One Ukrainian War Casualty: The World’s Largest Airplane

BUCHA, Ukraine — The day war broke out, one of Ukraine’s most decorated pilots stepped onto the balcony of his three-story home and felt a pain in his heart.

A battle was raging at a nearby airport, and from where he was standing, the pilot, Oleksandr Halunenko, could see the explosions and feel the shudders. The Russians were invading his country and something very specific worried him.

Mriya.

The plane.

In a hangar a few miles away rested the world’s largest airplane, so special that only one was ever built. Its name is Mriya, pronounced Mer-EE-ah, which in Ukrainian means The Dream. With its six jet engines, twin tail fins and a wingspan nearly as long as a football field, Mriya hauled gargantuan amounts of cargo across the world, mesmerizing crowds wherever it landed. It was an airplane celebrity, aviation enthusiasts say, and widely beloved. It was also a cherished symbol of Ukraine.

Mr. Halunenko was Mriya’s first pilot and loved it like a child. He has turned his home into a Mriya shrine — pictures and paintings and models of the aircraft hang in every room.

But that morning, he had a terrible feeling.

“I saw so many bombs and so much smoke,” he said. “I knew Mriya could not survive.”

The war in Ukraine, not even two months old, has already destroyed so much: thousands of lives, entire families, happiness and security for countless people.

But it has also destroyed material things that mean a lot — homes burned to the ground; supermarkets that fed communities smashed by shelling; toys and prized possessions scorched beyond recognition.

In the case of Mriya, which took a direct hit during the pivotal battle at that airport, the damage to the aircraft has stirred an incredible outpouring of what can only be described as grief. Heartbroken airplane buffs around the world are getting Mriya tattoos. A sad cartoon has been circulating, with tears streaming out of Mriya’s eyes.

But there may be no one as broken up as Mr. Halunenko, who comes from a generation where emotions are not so easily shared.

“If I were not a man,” he said, “I would cry.”

Mr. Halunenko, 76, was a child of the Cold War. His father was a Russian Army captain, his mother a Ukrainian peasant. Both died when he was young.

At boarding school in southeastern Ukraine, he took flying lessons and discovered he had a gift. He became a MiG-21 fighter pilot and then an elite Soviet test pilot. He captained all kinds of aircraft, from sleek new fighter planes to powerful freighters but nothing as grand as what he would soon fly.

In the 1980s, the Soviet leadership was eager to get back into the space race. Engineers designed a reusable spacecraft called the Buran that looked like the American space shuttle.

But the components were spread all around — the shuttle was constructed in Moscow, the rockets were made hundreds of miles away and the launchpad was in Kazakhstan. The only feasible way to get everything in the same place was to fly the shuttle and the rockets on the back of a plane, a really big one.

And so, at the Antonov aviation company production plant in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, Mriya was born. It made its first flight in 1988, Mr. Halunenko at the controls.

At 276 feet long and six stories high, the plane, designated AN-225, was bigger than any other in the sky. It boasted 32 landing wheels and a wingspan of 290 feet. Its maximum takeoff weight stood at a staggering 1.4 million pounds, far more than a fully loaded 747. Its nose cone flipped up so that big objects, like turbine blades or even smaller jets, could be slid into its cavernous belly.

“The AN-225 absolutely was the largest airplane ever built, of any type, for any use,” said Shea Oakley, an aviation historian in New Jersey. “People came out to see this airplane wherever it flew just to marvel at the size of the thing.”

Mr. Halunenko, whose grizzly white beard makes him resemble a late-in-life Ernest Hemingway, smiled as he remembered an air show in Oklahoma more than 30 years ago.

“It takes a lot to impress the Americans,” he said. “But I’ll never forget the crowds lined up to see us.”

“And no one knew where Kyiv was,” he laughed.

Mriya wasn’t easy to fly, especially with a space shuttle strapped to its back. It turned in wide arcs — Mr. Halunenko held his arms straight out like wings and rocked side to side. On the ground it was hard to dock.

