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Restoring a Giant Plane: Resilience or Ukrainian Folly?

2023-03-28T13:30:39.727Z


Ukraine, with far more pressing needs, plans to rebuild the colossal Mriya cargo plane, a symbol of pride that was destroyed last year in a battle over its airfield.


HOSTOMEL, Ukraine - The gigantic twin tail fins, which once reached the height of a six-story building, have disappeared.

So have the tailplane, the ailerons, the hydraulic systems, the fuel pumps and three of the six engines of the plane, destroyed in the fighting in the first days of the war.

After being damaged and burning down last year in a battle for Hostomel airport, much of the Mriya, or An-225, was left beyond repair.

Photo Laetitia Vancon for The New York Times

Piece by piece, workers are

dismantling

the remains of the giant

Mriya cargo plane,

the heaviest plane ever flown, with plans to build a new one from salvaged parts.

Restoration of the plane, whose name means

The Dream

in Ukrainian , has begun.

With the war still raging, the immense task of rebuilding Ukraine, where hundreds of thousands of homes, hospitals, schools and bridges have been blown up, still seems a distant prospect.

Compared to these daunting challenges, work on the new aircraft is not a humanitarian priority.

However, according to the directors of the

Antonov aeronautical company,

which owns the plane, it partly serves as an inspiration.

The wreckage of the Mriya, the heaviest plane ever flown, lay at an airfield outside Kiev last week as workers began dismantling it to salvage parts.

Photo Laetitia Vancon for The New York Times

If something as gigantic and complex as this plane can be restored, they say, so

can the rest of the country.

"People must have hope," says Vladyslav Valsyk, deputy director and chief engineer at Antonov, a state-owned company.

"They have to know that this plane is not abandoned. Yes, there is a lot of work to be done, but we are working."

But critics say spending money and energy on rebuilding the plane would be the

wrong priority.

Technicians examine one of the Mriya's engines for usable parts for Ukraine's plan to rebuild the massive plane.

Photo Laetitia Vancon for The New York Times

Valery Romanenko, an aviation analyst, has told the Ukrainian media that Antonov should focus solely on "doing something urgent for the armed forces" during the war, such as making drones.

"There are just no words," he said of the plan to build a new Mriya.

President

Volodymyr Zelensky

announced last May that Ukraine would rebuild the Mriya, the only one of its kind to have been completed.

Over the summer, British businessman and aviation enthusiast

Richard Branson

visited the wreckage and expressed his enthusiasm to

assist in its restoration,

should the time come.

The Antonov Museum in kyiv houses models of aircraft built by the company and exhibits on the technology used in them.

Photo Laetitia Vancon for The New York Times

The company announced last week the start of salvage operations and design work, but said construction of the new ship would wait until

after the war.

Workers are disassembling what they can of the soot-stained wreckage, and engineers are drawing up plans to use these salvaged parts, along with spare parts, engines from a similar plane, and a long-inactive extra fuselage, to build a new plane. say company executives.

The project will cost about

500 million dollars

and financing has not yet been found.

However, the company says the long lead time it takes to get the plane back in the air means it can't wait to start planning and assembling parts.

Oleksandr Dveirin, right, chief designer at Antonov, the aviation company that builds and owns the Mriya, with another designer, Andriy Safonov, seated, and Vladyslav Vlasyk, Antonov's deputy director and chief engineer, in Kiev last week.

PhotoLaetitia Vancon for The New York Times

Antonov said he is in talks with European, American and Asian aviation companies, and with potential customers for future cargo flights.

The plane, built in kyiv in the 1980s and overhauled after the country's independence from the Soviet Union, has long been the pride of Ukraine.

Designated AN-225, it was larger than any other in the sky, with a wingspan of 88.3 meters and a maximum takeoff weight of a staggering 635 tons.

It was built to carry the Buran, the orbiter in the short-lived Soviet space shuttle program.

