The Long Life and Dramatic Death of the An 225 Mriya

by John Delach

Ukrainians proudly considered Mriya to be the queen of the skies. Mriya, meaning dream, and pronounced, Mer-EE-ah, like the heroine in “West Side Story.” Its existence ended suddenly and tragically on February 24, 2022 when Putin, began his war of aggression against Ukraine.

The An-225, a one of a kind, was at rest inside its custom-made hanger at Hostomel Airport outside of Kyiv. The crew had flown the giant home to its operating base on February 2nd, after it finished what turned out to be its last mission flying COVID test kits from China to Africa. On the first day of their invasion, the Russians bombed Hostomel and in the process, destroyed the An-225.

Ironically, the concept behind the design of this airplane was part of the Soviet Union’s (USSR) continual effort to compete with NASA’s space shuttle program. NASA had converted a surplus Boeing 747 to carry our prototype non-space ready shuttle Enterprise for non-powered launches allowing the crew to practice the necessary gliding techniques that the real shuttle pilots would need to make successful landings at the end of their missions.

Once the first shuttle, Columbia, went into space, the same 747 returned those shuttles that landed at Edwards Air Force Base back to the Kennedy launch center. Its final mission was to distribute the remaining shuttles to their retirement homes.   

The An-225 first flew on December 21, 1988. In 1990, it carried the Soviet’s version of their non-space ready shuttle, the Buran, model number, 1.01. When the USSR collapsed in 1991, the Buran space shuttle program was cancelled and the AN-225 was relegated to storage where it remained until 1994.

But the An-225 was clearly needed to satisfy the demands for an extreme heavy-lift cargo aircraft. No need to re-invent the wheel: the An-225 had a lifting capacity of 550,000 pounds.

Oleksandr Halunenko was the giant’s first pilot having the honor to be at the controls for its inaugiful first flight in 1988. Now, 76, he lives in retirement in a suburb of Kyiv not far from where the airplane he considers to be his child was destroyed.

Jeffrey Gettleman interviewed Mr. Halunenko for The New York Times, and wrote about his thoughts: “lt takes a lot to impress the Americans, but I’ll never forget the crowds that lined up to see us and no one knew where Kyiv was,” he laughed.

The Antonov Company re-purposed the Mriya for commercial use to fly extreme heavy-lift cargoes world-wide that no other airplane could handle. Powered by six monster jet engines, three under each wing and with a landing gear of 32 wheels, the An-225 was longer and heavier than any other airplane.

There are many videos made of the giant’s take-offs as the An-225 needed every foot of a runway to slowly lift off. Poised at the starting point of a runway, the airplanes wings drooped under the weight of its six engines and all of the fuel stored in those tanks. As the giant rumbled down the runway, the wings begin to rise as the giant gains speed. Still, the experienced crew knew that they must hold their charge bound to the runway for as long as possible while building up sufficient speed to lift the nose allowing the An-225 to leave the ground, overcome gravity’s pull and gently lift into the air, becoming airborne and achieving the miracle of flight.

“In 2001, Mr. Halunenko broke several aviation records, including for the heaviest cargo load ever lifted in the air. The plane also set the world’s record for transporting the longest piece of air cargo – a 138 foot-foot turbine blade – and hosting the highest-altitude art exhibition.”

“By 2004, Mr. Halunenko had retired as its pilot. But Mriya carried on. In the past two years it made hundreds of flights, often stuffed with COVID-19 supplies. For one journey to Poland, 80,000 people live-streamed the landing. Newly painted in yellow and blue, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, Mriya became Ukraine’s ambassador to the world.”

American intelligence warned that the Russians planned to seize Hostomel airport as part of their opening blitzkrieg, but for reasons we may never know, the Mriya’s owners didn’t fly their airplane to a safer location.

“At 6:30 a.m. on Feb. 24, the day the war started, Russian missiles slammed into a national guard base next to the airport. A few hours later, Russian helicopters blasted the airport with more missiles that hit the hangers where Mriya and other airplanes were stored.”

Like other giants of the sky from previous eras like the Hindenburg and the Pan American flying boats, this unique airplane is lost to history.

Still, Mr. Halunenko’s pride is intact. He told the reporter, “No other country has created such an aircraft. Mriya”, he added quietly, “(She gave) Ukraine prestige.”