Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Flying The World’s Biggest Single-Engine Biplane

An open letter to all who have asked, “What’s the weirdest airplane you’ve flown?”

MONSTER TAILDRAGGER. The Antonov AN-2 Colt was introduced in 1949 as an ultimate utility design, certified at a gross weight of up to six tons. It was produced intermittently through 2002.
One of the most common questions I get has to do with the most unusual aircraft I've flown. Lord knows, there have been a plethora of amazing flying machines that have rocked my world over the last 46 years. Since you asked, the total is something like 311 types of certified airplanes (plus probably another 200 or so non-type-certified homebuilts, ultralights and LSAs). I'm sure that's not anywhere near a record. My buddy Barry Schiff claims 325, and I don't doubt for a second that's an accurate number.

One obvious question arises: What comprises a type? For example, how many types are included in the following list: Piper Cherokee 140, 150, Warrior, 160, 180, Archer, 235, Dakota and T-Dakota, Arrow and T-Arrow? Is it 11, one or something in between? They're all PA-28s, but they feature two different airfoils, half-a-dozen different engines, some with turbos, and there are two models with retractable gear. I counted three types.

Any way you count them, the most unusual and slowest aircraft I've flown (excluding helicopters and blimps) is unquestionably the Russian Antonov AN-2 Colt. It's a monster of a taildragger, frequently touted as the largest single-engine biplane in the world. It was introduced in 1949 as an ultimate utility design, intended for everything from crop dusting and cargo hauling to dropping skydivers or transporting passengers.

The top wingspan is 60 feet, and the airplane is certified at a gross weight of up to six tons. The one I flew belonged to Buzz Gothard, at the time a marine engineer in Chehalis, Wash. Gothard had made several trips through Mumbai, India, in the late '70s, and noted a derelict Colt parked in a secluded section of the Bombay Airport. He made inquiries, found out the owner's name and offered to buy the airplane as was, where was.

He made the purchase, had the Antonov disassembled, palletized and trucked to the local harbor, hoisted aboard a ship, and transported across the Pacific to the Port of Seattle.

I flew the airplane three years later out of Gothard's private grass strip south of Chehalis. The owner had just finished a ground-up restoration that had consumed huge amounts of money and time.


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