Why Did The USSR Build The Antonov AN-225?

The Antonov An-225 is the largest aircraft ever built. With six engines and 32 wheels, no other aircraft comes close to its size, and cargo transport ability. Why though, was it ever made? As this article explores, it came about as part of the Soviet space program. This required huge cargo space, and although such space is useful today, it’s unlikely to be rebuilt any time soon.

Antonov An-225
Antonov An-225. Phot:o Dubai Airports

Transporting a rocket

The Antonov An-225 (known as Mriya) was ordered for just one purpose, to transport its space-bound rocket. Just as the US developed the Space Shuttle, the USSR also worked on a similar reusable, crewed space vehicle. The project was known as the Buran program (Buran means Blizzard) and launched in 1971.

As part of this project, one reusable spacecraft was developed, also known as ‘Buran.’ This would be launched using a single-use rocket called ‘Energia.’

Just like the US Space Shuttle (which was transported using a modified Boeing 747 aircraft), Buran needed to be moved from the construction site to its launch area and recovered after its return. The solution was a specially designed heavy cargo aircraft that could carry the shuttle on top of it. And the large cargo hold could also be used to transport parts of the Energia rocket.

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Buran spaceship on AN 225
The aircraft was initially designed to transport Soviet spacecraft. Photo: Vasiliy Koba via Wikimedia Commons

Enlarging the Antonov An-124

Antonov had already developed a large capacity cargo aircraft, the An-124. This first flew in 1982 and was the largest cargo aircraft at the time (and still is apart from the one-off An-225). For Buran transportation, though, something larger was needed, and it was extended to create the An-225.

The An-225 is the largest cargo aircraft ever built. Photo: Dubai Airports

The fuselage was extended with fore and aft extensions. The rear cargo door and ramp were removed to create extra internal space. And the number of wheels was increased from five on each side, to seven to handle the additional weight. The resulting 84 meter An-225 can lift cargo up to 250 tonnes. For comparison, the 747-8F freighter aircraft can lift up to 136 tonnes.

The An-225 was developed from the already existing An-124. Photo: Getty Images

There is a second An-225

Aviation fans will know that there is only one Antonov An-225 flying. There were original plans to build three more aircraft, but these were dropped after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. One other aircraft though, had started construction, and this still sits unfinished in a warehouse in Kyiv (it is thought to be around 70% complete).

Why Did The USSR Build The Antonov AN-225?
The second An-225 is 70% complete and just needs an investor to finish the job. Photo: Getty Images

There was interest from the Chinese in completing the construction in 2016, but this never happened.

Will there be another built?

The An-225 has seen plenty of use in recent years. In particular, during the COVID-19 crisis, it has broken two cargo records, transporting vast amounts of medical supplies from Asia to Europe. Its cargo ability, along with high range, remains unmatched, and perhaps post-crisis, there will be renewed interest in such ability?

second Antonov AN-225 is economically unviable
The AN-225 has been important during the pandemic. Photo: Getty Images

Antonov’s CEO Oleksander Donets thinks not, however. According to reporting in the Kyiv Post, he believes the cost of redesigning it to match modern standards would be too high. And it remains very limited in operations with its size and limits airports that can handle it. He explained:

“(Mriya) was designed specifically for transporting Burans, not humanitarian cargo. Basically, for space. This was something the Soviet Union could afford.”

What do you think of the An-225? Do you believe there is space for another to ever be built? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.