Antonov, the manufacturer of the largest operational aircraft in history – the An-225 Cossack – has just inked an agreement with the Chinese government to complete a second An-225, likely for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (PLAAF) strategic airlift needs. This was the official press release on Antonov’s Facebook social media page:
ANTONOV COMPANY SIGNED COOPERATION AGREEMENT ON THE AN-225 PROGRAMME WITH AICC.
On August 30, 2016, ANTONOV Company included into Ukroboronprom SC and Aerospace Industry Corporation of China (AICC) signed Cooperation agreement on the AN-225 programme. In such way, the parties expressed their intensions as for long-term cooperation. The first stage of this interaction consists in construction of the second modernized AN-225 Mriya at ANTONOV Company and delivery of this aircraft to AICC. The second stage – organization of the joint series production of the AN-225 in China under licence of ANTONOV Company. Both stages will be realized in accordance with proper contracts.
Developed and built in the late 1980s, the An-225 was originally supposed to be an aerial transport for the Soviet version of the Space Shuttle, known as Buran. Similar to NASA’s Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, Buran would be mounted above the An-225’s wing roots and flown between Soviet launch and maintenance facilities as needed; in the event that Buran’s external rocket boosters needed a ferry ride, the An-225 could hoist them as well. The first (and currently only) An-225 was completed in 1988 and flew later that year, wowing the world the following year at the Paris Air Show with its sheer size and mass. Plans called for two An-225s to be produced, but of the two airframes built, only one was actually finished while the other was placed in long-term storage while Soviet space program bigwigs mulled over its future.
Known as the “Cossack” to the West and the Mryia (Russian for “dream”) to the Eastern side of the former Iron Curtain, the An-225 flies today without Buran… mostly because Buran faded away along with the rest of the Soviet Union. When the Russian Federation was created, such a venture was judged to be far too expensive and the project was canned, leaving the Cossack without a job. In 1994, the sole airworthy An-225 was placed in storage alongside its incomplete sister, and its six engines were pulled for use on other Antonov heavy cargo planes. Later on, an enterprising group of individuals came together to form Antonov Airlines with the An-225 as its headlining vehicle – a strategic airlifter with incredible cargo/freight carriage capabilities.
The second incomplete An-225 is somewhat different than its older active companion. Interestingly enough, the Russian government, in 2006, planned on rolling the unfinished Cossack back into the factory to be completed by 2008, but funding (in the ballpark of over $300 million USD) could not be gathered for the project, once again leaving the aircraft lifeless on a ramp. Instead of the twin-tail setup used by the active An-225, the second Cossack has just a single vertical stabilizer. The first aircraft was built with such a tailplane to afford pilots greater control authority when carrying Buran on the Cosscak’s back. A strategic airlifter, however, doesn’t really need the same allowances. The unfinished Cossack also has a rear cargo door, and will probably feature improved high-bypass turbofan engines as well as a glass cockpit.
Today, neither the Russian nor Ukrainian (Antonov is a Ukrainian company) uses the An-225 except when on temporary loan for transport from its parent company. However, China seemingly wants to shake things up by completing the unfinished An-225 at Antonov’s main facility in Kiev, Ukraine, and pressing it into service as a long-range strategic airlift vehicle. China had long sought a solution to its airlift woes, especially given the size of its military and the lack of aircraft to move elements around. In 2013, 20 dilapidated Soviet-era Ilyushin Il-76 Candid transports formed the backbone of China’s strategic airlift capability. Planes to augment these transports with another 34 brand new Il-76s had fallen through in 2005. In comparison, the US Air Force maintains an overall fleet of 222 C-17 Globemaster III and 55 C-5M Super Galaxy strategic airlifters.
In 2006, China began a airlift development project that ultimately produced the Xian Y-20, seemingly based off the C-17 and the Il-76. The Y-20, though finally in service as of July this year, is still considered to be inappropriately-engined (another issue constantly plaguing Chinese aircraft design), and thus, it makes sense that China would begin to consider alternatives, especially in the form of a pre-built gargantuan An-225. This wouldn’t be the first time China has bought and refurbished military hardware from Ukrainian companies in recent years; their only operational aircraft carrier is also of Ukrainian origin. It’s unclear just how China will use the new An-225, however, considering that only one will be completed and the flying/maintenance costs will be incredibly high. It’s also possible that the Chinese government intends to use the An-225 as a testbed, similar to how they’ve utilized their aircraft carrier, to develop concepts and to create heavy strategic airlift aircraft of their own, going forward. The Chinese government aims to have the Cossack completed and airworthy by 2019 at the latest.