The Buzz

China to Build the World’s Largest Plane — With Ukraine’s Help

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 theheaviest plane in history.

The one existing An-225 first flew in 1988. But with the cancellation of theBuran 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 (see here, here, here and here).

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.