BUCHA, Ukraine — On 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 raged at a nearby airfield, and from where he was standing, the pilot, Oleksandr Halunenko, could see the explosions and feel the shivers. The Russians invaded his country and something very specific worried him.
The world’s largest plane rested in a hangar a few miles away, so special that only one was built. The name is Mriya, pronounced Mer-EE-ah, which means The Dream in Ukrainian. With its six jet engines, twin tail fins, and a wingspan almost as long as a football field, Mriya transported massive amounts of cargo around the world and mesmerized crowds wherever it landed. It was an aviation celebrity, aviation enthusiasts say, and widely loved. It was also a beloved symbol of Ukraine.
mr. Halunenko was Mriya’s first pilot and loved it as a kid. He has turned his house into a Mriya shrine – pictures, paintings and models of the aircraft hang in every room.
But that morning he had a terrible feeling.
“I’ve seen so many bombs and so much smoke,” he said. “I knew Mriya wouldn’t survive.”
The war in Ukraine, less than two months old, has already destroyed so much: thousands of lives, entire families, happiness and safety for countless people.
But it has also destroyed material things that mean a lot – houses burned to the ground; supermarkets feeding communities devastated by shelling; toys and precious possessions scorched beyond recognition.
In the case of Mriya, who received a direct hit during the pivotal battle at that airport, the damage to the plane has caused an unbelievable torrent of grief. Heartbroken airplane lovers around the world are getting Mriya tattoos. A sad cartoon is circulating, with tears streaming from Mriya’s eyes.
But there may be none as broken 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 Cold War child. 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 that he had a gift. He became a MiG-21 fighter pilot, and then an elite Soviet test pilot. He piloted all sorts of aircraft, from sleek new fighter jets to powerful cargo ships, but nothing quite as grand as what he was soon to fly.
In the 1980s, the Soviet leadership was eager to rejoin the space race. Engineers designed a reusable spacecraft called the Buran that looked like the American space shuttle.
But the components were scattered everywhere – the shuttle was built in Moscow, the missiles were made hundreds of kilometers away, and the launch pad was in Kazakhstan. The only viable way to get everything in the same place was to fly the shuttle and the missiles onto the back of a plane, a really big one.
And so Mriya was born at the Antonov production plant of the aviation company in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. It made its maiden flight in 1988, Mr. Halunenko at the wheel.
At 276 feet in length and six stories high, the aircraft, designated AN-225, was taller than any other in the sky. It boasted 32 landing wheels and a wingspan of 290 feet. Maximum takeoff weight was a whopping 1.4 million pounds, much more than a fully loaded 747. The nosecone flipped up to allow large objects, such as turbine blades or even smaller jets, to be slid into its hollow belly.
“The AN-225 was definitely the largest aircraft ever built, of any type, for any use,” said Shea Oakley, an aviation historian in New Jersey. “People came out to see this plane wherever it flew, just to marvel at the size of the thing.”
Halunenko, whose grizzly white beard makes him look like latecomer Ernest Hemingway, smiled when he recalled an Oklahoma air show more than 30 years ago.
“It takes a lot to impress Americans,” he said. “But I will never forget the crowd that lined up to see us.”
“And nobody knew where Kiev was,” he laughed.
Mriya was not easy to fly, especially with a space shuttle strapped to his back. It swung in wide arcs—Mr Halunenko held his arms outstretched like wings and rocked back and forth. It was difficult to dock on the ground.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the shuttle program also collapsed. Mriya was converted into a giant flying workhorse. It carried generators, huge pieces of glass, huge amounts of medical supplies and even battle tanks.
In 2004, Mr. Halunenko, who received the acclaimed Hero of Ukraine Medal, retired as a pilot. But Mriya continued. Over the past two years, it has made hundreds of flights, often crammed with Covid-19 supplies. For one trip to Poland, 80,000 people streamed the landing live. With a new paint job, the yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag, Mriya was Ukraine’s winged ambassador to the world.
The last mission came on Feb. 2, delivering Covid test kits from China to Europe before returning to base in Hostomel, said Dmytro Antonov, one of the newest pilots.
“She was in excellent condition from surgery,” he said. “We expected at least another 15 to 25 years from her.”
As war approached, US intelligence agencies warned Ukraine that the Russians planned to take Hostomel airport, not far from Kiev. Hostomel has a long airstrip which the Russians wanted so they could fly with thousands of troops.
Mriya’s owners discussed moving the plane to a safer location, Mr. Antonov, but it never happened. Company officials declined to comment on the decision, saying it was under investigation.
At 6:30 a.m. on February 24, the day the war began, Russian missiles hit a national security base near Hostomel airport. A few hours later, Russian helicopters shelled the airport with more missiles hitting the hangars where Mriya and other planes were stored, Ukrainian soldiers said.
“But we didn’t know Mriya was still there,” said Sergeant. Stanislav Petriakov, a soldier at the airport. “We thought Mriya had been moved.”
A 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 they had deliberately fired on the runway to prevent the Russians from using it. The Ukrainians said it was not their grenades that hit Mriya, whose hangar is about 700 meters from the runway. When asked who he thought had hit the plane, the pilot, Mr. Antonov, said, “Nobody knows.”
The following month, as the Russians occupied and brutalized Bucha, Halunenko held out, lecturing the young Russian soldiers not to point their guns at him and defying their orders to stay inside.
But he kept 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. See you Sunday evening.
At that moment he stepped past burnt trucks, and with shoes creaking over pieces of metal and glass, he walked across a battlefield of rubble toward the plane.
Slowly he approached the plane.
It was a mangled hull with a huge hole ripped off center, a nosecone cut by shrapnel, a wing ripped open, and its captain’s seat lost in a tangle of blackened metal and ash.
Mr. Halunenko just stood there, his face a blank screen.
His wife Olha, who had come to support him, whispered, “Oleksandr is a pilot. At the moment it is only processing the information. Later the emotions will touch him.”
After walking around the plane, he put his hand on one of the burnt engines and hung his head.
“We had hoped it could be repaired,” he said. “But now we realize we’re saying goodbye.”
But maybe not all is lost. The Ukrainian government, knowing the power of Mriya’s symbolism, has vowed to rebuild her with reparations it hopes to squeeze out of Russia.
Unknown to many, there is a second, half-finished Mriya hull. The plan, said Yuriy Husyev, the chief executive officer of Ukroboronprom, the state-owned company Antonov runs, was to use that hull along with salvaged parts from the old Mriya to “build a new dream.”
mr. Halunenko is sober about this, knowing it would cost “huge money” to bring his old friend back to life.
But sitting in his living room, surrounded by photos of Mriya soaring through a crystal-clear sky and parked in snow-covered airports, he said, “There’s something else important here.”
“No other country has made such a plane,” he said.
Mriya, he added softly, was Ukraine’s prestige.
Oleksandr Chubko reporting contributed.