An-225 Cargo Plane Takes Flight

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HOSTOMEL AERODROME, Ukraine — The world's largest plane took to the air in Ukraine on Monday, successfully completing a short test flight and fueling hopes for a recovery in the country's struggling aviation and airfreight industries.

The giant Antonov-225, a heavily reworked version of a plane originally designed to carry the former Soviet Union's Buran space shuttle, took off from Hostomel airport outside Kiev and flew for 15 minutes before landing safely.

"Big machine, big emotion," jubilant test flight engineer Alexei Shuleschenko said as the crew was cheered and hugged by colleagues from the Antonov aircraft-designing company.

"The test was a success. Everything is fine," Petro Balabuyev, head of the Antonov company, told reporters.

Antonov has extensive experience in the heavy cargo market. Its An-124-100, a 120-ton capacity freighter known as the Ruslan, is the largest plane currently in commercial use.

The An-124 is aimed at the niche market for superheavy and oversized air cargo, which is worth more than $200 million a year and is dominated by Russian and Ukrainian carriers.

But industry experts say the An-225, dubbed Mriya, or Dream, which can carry 250 tons of cargo, could increase the size of that market.

The An-225's wingspan is a staggering 88.4 meters. The cargo bay is 43 meters long, 6.4 meters wide and 4.4 meters deep and could house 80 cars or 16 universal freight containers.

Balabuyev, who said the plane was expected to receive its commercial certification within a month, said the company had already been contacted by potential clients. Business flights could take place within 1 1/2 months.

Russia's Volga-Dnepr Airlines, which controls the lion's share of the superheavy air cargo market, has said it is interested in cooperating with Antonov to put the An-225 into commercial use.

The plane, which may appear in June at the world's largest aviation industry airshow at Le Bourget, France, was launched in 1988 as part of the former Soviet Union's space program.

Just two such planes were built, and only one actually flew. Balabuyev said he would like to sell the incomplete aircraft, which would command a $60 million price tag.

Since 1988 the design has been extensively modified, with more powerful engines and a strengthened fuselage, among other changes. The test flight had been delayed from April 19.

According to revised Antonov figures, the plane can carry 200 tons for up to 4,000 kilometers at its cruising speed of 750 to 850 kilometers per hour. With a lower payload of 150 tons, the range extends to 7,000 kilometers. Range tests with the maximum cargo of 250 tons have not been carried out yet, Antonov said. Cargo can be carried inside and outside the airplane.