The world held its breath, cautiously watching the developments in Ukraine. During Russian attacks on Ukraine, one of the most valuable symbols of aviation was also destroyed. The only one of its kind, the world's largest cargo plane Antonov An-225, at its base Hostomel Airport, was rendered inoperable by the attack of the Russian Air Force. The giant plane, which was built by the Russians as a Cold War product, was destroyed ironically by the Russians in a hot conflict.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba announced on February 27th that the Antonov AN-225 was destroyed by Russia. This news shocked and upset the aviation world.
The dream aircraft was under maintenance in the hangar when it was attacked by the Russian troops. One of the engines was dismantled for repair. Therefore, it could not fly to another place even though it was under a possible attack.
It seems Ukrainians’ determination of never giving up on their dream of a strong, free and democratic European state is also applicable on rebuilding the An-225. With the statement made by the Ukrainian state defense company Ukroboronprom, which also governs Antonov, it was confirmed that the plane, which was destroyed by occupiers, will be rebuilt for approximately 3 billion dollars in the next 5 years, and the costs will be covered by Russia.
THE GIANT PLANE WAS MAKING A DIFFERENCE!
There are several different answers to the question of which the largest aircraft in the world is. Considering the number of passengers it carries, the answer is Airbus A380. Airbus Beluga XL, if considered as per the fuselage. With its 285 tons of weight, the heaviest aircraft ever produced is the Antonov An-225. The most distinctive feature of the Antonov An-225, with its impressive appearance, was its gigantic size. Being the largest cargo plane in the world and with its capacity to carry over 250 tons of cargo, this giant was far ahead of all its rivals in this category as well. The An-225 was also the world's longest aircraft with 84 meters length. With a wingspan of 88.3 meters, it was at top of the list among the aircraft currently in active operations.
With 6 engines and 32 wheels, some of which are steerable to assist with maneuverability, the AN-225 was one of a kind. Sorry to say, this giant plane is no longer available.
It is literally not wrong to say that the greatest attribute of the An-225 was captivating the crowds watching its takeoff and landing, wherever it flew in the world. Even the announcement made that she would land in Istanbul for refueling on October 5, 2021 was sufficient to create great excitement among aviation enthusiasts in the country.
For a brief comparison, the single-aisle passenger plane Boeing 737 MAX has a wingspan of 118 ft (approximately 36 meters). Whereas the distance between the two wingtips of the An-225 was 290 ft (88.3 meters).
With a maximum take-off weight of 640 tons, the An-225 had a range of up to 4500 km when fully loaded. The plane, if unloaded, could fly 15,400 km. In other words, it could fly the cargo it received from London to almost anywhere except Antarctica, the East Coast of Australia and some parts of New Zealand.
BUILT TO CARRY A SPACECRAFT!
Initially, the construction purpose of this giant cargo plane was quite different. It was designed and built by Viktor Tolmachev for transporting from the production center to the launch site of the Buran Spacecraft and other space vehicles and equipment produced by Russia, which started competing with the U.S. in the field of space studies, during the Cold War period. The An-225 made its maiden flight on December 21, 1988. It was exhibited in the static area of the Paris Air Show in 1989. It made demonstration flights during the Farnborough Air Show in 1990.
Two An-225s were ordered for the Soviet space program however, only one of the planes could be produced. Due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Buran space program, Antonov was never able to complete the production of the second An-225.
AN-225 REGISTERED IN UKRAINE
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the cargo plane was towed to the hangar in 1994. The An-225, which remained idle until 2001, was made fit for flight after 7 years at a high cost. Type certificate of the aircraft was granted by the Interstate Aviation Committee (IAC) in May 2001 and it was back in the sky.
The plane, named Mriya, which means “dream” in Ukrainian, held the UR-82060 tail registration. After relaunching in 2001, it was used to transport a wide variety of cargoes around the world. Operated by Antonov Airlines, the aircraft was leased to companies for various purposes.
The fact that it could carry loads on the upper part of the fuselage, (the Buran Spacecraft was also carried in this way), in addition to the cargo compartment inside the fuselage, was a great advantage for the AN-225.
SPECIAL SYSTEM FOR THE CARGO COMPARTMENT
It was possible to use almost the entire 84-metre-long fuselage as a cargo compartment. This gave the An-225 an enormous capacity of 1,200 cubic meters. The 43.35 m long, 6.4 m wide and 4.4 m high cargo compartment allowed the oversize and different shape cargoes to be placed easily on the plane. The length of the aircraft's cargo compartment was even longer than the Wright Brothers' flight distance in its first flight in 1903.
