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.