I Watched This Historic Polikarpov Biplane’s Restoration For Years Before Going For A Ride In It Above Budapest
Photography by Máté Boér
It’s an early Saturday morning on an airfield runway, I’m holding a fire extinguisher, standing as instructed a few steps behind the line of the twin-blade propeller as the five-cylinder radial engine is fired up by the mechanic. The aircraft warming up for flight is a 1954 Polikarpov PO-2 biplane, and your author is about to take a seat behind the pilot.
I love classic airplanes for many of the reasons I love classic cars. I adore their design, which I find even more purpose-made, and the blend of (sometimes truly) brutal functionality and beauty is something any car fan should be able to appreciate in other mediums.
Every time I’m at a small airfields—the ones where the airplanes are viable for close-up visits—I relish the chance to explore them in greater detail on the ground before viewing them at work in the atmosphere above me.
A hangar can be a magical place to be, with the right amount of treasure-chest atmosphere mixed in with the immaculate, precise order of how planes are maintained and stored. I’m quite an outsider in the field of flying, but I’m certainly interested in it, and sometimes my enthusiasm alone is enough to put me up close to remarkable pieces of our collective history in aviation. I can’t fly anything alone yet—working on changing that—but I believe that this distance between me and the machines just adds an extra bit of affection on my end.
Any chance I get to fly with someone though, and I’ll pretty much take it, save for perhaps a 737 Max. It’s an honor to sit in something as old as this Polikarpov, and a much bigger one to be doing so while it’s in flight.
Budapest has only one major airport, but there are some tiny airfields scattered around the city in the suburbs, with one in Budaörs being very close to the place where I grew up. I often visited the airport on my bicycle on weekends with friends in tow, and we were usually kindly welcomed by its staff. They’d let us into the hangar to see what they are working on, or just allow us to walk around the planes in a more casual way. It’s surprising by today’s standards, but this tiny place—with its grass runway—served the flights of today’s big European airline companies when it was opened in 1937. At its opening, this airport boasted the biggest hangar in Europe, and while it and the terminal building are protected historical monuments today, they are far from the condition that they deserve to be in.
Given its historical significance, this airport is a suitable place for the Goldtimer Foundation to make a base for itself, a foundation the members of which work on restoring noteworthy planes from Hungary’s airborne past. Planes like the two-seater Polikarpov PO-2, a machine that was initially designed for training and scouting duties in 1928.
In keeping with the necessities of wartime however, these small biplanes were instead performing transportation and ambulatory services, and even a few nighttime bombing runs. The success in the latter activity earned the craft a reputation, and the Soviet’s Night Bomber Regiments’ female pilots dropped an estimated 20,000 tons of bombs on German targets all told, with PO-2s carrying their fair share of the load.
The lightweight wood and fabric construction was all but invisible to the WW2-era radars, and the enemy infrared sensors could barely detect the slow-running, low-powered engine’s comparatively small heat output. They were also hard to catch for the more modern planes—for example a Messerschmitt Bf 109—because they flew comfortably below the stall speed of their rivals’ faster crafts.
Thus the otherwise outdated PO-2, nicknamed for its clattering engine noise as “Nähmaschine” (sewing machine), became a feared weapon. The cheap, easy-to-build biplanes served in the military until the mid-1950s.
The dark green example pictured here might be the best-known classic airplane in Hungary, and it was the first one to be restored by a group of enthusiasts, a group that served as the predecessor for today’s Goldtimer Foundation back in the 1980s. This example was built under license in Poland in 1954, therefore it’s a CSS-13. Roughly 20 of these flew in Hungary from 1946 onward, as air taxis, military couriers, training aircrafts, and glider tugs. Eventually all were scrapped, except two.
After its restoration, this PO-2 flew in 1984 for the very first time since its original service duties, and back then it was the only airworthy example in Europe, despite the fact that the PO-2 is the most-produced biplane of all time. Since that flight in 1984, this one has taken part in many international airshows, and to this day it flies regularly—I’ve often seen it in sky above my parent’s house.
Before my passenger flight in it, I followed along with steps the latest nut-and-bolt restoration, which it was due for after 13 years of rather intensive use. During this time, all components were thoroughly checked, the engineers and mechanics looking for fractures and signs of corrosion mostly. Precision and quality of parts is much more important in the case of rebuilding a plane than car a car, for the obvious reason that falling from the sky is less fun than going for impromptu visit to a ditch.
The old canvas was completely removed from the plywood structure in the process, and I could see the whole frame while the chief mechanic, György Bobák, explained the many components of this seemingly simple machine in great detail. The body’s and the wings’ wooden longeron beams are braced by wires, which ensure structural rigidity of the object made of relatively fragile ingredients. With the new painted canvas in place, the whole plane only weighs around 750kg (~1,653lbs), so the five-cylinder engine’s 140-horsepower output is plenty enough for this old lady to reach 80mph ground speeds (the speed of the plane as measured relative to two points on the ground).
After climbing into the passenger seat, I fasten the two-point belt around my waist and put on the new but vintage-looking leather pilot cap with the matching glasses—it feels appropriate I suppose, and since this is already such a dream come true, why not lean in a little?
My pilot is Tamás Rohács, and I during my previous visits during its construction, I learned that the old PO-2 is one of his favorites to fly—“highly maneuverable and very forgiving.” He knows what he’s talking about, because he flies a wide variety of planes, including modern jets for more than adequate contrast to this relic by comparison. The exhaust fumes come straight towards us when the engine comes to life, and with that ceremonial shroud of exhaust now something we will smell in our clothes wistfully later at night, we begin to taxi out to the runway. I observe the instruments before me, but don’t really know the function of each. Thankfully our flight doesn’t rely on it!
We’re allowed to start our ascent, and after a surprisingly short period of acceleration (think crop-duster but only a little less comically quick to rise), the PO-2 climbs into the sky. I have to admit I’m a bit scared in the first seconds, because the impacts of the air and the general strains of the climb are unusually intense in this open seating arrangement. The noise, the feeling of speed (like a slow car fast sensation, but airborne), and the movements of the very light aircraft are far from what I’m used to in my flying experience thus far.
We take a pass above the southern rim of Budapest, and I enjoy the hunt to pick out the buildings and the streets I know, framed as they are by the wings and wires of the biplane. I am quite comfortable at this point, and then Tamás says to grab my camera tightly because we’ll do some “basic aerobatic figures,” which I’m glad he didn’t mention during the initial ascent. I can’t name each maneuver he did, but I was absolutely amazed at what he and the 90-year-old design were capable of. We take a steep climb, then slowly tumble over at the top and dive to gain speed again, almost like a hammerhead.
We finish our flight with a few tight turns, and me and my stomach are suitably convinced of the PO-2’s maneuverability in the process. A full tank of 200 liters of gasoline would be enough to keep us flying for about six hours, but we only do 15 minutes. Sometimes when you’re having a certain kind of fun though—like one in which you’re accelerating straight down to the ground in an ancient plane—time doesn’t fly at all. In my case it felt like much longer than 15 minutes in the air, and for that I’m grateful. Once it’s time to land Tamás surprises me one last time; there is no brake, and we slow down on the runway with a nice long skid of the tail.
It was a very special day for me, since I’d known of the PO-2 since my childhood, and watched this one’s complete rebirth at various stages before getting the chance to finally experience a flight in it. I’d like to thank the Goldtimer Foundation for the opportunity, and any aviation enthusiasts in the Petrolicious community for reading about it. It was my pleasure to share.