On December 21, 1988, the Antonov AN-225 Mriya flew its maiden flight. A year later, it made its international debut at the 1989 Paris Air Show. Today, this unique strategic airlifter is proudly operated by Antonov Airlines and remains the world’s heaviest operational aircraft.

The design and build of the AN-225 commenced in 1984, when Piotr Balabuyev replaced the late Oleg Antonov as General Designer of the newly-named Antonov Design Bureau. Using the AN-124 Ruslan as the basis for a ‘universal super-heavy transport aircraft’ capable of carrying the Soviet Union’s Buran shuttle orbiter, Balabuyev’s team stretched the AN-124’s fuselage by almost 15 metres (50 feet) and extended its wingspan by a similar distance. With the addition of two further engines (bringing the total to six) and installation of a twin-tail empennage, the AN-225 began operations in May 1989, ‘piggybacked’ by the Buran to and from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

After the completion of the Buran programme and following its appearance at the Paris Air Show in June 1989, the AN-225 was placed into storage. Several years passed before it was modified for heavy cargo transportation and brought into service with Antonov Design Bureau’s international air transportation division, Antonov Airlines. Shortly afterwards, the AN-225 was used to transport five Ukrainian Defence Ministry battle tanks from Antonov’s Gostomel Airport to the Black Sea. The total payload of 253,820 kg smashed the previous world record for a cargo airlift by almost 83,000 kg. It was just one of 242 world records set by the aircraft during its operations – several of which it still retains today, including the largest aircraft by weight; the largest aircraft by wingspan; the heaviest single item ever airlifted (a 187,600 kg [413,583 lb] generator); and the transportation of the world’s longest air cargo (two 42.1 m [138 ft] wind turbine blades).

In early January 2002, Antonov Airlines, in partnership with its UK-based general sales agent, Air Foyle, operated the first commercial AN-225 flight carrying 216,000 ready-to-eat meals from Germany to American military personnel stationed in the Persian Gulf. Since then, it has regularly been used to assist disaster relief operations and to transport heavy items to and from land-locked countries. Its most recent project involved a series of flights carrying twelve 160,000 kg (352,736 lb) generator modules between Chile and Bolivia. The operation represented the longest succession of flights in the AN-225’s history.

Known as Mriya – the Ukrainian word for ‘dream’ – the AN-225 continues to attract attention wherever it goes. In 2016, during its first-ever flight to Australia, an estimated 20,000 turned out to watch it land in Perth. It has also been the subject of numerous TV documentaries, including one that recently chronicled its series of flights across the Andes. Thanks to Antonov Airlines, the AN-225 will continue to play a starring role in heavy air cargo industry for many years to come.