By Jack Guy, Feb. 28 (CNN): The world's largest aircraft, the Antonov AN-225, has been destroyed during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, according to Ukrainian officials, generating alarm and sadness among the aviation world in which it occupies almost cult status.
The enormous aircraft, named "Mriya," or "dream" in Ukrainian, was parked at an airfield near Kyiv when it was attacked by "Russian occupants," Ukrainian authorities said, adding that they would rebuild the plane.
"Russia may have destroyed our 'Mriya'. But they will never be able to destroy our dream of a strong, free and democratic European state. We shall prevail!" wrote Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Twitter.
There has been no independent confirmation of the aircraft's destruction. A tweet from the Antonov Company said it could not verify the "technical condition" of the aircraft until it had been inspected by experts.
Ukrainian state defence company Ukroboronprom, which manages Antonov, on Sunday issued a statement saying the aircraft had been destroyed but would be rebuilt at Russia's expense -- a cost is put at $3 billion.
"The restoration is estimated to take over 3 billion USD and over five years," the statement said. "Our task is to ensure that these costs are covered by the Russian Federation, which has caused intentional damage to Ukraine's aviation and the air cargo sector.
In a later statement, the company said the aeroplane had been in on the ground near Kyiv on February 24 undergoing maintenance. "According to the director of Antonov Airlines, one of the engines was dismantled for repairs and the plane wasn't able to take off that day, although the appropriate commands were given," it said.
Russian forces claimed to have captured Hostomel airfield, where the AN-225 was located, on Friday. A CNN team on the ground witnessed Russian airborne troops taking up positions.
Satellite images from Maxar Technologies show significant damage to part of the hangar in which the AN-225 is stored.
Meanwhile, NASA's Fire Information for Resource Management System detected multiple fires at the airport, including at the hangar where the plane is kept. The fire at the hangar was detected at 11:13 a.m. on Sunday, according to the NASA data, which is obtained from a number of NOAA and NASA satellites.
It is not clear if these fires at the airport are the result of actual fires or explosions from military strikes.
If confirmed, the attack would mark a shocking end to an aircraft that has seen more than 30 years of service dating back to the days of the Soviet Union.
The AN-225 was sometimes drafted in to help airlift aid during crises in other countries. In the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, it delivered relief supplies to the neighbouring Dominican Republic. During the early days of the Covid pandemic, it was used to transport medical supplies to affected areas.
Its popularity in the aviation world meant it often drew large crowds wherever it went, particularly when it made star appearances at air shows. Some of its fans took to social media on Sunday to express their dismay at claims of the aircraft's destruction. "Mriya - You will always be remembered!" wrote aviation blogger Sam Chui on Twitter.
To this day, Mriya remains the heaviest aircraft ever built. Powered by six turbofan engines, she has a maximum payload weight of 250 tonnes, which can be carried inside or on its back. It boasts the largest wingspan of any aeroplane in operational service.
Only one An-225 was ever built by the Kyiv-based Antonov company, which came up with the design. It first took flight in 1988 and has been in service ever since.
Construction was begun on a second plane, but it was never finished.
The story of the An-225 begins back in the 1960 and '70s when the Soviet Union was locked in a race into space with the United States.
By the end of the 1970s, the need arose for transporting large and heavy loads from their places of assembly to the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the sprawling spaceport in the deserts of Kazakhstan that was the launchpad for Yuri Gagarin's pioneering space voyage of 1961.
The cargo in question was the Buran spacecraft, the Soviet Union's answer to NASA's Space Shuttle. Since there were at the time no aeroplanes capable of carrying it, the Antonov company was ordered to develop one.