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Antonov An-225 Mriya – an iconic piece of aviation destroyed

The aircraft's history

The Antonov An-225, affectionately called Mriya – Ukrainian for dream – had been conceived in the late 1970s. When the need to transport outsized cargo, namely the Soviet space shuttle Buran and parts of the giant Energiya launcher became apparent, plans emerged to develop a larger, literally stretched version of the proven Antonov An-124. Contrary to the An-124 of which 55 copies were eventually built between 1982 and 2004, the An-225 was conceived in support of the space programme and was never meant to fill a strategic military role.

Manufacture of the first An-225 commenced in 1985. The An-124's fuselage was extended with two sections fore and aft of the main wing by 14.9 m, while the overall wingspan was increased by 15.1 m. Accommodating for two additional engines required enlarging the depth of the wing root which led to an increase in overall wing area by 44 percent. (Only two aircraft in aviation history – both being unique specimen – feature a larger wingspan than the An-225: the Hughes H-4 Hercules 'Spruce Goose' at 97.82 m, and the Scaled Composites Model 351 Stratolaunch 'Roc' at 117.35 m.)

Because the new aircraft was to carry the Buran shuttle piggyback, the empennage had to be fully re-designed with twin vertical control surfaces added to the outer edges of a swept-back horizontal stabilizer. Two aerodynamically covered humps on top of the aircraft's wingbox remained testament to its former role as the principle aerial Buran shuttle transport.

The An-225 was not fitted with a rear cargo door and foldable loading ramp in order to save structural weight. However, it retained the Ivchenko-Progress D-18T turbofan engines of which six were fitted to the enlarged main wing. The aircraft's initial takeoff weight was 600 t which was increased during modification work in 2001 to 640 t, i.e. 235 t above the An-124's maximum takeoff weight. (For comparison, the Stratolaunch 'Roc' has a maximum takeoff weight of 590 t, the Airbus A380-800 of 575 t, and the Boeing 747-8 of 447.7 t.) The An-225's payload capacity over its smaller sibling increased by a massive 100 t to a total 250 t over a useful range of some 2,500 km.

The aircraft's maiden flight from Antonov's Hostomel factory airfield near Kyiv, Ukraine was on 21 December 1988. It conducted its first flight with the Buran shuttle as external payload on 13 May 1989.
During 1994, following the termination of the Russian Buran space programme the sole An-225 aircraft was put into storage. It again took to the skies on 7 May 2001 following several structural and functional updates, receiving its civil type certification by IAC CR on 23 May 2001. The aircraft's first commercial service was a flight from Stuttgart, Germany to Thumrait, Oman on 3 January 2002.

This author in September of 2020 had the opportunity to witness ground handling of an An-124 during loading of an ESA/NASA spacecraft into its cargo compartment. The particular An-124-100, registration RA-82081, would transport its precious cargo across the Atlantic to the US east coast for a stopover before proceeding to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The aircraft has been operated by Volga-Dnepr Airlines; the Sentinel-6A satellite was successfully launched on 21 November 2020 into its designated low Earth orbit by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
I can't help but imagine how much more impressive than the already huge An-124 the Mriya would have been on the ground and while airborne!

Specification and performance data

Below is a summary of general characteristics and selected performance data for the sole Antonov An-225 Mriya, registration UR-82060, that flew between 1988 and 2022. The aircraft had been operated by Antonov Airlines ever since its recommissioning in 2001.

