Chasing The Dream

By: Category: Air FreightersAviation HistoryTransports

The one-of-a-kind Antonov AN-225 Mriya (which translated means Dream) is a super-sized cargo transport aircraft. A second, partly-completed airframe was known to exist, and every once in a while a rumor surfaces that it too will be completed and put into operation, but there is no concrete evidence of this twin being activated at this time. Since it is a rare visitor to any airport, when (what was once called) the “largest aircraft in the world” is scheduled for a visit, crowds flock to see it. I’ve seen it three times now, in three different decades for three different reasons. A fourth time eluded me, as it flew over my home… and on top of a broken cloud layer. I heard it loud and clear though!

The aircraft was built in Kiev, Ukraine by the Antonov Company specifically to haul the Energia rocket boosters and the Buran space shuttle for the Soviet Union’s space shuttle program. In contrast, the U.S. converted a Boeing B-747 for the Space Shuttle carriage, and shipped the rocket boosters mainly by rail and river barge. The first flight of the AN-225 occurred on December 21, 1988. After the completion of the Buran program (which was terminated by 1993), the AN-225 was used by the U.S.S.R.’s military as a cargo lifter for some years. Ultimately, it was repurposed to commercial cargo carrying, where its second career began in 2001. Over the years, it has established scores of heavyweight cargo lifting records, including several payloads of over 250 tons! Some of the cargos lifted over the years were so heavy, that special steel girder-constructed cradles had to be built (and carried) due to the weight distribution on the aircraft’s flooring, for items like industrial generators and train locomotives. An overhead crane is built into the interior cargo cabin to help with loading and unloading.

As far as being the largest aircraft in the world, after the debut of the Stratolaunch jet in California, the AN-225 fell to 3rd place with the largest wingspan… eclipsed by the Stratolaunch and the Hughes H-4 Hercules Flying Boat. The Dream still has the longest fuselage and cargo – carrying volume of all heavier than air aircraft in the world, and can still boast of having the largest payload and maximum gross takeoff weight of 1.3 million pounds too. Most of those payload records made decades earlier are still intact as of mid-2020.

My first encounter with the Dream was at the Abbotsford Air Show in 1989. A trade show was held before the weekend air show, and for the first time in North America, a pair of fearsome MiG-29s, a Kamov-32 helicopter and a SU-26 aerobatic plane were displayed. The other part of the display was the giant AN-225, which carried the latter two aircraft and ground support equipment for the others from the U.S.S.R. to Canada. Although these five aircraft all had special significance to me as an aviation photographer on the western side of the “Iron Curtain”, this huge jet was unlike anything I had ever seen… including the USAF’s C-5A Galaxy. Not to be outshone by the MiGs, the Mriya flew a demonstration on one of the first days, and no matter how fast the aircraft flew, it still looked slow and graceful.

Above photos from the 1989 Abbotsford Air and Trade Show

The second time our paths crossed was at Windsor Locks, Connecticut, at the Bradley International Airport. The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident had occurred a few years earlier, and two survivors were transported from the Ukraine to the U.S. for treatments during early March, 1991. The AN-225 was used for this trip, as it was to be stuffed with almost 200 tons of equipment and medicine for the establishment of a hospital in the Ukraine on the return trip. The supplies would help form a facility to help survivors fight radiation-caused illnesses. The big jet was parked on the far side of Bradley for a few weeks as the supplies and relief funds were collected for transport. Additional funds were raised from aircraft tour receipts, which were generated while parked at Bradley with the help of the New England Air Museum. This is where I saw the overhead crane, plus the large hydraulic reservoir tanks for each of the more than two-dozen main landing gear wheels. A Ukranian flag flew at the front of the aircraft, as the Soviet Union was in disarray, and would be dissolved alter that year, on Christmas Day.

Above photos from the 1991 visit to Bradley International Airport

A few years ago, I was hoping to photograph the Dream in the skies over my home in New Hampshire. Armed with information from flight tracking provider Flightaware, it would be over my home on a weekend, about mid-afternoon. As that time arrived, a large cumulus cloud had built up overhead, blocking my view. Of course, it went directly overhead on schedule too… I could hear those six Progress D-18T jet engines and their particular whine for quite a while!

Above photos from Bangor International Airport in 2020

My latest encounter with the Dream was just a few weeks ago, at Bangor, Maine. Mriya was in the middle of an intermediate 1 ½ day stop for fuel and crew rest before flying east to Prestwick Airport in Scotland for its next payload. The other two times I had seen it, it wore the red stripe and flag of the Soviet Union on its tail, but this trip was different. Adorned with newer Antonov Airlines colors and a Ukrainian aircraft registration number, the aircraft gleamed in the sun, as it was overhauled and updated with new avionics a year or so earlier.

Seeing a one-of-a-kind aircraft gives airplane nuts like me a sense of satisfaction for seeing something historic and unique. Seeing the sole example of the Dream in person has put a smile on my face every time I’ve seen or heard it…. and I will smile again the next time when our paths cross in the air or on the ground.

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