A crowd of over 50,000 people gathered at Perth Airport one morning in May 2016. Armed with an array of cameras and cell phones, they had come to witness and record the arrival of the biggest and heaviest airplane in the world, the Antonov AN-225. The spectators gasped in amazement and delight as the giant aircraft gradually appeared in the sky during its final descent to the runway.
The Antonov AN-225 made its maiden flight on 21st December 1988. Designed and built by Design Bureau No. 153 (OKB-153) in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, it was originally developed to transport the Energiya rocket boosters and the Buran space shuttle as part of the Soviet space program. Only one AN-225 was produced. The new aircraft was named Mriya, which means “Dream” in Ukrainian.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Buran space project was abandoned and the AN-225 was put into storage and its engines removed and installed on other airplanes. In the late 1990s, a growing need for greater airfreight capacity induced the Ukrainian authorities to return the AN-225 to active service, totally restored and with a new reinforced cargo hold. The Mriya is now owned and operated by Antonov Airlines, based in Kiev, Ukraine.
Indeed, it would appear to be a dream for an airplane with such impressive numbers to actually lift off from the ground. It’s 84 meters long, over 18 meters tall and with a wingspan of almost 89 meters. The wing area is 905 m2; that means a wing area of almost one square kilometer! The plane’s empty weight is 285 metric tons. It can carry cargo up to 250 tons and its maximum takeoff weight is 640 tons.
Power is provided by six ZMKB Progress D-18T turbofan engines, each capable of delivering 229 kN thrust. Top speed is 850 km/h and cruising speed 800 km/h. Range is 15,400 km fully fuelled with no cargo, but this drops to 4,000 km with a 200-ton payload. The service ceiling is 11,000 meters.
The flight control surfaces are governed by fly-by-wire and triple-redundant hydraulics. The landing gear system comprises 32 wheels, some of which are steerable, in order to allow the aircraft to turn around on a sixty-meter-wide runway.
Even more impressive is the fully-pressurized cargo hold, which has a total volume of 1,200 m3. It’s 43.35 meters long, 6.4 meters wide and 4.4 meters high. In order to fully appreciate these numbers, it could be pointed out that the cargo hold is longer than the first flight of the Wright brothers in 1903! The nose of the plane lifts up and the front landing gear kneels down in order to facilitate access to the cargo hold with inclined ramps. The ramps, installed in the cargo hold and extendable as required, can withstand weights up to 200 tons. There is an on-board crane with a 30-ton lift capacity. The crane itself weighs 5 tons.
Amazingly, the AN-225 can also carry external loads on top of the fuselage up to 70 meters long and weighing 200 tons. The tail of the aircraft was designed with twin vertical stabilizers attached to an oversize swept-back horizontal stabilizer in order to avoid turbulence generated by the external load.
The AN-225 currently holds 242 world records for cargo aircraft. Among its most notable achievements: the heaviest payload (four military battle tanks, 254 tons), the heaviest single item payload (a generator for a gas power plant, 190 tons), the longest payload (two wind turbine blades, each 42.10 meters long).
Aside from its weight capacity, the AN-225 has been appreciated for its capacity to carry a very large number of items. One of its first commercial missions was to bring 216,000 prepared meals to American military personnel based in the Middle East. This shipment was loaded on 375 pallets and weighed 188 tons. In December 2002, the Mriya was chartered to fly from New York to Entebbe, Uganda with 80,000 shoeboxes packed with gifts for needy children. Bono, the leader of the Irish rock band U2, coordinated the relief effort. After inspecting the aircraft, he declared it “bigger than a rock star’s ego”. International aid organizations have come to rely on the AN-225 for its ability to quickly transport huge quantities of emergency supplies.
The AN-225 is expected to remain in service until at least the year 2033.
By Giovanni Gregorat, Contributing Editor MFN