Antonovs in America
Where the world’s biggest biplane is under-employed.
- By Tom Harpole
- Air & Space magazine, August 2012
(Page 3 of 3)
While the Soviet Union was dissolving and surplus military equipment began pouring into the United States, the FAA, according to a spokesman’s e-mail, “developed advisory materials to inform the public of the difficulties of purchasing and certifying certain former military aircraft. FAA Advisory Circular AC 20-96 is an example of such advisory material.” There it is in black and white: “Many surplus military aircraft do not conform to any existing civilian type certificate, and some can never be made to conform, regardless of the effort and money expended to modify the aircraft.” But Kharitonov had flown Antonovs in civil service; small wonder that an advisory entitled “Surplus Military Aircraft: A Briefing for Prospective Buyers” didn’t alert him to the problem. Bottom line: If the FAA itself has not awarded a type certificate—design approval issued to an applicant who has demonstrated that a product complies with the applicable airworthiness standards and regulations—the airplane cannot receive a standard airworthiness certificate. The only operator’s certificate available to Kharitonov was an “experimental” certificate, which prevents him from flying the firefighting and crop- dusting jobs at which he’d hoped to make a living. The experimental certificate prohibits him from flying more than 25 miles from home without notifying the FAA. “That being a federal law, it has essentially grounded every An-2 in the U.S.,” he says. “Finally I said, ‘Give me that stupid experimental certificate.’ I keep one airplane for me to fly.”
The FAA has not singled out the Antonov for special treatment. At the same time An-2s were coming in from former Warsaw Pact countries, dozens of Czech Aero L-39 and L-29 jet trainers were migrating to the United States. All of those jets have experimental certifications too.
“I didn’t bring the airplanes here to sell them,” says Kharitonov. But that’s what he has done. Today, he earns a living by driving a limousine in Seattle. “I have the last few planes for sale for less than what their propellers would cost,” he adds. They are advertised on an2flyers.org.
The site lists 240 An-2s registered in 44 countries—and that number reflects only the aircraft whose owners submitted information. John Webster includes on the site his personal tips on Antonov maintenance, including “How to service cowl flap motor brushes without removing engine using two skinny guys with long arms.”
One of the owners not registered on Webster’s Web site is Michael Kimbrel. “I always wanted one because I could haul my wife and 15 kids in it,” says Kimbrel, 68, a lanky recluse of the John Wayne mold, who requests that I not disclose the location of his stable of exotic airplanes. Kimbrel, a retired Delta Air Lines captain, has been flying for 50 years and still freelances as a corporate jet pilot. He bought his An-2 for “a little north of 35 grand,” he says, and might have had misgivings about purchasing it had he known that the only operating certificate offered by the FAA would be “experimental.”
The huge biplane inside his hangar has several other airplanes tucked in under it. (J.D. Webster was impressed that the landing gear struts were just long enough to allow mechanics to roll a 50-gallon drum of fuel under the airplane when it was time to gas up on unimproved airstrips.) “Here’s an aircraft that can do anything a Cessna Caravan can do. It competes with the [de Havilland] Otter’s capabilities,” says Kimbrel, who, like other Antonov owners, grumbles about a conspiracy of U.S. airplane-maker lobbyists influencing the FAA’s decision to deny a type certificate to the An-2 in order to keep it from competing with homegrown airplanes. “Actually there probably isn’t any other plane in its class,” Kimbrel says. “If John Deere were to build an airplane, this is about what they’d come up with,” he says. Indeed, the Antonov on Kimbrel’s farm smells strongly of agricultural chemicals.
Al Stix knew when he bought his An-2 that he wouldn’t be able to certify it for passengers and other commercial uses, but, he says, “This airplane is a blast to fly. It doesn’t do a thing for you. You can’t take your hands off the controls for more than a few seconds, but nothing happens too fast in a plane this big. It’s a sloppy puppy and a gas hog.”
He especially loves landing his An-2: “You’re sitting as high as a commercial airline pilot and you want to flare because you’re going so slow—the theoretical stall speed is 22 knots. So you pull back on the yoke, but the damn airplane starts to climb! They have real good landing gear and every landing I’ve made was beautiful.” Creve Coeur Airport got a second An-2 about five years ago, when a friend donated the aircraft to Stix’s Historic Aircraft Restoration Museum.
In a hair-raising memoir, Antonovs Over the Arctic, Robert Mads Anderson tells of his flight from Anchorage to the North Pole with adventurer Shane Lundgren and four other pilots in a pair of An-2s. With auxiliary tanks aboard, the two crews would stay aloft for more than 22 hours, the huge propellers digging into the air like maniacal kayak paddles. The teams installed helicopter wind speed indicators because, in a 30 mph headwind, the An-2 would practically hover.
The Antonov exodus isn’t over. A recent post on John Webster’s Web site listed an airworthy An-2 in Lithuania for $25,000. Delivered to a U.S. port unassembled, the price rose to $38,500. The biplanes that have hauled cargo, military and civilian passengers, farm harvests, pesticides, and fire retardants since 1948 still carry these and numerous other 3,500-pound loads in countries around the world.
Tom Harpole is a writer in Montana. His first story for Air & Space was about learning to skydive from an Antonov An-2.