Inside the World’s Largest Aircraft – Antonov 225 Mriya

I am not sure this post does fit in the ‘sightseeing’ category. If you go to Malpensa – the largest airport of Milan – on a regular day, it’s unlikely you will spot the distinctive shape of the unique six-engined Antonov An-225. Yet in this post I will give a pictorial description of this crazy flying machine, so that wherever and when you should see the Mriya, here is what you might expect. This aircraft is a moving attraction, so exceptional that I feel going out to photograph it is still ‘sightseeing’ in some sense…

I had the chance to climb on it one night in early 2015, thanks to Paolo, a friend of mine from Italy, who is working in the company operating the airport system of Milan. The huge aircraft had been going in and out of Italy on an almost regular basis for some weeks, tasked with moving military equipment from central Africa back to the Italian soil.

It was a matter of coordination between me and Paolo, and of course some luck was involved, for the landing and take-off times of the Mriya are usually in the middle of the night and not perfectly predictable, plus good weather is never assured especially in winter. Anyway, in the end I succeeded in arranging a private visit to the Mriya with Paolo and another friend of mine. Paolo registered us as official visitors, so being there and allowed to walk on the apron of the largest airport in Northern Italy, we could come close also to some other interesting items.

The following photos are about that incredible night.

Sights

Mriya Parked

When we went on the apron the plane was still resting on its many (32) wheels, with doors closed and nobody around. The flight scheduled for that evening was basically a ferry flight to Africa, so no loading operations were expected. We were free to walk around taking pictures.

You may see how big this aircraft is by comparing its size to that of the guys walking under it. You will feel like walking close to a moored cruising ship more than an aircraft…

Air India Boeing 787 Dreamliner

While waiting for the crew to come to the aircraft for departure, we came close to a Dreamliner preparing for a flight to India. It still retained its ‘new plastic’ smell. Among the most distinctive features of this model are the beautiful engine nozzles, with a toothed profile for noise suppression.

Emirates Airbus A380

We had the chance to see an A380 taxiing to the gate after arriving from Dubai. This double-decker is really impressive, as you can see again looking at the size of the people walking under its wings. Yet this time this was not the star of the show…

We walked up to the cabin, but were not allowed to take pictures. As it is the case for most modern aircraft, the cockpit is not so fascinating especially when the electronics are switched off – you just have an array of TV scopes…

Inside the Mriya

We then went back to the Mriya to meet the crew and walk in. The crew is composed by about ten people, including those connected with flight operations and those responsible for payload.

You get access to the aircraft through a hatch with an attached ladder. Otherwise, when the cargo door to the front is open, you may access the aircraft from there. There is no cargo door to the back.

The inside is structured with a main cargo deck in the central section of the aircraft, with a built-in crane capable of moving a 5 ton load. There are apparently no hooks on the ground, they possibly fasten the payload to the sides, but I’m not sure. The tail cone section can be accessed through an internal hatch for inspection, and cannot host any payload.

Along the sides of the cargo bay there are tons of bulky items and tools for servicing, spare parts including wheels, gauges connected with the landing gear operation, and small round windows to allow visually checking the wings and the engines underneath. The main cargo section is closed to the front by the folding platform for cargo loading, resting in a vertical position in flight, when the nose cargo door is closed and the nose cone lowered.

A retractable ladder gives access to the cockpit and crew resting area, which is configured in a similar fashion to the upper deck of the Boeing 747. To the front from the hatch on top of the ladder you get access to the seats of the flight engineers and to the cockpit. Seating in the engineering compartment is for four people, but I guess this was necessary for operating the Buran or for more complicate missions. Anyway, I would say at least a crewman for each side would be needed for normal flight operations. Seating in the cockpit is for two, and the arrangement of controls and gauges is neat and linear.

I would have spent one month in the engineering compartment to check every item in detail – tons of late Cold War items, and everything so Soviet-looking! – but this was not a day-off visit for the crewmen, who were busy with preparing the aircraft for the flight. To the back of the access hatch the quarters for the crew include two side compartments for living and sleeping, a small galley and a large storage room. From there it is possible to look through a window to another compartment to the back, with clusters of electronic material and other stuff, close to the wing section.

