China to Build the World’s Largest Plane — With Ukraine’s Help
The An-225 could assist Beijing’s space program, or something else
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
The Ukrainian aircraft builder Antonov, one of the most legendary Soviet-era companies, nearly went extinct following the Russian invasion of Crimea. The Kremlin, the firm’s main customer, suddenly became non grata.
They had such a history together. Because of the Soviet Union, in the 1980s Antonov designed the largest airplane in the world — the An-225 Mriya or “dream,” of which only one currently exists in flying order.
Today, the sole operating An-225 serves as a commercial cargo carrier hauling everything from super-heavy generators to turbine blades and oil machinery. Even more interesting, Antonov initially designed the plane to transport a reusable space shuttle on its back.
Now China wants to build one — and possibly others.
On Aug. 30, Kiev and Beijing signed a cooperation agreement to complete a second, unfinished An-225 and deliver it to the Aerospace Industry Corporation of China. “The second stage — organization of the joint series production of the An-225 in China under licence,” Antonov announced in a press release.
“In addition to funding, Ukraine will be guaranteed international cooperation and work in conjunction with global industrial majors who may join this project,” the company added.
The AN-225 Mriya, known by its NATO reporting name “Cossack,” is a heavily redesigned An-124 Ruslan — which currently serves in the Russian air force and is the largest military transport plane in the world. But the An-225 is longer, has two additional engines, a reinforced floor, larger wings and a twin-tail assembly.
All this means the Mriya can takeoff with a maximum weight of 700 tons, 200 more than a 747, and 50 more than the Airbus AN380–800F, the world’s largest passenger plane and the second largest airliner in the world.
Like the Ruslan, the Mriya’s nose swings upward to allow loading through the front. The Ruslan can also load cargo in its rear, but the Mriya can’t.
The An-225 has the longest wingspan in the world — 290 feet — and is just generally a beast of an airplane. It doesn’t have the longest wingspan in history, which belongs to the H-4 Hercules or “Spruce Goose.” But it is the heaviest plane in history.
The one existing An-225 first flew in 1988. But with the cancellation of the Buran shuttle program in 1993, Ukraine mothballed the second plane while it was under construction. Antonov will complete this second plane and deliver it to China.
And the company just released pictures of the second plane’s fuselage in its Kiev factory:
Mriya can lift such loads because of six ZMKB Progress D-18 turbofan engines capable of producing 51,600 pounds of thrust … each.
The plane packs 32 wheels (the A380 has 22) and can fly at a cruising speed of nearly 500 miles per hour with a maximum range of around 9,500 miles — without subtracting for tonnage added inside Mriya’s enormous hold.
But the An-225 is not just an aircraft — it’s a business. And Ukraine’s aircraft industry is desperate for customers.
Antonov, a formerly Soviet company, became part of an independent Ukraine in 1991. But despite the collapse of the USSR, the company carried on much as it had before, designing rugged transport planes for Russia and other countries — but mainly Russia.
The company designed planes, and did not build them. However, Antonov dipped into manufacturing in 2009, and started building passenger jets for customers including Cuba and North Korea, according to the New York Times.
But Antonov was on thin ice. The Russian invasion of Crimea and Eastern Europe worsened the situation. With Kiev fighting Russian-backed fighters — thousands of Russian servicemen among them — in eastern Ukraine, defense ties with the Kremlin came to an abrupt halt.
Predictably, Antonov collapsed and nearly took Ukraine’s aviation industry down with it. “Antonov is Ukraine’s calling card. It built the most powerful transport planes that beat all the world records,” Ukrainian military analyst Valentyn Badrak told the Times in 2014. “Losing it would be like cutting off an arm.”
Of course, the company still exists, but barely. In January 2016, Ukraine liquidated Antonov’s assets and transferred them underneath the state-owned defense conglomerate Ukroboronprom.
The overriding question involves China’s purpose behind acquiring the world’s biggest airplane. There are few details, and a general rule when it comes to major aviation projects is believe it when you see it.
Vasily Kashin, a Russian military expert, noted that the Chinese buyer shares a similar name to China’s enormous Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), but they’re not the same, and AICC is tiny in comparison.
“The deal fits into a conventional model of China acquiring technologies for military use and for Ukraine it’s a deal with a small import-export intermediary firm,” Kashin said according to the Russian state media outlet Sputnik.
The An-225 has shortcomings as a strategic military airlifter. Mainly, it’s really big and needs a minimum of 11,500 feet while carrying its maximum payload to takeoff — limiting where it can go. That’s not very strategic. Although it does have military experience, such as hauling 216,000 meals to Oman for U.S. troops in January 2002, according to Popular Mechanics.
To be sure, China needs heavy-lift jet transport planes, but it needs lots of them, and millions of man hours over decades learning how they operate.
It’s hard to see how an expensive, highly-specialized and super-large monster plane advances this goal. Although the Chinese air force needs as much experience as it can building heavy airlifters, which only a handful of nations know how to do.
Right now Beijing’s sole domestically produced, strategic jet airlifter is the Xian Y-20, which made its maiden flight in 2013.
Antonov has also not signed over intellectual property rights. “The rights of the An-225 ‘Mriya’ certificate holder, including An-225 intellectual property rights, will not be reassigned by Antonov State Company to the Chinese side,” the company stated.
Another (most likely) possibility is that a Chinese An-225 could do what the Ukrainian one does now — flying very-heavy commercial loads around the world, including to and from China. This would require a private company interested in flying them, but it’s not out of the question. Although Antonov Airlines’ sole An-225 only flies once or twice per year.
There’s another option. It’s what the Soviets originally designed the An-225 to do — haul a space shuttle.
It’s highly unlikely China will want to build an expensive, inefficient manned shuttle like the Soviet Buran or the NASA Space Shuttle. But the Mriya could support the Chinese space program by air launching space boosters carrying small payloads.
We do know China is experimenting with an air-launched, unmanned space plane known as Shenlong. In 2007, photographs of the Shenlong — or “Divine Dragon” — appeared, depicting it attached underneath a Xian H-6 bomber. A jumbo transport plane could support a larger space plane developed in the 2020s.
And let’s not forget that the Soviets once envisioned the An-225 launching a space plane known as MAKS. A Mriya would have carried a reusable rocket-powered spacecraft on its back before diving to build speed, soaring to 28,000 feet and then releasing MAKS to roar itself into orbit.
But frankly, we have no idea what China is trying to do. Or whether that second, half-completed airframe will ever leave Kiev.