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

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

Built in the 1980s to ferry the Soviet space shuttle, the plane gained second life after the Cold War as the world’s largest cargo transporter. Achieving records All sorts, first Perish Hostomel airfield near its home base, Kiev, in late February.
“The dream will never die,” Tweeted Antonov Company, in reference to Plane’s nickname “Mriya”, meaning in a dream Ukrainian. Unity was poured out from every corner of the globe.

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

To answer that question, it is necessary to first assess the damage caused by the aircraft.

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

“From the beginning of the Hostommel war there was a scene of intense fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces,” he says.

The world's largest commercial aircraft, the AN-225, was world famous.

The world’s largest commercial aircraft, the AN-225, was world famous.

Jack Guez / AFP / Getty Images

“Moscow forces tried to capture the airfield to use it as a forward operating position where they could fly in additional ground units. To do that, they launched an air strike with an attack helicopter.

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

The condition of the plane leaves no doubt about the possibility of repairs.

“The nose of the plane was completely destroyed, apparently a direct artillery hit,” Kotovio says. “In addition, the wings and some engines were extensively damaged. The tail end survived any major impact and there were a few holes due to either a shrapnel or a bullet.”

“If it had not hit the nose directly, the AN-225 could have been repaired,” he said, adding that the area around the plane was filled with spent ammunition, Russian tanks and trucks and armored vehicles were destroyed.

The second coming

The AN-225 was built as part of the Soviet space program to carry the Soviet space shuttle. "Bad" On his back.

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

Giles Limdorfer / AFP / Getty Images

Andrew Sovenko, a Kiev-based engineer and aviation expert, has worked for the Antonov company since 1987 and flew the AN-225 as part of his technical crew, compiling a detailed list of the damage seen in large numbers. Debris videos and pictures (Antonov employees are not allowed to return to the hostel due to safety concerns).

It confirms that the central part of the fuselage and the nose of the plane – including the cockpit and crew rest compartments – were destroyed, but it is the plane’s onboard systems and equipment that suffered the most serious damage.

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

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

That’s not all bad news: parts of the wings, including aerodynamic surfaces such as flaps and aerons, appear to have suffered minor damage and may be defensible.

Most of the six engines also look intact, and the entire tail of the plane is only affected by the shrapnel damage, leaving it in an acceptable position.

The AN-225 suffered heavy damage during the battle for the Hostomal airfield near Kiev.

The AN-225 suffered heavy damage during the battle for the Hostomal airfield near Kiev.

Jinya Savilov / AFP / Getty Images

Sovenko, who Wrote a book Giving details of his experience of flying on Maria about the history of Antonov Airlines, he agrees that the plane at Hostomel cannot be repaired.

“It is impossible to talk about the repair or restoration of this aircraft – we can only talk about the construction of other Maria, using individual components that can be saved from the wreckage and attached to the purpose, in the 1980s. For the construction of another aircraft. “

It refers to another AN-225 airframe Which Antonov has preserved to this day in a large workshop in Kiev. It was part of the original plan to build two AN-225s that never got out.

“This is a fully-fledged fuselage, with a new center section already installed on it, as well as the load-carrying structure of the wing and tail unit. In other words, almost the entire airframe. As far as I know, the Russian There was practically no damage during the artillery bombardment, “says Sovenko.

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New design

There is a major problem with the idea of ​​creating unusable airframes with parts that can be saved from the hostmail: it still does not have 100% of the required components.

“With exactly the same design and equipment, it would be impossible to build exactly the same aircraft,” says Sovenko. If so, Antonov faces two hurdles: new and old components have to work together and possibly go through the aircraft’s re-certification to ensure its air quality and compliance with current regulations.

The company has first issue experience, has updated many systems of the AN-225 over the years and replaced the old Soviet tech with the modern Ukrainian equivalent, but will need to increase the time and cost for full certification.

Experts say it is unlikely that the original aircraft will ever be restored to its former glory.

Experts say it is unlikely that the original aircraft will ever be restored to its former glory.

Jenya Savilov / AFPGT images

Unfortunately, this seems almost inevitable: “Today, it makes no sense to build an aircraft with a 40-year-old design,” adds Sovenko. “It is also quite possible that it would be appropriate to make additional changes to the design of the aircraft based on the original operating experience.”

The AN-225 was never designed to carry commercial cargo, and was adapted for work by Antonov’s extensive work in the late 1990’s. However, despite its enormous capacity, the plane remained inconvenient to operate from the crew’s point of view. It has to be lowered on its nose – a maneuver known as an “elephant’s knee” – to load cargo, which is rotated onboard using a custom track and pulley.

Due to its unique design, only the nose of the plane opens, and there is no ramp behind it like its more practical younger brother, the AN-124. The cargo floor can also use some reinforcement and increase the degree of compliance of the aircraft with the existing airport infrastructure, adding to the list of desirable improvements in the fictional modern version of the aircraft.

Millions or billions?

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

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

Ronnie Hartman / AFP / Getty Images

Making another Maria may not be cheap, but it is difficult to determine how much it will cost. Ukraine’s national news agency, Ukraineform, raises eyebrows When it declares That operation would cost 3 billion. In 2018, Antonov estimates the completion of the second The airframe will cost up to $ 350 millionHowever that figure may now need to be improved.

“Nothing is known for sure at the moment,” says Sovenko. “The cost will depend on how badly the aircraft’s surviving parts are damaged, as well as how many modifications and new equipment will be needed. The bulk of the cost depends on the required amount of certificate testing But in any case, we can assume that the final amount will be in the billions, not billions. “

Richard Abulafia, aviation analyst at Aerodynamic Advisory, agrees: “It depends on whether the plane will be just a prototype, or if they want to enter commercial service with full certification. Certainly $ 500 million or more is justified. , Over 3 billion. ”

Abulafiya says the real question is who will pay for it? “There really is no commercial application for this plane, and without it, where would the money come from?”

It is easy to imagine that most of the costs would be borne by Antonov, but the company suffered huge losses due to the destruction of several other aircraft and facilities; Although it is still operating at a low level, its future is uncertain.

“I am an optimist. I sincerely and deeply wish that the Antonov aircraft would continue to fly in the skies of the future,” says Sovenko, “but I am also a realist. The war will have to do with Antonov’s financial capabilities as well as the proceeds from the operation of this aircraft. “

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