Antonovs in America
Where the world’s biggest biplane is under-employed.
- By Tom Harpole
- Air & Space magazine, August 2012
(Page 2 of 3)
Kharitonov and his partners wanted to get their airplanes to the United States, where fuel was plentiful and relatively cheap, but they were starting in Russia, where fuel was scarce and expensive. Flying one An-2, which at cruising speed consumes 43 gallons of fuel an hour, would have been difficult; flying 10 of them would have been prohibitive. The group decided to remove the wings and props from their fleet and ship them across the Pacific from Vladivostok. In 1996, Kharitonov and the Antonovs arrived in Tacoma, Washington.
Upon clearing customs in Tacoma, Kharitonov trucked the shipping containers to the Auburn, Washington, airport where he reassembled the aircraft and planned to form a company for aerial firefighting and crop dusting.
Two FAA advisors oversaw the reassembly, and Kharitonov recalls calming their doubts about the airworthiness of the craft by promising to take his mechanics on all the maiden flights of the rebuilt biplanes. He replaced the weather-worn cotton fabric on the wings with American polyfiber. “The first reassembly took several days, but by the 10th we could do one a day,” Kharitonov recalls, adding, “The people at the Auburn airport were great to work with and very encouraging. I think they liked having them just to look at.”
The giant biplanes are an arresting sight. The upper wing spans almost 60 feet, and the wings are separated by seven feet. The lower wing spans 46 feet, 8.5 inches. The four-blade variable pitch propeller is nearly 12 feet in diameter. The cargo compartment in the 42-foot-long fuselage can easily accommodate 12 parachutists and their equipment, with two rows of seats that fold down and face each other.
In Volosova, I discovered that the aircraft are the perfect platforms to jump from. When the engines started, they sounded like a gaggle of unmuffled Harleys, but takeoffs, especially on the ski-equipped airplanes, were so smooth that if you weren’t looking out a window you wouldn’t know you were in the air. Climbing in an An-2 is like ascending in a grain bin; the thin aluminum of the fuselage, padded by your parachute, transfers the vibrations, and shakes you like one of those two-bit massage beds of cold war-era motels. You’re sitting sideways and leaning slightly aft until the tail lifts and flies serenely for a few seconds of equipoise, then you’re in the air and the big prop digs in and yanks you up to 10,000 feet in a few minutes. Finally, at a cruising speed that feels about as challenging as the wind in your hair at a sprint, you step into the prop wash. I’d want to wing walk one of these big dragons, but for their fabric skins.
“It’s very stable,” says airline pilot J.D. Webster. In 1996, Webster bought two of the Antonovs that Kharitonov had shipped to Tacoma. “Some pilots have told me that it handles very much like a DC-3,” he says. Webster, whose mother was born in Guatemala, had long thought of starting a small air service there. “I’ve spent a lot of time in Guatemala,” he says, “and I always felt that the transportation system was underdeveloped. After seeing the An-2, I thought Wow, that might work.” With a third An-2 bought from a broker in Florida, Webster started a tiny airline to carry cargo and passengers to remote villages. Kharitonov eventually became a partner in the business.
“There’s nothing like them for landing heavy loads on short strips,” says Webster’s father John, who hopped rides on his son’s aircraft and maintains an2flyers.org, a Web site for An-2 owners and fans.
J.D.’s airline established the Antonov’s bush cred in Guatemala during Hurricane Mitch, when for three days in 1998 the aircraft was the only means of getting food and water to 5,000 families on a banana plantation. “You could land that thing anywhere,” says J.D., noting that once, in the States, he took off in less than 75 yards and on landing, stopped in under 100 feet. But by the end of 2001, a combination of government hassle and changes in regulations shut his small business down.
Before his Guatemalan adventure, J.D. snagged a U.S. Navy contract to fly one of his airplanes as a radar target. In this test, the airplane demonstrated another of its celebrated characteristics: its ability to fly unbelievably slow before stalling. “We lumbered along at 60 knots [about 70 mph], maintaining altitude so the Navy could capture the radar signature,” he says. The test, run out of Naval Air Station Point Mugu in California, was meant to support the sale of F-15s to South Korea by proving that the radar—built by Lockheed Martin and used at the time on the Navy’s F-14 Tomcats—could track slow Antonovs, which the North Koreans flew in the 1990s to transport commando paratroopers. “We flew 30 or 40 miles out to sea in the Pacific Missile Test Range to rendezvous with an F-14,” says Webster. “The F-14 got back to base in about 10 minutes. It took us 45.”
The controllers at the base tower were accustomed to jets; “they couldn’t figure out what we were,” Webster says. “When they started tracking us, I got a call saying ‘What are you? Are you a helicopter?’ ”
“It will fly a lot slower than that,” says John Webster. Along for a ride in Guatemala in 1997, when Kharitonov demonstrated the airplane’s stall behavior for the pilots in the start-up air service, Webster was astonished when Kharitonov flew at such a slow speed—around 35 mph—that the airspeed indicator stopped working. He was demonstrating a landing in what Webster calls “the parachute mode,” which entails stalling the aircraft down low and having it drop onto the field. “You might bend the airplane,” says Webster, “but you’d walk away.” The Antonov’s operator’s handbook doesn’t bother to list a stall speed. Pilots could control it at such slow speeds that Soviet paratroopers would practice low-level jumps into snowdrifts without parachutes.
But for all its utility, the Antonov’s birth on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain keeps it from working in the United States—something Kharitonov learned only after arriving here.