I noticed the usual placard with evacuation routes, and other strange knobs close to the upper-deck access ladder. Close to the side door of the aircraft the crew has many stickers from various places visited with this wonderful aircraft, and a bell like that of a 19th century ship!

Boeing 747 Cargo

Waiting for the Mriya to depart, we boarded a brand new Boeing 747 cargo of the Russian company ABC cargo. The contrast between this and the Antonov couldn’t be more striking. This new 747 has a fully automatic cargo deck, with a really impressive plethora of sensors and a system of rails to safely fasten cargo pallets. The flying deck is very comfortable and modern, with the typical brownish Boeing plastic, clearly reminding you this aircraft was ‘proudly manufactured in the USA’!

Mriya Leaving

We finally went back to the Mriya to follow the departure sequence. The aircraft was pushed back with a dedicated towing strut, coping with the twin-mast front undercarriage. This item travels with the aircraft, so before engine startup it is necessary to open the front cargo door and load this gear, pushing it inside by pure handwork. The front undercarriage is tilted, lowering the front of the plane and making loading operations possible. After that, a crewman closes the side access door and startup of the six engines is initiated.

I shot a video during engine spool up, posted on my YouTube channel broadbandeagle.

Note

As I wrote at the beginning, this is a ‘special report’ and not a post with many how-to notes. I hope you got an idea of how the An-225 looks inside, but I was clearly lucky to be allowed on this special tour. All thanks go to Paolo, who invited me to join in, registering me as an official visitor. I dare to say that if you don’t know somebody doing his job and with his passion for aeronautics, then unfortunately you’ll hardly have a chance to board this aircraft and see the inside… unless you do his job yourself, or they retire the aircraft and put it in a museum!

Jüterbog/Niedergörsdorf – Abandoned Flight Academy in the GDR

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The area around the small town of Jüterbog – located 60 miles south of Berlin – has a long military tradition, with storages, barracks and training installations in place since the years of the Kaiser and Bismarck, about mid-19th century.

The region was selected for building one of the first flight academies in Germany before WWI, and flight activities with airships and other exotic flying material from the early age of aviation took place in those years.

Much was forcibly dismantled following the defeat of Germany in 1918, but the place regained primary attention with the advent of Hitler and the Nazi party to power. Among the various military installations built in the area, a modern flight academy was erected anew – baptized ‘Fliegertechnische Schule Niedergörsdorf’.

Initial technical training for both ground and flying staff of the Luftwaffe was imparted here until the break out of WWII and the conquest of Poland, when the academy moved to Warsaw.

The extensive group of buildings in Jüterbog retained a primary role in the advanced training of flight officers and engineers, aircraft and engine technicians. Technical personnel were trained to operate innovative weapon systems, in collaboration with research centers of the Luftwaffe.

With the end of the war the region fell under Soviet rule, and the military facilities – including the academy, which survived the war largely intact – were reassigned to various functions.

Info is available in less detail about this part of the story, as typical with military bases in the territories occupied by the Soviets… Part of the buildings of the academy were used again for training staff of tank divisions, but also a KGB station was reportedly activated there. As with most Soviet installations, it was given back to reunified Germany by 1994.

The place is since then abandoned, but differently from other sites formerly managed by the Soviets, it has been inscribed in the registry of landmark buildings, being an interesting specimen of Nazi military architecture.

Following WWII, the nearby airbase of Jüterbog – about a mile south of the academy complex – was operated both by East German (GDR) and Soviet air combat groups, until the Russians left in 1992. Soon after, the airport was permanently closed and partly dismantled. Unlike other Soviet bases in the GDR, flying units there never upgraded to MiG-29, so the aircraft shelters you can see there are of the oldest types.

I would suggest visiting the site for two reasons, a) the uniqueness of the architectural composition, with much of what you see dating back from the Nazi era – you can clearly notice the typical Nazi ‘sheer grandeur’, differing from the often poor and shabby Soviet military architecture… b) the very famous mural of the Soviet Soldier, which apart from the result of a little attack by an ignorant writer, is still in an almost perfect shape.

The following photographs were taken in late August 2016.

Sights

Niedergörsdorf Flight Academy

It should be pointed out that this place is actually off-limits, and there are clear prohibition signs at least on the front gate. Furthermore, it is not an isolated installation, but surrounded by other buildings, close to a small but active railway station and not far from a supermarket. Accessing the site via the blocked main gate is clearly not possible.

