The world's largest aircraft might have become a casualty of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The behemoth of cargo carriers, the only Antonov AN-225 ever built is usually based at Hostomel Airport, an international cargo facility also known as Antonov Airport, located on the north-western outskirts of Kyiv.
The airport has been targeted by Russian military and some reports say it is under their control, others that the aircraft was destroyed in the fighting, and still others reporting that the airbase has been recaptured by Ukrainian forces.
If the aircraft has been destroyed, that would mark a sad end to an intriguing chapter in the annals of aviation. The AN-225 was conceived as a transport for the launch vehicle for the Soviet Buran space orbiters, the Soviet answer to the US space shuttle.
The Buran was being built in the western regions of the USSR but launched in the east. Since the Buran was too large to be transported by road or rail, Soviet engineers designed the AN-225, a massive aircraft that could piggyback the Buran to its launch site in Kazakhstan, and even launch the orbiter in mid-flight, a huge cost saving over ground launches.
In every respect, this is a massive aircraft. The AN-225 has six turbofan engines, 32 wheels, burns up to 20 tonnes of fuel per hour and has a maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) of 640 tonnes, 65 tonnes greater than the MTOW for an Airbus A380.
One weird facet of the Antonov is the enormously wide twin tail. Mounting a large object on top of the fuselage distorts the flow of air to the tail elevators and rudder on a single-tail aircraft, but the twin-tail design gets around this problem. The Boeing 747 that NASA uses to carry the space shuttle also sports a twin tail.
Shortly after the sole AN-225 ever built took to the air the Soviet space program faltered, a casualty of the implosion of the Soviet economy, and the AN-225 looked like becoming yet another Soviet white elephant.
Other uses for the AN-225 were proposed, including making it into a triple-deck airliner, but after a few years in mothballs the only AN-225 in existence was redesigned with a huge new cargo door and the aircraft given a fresh lease of life as a giant lifter, able to carry payloads too large and heavy for any other aircraft. In 2009 the AN-225 set a record for the largest single airlifted item, a 189-tonne generator destined for a gas power plant in Armenia.
The Antonov company itself was asked on Twitter if it could confirm the destruction of the AN-225 and it issued a blunt "No!" in response. But it wasn't clear if the "No!" meant the aircraft has not been destroyed or if the company was just unable to confirm it.
No!— ANTONOV Company 🇺🇦 (@AntonovCompany) February 26, 2022
Cargo flights – the aircraft you can't fly
You can't travel as a fare-paying passenger on a cargo flight originating from Australia, nor in most other countries with well-regulated aviation industries. However the US Air Mobility Command aircraft, which airlift personnel and cargo for the US armed forces, take passengers, but only those who are serving or retired US military personnel and their dependents. Flexibility is key, since military terminals will usually update their flight list, available on their Facebook pages, just 72 hours in advance.
The list of top 10 air cargo operators includes such familiar names as Qatar, Emirates and Cathay Pacific as well as UPS, FedEx and DHL, and their cargo flights are strictly cargo only, however there is another class of cargo aircraft that also carries passengers, the Combi.
These aircraft will either have a solid divide in the cabin that separates passengers from cargo, or removable seats that allow the aircraft to be configured as required. The major manufacturer is Boeing, which has designed aircraft as large as the 747 as Combis. In the 1980s KLM operated seven 747-200 Combis, capable of seating 200 passengers.
Combi aircraft are frequently used by airlines that service remote locations. For example Alaska Airlines, which operates to remote communities in the frozen north.
The popularity of Combi aircraft suffered a major setback in 1987 when a South African Airways Combi 747 flying from Taipei to Johannesburg suffered a fire in the cargo area, which was mainly filled with electronic components. With the crew unable to fight the fire, the aircraft crashed with the loss of all 140 passengers and crew. That caused the US Federal Aviation Administration to tighten regulations around Combi aircraft, and many airlines ceased operating them.
Why don't freighter aircraft have windows?
Except for cockpit windows, why would they? There's no passengers and freight doesn't mind. Building an aircraft without widows is a cost saving, and a solid airframe is stronger and more stable. In the case of aircraft that have been converted from passengers to cargo, the windows are sometimes plugged with metal plates.
Apart from windows there are other differences between passenger and cargo aircraft. Doors are much bigger, and some aircraft have flip-up noses or huge drop-down ramps below the tail, allowing vehicles and other long items to be loaded.
The range of freighters is generally much shorter than a passenger version of the same aircraft since goods weigh more than people per square metre of floor space.
With passenger flights suspended due to the pandemic and medical supplies needing to be dispatched urgently around the globe, many airlines including Qantas, repurposed their aircraft to cargo flights.
Some airlines went the whole hog, removing seats, installing cargo rails on the deck and fitting larger cargo doors, others made do with their existing aircraft. Lufthansa wrapped the passenger seats in plastic and filled chairs and aisles with boxes.