Since the start of manned flight, designers and engineers have sort to create bigger and more capable aircraft. As they pushed further and further, companies like Dornier, Hughes and Boeing all built titans of the air as they sought not just to fulfil perceived market needs but also to see just what they could achieve.
One of the most successful of these giant builders was Antonov. Established in 1946 in what was then the Soviet Union, Antonov rapidly became the Soviet’s go to design bureau for the building of military and civilian transport aircraft.
And amongst these were some real heavyweights. In 1965 Antonov flew the An-22, a heavy transport aircraft that remains the world’s largest turboprop powered aircraft to date.
With the Soviet Union then competing across the world with the United States in a host of proxy wars, the An-22s found themselves regularly conducting trans-continental flights carrying military and humanitarian supplies to Soviet allies all around the globe.
The giant Antonovs also found themselves in heavy demand for resource exploration and exploitation projects in the remote hinterlands of Siberia and Kazakhstan, where their abilities to deliver outsized and heavy cargoes to remote locations was a real asset.
But though the An-22s were a real boon for Soviet heavy lift capabilities, it was recognized by the 1970s that they were insufficient in comparison to that of the United States. Only sixty-eight An-22s were built, and they were rapidly eclipsed by the Unites States Air Force’s new heavy lifter, the C-5 Galaxy.
This jet-propelled aircraft could carry more and bigger cargoes than the An-22, plus do it further and faster. Additionally, the Americans evidently intended to build it in greater numbers.
With a clear need for bigger aircraft both for economic and strategic reasons, the Soviet government gave Antonov the green light to build an even more advanced and larger heavy transport aircraft that would once again establish their dominance in this field. This was the An-124 Ruslan, which though first flying in 1982 still today sets the standard for international airfreight in heavy and outsized cargoes.
But even while they were designing this monster, Antonov was thinking in terms of something even bigger; once again to help fulfil a critical transportation need. The exploration of space was also another field of critical competition between the Soviet Union and the United States. While things like the race to be the first to put men on the moon was the most trumpeted for propaganda purposes, in practical terms the biggest focus was in putting satellites in orbit.
These became key strategic and commercial assets, creating the first space-based communication, navigation and intelligence gathering networks that today we just take for granted. But in the 1960s and ‘70s, getting more and increasingly sophisticated satellites into orbit was a critical issue.
There were also programs to build the first permanently manned space stations, which would serve important scientific purposes.
But one of the big problems to this was the cost of getting stuff into orbit. Rockets were hugely expensive to use and so both the US and the Soviet Union set about exploring the idea of building a reusable space launch vehicle that would, in theory, cut the costs of space launches.
We know these today as the Space Shuttles.
The Americans started earlier, and by 1974 had begun construction of their first Shuttle, Enterprise. The Soviet’s, concerned that the Shuttle’s had great potential military use, as well as recognizing the value of the concept, began developing their own Shuttle, the Buran program in 1976.
The problem was that the Soviet road and rail network were not really up the job of transporting the huge boosters and space plane to the remote launching sights. The only real option was to fly the components to the cosmodromes and assemble them there before launch.
The Americans got around this by converting two Boeing 747s for the job, but the Soviets didn’t have a comparable aircraft available.
Instead, two Myasishchev M-4 bombers were converted in 1981 for carrying outsized and heavy cargoes by changing the tail configuration and allowing the carriage of containers for freight on their back.
And though these aircraft, the VM-T Atlant’s did the job, just, it was recognized that they were certainly far from ideal and that a proper aircraft for the role was preferrable.
There seemed only one choice. With Antonov in the process of developing the An-124, could they create a model that would be capable of carrying the Soviet Space Shuttle and, more critically, the massive Energia booster rockets it used to get into orbit.
Antonov were already well along with design work on the An-124 and the change to the specification raised multiple problems. After studying the issue Antonov, with their genius lead designer Viktor Tolmachev leading the team, came back with a better suggestion.
A new aircraft which made use of components from the An-124 where possible, but built to be bigger, heavier and far more capable.
This new aircraft wouldn’t just solve the Soviet transportation issues, it would be a true record breaker. The An-225, called the Mriya – or “Dream” – would be the largest and heaviest fixed wing aircraft to fly in regular service.
Design work began in 1983 and construction in 1985. Despite the huge task of building the world’s heaviest aircraft, development went smoothly. The use of elements used in the An-124 and the experience of the designers in developing that aircraft practically concurrently with the An-225 meant the process was fairly trouble free. It also meant that the prototype was essentially the production aircraft.
However, that isn’t to belittle the design and production teams, because it was a titanic effort. Though Antonov is based in Kyiv, now in Ukraine, the huge effort in building the An-225 meant that components for the aircraft were made all over the Soviet Union, with over one hundred factories being involved before final assembly taking place at Antonov.
A true titan of the skies, the An-225 measured in at 84 metres (275’ 7”) in length and with a wingspan of 88.4 metres (290’).
Its cargo hold measured 6.4 m (21 ft 0 in) wide and 4.4 m (14 ft) high. It was also 43.35 m (142 ft 3 in) long – which means the Wright brothers could’ve made their first flight within the cavernous hold on the Mriya!
