Almost the world’s largest aircraft, and a true symbol of what can be achieved in terms of aeronautical size. The Antonov An-225 Mriya was originally an aircraft built for political purposes, but today, this monster of an aircraft is now leading a charmed life in the cargo sector, proving itself a vital instrument for many organisations.
The Antonov An-225 was designed to airlift the Energia rocket’s boosters and the Buran space shuttle for the Soviet space program. It was developed as a replacement for the Myasishchev VM-T. The An-225’s original mission and objectives are almost identical to that of the United States’ Shuttle Carrier Aircraft.
To trace the 225, you need to go back to the early 1980’s, during the height of the Cold War. With the advent of the Space Shuttle in the United States, essentially a new Space Race was started between the mutually antagonistic superpowers of the USA and the Soviet Union. The USSR desired their own reusable space vehicle that would work in similar fashion to that of America’s new astronomical toy. The project was dubbed Buran, and the design was similar in many ways to that of the Space Shuttle, especially in terms of its outward appearance.
However, the spacecraft had to be carried from its production site and landing strip to the actual launchpad itself, this being the Baikonur Cosmodrome deep in rural Kazakhstan. As such, an aircraft of sufficient size and power had to be conceived in order to carry out such a task. The largest Soviet aircraft at the time, the An-124, was not deemed suitable for the task, but Antonov chose instead to base their new design on similar principles on that aircraft rather than creating a scratch-built new model. The result is that the 225 shares the same general design as the 124, same cross-section, same flight controls, same engines, only they were sized up substantially to make it possible for it to carry the Buran spacecraft externally, but also carry the Energia solid-rocket’s boosters.
The An-225 is powered by six ZMKB Progress D-18 turbofans derived from the An-124, each of which produces 51,600lbf each. The wingspan of the aircraft is an astounding 290ft across, second only to the Hughes H-4 Hercules (also known as the “Spruce Goose”). It weighs 628,000lbs empty, and has a range of 9,569 miles with maximum fuel. Top speed of this massive, massive plane is 528mph, which puts it in league with the much smaller, much lighter Boeing 747.
The An-225, much like the 124, also has the ability to kneel. The aircraft uses oleo strut suspension for its 32 wheels. The suspension has been calibrated to allow landing on rough terrain and is able to kneel to allow easier front loading. The plane has an onboard overhead crane capable of lifting up to 30 tonnes of cargo, and items up to 120 tonnes can be winched on board.
The An-225 performing its original task of carrying the Buran Space Shuttle, seen here during a display at the Paris Air Show.
Construction of the An-225 began in 1986, and the aircraft made its first flight on December 21st, 1988, carrying out a 74 minute flight from Kiev. Dubbed Mriya (Ukrainian for Dream) It was first unveiled to the Western World at the 1989 Paris Air Show, and even made an appearance in 1990 at the Farnborough Airshow in the UK. The production order for the An-225 was for two aircraft, but only one was ever built, the other being partially assembled before being placed into storage, it now residing in an empty lot at the Aviant-Kiev Aviation Plant in Ukraine, though plans are apparently in progress to complete this airframe. There are also plans by a Chinese consortium to resume production, though no further details as to this have been provided.
However, before the An-225 was used to woo the crowds at airshows, its much more serious purpose had to be fulfilled first. Between 1989 and 1993, the aircraft was tasked with flying the aforementioned Buran space vehicle to its launch site. To do this, the An-225 was originally fitted with struts mounted on the top of the fuselage, similar in fashion to those on the 747 Shuttle Carriers in the USA. The 225 did have the chance to carry some Buran spacecraft, but only truly on promotional occasions and at airshows. The only ever time Buran ever truly went into space was in November 1988, a month before the 225 made it’s first flight. As the Soviet Union spiralled into greater economic depression, followed by the dissolution of the USSR from 1991 onward, the Buran space project was cancelled in 1993, leaving the 225 surplus to requirement.
But this, thankfully, wasn’t the end of the 225, as even before Buran was cancelled, the Soviet government attempted to generate capital by outsourcing the services of the world’s largest cargo plane to private organisations to help lift supplies. In 1989, Antonov Airlines was created as a holding company by the aircraft manufacturer to allow the 225, and a small fleet of 124’s, to be hired out for private cargo operations. Throughout the 1990’s, the An-225 was used on a wide variety of operations, including carrying solid-rocket boosters for Russian and American satellite missions, as well as sizeable loads such as generators, railway locomotives and battle tanks.
However, the economics and funding behind Antonov Airlines began to struggle in the mid-1990’s following the global recession, and a lack of demand saw the An-225 grounded in 1994. The aircraft sat desolate and empty for years, with the aircraft being stripped for spares and decay starting to set in on the airframe. Many wondered if the giant aircraft would ever fly again after being left to the elements for so long.
The An-225 is seen on display at the Paris Air Show in July 2001 after years of restoration work.
Hope came however in 1999, when Antonov ANTK and Motor-Sich jointly agreed to get the An-225 rebuilt and returned to commercial operations. Once the capital had been reached to begin the restoration, the aircraft was completely stripped down and rebuilt, with new D-18T Series III engines being fitted to replace its original, now stripped powerplants, and nearly every panel on the airframe was replaced. The somewhat archaic Soviet cockpit was replaced with a new glass cockpit to comply with modern safety standards. Seeing as the internal cargo space of the plane was now its primary source of carrying loads, the cargo cabin floor and nose ramp were strengthened. New air conditioning systems were installed, and cockpit and passenger cabin comfort were improved.
February 2001 saw the aircraft’s official rolling out as an almost brand new aircraft. The aircraft made it’s first flight since 1994 in May of the same year, flying a 15 minute test flight from Gostomel Airport near Kiev. At the 2001 Paris Airshow, the An-225 made a whirlwind appearance, with crowds being allowed to see every inch of the aircraft’s interior.
Return to commercial operations was preceded by a proving test which, ironically, took place on September 11th, 2001. The An-225 was tasked with flying four main battle tanks, a record load of 253.82 tonnes of cargo, at an altitude of up to 35,270ft over a closed circuit of 620 miles at a speed of 474.2 mph. By this point however the An-225 had already clocked up 127 World Records.
The type’s first flight in commercial service departed from Stuttgart, Germany on January 3rd, 2002, and flew to Thumrait, Oman with 216,000 prepared meals for American military personnel based in the region. This vast number of ready meals was transported on 375 pallets and weighed 187.5 tons.
The An-225 has since become the workhorse of the Antonov Airlines fleet, transporting objects once thought impossible to move by air, such as 150-tonne generators. It has become an asset to international relief organisations for its ability to quickly transport huge quantities of emergency supplies during disaster relief operations.
On August 11th, 2009, the heaviest single cargo item ever sent via air freight was loaded onto the An-225, this being a 53.2ft long and 14.0ft wide generator for a gas power plant in Armenia along with its loading frame, weighing in at a record 189 tonnes.
This was followed by another record on June 11th, 2010, where it carried the world’s longest piece of air cargo, two 138ft test wind turbine blades from Tianjin, China to Skrydstrup, Denmark.
Today the An-225 continues to ply its merry trade, and has become possibly the greatest example of human aeronautical ingenuity. After breaking multiple records, carrying a multitude of cargo types over distances once thought impossible, the An-225 really does live up to it’s name, it truly is an absolute dream!