Can the world’s largest commercial aircraft ever fly?

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(CNN) – The footage of the wrecked Antonov AN-225 is now an indelible memory for aviation enthusiasts around the world.

The aircraft, built in the 1980s to transport a Soviet space shuttle, took a second life after the Cold War as the world’s largest cargo carrier, reaching records of all kinds be destroyed in late February at its home base, Hostomel Airport near Kiev.
“A dream will never die,” tweeted Antonov company, in reference to the nickname of the aircraft “Mriya”, which in Ukrainian means dream. Solidarity has flowed from all over the world.

But can 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 wreckage when he visited Hostomel Airport in early April, along with other CNN journalists 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 known worldwide.

Jack Guez / AFP / Getty Images

“Moscow forces tried to seize the airport to use it as an advanced operational position that they could fly into other ground units. To this end, they launched an air attack 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 aircraft left no doubt about the possibility of repair.

“The nose of the plane was completely destroyed, seemingly the victim of a direct artillery hit,” says Cotovio. “In addition, there has been extensive damage to the wings and some engines. The rear has been spared major impacts and has several holes caused by shrapnel or bullets.”

“Without a direct blow to the nose, the AN-225 could be repaired,” he says, adding that the area around the plane was littered with used ammunition, destroyed Russian tanks and trucks, and destroyed armored vehicles.

The second coming

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

Gilles Leimdorfer / AFP / Getty Images

Andrii Sovenko, an engineer and aviation specialist based in Kiev who has worked for Antonov since 1987 and flew the AN-225 as part of its technical crew, compiled a detailed damage list based on a large number of videos and images of debris. cannot return to Hostomel for security reasons).

It confirms that the center of the fuselage and the front of the aircraft – including the cockpit and crew rest compartments – are destroyed, but it is the on-board systems and equipment of the aircraft that have suffered the most critical damage.

“The hardest thing will be to restore them,” he says. “This is because most of the various electrical systems, pumps and filters used on the AN-225 date back to the 1980s.

“They just don’t produce anymore, so it’s unlikely they can be restored exactly as they were,” he says.

This is not all bad news: Parts of the wings, including aerodynamic surfaces such as flaps and ailerons, seem to have suffered minor damage and could be saved.

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

The AN-225 suffered heavy damage during the battle for Hostomel Airport near Kiev.

The AN-225 suffered heavy damage during the battle for Hostomel Airport near Kiev.

Genya Savilov / AFP / Getty Images

Sovenko, who wrote a book about the history of Antonov Airlines detailing his experience flying to Mriya, agrees that the aircraft in Hostomel can not be repaired.

“We can’t talk about repairing or restoring this aircraft – we can only talk about the construction of another Mriya, using individual components that can be saved from the wreck and combining them with those that were intended in the eighties.” for the construction of a second aircraft ’.

He refers to the second kite of the AN-225 aircraft, which Antonov still preserves in a large workshop in Kiev. It was part of the original plan to build two AN-225s, which never came out.

“It is a completely finished fuselage, on which a new central part is already installed, as well as the supporting structure of the wings and tail part. In other words, almost a complete aircraft kite.

New design

There is one major problem with the idea of ​​building an unused aircraft kite with rescue parts from Hostomel: it will still not be 100% of the necessary components.

“It will be impossible to build the exact same aircraft with exactly the same design and equipment,” says Sovenko. If so, Antonov faces two obstacles: that the new and old components work together and potentially have to re-certify the aircraft to confirm its airworthiness and compliance with current regulations.

The company has experience with the first edition, updating many AN-225 systems over the years and replacing old Soviet technology with modern Ukrainian equivalents, but full certification would take time and increase costs.

Experts say it is unlikely that the original aircraft will ever be able to restore its former glory.

Experts say it is unlikely that the original aircraft will ever be able to restore its former glory.

Genya Savilov / AFPGetty Images

Unfortunately, this seems almost necessary: ​​”Today, it is useless to build an aircraft with a 40-year design,” adds Sovenko. “It is also quite possible that it will be considered appropriate to make additional changes to the aircraft design based on the operational experience of the original aircraft.”

The AN-225 was never designed to carry commercial cargo and was adapted to this work by the extensive work done by Antonov in the late 1990s. Despite its colossal capacity, however, the aircraft remained uncomfortable from the crew’s point of view. It must be lowered on its nose – a maneuver known as an “elephant kneeling” – to load a load that rolls on board using its own belts and pulleys.

Thanks to its unique design, only the nose of the aircraft opens and there is no ramp at the back like its more practical smaller brother AN-124. The cargo floor could also use some reinforcement and increase the degree of compliance of the aircraft with the existing airport infrastructure, thus adding to the list of desirable improvements in the hypothetical modern version of the aircraft.

Millions or billions?

The AN-225 broke a number of aviation records during its lifetime.

The AN-225 broke a number of aviation records during its lifetime.

Ronny Hartmann / AFP / Getty Images

Building a second Myrie will not be cheap, but it is difficult to determine exactly how much it would cost. Ukrinform, Ukraine’s national news agency, raised an eyebrow when he declared that the cost of the operation would be $ 3 billion. In 2018 Antonov estimated that the completion of 2 A kite aircraft would cost up to $ 350 millionalthough this number may need to be adjusted now.

“At the moment, nothing is certain,” says Sovenko, “the cost will depend on how seriously the damaged parts of the aircraft will survive, as well as on how many modifications and new equipment will be needed. Much of the cost will depend on the amount “In any case, we can estimate that the final amount will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, not billions.”

Richard Aboulafia, an aeronautical analyst at Aerodynamic Advisory, agrees: “It depends on whether the aircraft is just a prototype or whether they want it to enter commercial operation with full certification. $ 3 billion. ”

The real question, says Aboulafia, is who would pay for it? “Isn’t there really a lot of commercial application for this plane and without that money would be taken?”

It is easy to think that Antonov would bear most of the cost, but the company suffered heavy losses due to the destruction of several other aircraft and equipment; although it still operates at a reduced level, its future is uncertain.

“I am optimistic. I sincerely and deeply want Antonov’s planes to continue to fly in the sky of the future,” says Sovenko, “but I am also a realist. as well as the expected revenues from the operation of this aircraft. “

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