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Taking Flier on Russian Biplanes

Aviation: Entrepreneur seeks niche in global marketplace for old Aeroflot aircraft.

November 06, 1996|From Associated Press

AUBURN, Wash. — After sifting for salvage in the scrap heap of the new Russia, Iouri Kharitonov has landed in Auburn with hopes of making old Aeroflot biplanes appealing again to aviation buffs.

Armed with a cell phone, broken English and a little marketing savvy, the pilot-turned-entrepreneur believes he has secured a niche for the 12-passenger planes in the global marketplace.

"We brought in our own risk. We didn't have any buyers," said Kharitonov, whose Twin Star company purchased 10 planes from Aeroflot, the Russian national airline.

But the chances of selling the Antonov AN-2 are much better in America than in the remote regions of northeast Russia, where lack of aviation gasoline and high local costs have made the planes all but obsolete.

"Here you can not only look at it, you can touch it, drive it--that's why we brought it here," Kharitonov said. His company will put wings, propellers and other parts back on the planes.

If buyers aren't yet flocking to Auburn, Kharitonov has at least found fans among flying enthusiasts at the municipal airport.

"I think it's a superior design. The things have been around forever. It's one of the most rugged planes ever built," said Gene Riggs, an Alaska Airlines pilot who also flies his own plane out of Crest Airpark.

Manufactured in Poland in the 1970s and '80s, the Russian-designed plane looks as though it belongs in a World War II movie.

After recently purchasing the planes, Kharitonov loaded them onto a ship, docked at the Port of Tacoma, and asked for tie-down space at Auburn Airport.

"This is kind of a first for us," said John Anderson, airport manager. "They just contacted us and said they just needed a place to throw some wings on."

Kharitonov likes what he sees in Auburn.

"It's close to Tacoma. There's more facilities and the people are very friendly; that's the main reason" for coming to Auburn, he said.

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The company, which includes a pilot and mechanic, sold the first plane to a Guatemalan company that planned to use it for agricultural spraying. A parachute club from Texas also called about buying one.

Twin Star, which spent $80,000 on shipping costs for the 10 planes, is asking about $35,000 per plane. The closest equivalent costs $300,000 to $400,000 new, Riggs said.

Ads in some trade publications and word of mouth have generated enough interest to make the ex-Soviet pilots true believers in American-style capitalism.

But the planes probably won't end up in American hands.

The Federal Aviation Administration hasn't certified the planes for commercial use, but does not restrict pilots from using them for their own private use.

"I've seen them at air shows. I think they're something of a novelty item," said Tim Pile, an FAA spokesman.

A finished plane sits at the south end of the Auburn airport, still displaying the markings of Vladivostok Air.

The planes are prized for crop dusting, aerial photography, skydiving or other uses that require a slow stalling speed. At 22 knots--about 25 mph--the planes can almost hover, flying half as fast as most other general aviation planes.

"More than likely they'll leave the country," said Bill Blackwood, a mechanic at Auburn Flight Service. "I think it's kind of neat. I've never seen anything like it before."

Neither has the Port of Tacoma, where officials were surprised to see the planes sitting in storage near the docks. Motorcycles with sidecars have been the only other Russian products imported into Tacoma, noted Mick Shultz, a spokesman for the port, which handled $165 million in Russian trade last year.

"Trade with Russia is almost always one-way," he said. "Maybe they're selling them off to raise some hard currency."

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