There was something quite insane about the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Both sides of the conflict, the West and the East, we're very much keen to outdo the other when it came to military aircraft. The British for example had started to develop the frankly insane BAC TSR2 strike aircraft. America had built the totally crazy F-104 Starfighter and the Soviet Union had come out with the Mig-25 Foxbat interceptor, an aircraft that for around a decade utterly perplexed the United States. But the Russian’s soon built something else that was equally as wild.
As the Soviets started to expand their space program with the Buran orbiter, they realized they needed an aircraft to transport the orbiter from its landing site, and other space components. Heck, it might even be needed to be a launchpad for Soviet spacecraft. The American’s used converted Boeing 747s to transport their space shuttle. But Russia called upon the Antonov aircraft company to develop what is still the largest aircraft in the world, the Antonov An-225 Mriya. Just one of these extraordinary aircraft would be built, and even today, it wows crowds wherever it goes.
The Soviets Need For the An-225
As the Soviets started to build the Buran orbiter and the Energia rockets that would be used to launch it, they realized the sheer size of these components meant they would not be able to transport them by rail. As such, Myasishchev M-4 bombers were converted to piggyback transport the components for the shuttle. But the old bombers wouldn’t even carry the whole orbiter, and some components would have to be stripped down. Clearly, a new aircraft was needed and initially, it looked like Antonov’s already flying An-124 could help out. It was the largest and most capable transporter at the time.
But the ‘124 wasn’t quite big enough. So, Antonov came up with the giant that is the An-225. The new aircraft had a twin-tail stabilizer, new landing gear, a larger wing, and two more engines. And it certainly dwarfed everything that had been seen in the sky at that point, including the An-124 and the American C-5 Galaxy. Its six Progress D-18T turbofans and 88.4-meter long wingspan somehow provided enough lift for the giant transporter, even when it had the Buran orbiter or Energia components straddled to the back of it. There was even the possibility the An-225 could be used as an airborne launch platform for smaller Soviet spacecraft.
For A Purpose That Was Soon Obsolete
Originally, the Soviet Union hoped to build several An-225s to help with the Buran program and its smaller, more portable spacecraft dubbed the MAKS. And the first successful launch of the Buran in 1988 meant hopes were high, and the West believed this when the An-225 carried the Buran to the 1989 Paris Air Show. But by 1989, things were changing in the Soviet Union. The country was going bankrupt, and ultimately the Buran and MAKS programs were axed.
The Soviet Union now had an aircraft that no longer had a job. Initially, it flew around Western air shows to show it off whilst they tried to figure out what to do. At the collapse of the Soviet Union, the aircraft was put into storage near Kyiv in Ukraine and it was scavenged for parts. Meanwhile, Antonov was able to charter out its ‘124 fleet to earn some income and have its aircraft put to good use. This gave the company an idea. Could the An-225 be adapted to handle cargo that even the ‘124 was too small for?
A New Lease Of Life
Simply put, the answer was yes. The An-225 was taken out of storage and renovated and adapted. New engines were refitted to the aircraft, it was adapted to carry cargo in a new cargo hold with cargo doors, and further updated with new avionics. The aircraft now fell under the management of Antonov Airlines, directly operated by its designers and builders. And the An-225 was finally put to good use. In January 2002, the aircraft took part in its first chartered flight where it carried 187 tons. A weight that would have needed two Boeing 747s!
The aircraft soon started to set new world records for the weight it could carry and has been able to move objects by air that were once thought to be impossible. In June 2010, the aircraft carried the world's longest piece of cargo, which consisted of two 42.1 meter test wind turbine blades. These were carried from Tianjin China to Skrydstrup in Denmark. And in 2020, the An-225 was also used during the Covid-19 pandemic, delivering medical supplies from China to a host of other parts of the globe. This followed on from a year out of service in 2019.
Still A Need For Such A Large Jet
Whilst the aircraft isn’t used as regularly as a 747 freighter might be, the need for the jet is still apparent. Some cargo is simply too big for more mass-produced transporters. But would there ever be a need for more? A half-finished An-225 has sat in Ukraine for many years, but it's unclear if it will ever be needed. But Antonov does say that if it was needed and the money was forthcoming, they could have it in the skies within three years.
For now, though, the sold Mriya continues to live in a class of its own. Its size and uniqueness mean it draws crowds wherever it goes, be it England, Australia, or back home in Ukraine. More than 15,000 people came out to see the aircraft at Perth Airport in May 2016. The aircraft is expensive to run, around $30,000 an hour, but without it some cargo could very well struggle to get to its destination. Following the end of the Buran program, the An-225 could have been lost for good. But eventually, it was put to good use, just not the use the Soviet Union originally developed it for.
Sources: YouTube, News18, Wikimedia, Air & Space Magazine, Flikr, Flight Radar 24, Business Insider, IMDB, CNN