BUCHA, Ukraine — The day struggle broke out, one in all Ukraine’s most embellished pilots stepped onto the balcony of his three-story residence and felt a ache in his coronary heart.

A battle was raging at a close-by airport, and from the place he was standing, the pilot, Oleksandr Halunenko, may see the explosions and really feel the shudders. The Russians had been invading his nation and one thing very particular nervous him.


The airplane.

In a hangar just a few miles away rested the world’s largest airplane, so particular that just one was ever constructed. Its title is Mriya, pronounced Mer-EE-ah, which in Ukrainian means The Dream. With its six jet engines, twin tail fins and a wingspan almost so long as a soccer area, Mriya hauled gargantuan quantities of cargo the world over, mesmerizing crowds wherever it landed. It was an airplane movie star, aviation fans say, and extensively beloved. It was additionally a cherished image of Ukraine.

Mr. Halunenko was Mriya’s first pilot and beloved it like a baby. He has turned his residence right into a Mriya shrine — photos and work and fashions of the plane grasp in each room.

However that morning, he had a horrible feeling.

“I noticed so many bombs and a lot smoke,” he mentioned. “I knew Mriya couldn’t survive.”

The struggle in Ukraine, not even two months previous, has already destroyed a lot: hundreds of lives, total households, happiness and safety for numerous individuals.

But it surely has additionally destroyed materials issues that imply lots — properties burned to the bottom; supermarkets that fed communities smashed by shelling; toys and prized possessions scorched past recognition.

Within the case of Mriya, which took a direct hit in the course of the pivotal battle at that airport, the harm to the plane has stirred an unbelievable outpouring of what can solely be described as grief. Heartbroken airplane buffs world wide are getting Mriya tattoos. A sad cartoon has been circulating, with tears streaming out of Mriya’s eyes.

However there could also be nobody as damaged up as Mr. Halunenko, who comes from a technology the place feelings are usually not so simply shared.

“If I weren’t a person,” he mentioned, “I’d cry.”

Mr. Halunenko, 76, was a baby of the Chilly Conflict. His father was a Russian Military captain, his mom a Ukrainian peasant. Each died when he was younger.

At boarding faculty in southeastern Ukraine, he took flying classes and found he had a present. He grew to become a MiG-21 fighter pilot after which an elite Soviet take a look at pilot. He captained all types of plane, from glossy new fighter planes to highly effective freighters however nothing as grand as what he would quickly fly.

Within the Eighties, the Soviet management was desperate to get again into the area race. Engineers designed a reusable spacecraft referred to as the Buran that regarded just like the American area shuttle.

However the parts had been unfold throughout — the shuttle was constructed in Moscow, the rockets had been made a whole bunch of miles away and the launchpad was in Kazakhstan. The one possible option to get every part in the identical place was to fly the shuttle and the rockets on the again of a airplane, a extremely large one.

And so, on the Antonov aviation firm manufacturing plant in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, Mriya was born. It made its first flight in 1988, Mr. Halunenko on the controls.

At 276 toes lengthy and 6 tales excessive, the plane, designated AN-225, was greater than every other within the sky. It boasted 32 touchdown wheels and a wingspan of 290 toes. Its most takeoff weight stood at a staggering 1.4 million kilos, way over a completely loaded 747. Its nostril cone flipped up in order that large objects, like turbine blades and even smaller jets, could possibly be slid into its cavernous stomach.

“The AN-225 completely was the biggest airplane ever constructed, of any sort, for any use,” mentioned Shea Oakley, an aviation historian in New Jersey. “Folks got here out to see this airplane wherever it flew simply to marvel on the measurement of the factor.”

Mr. Halunenko, whose grizzly white beard makes him resemble a late-in-life Ernest Hemingway, smiled as he remembered an air present in Oklahoma greater than 30 years in the past.

“It takes lots to impress the People,” he mentioned. “However I’ll always remember the crowds lined as much as see us.”

“And nobody knew the place Kyiv was,” he laughed.

Mriya wasn’t straightforward to fly, particularly with an area shuttle strapped to its again. It turned in large arcs — Mr. Halunenko held his arms straight out like wings and rocked aspect to aspect. On the bottom it was exhausting to dock.

