Antonov AN-225: Will the world’s largest commercial aircraft be able to fly again?

(CNN) — Images of the destroyed Antonov AN-225 are now an indelible memory for aviation enthusiasts around the world.

Built in the 1980s to carry the Soviet space shuttle, the plane enjoyed a post-Cold War second life as the world’s largest cargo carrier, setting records of all kinds, before be destroyed end of February at its home base, Hostomel airfield near kyiv.
“The dream will never die” tweeted the Antonov company, in reference to the aircraft’s nickname “Mriya”, which means dream in Ukrainian. Solidarity poured in from all corners of the world.

But will the AN-225 be able to fly again?

Answering this question first requires an assessment of the damage to the aircraft.

CNN’s Vasco Cotovio saw the wreckage up close when he visited Hostomel airfield in early April, along with other CNN reporters and the Ukrainian National Police.

“Hostomel has been the scene of intense fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces since the very beginning of the war,” he says.

The largest commercial aircraft in the world, the AN-225, was famous all over the world.

Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

“Moscow forces attempted to seize the airfield to use as a forward operating position to which they could fly in additional ground units. To do this they mounted an air assault with helicopters from ‘offensive.

“They seemed to have had some initial success, but the Ukrainian response was very quick, hitting the airfield quickly and hard – to prevent any sort of landing,” he says.

The condition of the aircraft left no doubt as to the possibility of repair.

“The nose of the plane was completely destroyed, apparently a victim of direct artillery fire,” Cotovio said. “In addition to this, the wings and some engines suffered extensive damage. The rear section was spared any significant impact and has a few holes caused by shrapnel or bullets.

“If it hadn’t been for the direct hit to the nose, the AN-225 might have been serviceable,” he said, adding that the area around the plane was littered with spent ammunition, tanks and destroyed Russian trucks and destroyed armored vehicles.

A second coming

The AN-225 was created as part of the Soviet space program to transport the Soviet space shuttle "Buran" on his back.

The AN-225 was created as part of the Soviet space program to carry the Soviet space shuttle “Burane” on its back.

Gilles Leimdorfer/AFP/Getty Images

Andrii Sovenko, a kyiv-based engineer and aviation expert who has worked for the Antonov company since 1987 and flew the AN-225 as part of its technical team, compiled a detailed damage list, examining many videos and photos of the wreckage (Antonov personnel are not yet allowed to return to Hostomel for security reasons).

He confirmed that the central part of the fuselage and the nose of the aircraft – including the cockpit and the crew rest compartments – were destroyed, but it was the aircraft’s on-board systems and equipment that suffered the most critical damage.

“Restoring them will be the hardest part,” he says. “This is because most of the various electrical systems, pumps and filters used on the AN-225 all date from the 1980s.

“They’re just not made anymore, so it’s unlikely they can be restored to exactly the way they were,” he says.

It’s not all bad news: parts of the wings, including aerodynamic surfaces such as flaps and ailerons, appear to have sustained minor damage, and they may be salvageable.

Most of the six engines also appear to be intact, and the entire rear portion of the aircraft is only affected by shrapnel, leaving it in fair condition.

The AN-225 suffered significant damage in the battle for Hostomel airfield near kyiv.

The AN-225 suffered significant damage in the battle for Hostomel airfield near kyiv.

Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images

Sovenko, who wrote a book on the Antonov Airlines story detailing his experience flying the Mriya, agrees that the plane at Hostomel cannot be repaired.

“It is impossible to talk about repairing or restoring this plane – we can only talk about building another Mriya, using individual components that can be salvaged from the wreckage and combining them with those that were , in the 1980s, intended for the construction of a second aircraft.

It refers to the second AN-225 airframe that Antonov has kept to this day in a large workshop in kyiv. This was part of an initial plan to build two AN-225s, which never came to fruition.

“It is a completely finished fuselage, with a new center section already installed on it, as well as the supporting structure of the wings and the empennage. In other words, almost a complete airframe. As far as I know, it was practically intact when the factory was bombed by Russian artillery,” says Sovenko.

A new design

There is a major problem with the idea of ​​building the unused airframe with salvageable parts from Hostomel: it still won’t be 100% of the components needed.

“It will be impossible to build the exact same aircraft, with the exact same design and equipment,” Sovenko said. If so, Antonov faces two hurdles: getting the new and old components to work together and possibly having to go through a re-certification of the aircraft, to confirm its airworthiness and compliance with current regulations.

The company has experience with the first issue, having updated many AN-225 systems over the years and replaced old Soviet technology with modern Ukrainian equivalents, but full certification would take time and would increase costs.

Experts say the original plane is unlikely to ever return to its former glory.

Experts say the original plane is unlikely to ever return to its former glory.

Genya Savilov/AFPGetty Images

Unfortunately, this seems almost inevitable: “There is no point in building an aircraft today with a 40-year-old design,” adds Sovenko. “It is also entirely possible that it may be deemed appropriate to make additional design changes to the aircraft, based on operating experience of the original.”

The AN-225 was never intended to carry commercial cargo, and it was adapted for the job thanks to extensive work carried out by Antonov in the late 1990s. Nevertheless, despite its colossal capacity, the aircraft remained impractical to operate from the crew’s point of view. It must be lowered onto the nose – a maneuver known as the “elephant kneel” – to load cargo, which is rolled aboard using custom tracks and pulleys.

Due to its unique design, only the nose of the aircraft opens, and it does not have a ramp at the rear like its more practical little brother, the AN-124. The cargo floor could also be reinforced and the aircraft’s degree of compliance with existing airport infrastructure could be increased, adding to the list of desirable improvements in a hypothetical modern version of the aircraft.

Millions or billions?

The AN-225 broke many aviation records during its lifetime.

The AN-225 broke many aviation records during its lifetime.

Ronny Hartmann/AFP/Getty Images

Building a second Myria won’t be cheap, but it’s hard to establish exactly how much it would cost. Ukrinform, Ukraine’s national news agency, raised eyebrows when he said that the cost of the operation would be 3 billion dollars. In 2018, Antonov estimated that the completion of the second the cell would cost up to $350 millionalthough this figure needs to be revised now.

“Nothing is known for certain at this time,” says Sovenko, “the cost will depend on the severity of the damage to the surviving parts of the aircraft, as well as the number of modifications and new equipment that will be required. Much of the cost will depend on the amount of certification testing deemed necessary, but either way, we can guess the final amount will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, not billions.

Richard Aboulafia, aviation analyst at Aerodynamic Advisory, agrees: “It depends on whether the aircraft would just be a prototype, or whether they would like it to enter commercial service, with full certification. Certainly around $500 million. is more reasonable, even with certification, of 3 billion dollars.

The real question, says Aboulafia, is who would pay for it? “There really isn’t a lot of commercial application for this aircraft, and without that, where would the money come from?”

It is easy to think that most of the costs would be borne by Antonov, but the company suffered significant losses due to the destruction of several other aircraft and installations; although it is still operating at a reduced level, its future is uncertain.

“I am an optimist. I sincerely and deeply wish that Antonov planes will continue to fly in the skies of the future,” says Sovenko, “but I am also a realist. And I fully understand that the costs of building the second Mriya will have to be correlated with the financial capabilities of Antonov after the war, as well as with the revenue expected from the operation of this aircraft.”