The An-225 is the world's largest cargo aircraft

Antonov An-225

World’s Largest Freight Aircraft

The massive Antonov An-225 super-freighter is globally-unique - there’s literally nothing quite like it flying in today’s skies. The world’s largest operational aircraft, it’s also by definition the world’s largest cargo aircraft and the freight industry’s heaviest. The An-225 wasn’t conceived as a commercial freighter but, in recent years, that’s certainly what it’s become, setting numerous world records along the way. Only a single An-225 has been so far been completely built and, operating from its Kiev homebase, it’s in every sense a massive contributor to today’s air freight scene.

An-225 Development

Ukrainian aircraft manufacturer Antonov developed the An-225 from its preceding An-124 cargo aircraft design to replace the Myasishchev VM-T as Russia’s Buran space shuttle carrier. Its design and development phases spanned a five-year period starting in 1984 and the aircraft was rolled-out in December 1988. Its given name was ‘Mriya’, or ‘Dream’. On 21 December, the An-225 had its first flight, lifting off from Antonov Airport in Kiev, Ukraine, for an initial one hour 15-minute test. In its cockpit was a crew headed by Captain Alexander Galunenko.

An-225 Development

By March 1989, the An-225 had flown around 40 more times and spend some 60 hours airborne. Three months later, the type made its international debut at the 1989 Paris Air Show where it was exhibited in its operational configuration with the Buran positioned on top. The following year, the An-225 participated in 1990’s Farnborough International Airshow where it performed exceptionally impressive flying displays, demonstrating its sharp rate of turn and impressively short take-off and landing capabilities.

From Shuttle-Carrier to Freighter

The early 1990s’ USSR break-up ultimately ended the An-225’s shuttle-carrying days. By 1994, Russia’s space programme having been abandoned, it had been grounded and wouldn’t fly again for the rest of the decade. However, in 2000, work started to get it flying again and, this time, it would be an out-and-out commercial freighter – Antonov executives having realised a marketed existed out there for an aircraft able to ferry around exceptionally bulky loads. The An-225’s relaunch programme took six months to complete, at a cost of $20 million. As a result, it had certain equipment removed and its avionics and engines upgraded, amongst other improvements.

Certification for An-225 commercial cargo flights was awarded by IAC AR (the Interstate Aviation Committee Aviation Register) on 23 May 2001. With this in place, the An-225’s air freight career began. The first commercial cargo it carried weighed 187,500 kilograms (413,367 pounds) and comprised 216,000 meals. Packed inside 375 pallets, the meals were air-freighted between Stuttgart and Oman on 3 January 2002 but, for the An-225, even greater loads lay ahead…

An-225 Features

Compared to its predecessor, the An-124, the An-225 features two extra engines (and its six-engine layout is unique among air freighters), a strengthened cabin floor and a more robust undercarriage with additional wheels. Some of these wheels can be steered, allowing the An-225 to make full 180 degree turns on runways that are 200 feet (60 metres) or more wide, while the six engines - ZMKB Progress Lotarev D-18T turbofans - together produce an enormous 309,600 pounds thrust.

An-225 Features

These features aside, the An-225 incorporates many An-124 parts including a fuselage that’s the same width but 23 feet (seven metres) longer. Its cargo hold is 142 feet (43.3 metres) long – a further distance than that covered during the Wright Brothers’ first flight on 17 December 1903 – 21 feet (6.4 metres) wide and 14 feet, four inches (4.4 metres) high, producing a space that’s 46,000 cubic feet (1,300 cubic metres) in volume. Since the aircraft has no rear loading ramp, all cargo enters and exits through the nose area. To aid this loading process, the An-225’s nosewheel is semi retractable so, when it’s at rest, the aircraft leans slightly downwards. This allows freight consignments to be conveniently driven/loaded straight in and out, without the need to deploy lifting equipment. Systems-wise, the An-225 is fitted with fly-by-wire flight controls that see the pilots’ inputs directed to the flight control surfaces via computer.

An-225 Capabilities

The An-225’s maximum internal freight payload is 250,000 kilograms (551,150 pounds) – equivalent to around 50 elephants! Its initial maximum take-off weight was 600,000 kilograms (1,322,750 pounds). Post-upgrade, that figure’s increased to 640,000 kilograms (1,410,959 pounds). Up to 80 cars can be transported inside or, alternatively, 16 UAC-type containers with individual capacities of 10,000 kilograms (22,046 pounds). When fully laden with cargo, the An-225 has a maximum range of 2,797 miles (4,500 kilometres). With a reduced payload but maximum fuel being carried, that range becomes 9,569 miles (15,400 kilometres). The An-225 cruises at 497 miles per hour (800 kilometres per hour) but can reach a top speed of 528 miles per hour (850 kilometres per hour). Its flights take place at a maximum ceiling of 36,089 feet (11,000 metres)

An-225 Operations

An-225 World Records

According to the Antonov Design Bureau, the An-225 has 240 world records under its belt. They include the heaviest cargo consignment ever airlifted (253,000 kilograms – 557,770 pounds) and the heaviest single item ever airlifted. This was a gas power plant generator, weighing in at 189,000 kilograms (417,000 pounds) which the An-225 transported on 11 August 2009. The following June, it flew a pair of wind turbine blades between China and Denmark. 138 feet, two inches (42.1 metres) in length, they stand as the longest items ever flown inside an aircraft.

An-225 Operations

An-225 freight operations are carried out by a six-man crew that consists of a pilot, co-pilot, flight engineers, a navigator and a radio operator. The type is operated by Antonov Airlines which was established in 1989 as an outsized freight charter firm and has 22 aircraft in its current fleet. Some of the most notable An-225 cargo flights carried out saw construction machinery delivered to Haiti after its 2010 earthquake and general supplies delivered to Japan following its 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

An-225 Cargo

Key Facts:

Role:  Strategic airlifter
Length: 275 ft 7 in (84.0 m)
Wing span:  290 ft 0 in (88.4 m)
Engines: Six ZMKB Progress D-18 turbofans producing 51,600 pounds thrust each
Maximum speed: 528 mph (850 km/h)
Maximum range: 9,569 miles (15,400 km)
Maximum height: 36,089 ft (11,000 m)
Crew: Six (pilot, co-pilot, flight engineers, navigator, radio operator)
Freight capacity: 250,000 kilograms (551,150 pounds)
First flown: 21 December 1988

An-225 landing image copyright FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) – courtesy Wikimedia Commons
An-225 rear view image copyright USAF – courtesy Wikimedia Commons
An-225 wheels image copyright USMC - courtesy Wikimedia Commons
An-225 loading image copyright USAF – courtesy Wikimedia Commons
An-225 nose-up image copyright USAF – courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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