There are few planes quite as crazy as the Antonov An-225. Too large to land at many airports, this six-engined beast definitely seems out of place in modern cost-conscious commercial aviation. That’s because this plane was designed for an entirely different purpose that never really materialised: Lift large, heavy components for the Soviet space program.
This video from the Mustard YouTube channel digs into why the An-225 exists and the very special role it plays in air freight today.
In the 1980s the Soviet Union was developing its own version of America’s Space Shuttle Program. However, the Soviets experienced some road bumps. The sizable components of the advanced Buran orbiter and its Energia rockets could not be transported by ground transport. Instead, these components were produced in the west and flown to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the east to be launched.
At first, the parts were bolted onto the back of old bombers. But this setup wasn’t ideal as the bombers weren’t designed for the task, the components had to shed a lot of weight.
The planes just couldn’t fly assembled components. So the Soviets looked for another solution.
The Americans had already figured out an answer: Take a used Boeing 747, strip it down and then reinforce it for the task of carrying the Space Shuttle orbiter. The Soviets tried a similar solution. They used the Antonov An-124 but even though the An-124 was the largest transport in the world, regularly hauling things like trains and huge generators, they needed it to be even bigger.
The airframe of the An-124 was lengthened, its wings made bigger and the vertical stabilizer split into into a distinctive twin stabilizer. The An-225’s remarkable spec sheet doesn’t stop there. The plane has 32 tires to safely roll all of its 250,000 kg payload down a runway.
All of that weight is moved by six engines making 140,160 kg of total thrust. For comparison, a Boeing 747-8 makes 120,655 kg of thrust from its four engines and has a 139,706 kg payload. The engineers didn’t just design the plane to carry an incredible amount of weight, but to be used as a flying launch platform, too.
The Soviets planned on building many An-225s to serve as the backbone of their space program. Unfortunately by then, the Soviet Union was going broke and when it collapsed, only one An-225 was completed with another in an unfinished state. Without any mission to serve, the lone An-225 sat in storage for years and seemed destined for the scrapyard. Luckily, the plane found new life carrying the kinds of cargo that no other plane on the planet can handle. On its first run in January of 2002 the 225 carried a payload of 187 tons.
To learn more about the Antonov An-225 and other sweet planes through history, I highly recommend checking out the Mustard YouTube channel.