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.”
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.
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.