Length 84.00 m
Wingspan 88.40 m
Wing area 905 m²
Wing aspect ratio 8.63
Wing loading min. 193.4 kg/m² @ empty weight | max. 707.2 kg/m² @ MTOW
Height 18.10 m
Cargo compartment dimensions (lwh) 43.30 m ⨯ 6.40 m ⨯ 4.40 m (useful cross section of 27.5 m²)
Cargo compartment volume 1,190 m³
Empty weight 175,000 kg
Ramp weight 285,000 kg
Maximum fuel load 300,000 kg
Payload capacity 250,000 kg (253,820 kg achieved during record flight on 11-Sep-2001)
Maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) 640,000 kg
Undercarriage 32 wheels (4 nose gear, 28 main gear)
Powerplants 6 ⨯ Ivchenko-Progress D-18T turbofan engines, 229.85 kN thrust each
Thrust-to-weight ratio 0.215 @ MTOW
Cockpit crew six (two pilots, two engineers, navigator, radio operator)
Passenger compartment capacity 70 (on upper flight deck)
Manufacturer serial number (MSN) 19530503763
Cruise speed 432 kts or 800 km/h | Mach 0.74 @ 10,000 m
Maximum speed 458 kts or 848 km/h | Mach 0.78 @ 9,500 m
Typical cruise altitude 10,000 m
Service ceiling 11,000 m (max. altitude achieved was 12,430 m)
Range 15,400 km (ferry)
4,000 km @ 200 t payload | 2,500 km @ max. payload
Takeoff distance 3,500 m @ MTOW
2,650 m with Buran shuttle piggyback
Takeoff safety speed v2 195 kts or 361 km/h
Landing approach speed vap 150 kts or 278 km/h

Destruction of the world's largest aircraft

The An-225 performed what would end up being its final flight on 5 February 2022 from Billund, Denmark where it had attracted a crowd of some 10,000 spectators to Hostomel.

As inappropriate as it may sound in the face of innocent people dying in Ukraine due to the assault by Russian troops in late February 2022, the history of aviation has been dealt a bitter loss as well. One of the most iconic, graceful and the largest aircraft (by most figures) ever built – as well as the sole copy of its type – has been destroyed on 27 February 2022 at Antonov's Hostomel factory airfield northwest of Kyiv. Footage disseminated on the internet, mainly via social media, showed the front and centre section of the fuselage as well as both main wings having actually collapsed amid its badly damaged aircraft hangar. Additional satellite imagery seemed to indicate that the aircraft's tailplane may have at least partially survived, though.

What lunatics Putin, Lavrov and their blind followers may not want to acknowledge is that with the demise of this giant aircraft an important part of Soviet/Russian space history has been shattered as well!
One can only wonder what the late Viktor Tolmachev, Antonov's Russian chief designer and father of the Mriya, would have thought of this act of appalling vandalism that destroyed the largest airlifter ever built.

Can it rise like a phoenix from the ashes?

Reports about a second, partly-completed An-225 airframe have re-emerged every now and then over the past twenty years. Originally, three copies of the Mriya had been ordered back in the Soviet days to support the Buran shuttle programme. From 1989 till sometime in 1994 at least a major portion of a second fuselage has been assembled by Antonov at their plant in Kyiv-Sviatoshyn, Ukraine. Work on the airframe eventually came to a halt with the demise of the Soviet Union, terminating its space shuttle programme and depriving the manufacturer of vital funding. Reports about attempts by Antonov's mother company Ukroboronprom to source foreign funding for the completion of the second Mriya have been several, as recently as 2016 by the Chinese, and in 2020 by Turkey.

The best source of images regarding the current status of the second An-225 airframe appears to be a CNN Travel article published in September 2018. Images taken at the Antonov plant show the fuselage with the centre wingbox attached as well as parts of its undercarriage, though the massive tilting nose section seems missing. Further images seem to show the horizontal stabilizer, however the huge main wing is not discernible in any of those. Given the An-225 shares a common turbofan engine type with its smaller sibling, the An-124, sourcing six engines would probably not be the biggest issue trying to complete the build. The figure most commonly cited these days is a completion rate of 60 to 70 percent for the second airframe. Clearly, as the failed 2016 attempt by the Chinese has proven, a second An-225 could only be assembled at Antonov's Kyiv plant.

Whether a new Mriya will ever take to the skies for now depends first and foremost on the end of the horrendous war on Ukraine staged by Putin's army. If the necessary assets, mainly Antonov's plant and airfield in Kyiv-Sviatoshyn, can survive the Russian onslaught, there may be a slim chance to complete another An-225. This however will most likely require external funding and a viable business concept.
I for one would like to believe that Mriya – the dream – will live on!

Sources: Antonov, SKYbrary, Aviation Safety Network (ASN), CNN Travel, Russian Space Web, Wikipedia, AeroTelegraph