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.