Copyright ©1998 by Dan Philgreen - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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BACK IN TIME IN A RUSSIAN BIPLANE
By Dan Philgreen
It seems that some of the most amazing experiences in life come unexpectedly. On a recent assignment as a video cameraman in Russia, I spent a few days in the town of Novgorod. The name means "new town," which is kind of funny since it is the oldest city in the Republic of Russia. On an outing to shoot some scenics, we passed an airport with a whole bunch of big biplanes parked about and several flying. Our guide, Serge, told me they gave excursion rides, so I insisted that we go back and check it out after the shooting was finished. Well, the girl at the desk said they didn't do that anymore. Bummer. We went out and talked to some pilots and they got the head guy. I just wanted to see the airplanes up close and was trying to get permission to walk around on the ramp.
The aircraft were Antonov AN-2 single engine cabin biplanes. The 2 pilot, 12 passenger Antonov 2 is a design of the Construction Bureau of Antonov in Kiev, The Ukraine. The airplane first flew in 1947. According to Jane's, 5,000 were built by 1960 and since then close to 12,000 have been built by PZL Mielec in Poland. They are still turning them out there and a few are still being built in China. The airplanes have been exported all over the eastern block and to a few West European and North African countries as well.
I had a great time talking to the pilots through Serge's interpreting. We showed each other our respective pilot certificates. Lots of smiles and laughs. This is a special division of Aeroflot (they wear the uniforms). They do agricultural flying and air-ambulance work.
The head pilot said that it would be all right to go see the airplanes and said I could fly one too if I wanted to! They asked if I wanted to fly the airplane by myself or with one of their guys! Of course I said I wanted one of their pilots along. I'm not sure what they would have said if I'd asked to fly alone. We made arrangements to meet at 1:00 PM the next day to make a one hour flight. The cost was to be 250 rubles (about $5 US at the time) for 3 of us to go.
I was sure hoping the weather would be okay! I kept thinking, "my pilot friends at home aren't going to believe this!" Several of the planes flew low over the hotel that night. They seemed to me like flying dinosaurs. Big and old and slow.
The next morning when I woke up, it was snowing like crazy. I told everybody it would stop by lunchtime, but soon lost hope as it snowed all morning. Serge tried to call the airport to cancel for me, but we couldn't get through. I figured we better drive out there to try to reschedule. By the time we got there, the snow had stopped. The pilots said we probably wouldn't be able to see the sights too well, but that flying would be no problem. Ceiling was about 1,000 ft., but visibility was probably 10 miles.
We had to go through a metal detector, which they turned on after we walked through, and then were driven out to the plane in one of their trailer-buses. I took some photos of the plane before getting in. This after the pilots looked both ways up and down the flight line, apparently looking for KGB types, and then nodded an okay.
The other two guys on my video crew plus Alexi (an interpreter) and our bus driver (!) climbed into the cabin. I climbed into the raised cockpit. Vladimir E. Bobrovsky, Chief of air squadron, Novgorod Aviation Unit, cranked up the 1,000 horsepower, 9 cylinder, single row radial engine of our Antonov, reg. no. CCCP 02523, which was built in 1972. He let the engine warm up for 5 minutes or so and then signaled the ground crew, who pulled the chocks. With a roar of throttle, we lurched forward and Vladimir wrestled the beast into a turn with the massive pedal bar and the hissing, wheezing air brakes.
Taxi sounds were very unusual with the rumble of the engine, hissing brakes, and all kinds of stuff rattling in the panel. At one point Gene ("Jen-ya"), the co-pilot, reached past me and shoved on part of the instrument panel to reduce the rattling. The way he did it made it appear that it was like a standard procedure item on the checklist. We set up for the take-off with Gene performing his throttle monitoring duties while standing in the cabin aisle and leaning through the oval cockpit doorway. I was in his right seat.
In a very short distance, the huge plane had it's tail up and we levitated into the air. (Jane's lists the take-off roll as 492 ft. on a hard surface.) Vlad kept the nose down for several hundred feet of runway and then zoomed up. He did that every time. I don't know if that's standard procedure or if he just liked it. We climbed up just below the ceiling. He trimmed the aircraft and gave me the controls.
What a thrill to fly such a unique airplane - and in Russian airspace! The Antonov is a big, lumbering beast. Everything happens in slow-motion, especially aileron response. The cockpit is really a fun layout. Yokes are floor mounted. Windshield is wrap-around with a return back into the fuselage at the bottom. It did have some funny curtains in the windows overhead to reduce the sun. I always wanted to fly in a cockpit like that. It's kind of a DC-3 feel, but roomier and with better visibility.
I flew up the river, dipping down now and then to stay out of the soup above. We circled around the "kremlin" (a walled, ancient stronghold in the center of many Russian cities). We also circled the local monastery and it's 3 cathedrals. I exhibited great enthusiasm throughout this process. Lots of smiles and thumbs up to Vlad in the left seat. Took some pictures in the cockpit and from it with my wide angle lens.
