Dang, my leg hurt.
Maybe it was just my particular yellow-and-blue Kukuruznik that needed this kind of torque correction. Or, it might have been the man in the copilot’s seat’s resistance to my using the electric trim tab to control all that power and propellers.
No matter the reason; I was only a minute airborne and my leg was complaining about having to mash my foot into the rudder pedal to keep the airplane flying straight.
That pain, and last minute instructions, would plague my piloting for the rest of that day.
I was flying left seat in the world’s largest single-engine biplane, known officially in the former Soviet Union as the Antonov AN-2, officially to NATO countries as the AN-2 Colt, unofficially as the Kukuruznik (“corn eater”-a name referring to its agricultural side), and affectionately as Annushka (Annie) by her pilots.
A True Adventurer’s Airplane
This is a bush plane that shouts “Adventure!”
The Annuska is a throwback to another era’s “Big Iron”: a large, hefty aircraft. Loaded, it tips the scales at around 7-10 tons. In comparison, a common single engine U.S. aircraft like a Cessna 172 weighs a bit over a ton loaded.
They started making An-2s right after WWII, and it has some hallmarks of a big bird from the 1940s: throaty radial engine, giant propellers, pilot sitting high enough to feel like you’re riding a small barn.
Plus, with those big wings, struts, bracing, flat nose, and non-retractable landing gear, there was a lot of airplane sticking out in the breeze. That drag would come back to bite me a little later in the flight.
It’s easy to picture yourself taxiing up to your expedition camp in this thing. Its amazing STOL (short take off and landing) characteristics mean that Annushkas have dropped into postage stamp patches in jungles, deserts, fields, and snow around the world.
Its big wings fitted with slats that come out automatically in slow flight and 1,000 horsepower engine combine to make a truck that can haul significant loads in and out of tiny places and fly controlled even at 30-35 mph.
Unlike any other pilot operating handbook I know, there is no stall speed indicated, and it has a very unusual procedure in case a pilot loses instruments in bad visibility:
“If the engine quits in instrument conditions or at night, the pilot should pull the control column full aft (Back? I was taught to push the nose down if the engine stops) and keep the wings level. The leading-edge slats will snap out at about 40mph, and when the airplane slows to a forward speed of about 25mph, the airplane will sink at about a parachute descent rate until the aircraft hits the ground.” (1)
That “until the aircraft hits the ground” part sounds kinda rough but, whoa, an aircraft that can parachute itself.
You can easily envision this airplane doing some typical jobs of delivering people and supplies to the outback, dropping parachutists, and exploring the world’s wild places.
Make Yourself Useful
The big engine and drag adds up to significant drawback economically and ecologically: fuel consumption of 45-50 gallons per hour.
With that in mind, my training needed to double as a low-level agro flight – meaning high levels of danger – and should not be attempted lightly.
After thundering along for about ten minutes, we located the field that needed to be seeded and descended. The large hopper in the cargo bay pushed seeds out the tubes as we swept past trees and over the fields of eastern Romania. At the instruction of the experienced pilot, I hauled up the beast’s fat nose and dropped a wing to swing around for another pass.
I liked the cockpit from the moment I settled into the seat, sitting up high and staring out the array of windows, but I did run into some curve balls.
First, there was no typical “six pack” arrangement of instruments. Learning to fly in the U.S., that display was burned into my brain. Although I recognized the instruments, my eyes kept looking for some of them in the wrong spots.
There was another challenge to my flying the big bird: all the switches and dials were labeled in Russian Cyrillic. I don’t read Cyrillic.
The man in the right seat spouted instructions and pointed quickly, challenging my memory with the starting sequence and recalling if that switch will toggle the main generator or turn on the instrument panel’s UV light switch.
UV light switch?
All the dial markers are painted with radium-really. Yeah, kind of bad and something outlawed in the U.S. years ago. Anyway, the panel lights are ultraviolet to excite the radium and make it glow. I’m guessing those get changed out if a U.S. pilot brings an Annushka home.
I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to fly with the man beside me, but the “wait until it’s happening” teaching style was pretty challenging, and I hoped to keep up with what was needed to fly the plane.
From the moment the whining of the inertia starter got the adrenaline going to the throaty engine’s throb and big propellers’ chop, Annie made herself known with significant noise.
That thunder continued as we pounded over the gently rolling landscape near Constanta and the Black Sea.
Our load dumped, we headed back for the field where the fuel and seed would be replenished. I followed instructions and set up for landing, flying a typical left-hand pattern that had us fly past the field, turn, and drop in.
“Drop” was the operative word. He had me keep on the power higher and longer than I expected. Then, when I reduced the power, we dropped.
I expected this aircraft to glide poorly but not like this. The ground rushed at us vertically, and I threw on the engine’s power to move us into a good landing.
When I write that, I’m using the old flying adage of “Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing.”
I started breathing again and looked at my mentor, finding a confident and pleased smile on his face. More from the merciful handling of the Annushka than from my piloting skill, we had arrived on the field in one piece.
Thanks for the help, Annie, I thought as I rubbed my leg.
At the end of that day, I’d be heading back to my “regular” job in Romania.
You know, I should tell you about that one sometime. For now, I’ll just punch up this fire and tell you a few other stories before we get to that.
If you’d like to get a more firsthand views of flying the Annuska, check out these videos:
–> Low level flying (don’t try this at home, kids)
–> Great shot of Annie flying over an eastern Romanian village
–> Landing in central/western Romania
Next time: Bad Pirates
© 2011 Mark Dorr, All Rights Reserved