Article Written by William Filion

MONTREAL – So far, 2020 has not been the best year for the aviation industry; furthermore, the global pandemic has changed its dynamics.

Indeed, many airlines had to stop their operations and ground their aircraft, creating in the process unforeseen sights.

However, there is a positive side in everything; the cargo business skyrocketed to insure vital links of medical supplies in the efforts against Covid-19.

Airlines started converting their planes into freighters by removing seats to maximize their cargo capacity.

Here in Quebec, we started noticing unusual flights – until it happened! In late April someone posted in our local spotters’ group, 55e Avenue Spotteurs Montréal, a message with the picture of the mighty AN-225 saying YMX, Thursday, 8 pm.

Photo: Author.

The arrival

Many (I included) were skeptical – it was too good to be true. Days went by, but despite my incertitude, history now tells I was wrong. Indeed, the unmatched AN-225 was coming to Mirabel after an absence of eight years and for the 2nd time ever. 

As a vivid aviation photographer, I could not have been more stoked for the sight I was about to capture. Unfortunately, the aviation industry is full of surprises and unexpected events, for better or worse.

The gigantic 1988-built Soviet aircraft’s arrival was delayed by a full day which meant I would no longer be able to photograph its landing.

Surprisingly, I was not bummed as I still had the takeoff in order to accomplish my mission. 

Aviation photography requires preparation of all sort. However, the basic is to be positioned at the right spot for the runway in use. On May 2nd, the scene was splendid.

Photo: Author

A last-minute change

At 7:26 a.m. local time, the Antonov was ready for takeoff after spending 12 hours and delivering 110 tons of PPE for Quebec’s front-line workers. Then, terrible fate stroke me.

A last-minute change made the Antonov take off from runway 06, while I was positioned for a runway 24 departure.

In a split second, it was over. The excitement gave way to frustration and disappointment. I resigned to no avail, knowing I would have to redeem myself.

A few days later and out of a dream, the Ukrainian mastodon was coming back to town. I had to mark this second visit with something special. For many years I have dreamed of being able to capture air-to-air images. 

Photo: Author

A thousand feet in the air

I reached out to a local helicopter company. I was surprised that it was really accommodating to this out-of-the-ordinary request.

On May 24th, at a thousand feet in the air, I witnessed for the first time ever the 88 meters wingspan, six-engined airframe, and two vertical stabilizers – there is nothing like it!

I was totally mesmerized by the sight I was observing through the viewfinder of my Canon. I knew right away the images I was capturing were going to be special.

After hovering and doing multiple orbits over the AN-225 it was time to land back on the ground.

Photo: Author

Maintenence checks before final takeoff

This experience led me to a state of awe. Back in YMX, the team of Nolinor Aviation (the company that chartered the AN-225 on behalf of the Quebec government) was running against the clock to get the beast airborne as soon as possible.

A few months before the COVID-19 crisis, Mriya had a major maintenance check whose goal was to modernize some systems of the aircraft to ensure her longevity.

However, the Pandemic took everyone by surprise; no one at Antonov Airlines knew how busy of a schedule they would have to face in the upcoming months.

This hard and intensive work had exhausted the Ukrainian masterpiece. It broke down and stayed in Mirabel for two days. Antonov Airlines sent an AN-74T to put Mriya back in the air. This technical difficulty troubled my original plan of capturing the takeoff with the R44.

However, surprises in the AN-225 sagas do not end here. About a week later, aviation enthusiasts were informed about a third and final visit of the beast.

Photo: Author

Heli Spotting the Antonov AN-225

With the help of my friend and Airways Magazine Chief Development Officer Vincenzo Pace, I was able to get myself a hot seat on the ramp. Walking around the biggest aircraft on earth and seeing all the operations to offload it is quite the experience.

On June 5 at 0400 local time, I was on my way to the helicopter base for an unknown departure time. I thought I had all the time needed. At 5:10 am the Antonov received its clearance.

I jumped in the helicopter and arrived at YMX airport while the AN-225 was on the roll. If it was 30 seconds later, I would have missed an opportunity of a lifetime and not brought back with me such captivating images.

In all, the AN-225 journey in Montreal was probably the most memorable series of experiences I have had in aviation.

I believe it is also a reminder that even in unfortunate times, joy is still possible and shows how strong the world can connect to help; for I would never have thought I would be able to photograph the biggest airplane on earth, two times, and in my local hometown.