IT IS the bizarre tale of how a vintage Soviet biplane came out of retirement to lead a secret double life.
The 40-year-old Antonov An-2 aircraft had been winning prizes in fancy dress parades while its owners, who live in Australia, thought it was lying in a field awaiting renovation.
Unbeknownst to Les and Deirdre Carter, the plane had been removed from the four-acre site in the Mealagh Valley near Bantry in west Cork and had not only been sold, it had taken part in two parades.
The mystery of the missing 60ft-long aircraft was solved yesterday when the men who innocently bought it came forward.
Scrap dealer Andrew Wilson and agri-machinery merchant Robert Bennett were horrified to learn that it had been reported stolen to gardai.
The men immediately contacted Bantry gardai when they realised that the Carters had not given permission for it to be removed or sold.
Mr Wilson and Mr Bennett had unwittingly bought it from an unnamed third party who they were informed had full permission to dispose of the single-engined aircraft.
They had kindly allowed locals to use it for charity purposes -- and the old Russian plane won first prize in the Bandon festival fancy dress parade three weeks ago. It later took third place in the Kilbrittain festival parade.
But in the meantime the Carters were notified of the plane's disappearance by a friend and contacted the gardai.
Yesterday, Mr Bennett and Mr Wilson said they were appalled to learn the Carters had not given permission for the plane to be sold.
"I got a phone call about it this morning and I couldn't believe it," said Mr Wilson.
"I thought someone was pulling my leg. But when I realised it wasn't a joke I contacted Bantry gardai straight away."
Mr Bennett said he was "very upset" about the business.
He said that the plane had been stored "in the yard here, right beside the road and in full public view".
He pointed out that the Antonov was removed from the Mealagh plot in broad daylight by a heavy crane in an operation that took five hours.
The Carters, who are based in Queensland, Australia, last night told the Irish Independent they were "thrilled and relieved" that their missing biplane had been found.
They got the aircraft as a gift from a friend in 2006 when they lived in Ireland and plan to restore the plane and transform it into a quirky holiday home.
"I am delighted that it has been found and I want it put back on our four-acre site. I fully intend to put the wings, tail and propeller back on and convert it into a holiday home," said Mr Carter.
"I then want to plant trees around it so that, in a few years, someone on Google Earth will see it and go: 'My God, what is a biplane doing in an Irish forest?' I'm very pleased it has been found," he said.
His wife, who is originally from Ireland, said the couple hope to return to their idyllic west Cork plot in the near future. "That's still our plan," she said.
Meanwhile, the gardai have received full details of the sale of the plane from Mr Wilson and Mr Bennett, and it is expected the unnamed third party will now be asked to clarify their involvement.
Mr Wilson bought the plane from this third party, whom he was informed had permission to sell it.
He then sold it to Mr Bennett who runs an agri-machinery dealership in Courtmacsherry.
The Antonov An-2 ranks as one of the most famous biplanes in history, with dozens of examples still flying worldwide.
With 12 seats and a rugged nine-cylinder Shvetsov radial engine, the plane has been used as everything from a freighter to a parachute trainer and from fire-fighting duties to crop-spraying.
The updated version of the plane -- the An-3 -- was in production until 10 years ago.