It takes 90 minutes, with two changes of train, to travel by rail from Munich westward through the low, rolling foothills of the Bavarian Alps to Bad Wörishofen. For a century and a half, tourists have trekked to this tidy and colorful town of 16,000 for its thermal baths and naturopathic hydrotherapy treatments.
But I was not going there for hydrotherapy. Alone in a second-class coach compartment on the train, I pulled a piece of paper out of my pocket to re-read my reservation for a flight that afternoon in a fascinating airplane.
When planning this Bavarian vacation, I wanted to include some flying, perhaps an hour of dual with an instructor at a local flying club. Searching online, I came across the website of a company called Classic Wings Bavaria, offering scenic flights in a 1957 Soviet-built Antonov An-2 biplane. Here was the unique flying opportunity I was looking for, even if it did not involve actual stick time.
Aside from fuzzy Cold War-era photos, I had never seen an An-2 before. More than 18,000 of them were built in the Soviet Union, in Poland, and in China, and many remain in service, mostly in former Eastern Bloc countries. About two dozen An-2s are registered in the US, but the FAA has not seen fit to certify them, so they are relegated to the “Experimental-Exhibition” category here.
Classic Wings Bavaria’s website offered two routes, one over the pastoral Fünfseenland (Five Lakes region) south of Munich, the other further south into the Alps over the famous Neuschwanstein castle. The former covered some of my favorite areas of Germany, and better suited my schedule, so I picked the date and signed up, several months in advance.
The last leg of the rail journey is a quick 5 km from the connection at Türkheim south to the end of the line at Bad Wörishofen. From the small railway station in the center of town, I backtracked on foot about a kilometer and a half, then turned east a short distance to the airfield.
The town itself is quiet, but on this sunny August Sunday, Flugplatz Bad Wörishofen (EDNH) was alive with a festive, airshow-like vibe. Microlight aircraft buzzed this way and that in the air and on the ground. Over here skydivers gathered to await their turn in the Cessna Caravan jump plane, and over there a student and instructor tried to start a recalcitrant Reims-Cessna F172. A trim MBB Bo.209 taxied by, its vertical tail decorated in the blue-and-white lozengy emblematic of Bavaria. A mirror-polished Cessna 195 landed on the 2650 ft. x 100 ft. grass runway, followed by a Japanese-built Fuji Aero-Subaru, and a Klemm Kl.35D trainer, one of only eleven survivors of that classic pre-war type. Overhead a yellow Super Cub towed a banner, “Willst du mich heiraten [Will you marry me]?” There was even a German-language version of the old “weather forecasting stone” gag by the fence. The open-air café bustled with diners enjoying the show, and nearby, passengers queued for the next trip in the Antonov.
But “Tante Anna” (Auntie Anna), as the An-2 is affectionately known, is nowhere to be seen. Presently, however, a small biplane appeared on short final to runway 26. No, look again: it was a large biplane, a very large biplane, on a long straight-in, and it just kept getting larger as it approached. Finally it touched down on the grass at what seemed a slow walk in the 15-knot breeze, and waddled toward the fuel pump, dwarfing every other aircraft on the field.
The bright blue four-blade propeller spun to a stop, and the door on the airplane’s left flank opened. Out stepped sandy-haired Andreas Wild, pilot and keeper of this prodigious machine. He assisted his ten passengers out onto the turf, then enlisted their help to push the beast to the proper spot for fueling.
Andreas and his ground crew, consisting of his wife, Martina, and son, Robin, began preparing the An-2 for her next flight. Martina and Robin scampered up the kick-in steps in the fuselage side, to the top of the upper wing. There Martina pumped fuel into the tanks, while young Robin surveyed the scene from his perch atop the flight deck.
Tante Anna has been part of the Wild household since 2004. Prior to that, she had earned her keep flying safari tours in Namibia, in southwestern Africa. Andreas flew the An-2 home from Windhoek, Namibia, via Victoria Falls, Mt. Kilimanjaro, Egypt, Crete and the Balkans—60 flying hours, at a true airspeed of under 100 knots. Along the way he faced headwinds, violent equatorial weather, political unrest, avgas unavailability, exorbitant landing fees, and inscrutable local regulations. On arrival in Bavaria at Oberpfaffenhofen, Tante Anna and Andreas were surrounded by cheering family, friends, the press and Bavarian television.
Andreas is passionate about all manner of flying, but especially the Antonov. With justifiable pride he showed off features of the airplane—the 1,000 hp nine-cylinder Shvetsov ASh-62 engine (Russian-built derivative of a Wright R-1820); the full-span flaps on the lower wings and ailerons on the upper wings that droop with the flaps; and the leading-edge slats on the upper wings that automatically deploy on takeoff and just before landing. The airplane is stout, well-suited for short, unimproved runways, inhospitable environments and primitive maintenance. She is rough-hewn, but immaculate inside and out. Obviously, Tante Anna is loved.
There is a lot to love—almost 60 feet between the tips of the upper wings, 42 feet long, and almost 14 feet to the top of the tail. Wing area is 770 square feet, four and a half times that of a Cessna 172.
She wears the 1950s-era livery of the defunct East German state airline, Deutsche Lufthansa, which operated An-2s from 1957 to 1962. The faux East German registration mark “DM-SKK” is mere decoration; the actual Federal German registration is in small letters in the shadow of the horizontal stabilizer.
The instrument panel is a smorgasbord of Russian, German, and English labels and markings. Some instruments are in metric units, others Imperial. And characteristic of Russian transports right up to the giant An-225, the An-2 sports two small electric fans mounted on the windshield frame next to the sun visors.
Nine paying passengers took their places in the three rows of plain brown leather chairs in the main cabin, plus one more passenger in the co-pilot seat. The engine started quickly, and Tante Anna trundled to the runway. Regardless of wind, the larger airplanes on the field (the An-2 and the Caravan) are required to take off to the east and land to the west for noise abatement, so our takeoff would be downwind. Despite the full cabin load, grass surface and the 15-knot wind on the tail, the airplane broke ground just as we passed the yellow “1/2” marker beside the runway.
The large picture windows in the main cabin provided a panoramic view of the muscles and sinews of flight—wings, struts, flying wires, ailerons, flaps, and slats—and some of the scenic countryside below. It was odd to look outside from such a large cabin and see biplane wings. The noise level was not at all disagreeable.
Up front, the left-hand sliding cockpit window was open, and Andreas let the stable, ponderous An-2 have her head in cruise. The instrument panel basked in an indigo glow from the dark blue tint of the upper cockpit windows.
At 4,200 ft. MSL, or 680 meters AGL, depending on which altimeter is consulted, we cruised over the town of Diessen, on the west shore of the Ammersee. The lake’s blue water was speckled with dozens of sailboats. Across the lake is Andreas’ home town of Herrsching, and on the forested hill above it is the Andechs monastery, where Benedictine monks have been brewing great beer since the 15th century.
Andreas coaxed Tante Anna into a 30-degree left bank over Herrsching to reverse course back to Bad Wörishofen. All too soon the flaps and ailerons were down, the upper-wing slats popped out, and the wheels settled onto the grass of EDNH. There were odd clicking and hissing sounds during the rollout, from the An-2’s pneumatic brake system.
Once the passengers were offloaded from the last flight of the day, Andreas and his family/ground crew got Tante Anna ready for bed. Andreas removed spark plugs and drained oil from the engine’s bottom cylinders. The airplane was tied down, and huge, blue padded covers were spread over the cockpit windows, cowl, and tires. Wind complicated the process, but with Martina and Robin on top of the airplane, and Andreas below, it was all efficiently choreographed. The rubber chicken which serves as a pitot cover was in place, and the job was done.
The Wilds graciously drove me back to Herrsching, where we joined their friends and shared beer and spare ribs at a lakeside community festival. Later they delivered me to Herrsching’s S-Bahn platform where I caught the S8 commuter train for the 45-minute ride back to Munich.
It had been a full day—seeing gorgeous scenery from the ground and from the air; a taste of general aviation in a foreign country; a flight in an airplane unlike any I’ve ever seen before; and meeting new friends. A very good day indeed.