|'Dawn Till Dusk'
Antonov An-2 Crop Sprayers of Air Mizia
Bulgaria is an immerging country within the European Union that is trying to shake off its old communist methodologies. It has a vast countryside much of it is agricultural. The fields are very large with few noticeable divisions unlike the fence and hedge enclosed fields of the United Kingdom. Aerial crop-spraying has been used for many years to enhance crop yields. Walking through the vast meadows I found that there were fantastic amounts of butterflies of many different types. Clearly the Bulgarians have not intensely sprayed insecticide.
During the peak growing season crop dusting or spraying is a dawn to dusk operation for Air Mizia. I arrived at the small airstrip at Levski in northern Bulgaria at 05:15 when the sun was just coming up where two Air Mizia aircraft were now deployed. Preparations were well underway for the first job of the day. Employees of the local cucumber and tomato producing company were mixing bags of lime with water to produce over 5,000 litres of the milky liquid. The job was to coat the many acres of greenhouse glass with the lime. The translucent coating reduces the light coming through the glass by around 45% and so protects the cucumbers and tomato plants from the harsh Bulgarian summer sun. The lime coating is applied every April and will remain effective for around six months.
By 06:00 the rugged An-2R was ready for the first of four lime spraying sorties. After a short engine run at full-power it was taxiing across the small grass airstrip. Each sortie took around 20 minutes including the time it took to pump another 1,300 litres into the large tank. The greenhouse was sprayed in numerous passes in opposing directions to ensure it was totally and evenly coated. By 09:00 the An-2R’s tank and pipes was being cleaned with water ready for the next operation which also required a change of spray nozzles.
After a short drive towards Pleven we were at a large open farm, where the farm workers were awaiting the arrival of the crop-sprayer with a supply of ‘Frarimpex - Leafdrip’ a French produced fertiliser which had already been mixed with water in large plastic barrels. By 10:30 the aircraft was spotted flying very low towards the farm strip. The farm manger and pilot were soon studying a map of the valley to identify which of three large fields of crops were to be sprayed. The first sortie was underway by 11:00, the first field required two tanks of fertiliser before it was fully covered. The third field required a short drive up the road, while the second field was being sprayed. We were in place just in time to see the An-2R diving down over the surrounding trees to start the spray run no more than ten feet above the crops.
The AN-2’s were tied down at Levski by their respective pilots at the end of the day.
|PZL Mielec (Antonov) An-2R (LZ-1408) is midway during its run over the greenhouse complex at Levski.
The lime spray reduces the light entering the greenhouse by 45% and is applied every spring.
Air Mizia are based at Grivitsa airfield which is just outside the town of Pleven. It takes its name from the town of Mizia located in Vratsa district in north-western Bulgaria. They operate around a dozen PZL Mielec (Antonov) An-2R ‘Colt’ aircraft. The An-2R is a Polish improved crop-spraying version of the Russian designed An-2 utility transport, this version dates back to 1961. It has a 1,300 litre glass fibre-reinforced epoxy-resin tank and revised spraying equipment with an improved dispensing system which is operated by the pilot alone. Air Mizia also operate An-2R’s in other countries requiring their services, these include Sudan and Iraq.
The An-2 was designed by Oleg Antonov as an agricultural aircraft. It first flew in 1947 with production starting in 1949, during the next ten years over 5,000 aircraft were built in the Soviet Union. While crop-spraying was the original intention for this aircraft, later it was employed as paratroop transport, glider tug, navigation trainer, air ambulance and utility transport. Between 1960 and 1989 the Polish PZL company at Mielec produced an additional 11,650 An-2’s most of which were delivered to the Soviet Union. No other aircraft in history has been in continuous production for so many years without and significant changes. It is also largest single-engine biplane ever produced. The An-2R is ideally suited for remote operations It is equipped with large batteries so that the aircraft does not need a ground power unit to supply power. An onboard pump enables the fuel tanks to be filled from drums. It can land on any reasonable surface, fitted with leading edge wing slats that deploy at below 40 mph (64 km/h) it cannot stall.
|Left to right: An-2R (LZ-1408) starting up at the start of the day. The 1,300 litre glass fibre-reinforced epoxy-resin tank. The farm workers prepare the feriliser for pumping into the aircraft.|
|Left to right: Cleaning out the tank and piping with water after the lime spraying operation has been completed. Refuelling the An-2 is done stright from a drum of fuel using the aircraft's onboard pump. Preparations at the start of the day.|
|Beside the main road to Pleven the tree-lined field presented a minor challenge to the pilot.
PZL Mielec (Antonov) An-2R (LZ-1408 c/n 1G187-17), it was registered to Air Mizia in 1994.
|Left to right: PZL Mielec (Antonov) An-2R (LZ-1408 c/n 1G187-17) over the vast fields outside Pleven in north-western Bulgaria.|
|Left to right: An-2R (LZ-1408).|
|Left to right: An-2R (LZ-1408) over the greenhouse at Levski.|
|Left to right: An-2R (LZ-1408).|
|Left to right: An-2R (LZ-1408).
Inside the greenhouse at Levski after it has been coated in lime to protect the cucumbers and tomatoes from the harsh Bulgarian summer sun.
|Pilot Andreyev at the controls of his An-2R over the Bulgarian fields, his left hand thumb controlling the spraying mechanism.|
|Over the village of Levski.|
|Left to right: PZL Mielec (Antonov) An-2R (LZ-1409 c/n 1G202-17) arriving at Levski at the end of the day.|
|Left to right: PZL Mielec (Antonov) An-2R (LZ-1410 c/n 1G191-60) was registered to Air Mizia in 1997, seen at Grivitsa airfield.
PZL Mielec (Antonov) An-2R (LZ-1406 c/n 1G169-11) was registered to Air Mizia in 1994, seen at Grivitsa airfield.
PZL Mielec (Antonov) An-2R (LZ-1409 c/n 1G202-17) was registered to Air Mizia in 1997, seen at Levski airstrip.
PZL Mielec (Antonov) An-2R (LZ-1408 c/n 1G187-17) was registered to Air Mizia in 1994, seen at Levski airstrip.
After a number of phone calls made to some very good Bulgarian contacts we were given the details of the day’s operations. Initially those involved on the day were reluctant to be photographed, I suppose they were a little suspicious of our intentions. As the sun came up the ground and aircrew warmed up also. We were told that we could climb on top of a large water tank situated next to the greenhouse complex, entry to which required a security pass. As soon as we ascended the spiral staircase and with minimal time to prepare our camera equipment the An-2 was flying towards us, pulling up at the last second after each run. At this elevated position I was using a 70-200mm lens. As soon as the last images were taken a light spray covered us and our equipment which we hastily covered up.
With more than enough exciting head-on images captured we made our way back to the small grass airstrip for my flight (more on that later) and to establish where the next farm to be sprayed was located. This time the aircraft’s tank was filled with fertiliser rather than lime. The farm manager took us down a rough track to the field to be treated. Not unlike the Alfred Hitchcock film ‘North by North West’, we positioned ourselves in the path of the large but very manoeuvrable crop-sprayer, keen to get the best shots. Here I was using a 300mm lens the heat haze tended to spoil the longer range shots. We later moved around to other locations to get this very exciting collection of images.