I’ve seen some amazing planes and had the chance to fly some equally incredible ones. The ones that have left a lasting impression might surprise you, as they include some models that are hardly household names, like the twin-engine ultralight-type Lockwood Aircam and the Hawker Horizon bizjet, the latter of which is best known as being a huge financial failure. But the planes that have left the biggest dent in my memory are a couple of the very biggest planes ever, the Hughes H-4 Hercules, better known as the Spruce Goose, and the Antonov An-225 Mriya.
The Soviet-era giant is the one that I remembered yesterday when my boss sent me a video link to a YouTube spot on the plane making its first ever arrival Down Under a few years ago, and the crowds in Perth that flocked to the airport to witness its arrival. For some planes you don’t need to bring the binoculars. This one tops that list.
And I know about that from first-hand experience.
It was the early 90s and I was working for a small publication in Southern California when I got invited to go along with a group of precision scale radio-controlled aircraft industry insiders. I was along to document things. The nearly month-long trek through the former Soviet states included stops in Kiev, Moscow and St. Petersburg, and too much ballet, caviar, priceless works of art and evening libations to remember everything distinctly.
But one thing is clear as day. My getting to see the An-225.
I saw the plane from the air while it was parked outside at the Antonov factory and I was one of two people in a side-by-side open air weight shift ultralight that I was flying. It was a blast. But when my instructor suggested, using only hand signals, that we overfly the Antonov factory, well, I assumed it was a really bad idea, that we’d be taken down by a heat-seeking missile homing in our little trike.
As it turned out, no one seemed to care. Phew.
The plane down there looked humongous as we circled a few times at, I’m guessing here, 1500 feet—the instruments would have been in Cyrillic, if there’d been any.
Two days later I was touring the plane as part of our group. As we climbed aboard, going up way higher than I’d figured we’d have to, I kept wondering if there was anything in the hold. As we arrived to the space, I saw it was completely empty. The cliché is true. You could have an awesome game of touch football back there, with 11 to a side. It was enormous. I even got the chance to ascend up to the tail, which sits 60 feet off the ground and three-quarters of that above the cargo deck. It was an airplane. I knew that. But it was an airplane of such a scale that I couldn’t really comprehend how such a thing could be conceived, designed, constructed and flown. I’m still in awe of each one of those necessary milestones.
The plane’s size and capabilities defy statistical explanation, but here goes. The world’s biggest working plane, the one-off Antonov An-225 Mriya was designed and built by then-Soviet company Antonov, headquartered then and now in Kiev, Ukraine. Mriya was designed to carry the Soviet Space Shuttle Buran, like the Boeing 747 did with the United States’ space shuttles. After the end of the Buran program, the An-225 was pressed into revenue service.
Powered by six 51,600-pound thrust turbofan engines, the 225 has a wingspan of 290 feet, 65 feet longer than that of the biggest Boeing 747. It has a useful load of nearly 800,000 pounds, allowing it to carry almost 200,000 pounds of cargo with full fuel and go farther than 8,000 nm in the process.
Two other planes come close: the Boeing 747-8 and the Airbus A380 are giants of the skies, as well, but they’re not as big as the An-225, and besides, there are multiples of them. The 225 is sui generis, a one of a kind plane that has been working its tail off—figuratively speaking!—for the past 30-plus years and shows no sign of letting up.
All of which make me enormously happy. Watch the video. You’ll see that these folks are as impressed with it as I once was when I happened into a chance meeting with it. That revelation changed the way I think about airplanes forever and left me spellbound. Which, can you tell, I still am.