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the shuttle program went down with it. Mriya was repurposed into a big flying workhorse. It hauled turbines, huge items of glass, stupendous portions of medical provides and even battle tanks.

By 2004, Mr. Halunenko, who was awarded the acclaimed Hero of Ukraine medal, retired as its pilot. However Mriya carried on. Up to now two years, it made a whole bunch of flights, typically filled with Covid-19 provides. For one journey to Poland, 80,000 people live-streamed the landing. With a brand new paint job, the yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag, Mriya was Ukraine’s winged ambassador to the world.

Its final mission got here on Feb. 2, delivering Covid take a look at kits from China to Europe earlier than returning to its base in Hostomel, mentioned Dmytro Antonov, one in all its newest pilots.

“She was in nice working form,” he mentioned. “We had been anticipating at the very least 15 to 25 extra years out of her.”

Because the struggle neared, American intelligence officers warned Ukraine that the Russians deliberate to grab the Hostomel airport, not removed from Kyiv. Hostomel has an extended runway that the Russians needed in order that they might fly in hundreds of troops.

Mriya’s homeowners mentioned transferring the airplane to a safer location, Mr. Antonov mentioned, however it by no means occurred. Firm officers declined to touch upon the choice, saying it was beneath investigation.

At 6:30 a.m. on Feb. 24, the day the struggle began, Russian missiles slammed right into a nationwide guard base close to Hostomel airport. A couple of hours later, Russian helicopters blasted the airport with extra missiles that hit the hangars the place Mriya and different airplanes had been saved, Ukrainian troopers mentioned.

“However we didn’t know Mriya was nonetheless right here,” mentioned Sgt. Stanislav Petriakov, a soldier on the airport. “We thought Mriya had been moved.”

A pitched battle broke out, however the Ukrainians quickly ran out of ammunition and retreated to a forest.

It’s not clear how Mriya was destroyed. Ukrainian troopers mentioned that they deliberately shelled the runway to forestall the Russians from utilizing it. The Ukrainians mentioned it was not their shells that hit Mriya, whose hangar is about 700 meters from the runway. When requested who he thought hit the airplane, Mr. Antonov, the pilot, mentioned, “No person is aware of.”

For the following month, because the Russians occupied and brutalized Bucha, Mr. Halunenko stood his floor, lecturing younger Russian troopers to not level their weapons at him and defying their orders to remain inside.

However he couldn’t cease eager about Mriya.

“She’s like my youngster,” he mentioned. “I taught her to fly.”

When the Russians lastly left on the finish of March, Mr. Halunenko stayed away from the airport. Till Sunday night.

That’s when he stepped previous burned vehicles, and with sneakers crunching over items of steel and glass he walked throughout a battlefield of particles towards the airplane.

Slowly he approached the airplane.

It was a mangled fuselage with an enormous gap ripped out of its center, a nostril cone sliced up by shrapnel, a wing torn open and his captain’s chair misplaced in a tangle of blackened steel and ash.

Mr. Halunenko merely stood there, his face a clean display.

His spouse, Olha, who had come to assist him, whispered: “Oleksandr is a pilot. Proper now he’s simply processing the knowledge. Later the feelings will hit him.”

After strolling across the airplane, he put his hand on one of many burned engines and hung his head down.

“We had hoped she was repairable,” he mentioned. “However now we understand we’re saying goodbye.”

All may not be misplaced, although. The Ukrainian authorities, understanding the facility of Mriya’s symbolism, has vowed to rebuild her with war reparations it hopes to squeeze from Russia.

Unknown to many, there’s a second, half-finished Mriya fuselage. The plan, mentioned Yuriy Husyev, the chief government officer of Ukroboronprom, the state-owned firm that runs Antonov, was to make use of that fuselage together with salvaged elements from the previous Mriya to “construct a brand new dream.”

Mr. Halunenko is sober about this, understanding it will take “enormous cash” to resurrect his previous buddy.

However sitting in his front room, surrounded by images of Mriya hovering by means of crystalline skies and parked on snowy airfields, he mentioned, “one thing else is essential right here.”

“No different nation has created such an plane,” he mentioned.

Mriya, he added quietly, was Ukraine’s status.

Oleksandr Chubko contributed reporting.