Written by Kevin Jennings
Previously on this website we discussed the creation and incredible career of the Antonov AN-225, nicknamed Mriya, or “dream”. Originally designed to carry the Buran class orbiters for the Soviet Union space program, the AN-225 went on to become the most impressive cargo plane the world had ever seen. Able to carry hundreds of tons of cargo, the plane was used to deliver everything from meals for American soldiers, to COVID medical supplies from China to the rest of the world. After 33 years of service and still holding 124 world records, the dream is dead.
The massive plane had been parked at the Hostomel airfield near Kyiv in late February when the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. The early days of the invasion were focused primarily on airfields and military bases, meaning that Hostomel, with its proximity to the capital city of Kyiv, would be a prime target. On February 27, as Russian forces marched towards the airfield, orders were given for the plane to take off. Unfortunately, one of its engines had been dismantled for repairs so it was not in condition to fly.
Early reports throughout the day were vague, as the true condition of the AN-225 was not yet known. Satellite images from Maxar Technologies showed serious damage to the hangar that housed the plane, and late that morning NASA satellites detected multiple fires at the airfield. It is unclear whether the fires were the result of explosions from military strikes, or whether they were intentionally set. Either is possible, but it is believed that the destruction of the AN-225 was completely intentionally. According to state run defense manufacturer Ukroboronprom, “Russia has hit the Mriya as a symbol of Ukraine’s aviation capabilities.” Still, for days the fate of the plane remained unclear.
On March 1st, a photograph showed the tail of the plane sticking out of the back of the hangar, indicating that the plane was at least partially intact. On March 3rd, the situation become much less hopefully as a viral video of the AN-225 on fire in the hanger spread across social media. Throughout the entire ordeal, the Antonov Company insisted that, until the plane was inspected by experts, the true condition and extent of the damage could not be known. Hope was dwindling, but Antonov was not yet ready to give up on their dream.
The following day, March 4th, definitive proof of the plane’s destruction would come from Russia itself, as they showed the first clear images of the destroyed planed on the state operated Channel One television station.
Nearly two weeks later, Major Dmytro Antonov, pilot of the AN-225, would raise allegations that the Antonov Company ignored warnings and allowed the plane to be destroyed. To be clear, Antonov is a relatively common surname in Russia and Ukraine, and Major Antonov has no familial relation to the founders or upper management of the company.
According to Major Antonov, the company had received a recommendation from NATO on January 26th to move all their aircraft and personnel to Leipzig, Germany. The warning was not responded to, and by February 23rd, the day before the invasion began, no decision had been made to transfer any of the aircraft out of Hostomel airfield. Major Antonov also disputed that the AN-225 was unable to fly and in need of repairs, claiming to have flown it on February 5th without any issues.
Major Antonov made these allegations via his YouTube channel, which he has been using to document the war. Immediately following the video discussing his account of what transpired, the pilot began receiving threats from the company, as well as from social media users. In his second video on the topic, he laughs of the Antonov Company’s threats of revenge saying, “Such a small revenge. They blocked my phone number.” Presumably something was lost in translation and he was saying they had disconnected his company issued cell phone. This video was recorded while he stood in line outside a Vodafone store to restore his cell service.
The allegations from Major Antonov did not simply stop at inaction, however. He asserts that, rather than taking action to protect the aircraft, the top management from the Antonov Company instead flew to Leipzig themselves to raid the Antonov Logistics SALIS office of vital documents two weeks before the Russian invasion began.
The aforementioned Ukroboronprom is a conglomeration of 123 state owned companies in various aspects of Ukraine’s defense industry, which includes the Antonov Company. Following these allegations, Ukroboronprom was quick to act and removed Antonov Company director Serhiy Bychkov from his position, pending a full investigation of the subject. It is believed that the lack of action was not due to incompetence or indecisiveness, but rather that Bychkov has direct ties to Russia and let the airfield and all of its aircraft be destroyed.
What Happens Next?
With the destruction of the world’s heaviest plane, people quickly sought out comparisons to other existing aircraft. The AN-225 had a cult following due to its seemingly impossible size, and fans of the plane quickly remembered why this particular aircraft was beloved by so many: there is no other plane in the world that can hold a candle to the capabilities of the AN-225.
While there are other planes that could compare to its size, there are no planes that can rival its sheer cargo capacity. The closest comparison is Lockheed’s C-5 Galaxy, the US Air Force’s largest airlifter. At approximately 90% the length and with 75% the wingspan of the AN-225, the C-5 Galaxy sounds like it could be a contender. It’s smaller, but it isn’t that much smaller. Unfortunately for Lockheed, the AN-225 was in a class all its own. The maximum cargo payload the C-5 Galaxy can carry is less than half of the payload capacity of the AN-225. Antonov’s aircraft truly was without equal.
For fans of the famous plane, there is still hope, however. The government of Ukraine is determined to rebuild the AN-225. There had been efforts to build a sister plane for the Mriya that began in the 1980s, though they never came to fruition. In recent years plans to complete construction on the sister plane had been discussed, though still all that existed of a second plane was the frame. It is unclear whether that frame was also destroyed or not as the war in Ukraine is still a developing story, but the Antonov Company may finally achieve their dream of having two AN-225 planes active at the same time.
On February 27th, when fires were still raging on the Hostomel airfield and the status of the AN-225 seemed unclear to the general public, two tweets were sent out. The first came from Ukranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba who said, “Russia may have destroyed our ‘Mriya’. But they will never be able to destroy our dream of a strong, free and democratic European state. We shall prevail!”
It was a hopeful sentiment for the people of Ukraine, but it was the follow up tweet one hour later from the Ukrainian government’s official Twitter account that would make the fate of the plane clear. “The biggest plane in the world ‘Mriya’(The Dream) was destroyed by Russian occupants on an airfield near Kyiv. We will rebuild the plane. We will fulfill our dream of a strong, free, and democratic Ukraine.” This tweet included an image of the massive plane with the caption, “They burned the biggest plane, but our Mriya will never perish.”
In the subsequent days, Ukraine has been much more specific about their plans for the AN-225. They fully intend to rebuild the Mriya, which is expected to cost approximately $3 billion and take an estimated 5 years to complete. But they aren’t going to stop there. They have vowed to not only rebuild the plane but to build a second AN-225. And of course, they intend to make the Russian government foot the bill for these repairs.