Russia's biggest transport plane hauled the Soviet space shuttle
Russia has managed to build some big stuff over the years. The Typhoon-class ballistic missile submarine is the biggest ever floated. Russia set off the biggest nuclear weapon ever. And now, they plan to build the biggest aircraft carrier ever. There is an obsession with size — almost as if Vladimir Putin and past Soviet leaders are (or were) compensating for something...
Given their history, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Russia also made one of the biggest transports ever, the Antonov An-225. One of its jobs was to haul the Soviet's version of the Space Shuttle, a design called Buran. Like the U.S. Space Shuttle, Buran was unable to take off and land in atmospheric flight. So, to get between landing locations while in atmosphere, both of these spacecraft needed a massive plane.
The Anotov An-225 was truly immense size, as evident here. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)
For the U.S. Space Shuttles, that meant hitching a ride on the back of a 747 from Edwards Air Force Base to Kennedy Space Center. The Russians, however, designed a plane for the specific purpose of hauling their shuttle.
They decided to scale up their Antonov An-124 "Condor" strategic airlifter.
The first (and only, to date) Antonov An-225 cargo aircraft in flight at Farnborough 1990 airshow. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)
The new plane was called the An-225, dubbed "Cossack" by NATO. This new aircraft was massive — 275 feet, seven inches long with a 290-foot wingspan. It had six engines and could haul over 550,000 pounds, or 275 tons. To put things in perspective, that's a platoon of M1A2 Abrams tanks.
The thing is, the Soviet Union was only able to build one of these planes before the fall of the Berlin Wall. After the Soviet Union dissolved, the plane went into storage in the newly-independent Ukraine. It came out of storage to haul some truly impressive loads, and then China bought the unfinished second plane. That second aircraft will be used as a flying launch platform for satellites.
United States Air Force Airman, Pakistani soldiiers, and Ukrainian aid workers offload a Russian AN-225 at Chaklala Air Base, Pakistan, Oct. 21, 2005. (USAF photo by Tech. Sgt Jeromy K. Cross)
The An-225 makes for an interesting study in airlifters. Boeing had a concept for an even larger plane called the Pelican, which was more a wing-in-ground design able to haul 750 tons a distance of 10,000 nautical miles. To learn more about this giant Soviet bird, check out the video below: