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

Four months ago, at the beginning of the war, countless Ukrainians were demoralized 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. Richard Branson, the British billionaire and aerospace mogul, toured the airfield in Hostomel, a city near Kyiv where the plane had been based. During the visit, on Wednesday, Ukrainian aerospace experts broached the idea of rebuilding it.

“We are excited,” said Nataliya Sad, a spokeswoman for Ukroboronprom, the state-run defense manufacturer that owns Mriya. “Mriya is our symbol of victory, of light over darkness, and it should be rebuilt.”

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

A Virgin Group spokesperson said that 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.

One Ukrainian lawmaker, David Arakhamia, said that 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, which took a direct hit from an explosive shell.

At 276 feet 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 program, it was still flying around up until February, ferrying Covid 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 Ukrainian officials have said that the project could cost more than $1 billion and that they need outside help, which is why they were so excited by Mr. Branson’s visit.

“It’s possible to make her fly again, just not right now,” Ms. Sad said.

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

On Tuesday, Ukraine issued a special commemorative Mriya postage stamp. It features a happy, colorful drawing of Mriya, penned by an 11-year-old schoolgirl, Sofiya Kravchuk, from western Ukraine.

Three million stamps were made. By the end of this week, they were expected to be sold out.

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