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The Gargantuan Antonov An-225: The World's Largest Cargo Plane

And the best part: It's not expected to retire until 2030s.

Powered by no less than six massive turbofan engines, the Antonov An-225 "Mriya" is the world's biggest cargo plane that is currently in operation. A serial record-breaker, the aircraft is very easy on the eye too. 

Here we'll briefly explore the plane's history and take a look at some of its vital stats.

What is the largest cargo plane in the world?

With a wingspan of 290 ft and a length of 275 ft (88 by 84 mt), the Antonov An-225 is a true monster of the skies. This giant plane weighs around 285 tonnes when empty, and is officially the world's biggest cargo plane. 

Nicknamed the "Mriya" or Мрія in Ukrainian (meaning dream), this enormous plane has been in commercial service since 2001. 

When debuted in 1988, the An-225 was around 50% bigger than any airliner that had been seen before.

Antonov An-225 takeoff
Source: Antonov Airlines

The "Mriya" is powered by six huge Ivchenko Progress D-18T turbofan engines, each capable of pumping out over 51,600 lbs (23 tonnes) of thrust on takeoff. 

These engines were selected for their high takeoff thrust, their low specific fuel consumption of great reliability. They are also easy to maintain and have low noise and contaminant emissions.

The aircraft's landing gear consists of no less than 32 wheels in 16 pairs. This enables the Antonov An-225 to be able to actually turn within a 200 ft wide (61 mt) runway.

But despite its size, the "Mriya" is not the biggest cargo plane ever built. For example, the Hughes H-4 Hercules "Spruce Goose" had a larger wingspan of 320 ft (97.5 mt), although it was shorter, at 220 ft (67 mt).

But, while the "Spruce Goose" is now only a museum exhibit, the Antonov An-225 is the largest cargo plane in operation.

The Antonov An-225 is also dwarfed by the much larger Stratolaunch with its wingspan of 383 ft and a length of 240 ft (117 by 73 mt). The Stratolaunch first flew in 2019, although it has yet to be used in regular flights or for its original purpose of carrying air-launch-to-orbit rockets and satellites

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In fact, since the passing of Paul Allen, its future was in doubt for some time. However, the project is currently under new ownership

An-225 side view
Source: Antonov Airlines

The Antonov An-225 was designed and built by the Soviets as a super heavy transporter to replace the aging Myasishchev VM-T. It was codenamed "Cossack" by NATO forces during the cold war.

The plane was originally designed to transport the Energiya carrier-rocket and the Buran spaceplane and was, in turn, an enlargement of the already successful, and massive, Antonov An-124.

The An-225 first flew in 1988 and successfully completed a 74-minute flight from Kyiv. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Antonov An-225 was grounded for many years.

It was later purchased by the Ukrainian company Antonov Airlines (now simply Antonov) who has used it as a transporter of oversized cargo ever since.

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The "Mriya" is a fond favorite among aircraft enthusiasts and makes regular appearances at airshows around the world. 

Antonov An-225 top view
Source: Antonov Airlines

Under its existing role as a commercial transporter, the An-225 has set the absolute world record for airlifting a single payload, of 187.6 tonnes from Frankfurt Hahn airport in 2009.

This payload consisted of a power plant generator. The aircraft also holds other world records (around 30 in total over a 30-year period).

"This incredible plane already holds a number of records, including that of the only plane to have a maximum take-off weight of over 600 tonnes and the plane with the widest wingspan, at 290 ft (88.4 mt)." — Guinness World Records

How many Antonov 225s are there?

The Antonov An-225 is one-of-a-kind. Only one airframe was ever completed during the Soviet-era. A second airframe was also commissioned but was never completed.

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"Based on the AN-124 design, the AN-225 has similar loading capabilities as its forerunner (cranes, winches), but boasts a longer internal cabin (142 ft vs. 120 (43 mt vs. 37 mt)) and higher payload (250 tonnes versus 150 tonnes).

Antonov says that "Since its maiden flight on December 21, 1988, the AN-225 has delivered heavy and outsize shipments across the globe. It is scheduled to remain in service until at least 2033."

An-225 taxiing
Source: Paul Nelhams/Flickr

The An-225's sister aircraft had a slightly different configuration but construction stalled in 1994. Lack of funding and interest were to blame.

There was a brief renewed interest to complete it in 2009, and it was brought up to around 60-70% completion. But construction was halted once again.

In 2016, Antonov agreed to complete the second airframe for the Aerospace Industry Corporation of China (AICC) prior to hopes of AICC commencing series production.

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In 2018 it was reported that Boeing had made plans to help Antonov Airlines complete the second airframe after their supply chain dried up in the wake of Crimean annexation by Russia.

Recent news reports that Antonov's CEO is currently seeking investment to complete the second airframe too. 

What is the world's biggest plane?

As we have already detailed above, the world's largest active plane is the Antonov An-225. There are, however, several larger planes. Hughes H-4 Hercules "Spruce Goose" (bigger wingspan but shorter) and the Stratolaunch (bigger wingspan and longer). 

antonov an-225 size
A comparison of four of the largest planes in the world. Source: Natural RX/Wikimedia Commons

There are also a few other giants of the air that are just slightly smaller than the Antonov An-225. These are the Antonov An-124: 240 ft long and 225 ft wide (73 to 69 mt), the Boeing 747-8: (250 ft long with a 225 ft wingspan (76 to 69 mt) and the Airbus A380-800: 241 ft long with a 262 ft wingspan (73.5 to 80 mt).

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How much cargo can the Antonov An-225 plane carry?

As we have already seen, the Antonov An-225 holds various world records for airlifted cargo. But it can also handle a lot of regular cargo too.

Antonov An-225 tail
Rearview of the Antonov An-225. Source: Antonov

The aircraft's maximum designed payload is 250 tonnes with a total volume capacity of 1,200 cubic meters. The Antonov An-225's cargo bay has a total length of 142 ft, a width of 20 ft, and a height of 14 ft (43 by 6 by 4 meters) and includes an on-board crane that can lift 30 tonnes at a given time.

Her enormous cargo bay is capable of carrying around 16 standard aeronautical containers, 50 cars, or a single piece of cargo up to around 200 tonnes in weight. It can also be pressurized.

But, it can also carry oversized objects on top of her fuselage.

Cargo is loaded through her nose and she lacks a rear ramp and cargo door. These were removed from the design in an attempt to reduce her final weight as much as reasonably possible.

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The plane is able to kneel at the front using a specially designed retractable nosegear system. This allows deliveries to drive directly into the cargo bay and more easily load and unload cargo.

The "Mriya" also has a specially designed twin-tail design, rather than a more traditional single vertical tail fin, to allow her to more easily carry large external items if required. 

The An-225 is, without doubt, one of the most impressive aircraft in the world. Possibly of all time. 

With an estimated service life well into the 2030s, it is, hopefully, only a matter of time before its sister airframe is completed.

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