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The BBC's John Terrett
reports from the Paris Air Show
 real 56k

Thursday, 21 June, 2001, 17:11 GMT 18:11 UK
Return of the Soviet behemoth
Antonov 225 'Mryia'
The Antonov-225 returns to be the largest plane in the skies
The world's largest aircraft, the Antonov-225, returns to the skies at the Paris Air Show with a little bit of help from the UK's Air Foyle.

Air Foyle, owned by the same family as the famous Foyle's bookshop, and the Ukrainian plane builder Antonov have put the plane back in the air after it was mothballed in 1994.

It is now on public display for the first time at the Paris Air Show.

The BBC's John Terrett, reporting from the show, describes the plane as "the giant beached shark, the air-kit you never finished".

The six-engine monster, known as the Mryia, was designed to transport the Soviet Union's equivalent of the US Space Shuttle and first flew in 1986.

The plane's dimensions are mind boggling. It takes up two 747 parking spaces on the ground and can lift 250 tonnes, the equivalent of 80 medium size cars.

Inside, it can accommodate the equivalent of eight double-decker buses.

Civilian licence

Now for the first time, the plane has been licensed to carry civilian loads.

Luton-based Air Foyle has had the exclusive international marketing contract with Antonov for the last 12 years and will take on the challenge of marketing it as a civilian aircraft.

"The aeroplane tends to make its own publicity and marketing because it is very difficult to miss," Bruce Bird, Air Foyle's commercial director, told the BBC.

Air Foyle claims it has many companies interested in using the Antonov and is confident that it will do well.

"This aeroplane is not in a competitive market where we have to provide a cheaper price or any variation to compete against other planes," added Mr Bird.

High-profile missions

When the Soviet space programme ran out of money, the plane was grounded but Antonov decided to resurrect the aircraft after the success of its air cargo business using the smaller Antonov 124s.

Antonov-124
An-124s ferry Paris-Dakar teams around Africa
Air Foyle, under its marketing agreement, has built it up to become the world's second largest outsize cargo transport business in the world.

"In the business we've been doing with Antonov, we've had requests for jobs that are even beyond the 124. With that history of demand, Antonov decided to bring the 225 back to service," Mr Bird said.

Antonov 124s, one of the world's largest heavy lift aircraft, have been involved in high profile missions like taking British troops to the Balkans, flying Paris-Dakar rally teams around Africa and the plane will be used to fly home the US spy-plane stranded in China.

Piggy-back

The Antonov-225 will most likely go back into service doing what it was designed for, carrying external cargos for research and aerospace groups.

"That sort of requirement still exists even though the Soviet programme has foundered. It was designed to carry a multiplicity of load and all the modules of their space projects," said Mr Bird.

There are also plans to use it as a launch platform for experimental vehicles.

"It depends on the design of the launch vehicle. It wouldn't go blasting off in a sheet of flames from the top of the Antonov. It would be more of a flying manoeuvre where it is released and then blast-off when the 225 has left the area," he said.

But first the plane has to prove its worth to drum up business which could mean humanitarian flights carrying emergency aid around the world.

"Our experience in this market is that when you introduce and outsized aircraft, nobody will make any contracts in advance.

"You have to prove a need for it and then customers will start signing up for it. Then your business develops from one-offs into regular work."

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