Peter Lobner, updated 26 September 2023
Historically, the Antonov Design Bureau was responsible for the design and development of large military and civil transport aircraft for the former Soviet Union. With headquarters and production facilities in and around Kiev, this Ukrainian aircraft manufacturing and servicing firm is now known as Antonov State Company. The largest of the jet powered transport aircraft built by Antonov are the four-engine An-124 and the even larger six-engine An-225.
An-124 Ruslan (NATO name: Condor)
The An-124 made its first flight in December 1982 and entered operational service in 1986. This aircraft is a counterpart to the Lockheed C-5A, which is the largest U.S. military transport aircraft. A comparison of the basic parameters of these two aircraft is presented in the following table.
As you can see in this comparison, the An-124 is somewhat larger than the C-5A, which has a longer range, but at a slower maximum speed.
The An-124 currently is operated by the Russian air force and also by two commercial cargo carriers: Ukraine’s Antonov Airlines and Russia’s Volga-Dnepr Airlines. The civil An-124-100 is a commercial derivative of the military An-124. The civil version was certified in 1992, and meets all current civil standards for noise limits and avionic systems.
In their commercial cargo role, these aircraft specialize in carrying outsized and/or very heavy cargo that cannot be carried by other aircraft. These heavy-lift aircraft serve civil and military customers worldwide, including NATO and the U.S. military. I’ve seen an An-124s twice on the tarmac at North Island Naval Station in San Diego. In both cases, it arrived in the afternoon and was gone before sunrise the next day. Loading and/or unloading occurred after dark.
An-124-100. Source: Wikimedia Commons
As shown in the following photo, the An-124 can retract its nose landing gear and “kneel” to facilitate cargo loading through the raised forward door.
An-124-100. Source: Mike Young / Wikimedia Commons
The following diagram shows the geometry and large size of the cargo hold on the An-124. The built-in cargo handling equipment includes an overhead crane system capable of lifting and moving loads up to 30 metric tons (about 66,100 pounds) within the cargo hold. As shown in the diagram below, the cargo hold is about 36.5 meters (119.7 feet) long, 6.4 meters (21 feet) wide, and the clearance from the floor to the ceiling of the cargo hold is 4.4 meters (14.4 feet). The installed crane hoists may reduce overhead clearance to 3.51 meters (11.5 feet).
An-124-100 cargo hold dimensions. Source: aircharterservice.com
An-124-100. Source: aircharterservice.com
Production of the An-124 was suspended following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the ongoing tensions between Russia and Ukraine. In spite of repeated attempts by Ukraine to restart the An-124 production line, it appears that Antonov may not have the resources to restart An-124 production.
The An-225 was adapted from the An-124 and significantly enlarged to serve as the carrier aircraft for the Soviet space shuttle, the Buran. The relative sizes of the An-124 and An-225 are shown in the following diagram, with a more detailed comparison in the following table.
An-124 & -225 comparison. Source: Airvectors.com
An-124 & -225 comparison. Source: aviatorjoe.net
The only An-225 ever produced made its first flight in December 1988. It is shown carrying the Buran space shuttle in the following photo.
An-225 carrying Buran space shuttle. Source: fcba.tumblr.com
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the cancellation of the Buran space program, the An-225 was mothballed for eight years until Antonov Airlines reactivated the aircraft for use as a commercial heavy-lift transport. In this role, it can carry ultra-heavy / oversize cargo weighing up to 250 metric tons (551,000 pounds).
In 2016, it appeared that the giant An-225 was about to enter series production after Antonov and Aerospace Industry Corporation of China (AICC) signed a deal on 30 August 2016 for An-225 production in China. At the time, it was expected that the first new An-225 could be produced in China as early as in 2019. A Chinese An-225 would modernize and greatly expand China’s military and civil airlift capabilities. While it isn’t clear how that airlift capability would be employed, it certainly will improve China’s ability to deliver heavy machinery, bulk material, and many personnel anywhere in the world, including any location in and around the South China Sea that has an adequate runway.
26 September 2023 update
In late February 2022, the An-225 was destroyed by invading Russian forces at the Hostomel Airport near Kyiv, where the giant aircraft was undergoing regular maintenance intended to support its continued operational use into the 2030s.
Source: Oleksii Samsonov / KCSA via The Moscow Times
Source: Oleksii Samsonov via Aero Times
A second unfinished airframe of the An-225, originally intended for ground testing, still exists at an unspecified location. That second airframe, plus serviceable parts salvaged from the original An-225, would form a starting point for building another flyable AN-225.
Time will tell if an An-225 can be rebuilt. I hope we’ll see Mriya fly again.
For more information
- Greg Goebel, “Antonov Giants: An-22, An-124, & An-225,” Airvectors, updated 1 May 2002: http://www.airvectors.net/avantgt.html
- Mert Erdemir, “Mriya: world’s biggest cargo plane destroyed by the Russian army,” Interesting Engineering, 27 February 2022: https://interestingengineering.com/mriya-worlds-biggest-cargo-plane-destroyed
- Clement Charpentreau, “Antonov confirms design work on second An-225 Mriya already begun,” Aerotime Hub, 11 September 2022: https://www.aerotime.aero/articles/32597-antonov-an-225-mriya-design-started
- “Ukraine’s Antonov An-225 Mriya: from the space race to modern day war,” (5:10 min), posted by AeroTimes Explains, 26 September 2022: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J0LoE7VE4_I&t=4s