks. It was much sought after by international relief organisations, even during the COVID-19 pandemic, for its ability to quickly transport massive quantities of disaster relief material.
The designer of the An-225 was Viktor Tolmachev who designed the An-124 that first flew in December 1982, Tolmachev knew that the quickest way to build the massive new plane would be to make a stretched version of the An-124. He added fuselage barrel extensions fore and aft of the wings to increase the length and removed the rear cargo doors to reduce weight. The anhedral wings were given root extensions to increase their span. The tail was redesigned with twin vertical fins. The An-124 had four Ivchenko Progress Lotarev D-18T turbofan engines, each of which could produce a maximum thrust of 229.5 kN. Two more turbofans were added to the new wing roots of the An-225, making a total of six engines.
The landing gear system was redesigned for increased capacity with 32 wheels, including 16 steerable ones. This enabled the aircraft to do a U-turn even within a 60-metrewide runway. Cargo was conveniently loaded by retracting the nose gear and allowing the front of the aircraft to lower to the ground, a procedure known as the “elephant kneel.” The An-225’s pressurised cargo hold was 43.35m long. In comparison, the first powered aircraft flight by the Wright Brothers in 1903 covered just 37m. While the An-225’s cruise speed was 800 kmph, it could fly at a maximum speed of 850 kmph. Its range varied from 4,000 km to 15,400 km.
The An-225 first flew on December 21, 1988. It soon went on a record-setting spree including 106 world records in a single flight. Although the initial order was for two aircraft, only one was completed. In September 2006, anticipating a spate of heavy-lift missions, it was decided to finish the second An-225 within two years. However, this never happened. Initially, the An-225 had a gross weight of 600 tonnes, but a major modification in 2000, including the addition of a reinforced floor, increased the maximum gross weight to 640 tonnes. The updated An-225, referred to as the An-225-100, entered service in January 2002.
Was the An-225 the biggest plane ever built? Not really. The American Hughes H-4 Hercules “Spruce Goose” had a larger wingspan of 97.5m, although it was shorter at 67m. However, the H-4 flew only once in 1947 – a distance of about 1.6 km and never flew again. More recently, the much larger Model 351 Stratolaunch with a wingspan of 117m and length of 73m first flew in April 2019 and has completed three test flights so far. It has yet to be used in operational flights for its stated purpose of carrying air-launch-to-orbit rockets and satellites.
As befits its magnificence, the An-225 was the world’s most expensive transport aircraft to charter. However, global power companies that had taken on large infrastructure projects, often found that chartering the aircraft and achieving quick transportation was more economical than waiting weeks for delivery by sea. On February 27, 2022, the lone An-225 was badly damaged while on the ground during military conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Weapons manufacturer Ukroboronprom estimates that restoring it could cost $3 billion and take over five years. It is perhaps mere wishful thinking. Aviation enthusiasts and plane spotters, whose wish list invariably included the world’s largest and heaviest plane, will be sad that they will probably never see Mriya again.