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Ukraine dreams of rebuilding the world’s largest airplane. Can Richard Branson help?

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NEW YORK (NYTIMES) – Four months ago, at the beginning of the war, countless Ukrainians were demoralised when they learned that the world’s largest cargo airplane, built in Ukraine, was destroyed in a fierce battle.

The plane, called Mriya, which in Ukrainian language means The Dream, was Ukraine’s pride. Only one was ever built. It was a global airplane celebrity. Now it lay in mangled wreckage.

But this week the efforts to resurrect Mriya got a huge lift. British aerospace mogul Richard Branson toured the airfield in Hostomel, where the plane had been based. During the visit, on Wednesday (June 29), Ukrainian aerospace experts broached the idea of rebuilding it.

Mr Branson, who has voiced support for Ukraine, did not say whether he would contribute to the effort to get the craft aloft again. But he did write in his blog, “I hope that Mriya’s legacy will endure”.

A Virgin Group spokesperson said Mr Branson was assessing what would be needed to rebuild the plane and that the effort would turn to finding ways the international community could support the project and help rebuild its airfield and Ukraine’s aviation industry.

Ukrainian lawmaker David Arakhamia said Mr Branson had “expressed his willingness to help in any way he can,” according to the Interfax-Ukraine news agency.

In late February, Russian forces tried to seize the Hostomel airport, just north of Kyiv, the capital, to fly in thousands of troops. Ukrainian defenders eventually ran them off, but in the process the airfield was destroyed and so was Mriya.

At 84 metres long and six stories high, the Antonov An-225 Mriya was heavier than any other plane in the sky, far more than a fully loaded 747. Its nose cone flipped up so that turbine blades or even smaller jets could be slid into its cavernous belly. Built in 1988 as part of the Soviet space programme, it was still flying until February, ferrying Covid-19 supplies.

Ukrainian officials have vowed to rebuild it using a second half-finished Mriya fuselage that lies in an airplane factory at an undisclosed location. But they have said that the project could cost more than US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion) and that they need outside help.

Ukrainian news media also said Mr Branson was interested in helping rebuild the Hostomel airport.

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