Valentyn Kostiyanov, a technician who has worked at Antonov for more than 50 years and helped build the Mriya, is now working on the salvage operation.

Photo Laetitia Vancon for The New York Times

Later, its bulbous, almost cartoonishly rotund body carried unwieldy industrial objects such as wind turbine blades or locomotives, and was a crowd-pleaser at air shows.

While the first steps are taken to restore the plane, the police investigate the

circumstances of its destruction.

The night before the Russian invasion, a crew prepared the plane to take it safely out of Ukraine, Maksym Sanotskyi, the company's deputy director of transportation, said in an interview.

Takeoff was scheduled for the following afternoon.

But time ran out.

Russian troops crossed the border before dawn and Russian special forces pounced on Hostomel airport, the base of the Mriya, with a helicopter assault.

In the ensuing fighting over the airport on the outskirts of kyiv, the plane was peppered with shrapnel and caught fire.

Last week, alongside the company's announcement of the progress made in restoring the aircraft, police announced the arrest of several

former executives of the Antonov company

, suspected of obstructing the work of the military to secure Hostomel airport. in the days before the invasion.

In a statement, prosecutors said the company had not allowed the Ukrainian national guard to build defensive positions at the airport, for reasons that remain unclear, leading to the destruction of the Mriya.

Valsyk said he could not comment on the investigation.

Remains

The plane, of course, does not top Ukraine's long list of priorities for rebuilding after a year of the most destructive war in Europe since World War II.

Hardly any cities have been spared from missile or artillery attacks, and millions of Ukrainians are displaced or live in cities without running water or electricity.

Antonov claims that the plane has commercial potential.

When rented by companies in the energy sector, for example, to transport large equipment around the world, the cost per hour is about

$32,000.

The company also claims that the plane is

invaluable

as a symbol of Ukraine.

But a former Antonov engineer, Anatoly Vovnyanko, has told the Ukrainian media that he does not believe the company will ever recoup its outlays through commercial freight.

"

No one needs this Mriya," said Vovnyanko-

 "The money will never be recovered."

Even the main attraction of the plane, its gigantic size, has drawn criticism as a vestige of the Soviet mentality that Ukraine does not need today.

The Soviets built "the world's biggest locomotive, bulldozer, sugar factory, iron foundry" and so on, one critic, Serhiy Marchenko, wrote on Facebook.

"All these great things have one thing in common: meaninglessness

.

"

He called the public relations efforts around the restoration an affront to people who lost their homes in the war.

There are many challenges ahead.

Although the Mriya has parts in common with another Ukrainian-made cargo plane, the Ruslan, some parts will have to be custom-built.

Half a dozen

Ruslan planes

are still flying from a base in Germany.

On the bright side, the company has an entire Mriya aircraft fuselage in storage, left over from an abandoned plan to build a second cargo giant.

Recovered and new parts can be attached to this fuselage.

So far, three of the six jet engines, flaps, parts of the hydraulic systems, part of the landing gear and fuel pumps and the tail assembly have been recovered, Sanotskyi said.

Certifying the new plane's airworthiness to European and US regulatory bodies will be challenging, he admitted.

Valentyn Kostiyanov, 68, a technician who worked on the Mriya when it was built in the 1980s, was examining the tangle of cables and hydraulic lines inside the plane's wreckage one day last week, looking for possible

airworthy

parts .

"It was burned cruelly," he said.

The plane, now supported on jacks, creaks in the wind and strips of insulation flutter out of the holes in the fuselage.

Wires hang from the wings.

"We spent a lot of time, thousands of hours, for years we were building it," Kostiyanov said, only to see it destroyed in the Russian invasion.

You have no doubts about the decision to try to get the plane airworthy again.

"Ask anyone in Ukraine," he says.

Even a "two-year-old will tell you to rebuild the Mriya."

c.2023 The New York Times Company

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Source: clarin

All news articles on 2023-03-28

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