Rare Aircraft/Photo Report – Supersize Me: the Antonov An-225 @ Zagreb

By me
All photos me too, copyrighted

While for the most part Zagreb Airport is your stock, average – and flat out uninteresting – regional gateway, every once in awhile it does have a few bright moments πŸ™‚ . As reported previously on several occasions, these usually include visits by rare and interesting cargo and passenger charters, which make use of the airport’s proximity to the country’s capital, its low traffic volume (something the airport management is none too happy about! πŸ˜€ ) and generally its favorable strategic position at the entrance to the Balkans.

However, the rulebook on what is interesting had been completely re-written between 8 and 10 November, when Zagreb was host to the world’s most impressive aircraft (bar the Concorde): the fantastic – and fantastically huge! – Antonov An-225 Mriya πŸ™‚ .

The aviation event of the year – which had drawn in over 10,000 visitors according to Police statistics – the 225’s 8 Nov arrival had marked the type’s first visit to Croatian soil, naturally sending the locals into a frenzy πŸ˜€ . Making headlines even in the normally-unimpressed mainstream media, the Mriya was in town to pick up a locally-made 140 ton electrical transformer urgently needed on the Philippine island of Cebu. Ironically, at “just” EUR 1.5 million, the transformer itself is significantly cheaper than the EUR 2.2 million bill for flying it there – which says a lot about the urgency of its delivery! (destined for the San Lorenzo powerplant, it is due to replace a previous unit – also made in Croatia – which had been heavily damaged in a flood and then, for that little extra something, struck by lightning)

While news of this fantastic export success did wonders for national morale – and rightfully heaped praise on the engineers of Končar Power Transformers Ltd. who’d built the thing in less than two months – this particular Croat was somewhat more interested in the actual delivery truck πŸ˜€ . Thanks to a one-in-a-million stroke of luck, I’d managed to secure free run of the entire aircraft – thanks to its Captain, Dmitry Antonov, as well as fellow aviation photographers Petar M. of Croatia and Tamas M. of Hungary – giving me an amazing insight into the workings of this awe-inspiring machine…

The Beast is finally here! And what a sight she is, all clean and shiny and bathed in the apron floods, while all around the evening fog begins to dampen out the background light…

An aquamarine panel and six throttle levers – no prizes for guessing the aircraft! A fantastic trip back in time, the 225’s flight deck actually employs a six-man crew, including the captain, first officer, navigator, comms officer and two flight engineers – one monitoring the engines, hydraulics and pressurization and the other handling just the electrics. Despite the vastness of the aircraft itself, the cockpit is quite small, dark and cramped, with less headroom than a respectable business jet…

The awe-inducing mass of switches, dials and lights that forms the office of the two flight engineers. Even though many of the smaller An-124s – which share the same cockpit – have received some form of digital avionics upgrade over the years, the Mriya is still as (wonderfully) low-tech as it was when it first flew…

A very rarely seen part of any larger aircraft, the 225’s avionics bay is big enough to cram in several dozen seats. Not a nice place to be for any extended period of time, the bay is constantly kept hot by the aging avionics, with numerous fans fighting a loosing battle to maintain a decent temperature – and instead only adding to the misery with their high pitched whirrs…

Definitely the most impressive part of the 225’s intestines is the cargo hold. At 43 meters/140 feet in length – enough to play several sports! – this cavernous space includes a ceiling hoist (seen at the end of the bay), as well as cables that will be used to haul the cargo in. The blue rails were installed specifically for the transformer, and are generally tailored to meed the needs of the cargo carried.

A slightly different view of the Mriya’s main landing gear. An interesting detail is the uneven wear on the tires; from this perspective of the right main leg, the outer tires on the rearmost wheels are the most worn out, damage identical to that I’ve seen on the left leg (and caused primarily by the nose-up attitude at landing, which means the rear tires suffer the most stress).

Time to shine!  With the transformer off the ground and suspended from two cranes, it was time for the day’s most critical maneuver – rotating and setting the thing directly down onto the wooden skids on which it’ll be pulled into the hold. With a mix of Croatian, Ukrainian, English and Hungarian, the guys and gals involved had managed to put the transformer down on the first try, precisely, safely and without drama.

Enjoying a spot of exercise as I attempt to get the 225 fully into the frame. Even though I was using a 17 mm lens on a full frame camera, I’d almost ended up way out on the runway before I got a clean shot. But it was worth it… for while it does look fantastic from all angles, the 225 shows off its best side from this perspective – especially when the tail comes into play. Borne out of necessity when flying external loads, the twin fins encompass 32.6 meters/107 feet of air between them – just 1.5 meters/five feet short of the entire wingspan of the A320 in the back…

A look at things from another angle… from right on top of the control tower. An all-day job, the loading of the transformer – seen on the right – had to progress at a snail’s pace, since the slightest mistake with its 140-ton bulk could have resulted in a world of problems…

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