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the shuttle program went down with it. Mriya was repurposed into a gigantic flying workhorse. It hauled generators, vast pieces of glass, stupendous quantities of medical supplies and even battle tanks.

By 2004, Mr. Halunenko, who was awarded the acclaimed Hero of Ukraine medal, retired as its pilot. But Mriya carried on. In the past two years, it made hundreds of flights, often stuffed with Covid-19 supplies. For one journey to Poland, 80,000 people live-streamed the landing. With a new paint job, the yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag, Mriya was Ukraine’s winged ambassador to the world.

Its last mission came on Feb. 2, delivering Covid test kits from China to Europe before returning to its base in Hostomel, said Dmytro Antonov, one of its latest pilots.

“She was in great operating shape,” he said. “We were expecting at least 15 to 25 more years out of her.”

As the war neared, American intelligence officials warned Ukraine that the Russians planned to seize the Hostomel airport, not far from Kyiv. Hostomel has a long runway that the Russians wanted so that they could fly in thousands of troops.

Mriya’s owners discussed moving the plane to a safer location, Mr. Antonov said, but it never happened. Company officials declined to comment on the decision, saying it was under investigation.

At 6:30 a.m. on Feb. 24, the day the war started, Russian missiles slammed into a national guard base near Hostomel airport. A few hours later, Russian helicopters blasted the airport with more missiles that hit the hangars where Mriya and other airplanes were stored, Ukrainian soldiers said.

“But we didn’t know Mriya was still here,” said Sgt. Stanislav Petriakov, a soldier at the airport. “We thought Mriya had been moved.”

A pitched battle broke out, but the Ukrainians soon ran out of ammunition and retreated to a forest.

It is not clear how Mriya was destroyed. Ukrainian soldiers said that they intentionally shelled the runway to prevent the Russians from using it. The Ukrainians said it was not their shells that hit Mriya, whose hangar is about 700 meters from the runway. When asked who he thought hit the plane, Mr. Antonov, the pilot, said, “Nobody knows.”

For the next month, as the Russians occupied and brutalized Bucha, Mr. Halunenko stood his ground, lecturing young Russian soldiers not to point their guns at him and defying their orders to stay inside.

But he couldn’t stop thinking about Mriya.

“She’s like my child,” he said. “I taught her to fly.”

When the Russians finally left at the end of March, Mr. Halunenko stayed away from the airport. Until Sunday evening.

That’s when he stepped past burned trucks, and with shoes crunching over pieces of metal and glass he walked across a battlefield of debris toward the plane.

Slowly he approached the plane.

It was a mangled fuselage with a huge hole ripped out of its middle, a nose cone sliced up by shrapnel, a wing torn open and his captain’s chair lost in a tangle of blackened metal and ash.

Mr. Halunenko simply stood there, his face a blank screen.

His wife, Olha, who had come to support him, whispered: “Oleksandr is a pilot. Right now he’s just processing the information. Later the emotions will hit him.”

After walking around the plane, he put his hand on one of the burned engines and hung his head down.

“We had hoped she was repairable,” he said. “But now we realize we are saying goodbye.”

All might not be lost, though. The Ukrainian government, knowing the power of Mriya’s symbolism, has vowed to rebuild her with war reparations it hopes to squeeze from Russia.

Unknown to many, there is a second, half-finished Mriya fuselage. The plan, said Yuriy Husyev, the chief executive officer of Ukroboronprom, the state-owned company that runs Antonov, was to use that fuselage along with salvaged parts from the old Mriya to “build a new dream.”

Mr. Halunenko is sober about this, knowing it would take “huge money” to resurrect his old friend.

But sitting in his living room, surrounded by photographs of Mriya soaring through crystalline skies and parked on snowy airfields, he said, “something else is important here.”

“No other country has created such an aircraft,” he said.

Mriya, he added quietly, was Ukraine’s prestige.

Oleksandr Chubko contributed reporting.