Will the largest commercial airplane in the world ever fly again?

Will the largest commercial airplane in the world ever fly again?

Will the largest commercial airplane in the world ever fly again?

(CNN) – The images of the Antonov AN-225 wreck are now an indelible memory for aviation enthusiasts all over the world.

Built in the 1980s to ferry the Soviet space shuttle, the plane had a second life after the Cold War as the largest freight transporter in the world, setting records of all kinds before being destroyed in late February in its base, Hostomel airport near Kiev.
“The dream will never die” tweeted the Antonov company, referring to the plane’s nickname “Mriya”, which means dream in Ukrainian. Solidarity has come from every corner of the world.

But will the AN-225 ever fly again?

The answer to this question first requires an assessment of the damage suffered by the aircraft.

CNN’s Vasco Cotovio saw the wreck up close when he visited Hostomel Airport in early April, along with other CNN reporters and the Ukrainian National Police.

“Hostomel has been the scene of intense fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces since the beginning of the war,” he says.

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

Jack Guez / AFP / Getty Images

“The Moscow forces tried to seize the airport to use it as an forward operational position to which they could fly in additional ground units. To do this, they organized an air assault with attack helicopters.

“They seemed to have had some initial success, but the Ukrainian response was very quick, hitting the airport quickly and hard, to prevent any kind of landing,” he says.

The condition of the plane left no doubts about the possibility of a repair.

“The nose of the plane was completely destroyed, apparently the victim of a direct artillery hit,” says Cotovio. “On top of that, there has been extensive damage to the wings and some engines. The tail section has been spared from any major impacts and has some holes from shrapnel or bullets.

“Had it not been for the direct hit to the nose, the AN-225 could have been repairable,” he says, adding that the area around the plane was littered with used ammunition, destroyed Russian tanks and trucks, and destroyed armored vehicles. .

A second coming

The AN-225 was created as part of the Soviet space program to carry the Soviet space shuttle "Burane" on his back.

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

Gilles Leimdorfer / AFP / Getty Images

Andrii Sovenko, a Kiev-based engineer and aviation expert who has worked for Antonov Company since 1987 and has flown the AN-225 as part of its technical crew, compiled a detailed list of the damage, reviewing a large number of videos and images of the wreck (Antonov personnel are not yet authorized to return to Hostomel for safety reasons).

Confirmation that the fuselage midsection and nose of the aircraft, including the cockpit and crew rest compartments, have been destroyed, but it is the aircraft’s on-board systems and equipment that have suffered the most damage .

“Restoring them will be the hardest thing,” he says. “This is because most of the various electrical systems, pumps and filters used on the AN-225 are all from the 1980s.

“They are simply not being built anymore, so it is unlikely that they can be restored exactly as they were,” he says.

It’s not all bad news: portions of the wings, including aerodynamic surfaces like flaps and ailerons, appear to have suffered minor damage and may be recoverable.

Most of the six engines also appear intact, and the entire tail section of the aircraft is only affected by shrapnel damage, leaving it in an acceptable condition.

The AN-225 suffered severe damage during the battle for Hostomel airport near Kiev.

The AN-225 suffered severe damage during the battle for Hostomel airport near Kiev.

Genya Savilov / AFP / Getty Images

Sovenko, who has written a book about Antonov Airlines’ history detailing his flying experience on the Mriya, 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 another Mriya, using individual components that can be recovered from the wreck and combining them with those that, in the 1980s, were intended for the construction of a second aircraft. “

It refers to the second AN-225 cell that Antonov has kept to this day in a large workshop in Kiev. It was part of an original plan to build two AN-225s, which was never successful.

“This is a completely finished fuselage, with a new center section already installed on it, as well as the supporting structure of the wings and the tail unit. In other words, almost a complete airframe. As far as I know, it was practically intact during the Russian artillery bombardment of the plant, “says Sovenko.

A new design

There is a major problem with the idea of ​​building the unused cell with parts recoverable from Hostomel: it will not yet amount to 100% of the components needed.

“It will be impossible to build exactly the same aircraft, with the exact same design and equipment,” says Sovenko. In this case, Antonov faces two obstacles: having new and old components work together and potentially having to undergo recertification of the aircraft, to confirm airworthiness and compliance with current regulations.

The company has experience with the former, having upgraded many of the AN-225’s systems over the years and replacing old Soviet technology with modern Ukrainian equivalents, but full certification would take time and increase costs.

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

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

Genya Savilov / AFPGetty Images

Unfortunately, it seems to be almost inevitable: “It is useless to build an aircraft with a 40-year-old design today,” adds Sovenko. “It is also entirely possible that it will be considered appropriate to make further changes to the design of the aircraft, based on the operational experience of the original.”

The AN-225 was never designed to carry commercial cargo and was adapted for the job via extensive work done by Antonov in the late 1990s. However, despite its colossal capacity, the aircraft remained awkward to operate from the crew point of view. It must be lowered onto the nose – a maneuver known as “elephant kneel” – to load the load, which is rolled on board using custom tracks and pulleys.

Due to its unique design, it only opens the nose of the plane and does not have a ramp at the rear like its more practical little brother, the AN-124. The cargo plan could also use some reinforcements, and the aircraft’s degree of compliance with existing airport infrastructure could be increased, adding to the list of desirable improvements in a hypothetical 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.

Ronny Hartmann / AFP / Getty Images

Building a second Myria won’t be cheap, but it’s hard to tell exactly how much it would cost. Ukrinform, the Ukrainian national news agency, raised eyebrows when it said the cost of the operation would be $ 3 billion. In 2018, Antonov estimated that completing the second cell would cost as much as $ 350 million, though that figure may need to be revised now.

“At the moment nothing is known for certain,” says Sovenko, “The cost will depend on how badly the surviving parts of the aircraft are damaged, as well as how many modifications and new equipment will be needed. Much of the cost will depend on the amount of testing. certification deemed necessary. But in any case, we can assume that the final amount will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, not billions. “

Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at Aerodynamic Advisory, agrees: “It depends on whether the plane is simply a prototype, or whether he would like it to go into commercial service, with full certification. Surely $ 500 million or so is more reasonable. , even with certification, of $ 3 billion. ”

The real question, says Aboulafia, is who would pay for it? “There really isn’t a lot of commercial application for this plane, and without it, where would the money come from?”

It is easy to think that most of the costs would have been borne by Antonov, but the company suffered heavy losses due to the destruction of many other planes and structures; although it still operates at a reduced level, its future is uncertain.

“I am an optimist. I sincerely and deeply wish that Antonov aircraft will continue to fly in the skies of the future,” says Sovenko, “but I am also a realist. And I fully understand that the costs involved in building the second Mriya will have to be correlated with the capabilities. Antonov’s financial assets after the war, as well as with the expected income from the operation of this aircraft. “

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