Find out about the Antonov AN-225 heavy-lift aircraft
Maiden flight: 21 December 1988
Designer: Antonov Design Bureau
In aviation terms, the Antonov AN-225 Mriya is a ‘strategic airlift cargo aircraft’, which makes it sound a bit dull, like a definition from a plane-spotter’s dictionary. Yet there is nothing remotely dull about the world’s biggest aeroplane, which was designed in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, back in the days of the Cold War, to meet a requirement for a transporter for the Buran space-plane, which was in direct competition with America’s Space Shuttle.
Despite its glamorous past, the AN-225 today is a charter freight plane that is for hire to anyone with the hundreds of thousands of pounds sterling you’ll need to get airborne. Before you can take advantage of its ability to transport tanks and other planes around the world, you’ll need to fill it with 300,000kg of aviation fuel (about 98,000 gallons.)
While the AN-225 is undoubtedly big and is the holder of more than 200 aviation records (124 of which were set in its first month of service), it is not the biggest aeroplane by every metric you could apply. The wooden Hughes H-4 Hercules (aka ‘the Spruce Goose’) had a greater wingspan (97.5m) and stood taller, but was significantly shorter (by 20 per cent) in nose-to-tail length, and while being made of wood, it was considerably lighter (besides which the H-4 took off only once). Additionally, although the AN-225 is heavier than the double-decker Airbus A380 (the world’s largest passenger airliner) it can’t compete on maximum landing weight. The Boeing Dreamlifter has a bigger cargo hold than the AN-225 (1,840m3 vs 1,300m3). One of the most remarkable statistics is that, with a length of 84m, the Russian plane is comfortably well over twice as long as the first ever powered flight by Orville Wright in ‘Flyer’ in 1903 (36.5m, 120ft).
Equipped with 32-wheel landing gear, six-engine configuration, a ‘kneeling’ system for loading and a twin tail empennage with extended horizontal stabiliser, the AN-225 (registration CCCP-82060, subsequently UR-82060) really is one of a kind. Literally. There is only one in service today. Back in the late 1980s a second unit was ordered, put into production and partially built (with a modified design to allow a rear cargo door and single vertical stabiliser tail), but the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that the project was inevitably mothballed. Despite the rescheduling of the delivery date and persistent rumours that the aircraft is as much as two-thirds complete, nothing has come of it.
The design of the AN-225 is an evolution from its predecessor, the AN-124, which had been a record-breaker in its own right and remains to this day the world’s largest military transport aircraft. With 55 units built and a price tag of $70-100m apiece, it seemed that there was a solid platform for development. However as the AN-225 - due to its increased size - was not capable of either tactical airlifting or short-field operation, it was only envisaged as a transporter for Soviet rockets and the Buran shuttle programme.
Today, the AN-225 is often put to work transporting objects that were once thought to be impossible to airfreight, such as trains and heavy plant equipment. It was commissioned to deliver equipment to humanitarian aid efforts in Iraq as well as to transport military supplies to the Middle East in support of Coalition Forces. Its first commercial charter flight was the transport of 216,000 prepared meals for US military personnel in the region.
The AN-225 has also become something of an Internet celebrity in the world of plane spotting.