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Antonov AN-225: Can the world’s largest commercial aircraft fly again?

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

Built in the 1980s to transport the Soviet space shuttle, the plane had a second life after the Cold War as the world’s largest cargo carrier, setting records of all kinds, before being destroyed in late February at its base of operations, the Hostomel airfield near kyiv.
“The dream will never die” tweeted the Antonov company, referring to the plane’s nickname “Mriya”, which means dream in Ukrainian. Solidarity came from all corners of the world.

But can the AN-225 ever fly again?

Answering that question first requires an assessment of the damage sustained by the aircraft.

CNN’s Vasco Cotovio has seen the remains up close, when he visited the Hostomel airfield in early April, along with other journalists from CNN and the Ukrainian National Police.

“Hostomel was the scene of heavy fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces very early in the war,” he says.

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

Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

“Moscow forces attempted to seize the airfield to use as a forward operating position that additional ground units could fly to. To do this, they mounted an air assault with attack helicopters.

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

The state of the plane left no doubt about the possibility of a repair.

“The nose of the plane was completely destroyed, apparently the victim of a direct artillery hit,” says Cotovio. “In addition to that, there was extensive damage to the wings and some of the engines. The tail end section was spared major hits and has some holes from shrapnel or bullets.

“Had it not been for the direct hit to the nose, the AN-225 might have been repairable,” he says, adding that the area around the plane was littered with spent ammunition, destroyed Russian tanks and trucks, and destroyed armored vehicles.

a second coming

The AN-225 was created as part of the Soviet space program to carry the Soviet space shuttle.

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, an engineer and aviation expert from kyiv who has worked for the Antonov Company since 1987 and has flown the AN-225 as part of its technical crew, has compiled a detailed list of the damage, looking at a large number of videos and pictures of the wreckage (Antonov staff still unable to return to Hostomel due to security concerns).

It confirms that the center section of the fuselage and the nose of the plane, including the cabin and crew rest compartments, are destroyed, but it is the systems and equipment on board the plane that received the most critical damage.

“Restoring them will be the most difficult,” he says. “This is due to the fact that most of the various electrical systems, pumps and filters used on the AN-225 are all from the 1980s.

“They’re just not being 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 like flaps and ailerons, appear to have sustained minor damage and could be salvaged.

Most of the six engines also appear intact, and the entire tail section of the plane is affected only by shrapnel damage, leaving it in fair condition.

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

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

Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images

Sovenko, who has written a book on the history of Antonov Airlines detailing his experience flying the Mriya, agrees that the plane at Hostomel is beyond repair.

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

It refers to the second AN-225 airframe that Antonov has preserved to this day in a large workshop in kyiv. It was part of an original plan to build two AN-225s, which never worked.

“This is a completely finished fuselage, with a new center section already installed, as well as the load-bearing structure for the wings and tail unit. In other words, almost a complete fuselage. As far as I know, it is virtually undamaged.” during the Russian artillery shelling of the plant,” says Sovenko.

a new design

There is one main problem with the idea of ​​building the unused fuselage with salvageable parts from Hostomel: it still won’t account for 100% of the components needed.

“It will be impossible to build exactly the same plane, with exactly the same design and equipment,” says Sovenko. If that’s the case, Antonov faces two hurdles: getting old and new components to work together, and potentially having to go through recertification of the aircraft, to confirm its airworthiness and compliance with current regulations.

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

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

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

Fake images of Genya Savilov / AFP

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

The AN-225 was never designed to carry commercial cargo and was adapted for work through extensive work done by Antonov in the late 1990s. Despite its colossal capacity, however, the aircraft remained inconvenient to operate. from the crew’s point of view. It has to lower itself onto its nose, a maneuver known as “elephant kneeling,” to load the 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 smaller brother, the AN-124. The cargo floor could also need some strengthening 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 numerous aviation records during its service life.

The AN-225 broke numerous aviation records during its service life.

Ronny Hartmann/AFP/Getty Images

Building a second Myria won’t be cheap, but it’s hard to say exactly how much it would cost. Ukrinform, Ukraine’s national news agency, surprised when it stated that the cost of the operation would be $3 billion. In 2018, Antonov estimated that the completion of the second airframe would cost up to $350 million, although that figure may now need to be revised.

“Nothing is known for sure at the moment,” says Sovenko, “the cost will depend on how damaged the surviving parts of the aircraft are, as well as how many modifications and new equipment will be required. A large part of the costs will depend on the amount of certification tests deemed necessary. But in any case, we can assume that 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 plane would just be a prototype, or whether they wanted it to go into commercial service, fully certified. Certainly $500 million or so is more reasonable, even with certification, $3 billion”.

The real question, says Aboulafia, is who would pay for it? “There really isn’t much of a 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 has suffered heavy losses due to the destruction of various other aircraft and facilities; although it is still operating at a reduced level, its future is uncertain.

“I am an optimist. I sincerely and deeply hope that Antonov aircraft 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 required to build the second Mriya will have to be correlated with financial capabilities. of Antonov after the war, as well as with the expected income from the operation of this aircraft”.

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