To assist with loading operations, the An-225’s nose pivoted upwards for access to the cargo hold, and the nose gear was designed to allow the aircraft to drop down to assist in operations.
Such a big aircraft naturally needed extra engineering to allow for safe operation with such heavy loads, and the undercarriage is composed of 32 wheels – eight more than on the An-124. Probably the most distinctive visual difference between the An-225 and it’s An-124 progenitor other than its sheer size was its use of six rather than four of the massive D-18 Turbofan engines – each of which produced 51,800 lbf – and the twin tail.
This was expressly designed so that the Buran shuttle or a rocket booster could be carried on the aircraft’s back and not disrupt the airflow across the vertical stabilizers.
The aircraft made its first flight on the 21st of December 1988. Soon after this the aircraft rapidly demonstrated its record-breaking abilities. The world’s heaviest aircraft at full take off load at the time was then the An-124, with a total weight of 405 tonnes.
This was exceeded by the An-225 which flew with a total weight of 640 tonnes.
For perspective, the closest American competitor at the time, the Boeing 747F-400, had a maximum all in weight of just under 378 tonnes.
The An-225 was also able in 1989 to begin performing its designed task, transporting the Buran shuttle and booster rockets to the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. This required the An-225 to fly nonstop between Kyiv and the launch station – a distance of about 1700 miles (c.2700km) with a take off weight of 560 tons.
The amazing new aircraft was also to rapidly start seeing use in its secondary role – demonstrating the prowess of the Soviet aeronautic industry. In 1989 it was demonstrated as a static display at the Paris Air Show before performing a flying display the following year at Farnborough in the UK.
To those of us who remember it, the aircraft seemed to mark a new epoch. In a way it did, though not in the way we expected.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Buran space program ended. The An-225 now appeared a white elephant, a specialist without a role. The aircraft was hangered in Kyiv, now the capital of the newly independent state of Ukraine, and the production of the second aircraft, about 70% completed, was halted and the order for an additional two cancelled.
And that might have been that. Except that heavy air transportation really took off (no pun intended) in the 1990s.
Many of the Soviet Air Forces An-124s found themselves under new management, primarily with Ukrainian-based Antonov Air Lines and Russia’s Volga-Dnepr. And they were in huge demand.
In fact, so in demand were they that the engines were stripped off the Mriya and used as replacements for the busy Ruslan fleet. It looked for a time that the biggest transport aircraft ever built might end up as a source of parts for its smaller siblings.
But in 2001 it was thought that maybe there was a commercial requirement for such capability as offered by the An-225, and so Antonov Airlines reengined the airframe and registered for international usage.
Several schemes were mooted for the aircraft, including being used as the flying launch base for small space planes but none of these came to pass. Instead, the An-225 really found its niche in what it did best – carrying huge cargoes over long distances.
With the start of the war on terror in late 2001 and the subsequent deployment of huge numbers of troops from NATO to Afghanistan and then the Invasion and occupation of Iraq, the An-225 found itself in great demand carrying the vast quantities of logistics being shipped across the world to support these military efforts.
This usage was interspersed with specialist contracts that only the An-225 could fulfil, and lead to more records being broken by the aircraft. In 2009 it carried the single heaviest piece of air cargo ever when it transported a power generator that weighed 189 tonnes between Germany and Armenia.
This was followed in 2010 with the aircraft setting a record in carrying the world’s longest piece of air cargo; two blades for wind turbines from China to Denmark that measured 138 feet (42.1m) in length.
The value of the An-225 to the international airfreight market was such that talks were held with a view to possibly completing the second aircraft and bringing it into service. But nothing came of that, and with the effective outbreak of hostilities between Ukraine and Russia in 2014, this became effectively impossible as both countries would have had to cooperate to build the necessary parts.
The An-225 carried on, performing specialist or mass bulk freight work as required and for customers who could afford its services.
Its swansong arguably came during the global COVID pandemic in 2020. Then the An-225 provided critical services transporting vast amounts of medical supplies to countries desperately needing them as they battled with the disease.
The heavy usage during the pandemic meant that the aircraft needed repairs and servicing and in 2021 it was placed in its hanger at Gostomel airport outside Kyiv to await the necessary works. Unfortunately, it was still there in February 2022 when Russian force invaded Ukraine.
The airport was the scene of fierce fighting and the An-225 was destroyed by artillery fire that set it alight, as well as the partially completed sister aircraft that was stored at the same facility.
A sad end to a truly epic aircraft.
There is one final epilogue to the story of the An-225 however.
On the morning of the 11th of March people watching the Flightradar24 website saw a mysterious aircraft registering on the screen, apparently circling Kyiv. This was unusual as the area was a battleground and no commercial aircraft could possibly be operating in the vicinity.
But what really caused comment was that the aircraft was squawking a familiar registration number – UR-82060, the An-225’s.
It soon became apparent that the website had been hacked, and some mischief maker had put in the mirage to send a message to President Putin of Russia via the aircraft’s callsign.
Or perhaps this was the real “Ghost of Kyiv”.