For loading and unloading, the AN-225 had a special design nose mechanism. This mechanism made the difference when handling oversize cargo, allowing the aircraft to "kneel" on the nose landing gear if necessary.
RECORD-BREAKER AIRCRAFT SET 124 WORLD RECORDS
The An-225 was a record-breaker aircraft. Each operation of this giant plane was in fact a record attempt. It managed to set 214 national and 124 world records under various categories, including the record for the heaviest cargo ever airlifted at 253,820 kg on September 11, 2001.
Mriya had already set two different world records the moment it received its airworthiness certificate. The aircraft with the world's highest maximum take-off weight of 640 tons and the widest wingspan among current airplanes quickly brought the An-225 its first two world records.
The aircraft's first commercial flight took place on January 3, 2002. The An-225 carried 216,000 ready meals weighing 187.5 tons from Stuttgart, Germany, to the US military base in Oman.
In 2004, it carried the ventilation ducts of a factory from Billund-Denmark to Kazakhstan for €266,000. The heaviest-ever single cargo transported by air was carried by An-225 in 2009. 189-ton generator was carried from Frankfurt to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. The longest-ever cargo carried was the 2 wind turbine blades in 2010, with a length of 138 ft. (approximately 42 meters). These blades were transported from Shijiazhuang, China, to Skrydstrup, Denmark.
Mriya's records are not only related with the transport of large or heavy loads. In 2012, the AN-225 set another Guinness World Record by hosting the art exhibition at the highest altitude at 10,150 m above sea level. The exhibition in the sky hosted 500 artworks created by 120 artists.
NEW RECORDS SET ALSO DURING THE PANDEMIC
Having delivered a wide range of services from disaster areas to evacuation operations, from commercial transportation to military missions, the An-225 was used to transport emergency medical supplies, personal protective equipment and food all over the world during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dream plane kept on breaking records with the cargoes it carried during the pandemic. On April 14, 2020, the 1,000 cubic meter load, containing Personal Protective materials was transported from China to Poland, which was the largest cargo volume in history. To achieve a safe loading of such a large volume of cargo on the An-225, the loading specialists dismantled the pallets and loaded each box individually.
THE MOST CHALLENGING OPERATION OF AN-225!
According to the Antonov team, the An-225's most challenging operation was the transport of twelve steam generators from Chile to Bolivia in June 2018. The An-225 was the only option to transport the generators, each weighing 160 tons. This operation was conducted with the longest consecutive flights in the history of the aircraft. 12 consecutive flights were planned.
The lifters on the top corners of the generators were too long to fit in the cargo containment. After long-lasting efforts, such lifters could be removed. Thus, the generators were fitted into the plane and using bolted connections, the lifters could be reattached to the other end during unloading. For this project, the load planning team also developed a special system to create an even weight distribution of the load to the aircraft floor.
Not done yet! Since night operations and flights were not allowed at the airport, all loading and unloading operations had to be done during daytime. Since there was no towing tractor at the airport with the required power, Antonov had to bring his own towing tractor from Gostomel Airport, Ukraine, to Chile to load the generators. Mission completed with 12 consecutive flights between Chile and Bolivia to deliver the generators.
WHAT WAS THE HOURLY RATE OF ANTONOV AN-225?
The hourly cost of operations performed by the An-225 was nearly $30,000. For this reason, it was generally preferred for short-term missions that could not be performed with other existing aircraft.
In 2006, it was announced that the second aircraft was aimed to be finalized within 2 years. However, the schedule was delayed soon afterwards. In 2009, it was announced that the plane was waiting in a hangar in Kiev, 70% complete. In Ukrainian Newspapers, it was reported that 300 million dollars were needed to complete the plane in 2011.
Antonov's CEO Oleksandr Donets stated that the completion of the plane was "economically unviable". It was also claimed that considering the costs of the operations carried out by the current An-225, the completion of the second aircraft was not financially practical.
HOW LONG WOULD THE AN-225 FLY?
The legendary aircraft was planned to continue its operations for a while more. The fuselage of the aircraft certainly was worn-out in 33 years since its maiden flight. However, the An-225's important advantage was that it was used much less than a standard commercial aircraft. Antonov Airlines previously announced that the aircraft’s service life was extended to 45 years and would remain in active service until at least 2033. In 2019, the aircraft underwent 18-month major maintenance and overhaul. It was announced that this process was a critical milestone for the aircraft to reach its targeted lifespan.
I hope the Ukrainian authorities are proved right and we will have the chance to see one of the most special icons of aviation, An-225 takes to the skies again. Unfortunately, the legend didn’t deserve such a goodbye!