Antonovs in America
Where the world’s biggest biplane is under-employed.
- By Tom Harpole
- Air & Space magazine, August 2012
I have taken off in Antonov An-2 biplanes more than 100 times, but never landed in one. Since the late 1950s, the big Russian biplanes have carted skydivers like me aloft from jump bases all over the world—but not in the United States.
Although almost 19,000 An-2s were produced in the Soviet Union, China, and Poland, and the airplane has been certified in more than 20 countries (including Germany, Brazil, and Iraq), the An-2s that made it to the United States after the collapse of the Soviet Union will not haul jumpers or any other passengers to earn money. They won’t spray crops, as they do in other countries, carry cargo, or fight fires. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration restricts An-2s to pleasure flights and airshow flybys, a limitation akin to turning a draft horse into a house pet.
I learned to skydive in February 1990, at a Soviet military base in Volosova, an hour south of Moscow. Back then, the U.S.S.R. was edging toward disintegration, and An-2s had alreadybegun. The base was home to a fleet of Antonovs and more than a dozen helicopters. At first, the base commander decided to sell several airplanes in order to keep buying fuel and food. Then a bigger idea caught hold: Within a couple of years, he had divested the place of a few more An-2s and a couple of helos and built a pretty snazzy hotel, which he ran as a resort for skydivers from around the world.
When chaos descended on the U.S.S.R., Iouri Kharitonov, a compact, energetic, convivial fellow with more than 9,500 hours in An-2s, was flying for a small regional air service in the Soviet far east, part of the gargantuan national Aeroflot conglomerate. “It was wild,” says Kharitonov of the Soviet breakup. “There were no laws. Nobody knows what rules to follow.”
At first, Kharitonov attempted to set up his own company, continuing to fly passengers and supplies to remote villages around Magadan, a port on the Okhotsk Sea, north of Japan, as he had done as an Aeroflot employee. The Antonov can carry 12 passengers or up to 3,500 pounds of cargo. “But the airplanes were junk,” says Kharitonov, and the business failed.
Steve Thomson, who reports on Russian aviation from Scotland for Concise Aerospace, a Web site that has covered the industry for business execs since 1992, traveled in Russia in the mid-1990s. “It’s hard to express how completely uncontrolled the situation was,” he says. “It was massively corrupt. I could have bought anything—airplanes, tanks. Airplanes just disappeared from registers and went to private individuals.”
These liberated aircraft went cheap, and about 100 made their way to the United States, crossing the north Pacific and Bering Sea from places like Khabarovsk and Petropavlovsk, in eastern Russia.
Al Stix, a part owner in the Creve Coeur airport near St. Louis, Missouri, and collector of vintage airplanes, bought an Antonov in 1989, which came by a different route. His is the penultimate airplane built at a factory in Mielec, Poland, which produced almost 12,000 An-2s under license, beginning in 1959.
“Mine was a legit deal,” says Stix, “but a lot of them got winkled out of Soviet Russia about the time that country fell apart. It’s pointless to ask about where exactly they came from because no one kept any paper trail, if one ever existed.”
We do know, however, where 10 of them came from.
In 1996, with two partners, Iouri Kharitonov bought 10 An-2s from Aeroflot at a bargain-basement price. “The price was very low because in Russia nobody could operate them,” says Kharitonov. “The avgas disappeared and nobody produces it any more.”
“Refineries weren’t producing the fuel,” agrees Steve Thomson, and in the mid-1990s, he says, “imported fuel cost four times what it had cost in the Soviet Union.”