Finding an easy way in is not difficult, but standing to the signs on the gate, the place is also actively guarded, so you should be quick and concentrated when moving around. In order to shorten your time in, I suggest turning your attention to the northernmost part of the site.

Walking along the northern perimeter inside the base some Cold War, not very artistically significant murals can be spotted on the external wall made of the usual Soviet concrete slabs.

From there you can easily reach the semicircular building of the grand hall, probably the most notable of the base, and the one where the famous mural of the Soviet Soldier is.

When moving around the corner from the back to the front façade of the building, you find yourself on the road leading to the blocked main gate. You may be spotted from outside the base, so be careful.

Once in the area in front of the semicircular building, you can see to the south a nice perspective of the other buildings of the academy, surrounding a large inner court.

The inside of the main semicircular building – which should not be accessed – is in a state of disrepair.

There are two main floors and a less interesting third attic floor.

The beautiful mural of the Soviet Soldier can be easily found close to the stairs.

Here are some other details of this nice and sober example of Soviet monumental art.

Many other parts of the lower floors are covered in painted decorations, but these were probably of lower quality with respect to the Soviet Soldier – which appears to be a real fresco – and are today falling from the walls.

Another highlight of the visit to this building is the grand theatre. You should consider going with a tripod and/or a powerful torchlight for getting better photos than these, for the room is totally dark. Very creepy, btw…!

On the former part of the sports arena to the west of the building complex it is possible to spot a new little gym. Possibly to your surprise you will find the place is still run by a sporting club – this is nice, also for getting a better idea of how the place looked like when it was an active training center. On the cons side, walking around undercover is not easy, and maybe you are violating a private property ‘no trespassing’ instruction – even though I didn’t notice any.

An interesting part of the sports arena is the abandoned pool, which I guess was already part of the Nazi construction plan too – check photographs of postcards of the time on the Internet.

To get an impression of the complex from above, you may have a look to aerial pictures taken during a dedicated flight, reported here.

Jüterbog Airbase

A quick visit to the airbase south of the academy can reveal some interesting sights, including aircraft shelters from the early Cold War era which have been converted to hay storages or garages for agricultural vehicles. Many former taxiways can be freely accessed by car, some of them have been turned into ‘official’ roads. Also the apron in front of the large maintainance hangars can be accessed with a car with no restriction.

A small aeroclub operates with trikes from a new narrow grass runway in the northwestern part of the field, so access to this part of the field is restricted. Interestingly, much of the external fence with barbed wire is still in place around this area.

Other activities on site include go-karting. To the east of the base, part of the shelters are occupied by a strange new ‘futuristic town’, similar to what you find in the former Soviet base at Rechlin/Laerz.

For a comprehensive set of aerial pictures of the base, taken during a flight over the area, have a look to this post.

Compared to other Soviet bases in East Germany, Jüterbog doesn’t offer much to the curious urban explorer today. Yet due to the vicinity of the flight academy it’s surely worth a visit. Furthermore, the countryside around is nice – apart from the unpleasant sight of a real forest of wind turbines! – so you may choose to have a walk around just for pleasure.

Getting there and moving around

Reaching the former flight academy is an easy task. The main gate is on Kastanienallee, Niedergörsdorf, and it can be accessed with a 0.1 miles walk from the Altes Lager railway station, again in Niedergorsdorf, Brandenburg. There is a convenient small parking besides the railway station. In case you want to explore the site, I would suggest considering this as a trailhead.

The area of Niedergörsdorf and Jüterbog can be reached in about 1 h 15 min from downtown Berlin by car. This is my preferred way for moving around – I hate having tight schedules when exploring! – but reaching the ‘operational zone’ by train from Berlin would take probably a bit less.

For visiting the base at Jüterbog you will need a car. Driving on the former taxiways is part of the fun when touring the base!

There are aircraft shelters both on the northern and southern sides of the runway, which is oriented in an east-western direction. The most convenient to come close to are those on the northern side, but be careful not to interfere with the many private businesses around. Barb wire fence can be found on the northwestern corner of the base.

I would suggest having a quick look at the Google map of the area for deciding how to move around. I wouldn’t rate these two ‘attractions’ difficult to visit in terms of physical barriers or when it comes to keeping the right course.