My Fleeting But Memorable Fling With the AN-225

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The answer to this question is almost certainly yes, but I’ll ask anyway. Has an airplane you’ve flown ever crashed? Has it taken lives with it? For me the answer is yes to both and when I considered it casually, I thought maybe two or three.

But it’s really seven or eight, if not more. I recall the first vividly. It was a post-war J-3 I’d been flying out College Park, Maryland. One foggy night two drunks got it started, took off and predictably didn’t get far. They crashed into power lines and exploded in the front lawn of a sorority, thus giving the sisters—who I never liked much anyway—an orange fireball as their introduction to the romantic world of general aviation. I wouldn’t have wished that on anyone.

That must have inoculated me to numbness because after that, all the wrecks I experienced ignited no emotional response other than the curiosity of seeing a seat I once sat in twisted like a pretzel. You tend to examine such things in detail, perhaps in silent celebration that it wasn’t you and never would be because of your exceptional aeronautical skills. The is the daily 200 milligrams of denial kicking in. When increasing the dose no longer works, you quit flying.  

So I was surprised at the overwhelming reaction I had to this photo published in the The New York Times last week. It was taken by Daniel Berehulak for the Times and accompanies a long article about the AN-225 that was recently destroyed at the onset of the Russian war on Ukraine. As the article explains, the Ukrainians—and even Russians—call the airplane Mriya, which means dream. (It’s pronounced Mer-ee-ah, almost like the woman’s name.) It is, or was, very much a cultural touchpoint and a source of national pride. My connection to Mriya was fleeting but deeply memorable.  

Credit: DanielBerehulak for The New York Times

In March of 1991, the airplane was parked at Hartford’s Bradley Airport. It had come to the U.S. to bring two child victims of the Chernobyl disaster for treatment and would return to Ukraine with 200 tons of medical supplies for hospitals still dealing with that disaster. For reference, Mikhail Gorbachev had promoted glasnost, but he was deposed that year and by December 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. Ukraine would eventually become an independent state. But it kept the AN-225 it had built and marketed the airplane’s unique capabilities all over the world. Over two days, I spent several hours touring the airplane on the ground, but never flew in it. So proud were the Ukrainians of Mriya that they detailed a crew person for our extensive tours. They were, of course, English speakers because that’s the international language of aviation.

The second day I visited, I was accompanied by the late John Deakin and friend Scott Dyer. Deakin, then a JAL 747 captain, sat in the left seat of the AN-225 and I was a fly on the wall as he compared the 747 to the AN-225. (There really isn’t much comparison.) We sat for more than an hour in what is now, in the photo, a mass of burnt wreckage. I don’t know why, but it impacted me emotionally to see it in that state.

My recollection of the airplane was as kind of a giant homebuilt. You could sight along the voluminous lines of the fuselage and see lumps and bumps and rough riveting. Looking forward from the giant tail, Deakin was amused at twin streams of hydraulic fluid from leaks further forward, probably from the landing gear. Access to the cockpit was via a springy ladder from the cargo floor and it was a high climb. There was a lounge, a galley and two flight engineer stations, one for engines and hydraulics, one for electrics. I recall the lounge being decorated with a Ukrainian woven carpet, with similar decorations on the walls. Everything about the airplane was outsized. Its wingspan was nearly 100 feet more than a 747, with six engines, each with 51,000 pounds of thrust. The nosewheel was a double truck.

When we saw the airplane, it was still relatively new, having been completed in 1988. Its high-profile claim to fame was as a ferry ship for the Soviet version of the Space Shuttle, the Buran. The mated pair showed up at the Paris Air Show in 1989 to sensational reviews. Buran flew once, but the program collapsed with the Soviet Union in 1991.

It remains a mystery about how Mriya was destroyed, or so the Ukrainians would have us believe. I read and watch a lot of coverage about the war in Ukraine so the algorithm knows what to send me. And it sent this fascinating interview with a captured Russian conscript. If you have the 20 minutes to spare, it’s an appalling tale of military incompetence and an utter lack of discernible tactical doctrine. His unit was flown by helicopter into Hostomel Airport, where the AN-225 was in a hangar, but given no orders or tactical direction. They were told their equipment would arrive in a day or two, presumably meaning armor, trucks and fighting vehicles.

When it did arrive, according to the soldier, the Ukrainians counterattacked with artillery, destroying the vehicles and the AN-225 with it. The fact that there’s a destroyed BMP fighting vehicle in front of the airplane lends credence to his claim. Of course, he also claims to have been exposed to friendly fire at one point. It’s impossible to know what happened, but some day we might and I suspect Mriya was an unintended victim of the people who built it.

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15 COMMENTS

  1. My then-young son Peter and I were attending the Paris Air Show in 1989. We were walking down a fence line in the parking lot abutting runway 03. It was a plane spotter’s paradise. Everything on short final was passing overhead and touching down a few dozen yards away. I saw the AN-225 with Buran attached on an extended left downwind and we waited. Soon the largest aircraft in the world roared over our heads, and her “centipede” landing gear mashed onto the runway. Mriya was breathtaking, and its unfathomable demise seems a fitting metaphor for these troubled times. It’s great you had a chance to climb aboard, Paul, especially with Mr. Deakin…

  2. I never saw the AN-224 in person.

    The closest I got was a tour of the AN-124 that came to Oshkosh in 1989. There were several takeaways:
    – The climb from the cargo hold up to the cockpit was a serious ladder-climb. I was fit and not yet forty, but I couldn’t have done it twice.
    – The AN-124 was parked nose-to-nose on the exhibition square with a C-5A whose nose was fully open. We were looking down on the front of its upturned nose.
    – There was a very friendly English-speaking crew member in the cockpit fielding questions. Almost everything was recognizable as military/commercial steam-gauge instrumentation, even with their Cyrillic labels. However, when I asked about navigation aids, he appeared unfamiliar with the terms GPS or GLONASS.
    – The fabrication was indeed, um, shoddy. I have several photos of rivet lines that look like tobacco rows planted by a drunken mule. “Fit and Finish” were obviously not a priority. The only award it could possibly have won at Oshkosh was “Biggest SOB”.
    – Regardless, there were numerous examples of “making do with what you got” engineering. One of which was that all the cable bundles were tie-wrapped with shoelaces. Not lacing cord, ordinary boot laces, with aglets.

    Some things just don’t scale up well. I would be concerned about the service life of the AN-224 under the best of conditions.

  3. Paul,
    I also had the opportunity to tour the AN225 at BDL in March 1991. I was the Tower Supervisor at the time. I have a video of my then 8 month old daughter sitting in the left seat. The flight crew got a kick out of her trying to reach the controls.

    I remember watching the take off from the tower. They used 9450 feet of the 9500′ runway. I have that VHS video buried somewhere in a closet

  4. Not an Antonov, but that’s the same weird feeling I get whenever I see N106US (the Miracle on the Hudson airplane). I flew ship 106 into Las Vegas the week prior to the splash down. I left it dry and reusable, but of course birds weren’t a factor. Too bad they didn’t get Mriya out of there.

  5. Thanks for the excellent article Paul, taking us along on a brief insider’s tour of a magnificent piece of aviation machinery. The destruction of the AN-225 Mriya – with that heart-breaking photo as stark evidence – brings to mind the emotions I felt watching good, strong, well-built airliners being flown into the World Trade Center towers: a sick feeling in the stomach, physical shock watching such aerodynamic finery reduced to charred ruin in a fireball instant, muted denial that what I saw couldn’t be happening. When salvage folks pull up a rusted fuselage from the ocean bottom, sometimes the first fire of hope lighted in the heart is that the rusted, twisted pile of metal will take shape as an airplane and fly again, as airplanes were meant to do. That is my hope for the Mriya.

  6. “The destruction of the AN-225 Mriya… brings to mind the emotions I felt watching good, strong, well-built airliners being flown into the World Trade Center towers: a sick feeling in the stomach, physical shock watching such aerodynamic finery reduced to charred ruin in a fireball instant”

    Just like in a Bond movie?

    Have to say, I have never heard of anyone having that reaction to the murder of innocents on 9/11. First time for everything, I suppose. New day, new perspective.

    Concerning the video, the journalist sure was savvy to military knowledge to me, maybe previous experience? And the young lad being interviewed, my son’s exact age, gave a deeper insight to that bloody, insane war. Nice piece, Paul. Too bad about the Mriya.

  7. AN-225 embodied “the Russians” long held aviation practice of making behemoths. I remember all the oversized planes they made between the wars. I can’t imagine what maintenance woul be on that thing.

  8. As for aircraft I flew that crashed with fatalities: there are two that I know of for me. Both at the same flight school in Arizona. C152 for CFI spin training was lost when the candidate pushed the nose over in a panic or deliberate suicide. The CFI was smaller and couldn’t pry the controls.

    The other a Seminole crashing into a CA mountain after descending on ATC instruction intended for another company Seminole with the exact same abbreviated call sign. There were multiple company Seminoles on that trip that day all doing Route training going to the same city. Tragic when two young souls were lost.

  9. Thanks for writing that, Paul. It was a day/visit to remember. The recent photo is awful for those of us who saw this gargantuan aircraft in its glory. John loved chatting up the crew in the cockpit and he’d spent a lot of time transiting Soviet airspace for JAL in his Whale. The trip was memorable for other reasons, it was before John bought his pristine V-tail, and he hadn’t flown light GA in many years. His eyes were calibrated at 74- height John was clearly uncomfortable with the height of flaring the Archer I owned as we flew to pick you up and then on to BDL (well, maybe it wasn’t just the height of the flare that raised his spidey-sense to DefCon5???). Good times!

  10. As for aircraft I’ve flown that were later destroyed, a 1981 Piper Warrior. I flew it with my mother in the morning and in the afternoon it was a pile of aluminum in a field after snagging a powerline with the gear. The pilot survived but with significant injuries and a long recovery.