The sheared nose cone of the Antonov An-225 cargo plane towers over Yevhen Bashynsky.
Affectionately known as the Mriya, or “Dream,” the leviathan plane was the pride of Ukraine and of 38-year-old Bashynsky, one of its pilots.
This is the first time Bashynsky has come back to see what remains of the Mriya.
“It is very hard to be here and to see all of this situation. Destroyed planes, destroyed hangars. It is quite hard to see,” he says.
In the first hours of the war, elite Russian paratroopers descended on the Antonov airfield, a major cargo airport in Hostomel, to the northwest of Kyiv. It was supposed to be an anchor point to attack the capital. The assault did not go as planned. Russian troops inside the airport were encircled, with no chance to bring in reinforcements quickly.
Word soon got out in aviation circles that the Mriya had been damaged in the fighting. When Ukrainian forces retook the airport, the extent of the destruction became clear.
The Security Service of Ukraine said Wednesday that a joint investigation had been launched with the national police into the failure of the former head of the state-owned Antonov company to order the aircraft’s planned evacuation to safety in Germany.
When it flew, the Mriya was designed for aviation superlatives: the world’s heaviest plane; the longest wingspan of any active carrier; six turbo fan engines with more than 50,000 pounds of thrust each; a carrying capacity of 250 tons.
Only one was ever completed, first taking flight in 1988. It was designed to carry the Buran spacecraft – the Soviet Union’s answer to NASA’s Space Shuttle – on its back. But after Ukraine’s independence, Antonov refurbished the plane several times.
In the early 2000s, Mriya began operating again as a commercial venture. From slow beginnings it found an important niche, says Antonov cargo division executive Ruslan Bykovets.
Satellites, electrical transformers, water delivery after a hurricane – the Ukrainian giant transported them all, he says. During the Covid-19 pandemic, it delivered vital medical cargo.
Bashynsky, the pilot, says that the plane was a challenge to maneuver on the ground, but it was a joy to fly – with a huge following from aviation enthusiasts.
“You know it was like feeling you are part of something great. You were touching something great,” he says.
“It was also a great responsibility because you are attracting a lot of attention. A few days after you fly, you can open YouTube and see everything you have done.”
In May last year, likely sensing the symbolic importance for his country, President Volodymyr Zelensky said that Ukraine would rebuild the plane.
Antonov officials say another An-225 was partially built – but abandoned in the 1990s because of a lack of funds. The current plan is to use what they already have as the basis for a new plane.
Engineers and technicians have been scouring the wreckage of the Mriya at Hostomel to pull out useful parts. They will eventually remove one of its giant wings to try to restore it, says Antonov designer Valerii Kostiuk.
“The aircraft will be equipped with modernized engines. New electronic on-board equipment will be installed on the plane. Well-known companies will be involved,” he says.
Which companies those are and how Ukraine will afford to build the plane are not clear, or have not been disclosed by company officials. It is impossible to say exactly how much rebuilding the plane will cost, but some estimates put it close to a billion US dollars. Antonov executive Bykovets understands that it won’t be a top priority for a country shattered by war.
Still, he says, it should be done.
“This plane is a symbol of Ukraine,” he says. “It’s a symbol like the Burj Khalifa or Statue of Liberty.”