Gene was smiling and enjoying my enthusiasm from the start. We had more time together the previous day before Vladimir had come around. Vlad was more stoic at first, but by the end of the flight was smiling and enjoying watching my glee as well. The guys in back took pictures out the windows of the Russian countryside rolling by under the big double wings as Gene pointed things out. I S-turned up the river and climbed and descended a bit. We flew out to some villages along a big lake.
The airplane flies like nothing I've flown before. It's also much bigger than anything else I've controlled. It's easy to fly, though there are gobs of switches and levers. The systems look a bit complex, but normal for such an old design. The size makes it very stable. It's just a big, friendly, old beast. Not at all intimidating.
Vlad took the controls over the lake and dove down to maybe 20 feet over the water at full throttle, then zoomed up near shore. He did some steep turns near another cathedral and village. I had Alexi come up and ask Vlad if we could make more than one landing. Soon I realized we were making an approach to what looked like a small strip of muddy road. I took a picture out the front window of the strip coming up, then stowed the camera inside my jacket and followed through on the controls. The approach felt a lot like a giant J-3 Cub, except that it seemed we were flaring awfully high. Then I was a bit surprised when the wheels touched. I forgot how high up you sit on top of the huge landing gear. The plane rolled to a stop in what seemed like no space at all. Some dirty, wet workers in an old truck looked over at us with puzzled expressions. We wrestled the plane around and rumbled and wheezed back to the end of the runway and took off again. I expressed great pleasure with the maneuvers and gave a thumbs up sign to Vlad.
I followed through the takeoff and had the airplane soon after we were airborne again. Vlad set up the gyro-compass on my side and tapped it twice, indicating I was to fly the heading. It didn't seem to be doing anything until I realized there was an airplane in the middle of it that moved around the compass rose. Quite a different instrument than I am used to, but once I figured out how it worked I could easily fly it.
We made another circle of Novgorod and the kremlin and then I started searching for the airport. Had a hard time finding it, but suddenly it was right out in front of us. Vlad indicated with his look that I was invited to fly the approach. I did so with no trouble, but had a good bit of help during the flare and touchdown. We made a full stop. Vlad talked on the radio, then we went back and did another take-off. I had the airplane completely in the pattern and on the approach and had just a little help right at the end. I think maybe two or three more goes and Vlad could have let me have it all the way. The hardest thing about this airplane is not the flying but learning all those switches.
Back on the ramp after the prop wound down, the pilots laughed when I said "classna!" - slang for "the greatest!" More pictures with both the guys and the airplane. For one picture I stood between the men with my arms around their shoulders. I said, "my friends!" and they were all smiles. Got answers to questions about the plane and the pilots. Vladimir, the chief pilot in the left seat, had 12,000 hours logged in 20 years of flying. Gene had 9,000 hours in 16 years. Pretty amazing to a low-time private SEL-type like me. (Interesting to note, though, that the AN-2, big as it is, fits under the SEL category - even has fixed gear!)
As we walked together back to the pilot's building, I told them I regretted not bringing my logbook. They took me into their office and gave me a beginning pilot's logbook and a chief pilot's logbook! Then Vladimir logged the flight in the red chief pilot's log with the Aeroflot hammer and sickle wings on the cover. What a kick!
We also arranged for them to fly us back to Leningrad the following Thursday morning. I was hoping to get to log another hour! To my great disappointment, this didn't work out. They couldn't get permission to land at either airport there. Weather was terrible anyway; foggy and drizzle.
So, I didn't get to see my new pilot friends again before I had to leave. I wrote a little letter to Vladamir thanking him for the flying. I told him that if he ever makes a visit to the States, we'd find him an American airplane to fly.
This whole thing was just unbelievable. The kind of thing money can't really buy and no travel agent can sell you. Just one of those out-of-the-blue experiences the possibility of which makes life exciting to live. But now you know this great travel tip: If you're ever in Novgorod, a couple of hundred kilometers south of Leningrad, go on out to the little airport out toward the monastery and find Vladimir and Gene. And take a ride with them back in time.
click to see: The Logbook, the Entry and docs
TYPE: Antonov AN-2 ("H" is an "N" sound in Russian, thus you will see AH-2 painted on the side)
NATO REPORTING NAME: Colt
REGISTRATION NO.: CCCP 02523
MANFR: Construction Bureau of Antonov, Kiev, The Ukraine
PZL, Mielec, Poland
SPEEDS IN MILES PER HOUR:
Min. Flying Speed: 56
Max level: 160
Econ. cruise: 115
MAX. T.O. WEIGHT: 12,125 lbs.
CYLINDERS: 9, single row radial
PROP: 11' 9 3/4" dia., 4 blade, constant speed
SERVICE CEILING: 14,425 ft.
(Performance figures given at max. landing weight of 11,574 lbs. at 5,740 ft. altitude.)
Data sources: The pilots and Jane's All the World's Aircraft.
Copyright ©1998 by Dan Philgreen - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED