Antonov An-225, The masterpiece of engineering design was built during the 1980s as the flagship aircraft of the Antonov design bureau. The biggest craft to ever fly over the surface of the earth, the An-225 stands at a Soviet-era air base on the outskirts of Kiev. The length of the cargo hold of the plane is longer than the Wright brother’s first flight from take-off to landing.
The craft is now 30 years old and is very rarely flown, but it is not prepared to retire just yet. It was recently given an upgrade preparing it for service for another 20 years. The plane has been nicknamed ‘Mriya’ (meaning Dream in Ukranian). The huge aircraft is specialized for carrying massive weights of huge machinery, but each flight of the An-225 costs around $30,000 an hour. Despite being in a perfect condition, due to little need and very high costs, the craft is no longer used.
The An-225 is an extension of the An-124 Ruslan which is the largest military transport in the world. Nikolay Kalashnikov, The lead engineer of the An-225 says that he spent his entire life working for the Antonov. Building the Mriya was the highest point in Kalashnikov’s career about which he said, “Today it’s hard to tell, but back then it was so impressive. It was just so difficult to imagine that such a big machine can fly.”
Back when the An-225 was built, the USS ran its air missions from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the southern Kazakhstan. The mission was to bring booster rockets from Moscow to Baikonur. The estimated cost of the An-225 program was calculated to be much less than building a freeway across the two rivers. Hence, the cargo plane option was chosen.
The CEO of Antonov Airlines, Mikhail Karchenko believes that despite the age of the craft, it has enormous potential not just regarding its cargo capacity, but it also has a potential to be transformed into an in-air launch platform. “Approximately 90% of the energy of the launch vehicle is spent getting up to an altitude of 10km (6.5 miles),” says Karchenko. “If we take some spacecraft and put it on the Mriya’s back and fly it up to a height of 10km, then we can launch it into space from there. From the point of view of cost, the economic benefit is huge if you launch from a height of 10km.”
The Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AICC), a Chinese state-owned aerospace and defense company signed a cooperation agreement with Antonov for the An-225 program back in 2016. If that program is completed successfully, hundreds of Chinese built An-225 could be flying above the skies.
Zhang Yousheng, the President of AICC, says, “The initial idea and early stage research of the An-225 started in 2009. The official contact with Antonov began in 2011, and then from 2013 to 2016 was the acceleration phase of this project.”
AICC is not purchasing the functional An-225; instead, they have spent years studying its feasibility and modernizing the other unfinished An-225 airframe which has stood uselessly at Antonov’s corporate campus in Kyiv for over 30 years. If China manages to build the An-225, it could give the country’s heavy cargo capabilities a boost.
The AICC has a hyper-ambitious plan to add 1,000 heavy lift aircraft to its collection, and the An-225 will be the centerpiece of the plan which is meant for much more than large cargo capabilities. Zhang explained, “The An-225 can be equipped with spacecraft to high altitude, and can launch commercial satellites at any height below 12,000m. Its launch time is flexible, accurate, and can quickly send the satellite into intended orbit, which greatly reduces launch costs.”
The Mriya will fly again in the skies, but this time it will be for AICC taking away from Ukraine a symbolic part of its aerospace industry. The people who were a part of the An-225 building program are somewhat sentimental on the issue. “The Chinese want to buy from us this plane, and there’s no harm in it, but of course no one wants to sell the aircraft,” says Kalashnikov. “The Mriya is not separable from Ukraine, it’s like our child, and it’s something our children, and our grandchildren can always be proud of.”
While China tries building its own modernized Antonov-225, watch the video of the behemoth land at Moses Lake, Washington: