Articles

New Aquisition at the Museum

In Uncategorized on November 5, 2009 by hillermuseum

Red Star Rising

The Aero L-39 Comes to the Hiller Aviation Museum

 For over forty years, pilots across Europe warily eyed each other across the heavily fortified borders separating East and West.  In western skies, NATO aviators stood watch against a feared incursion by legions of MiG and Sukhoi jet fighters flown by the air forces of the Warsaw Pact.  In the East, the vast numbers of combat aircraft maintained by the Soviet Union and its allies needed an enormous cadre of highly trained jet fighter pilots.  To provide a suitable training aircraft for this mission the Eastern powers turned to the small Czech village of Vodochody, home of the little-known aircraft manufacturer Aero.

Aero, often referred to as “Aero Vodochody” in reference to its hometown, was founded in 1919.  Initially a state-owned enterprise, Aero designed and built a number of distinctive aircraft from the 1920s into World War II.  During the war, Aero was pressed into service to build large aircraft structures as a subcontractor for German manufacturers, most notably on the unique twin-boomed Focke-Wulf 189 reconnaissance airplane.

 In 1959, Aero’s first jet trainer took flight—the L-29 Delfin (Dolphin).  This small, single-engine jet represented a great leap in capability over the piston-engine trainers in use by the Eastern Europe at the time, and in 1961 it was selected over two competing designs as the Soviet Union’s primary jet trainer.  Over 2,000 were produced through the early 1970s and some remain in front line service even today: two Georgian L-29s were among the aircraft lost in the brief Russia-Georgia war of 2008.

 By the late 1960s the need for a more powerful training platform was evident as the Soviet Union introduced higher-performance jet fighters such as the MiG-25 interceptor.  Aero responded with the L-39 Albatros (Albatross).  Equipped with an Ivchenko AI-25 TL turbofan engine of 3,800 pounds thrust, the L-39 was twice as powerful as its predecessor.  The improved performance permitted a 50% boost in empty weight and substantial growth in the sophistication and durability of its systems.

 Despite its improved engine the L-39 remained a strictly subsonic airplane, unlike the contemporary twin-engine Northrop T-38 produced in the United States during the same period.  However the Albatros was designed to be extremely simple to operate and maintain from bases with limited facilities, and can even be operated from grass airfields.  This led to its production not just for use as a trainer in the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact nations, but as a trainer and light attack aircraft in small nations around the world.  Nearly 3,000 L-39s were built between 1972 and 1999 and delivered to air forces in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. 

 With the end of the Cold War, the story of the L-39 took an unexpected turn—widespread acceptance as a unique private jet, particularly in the United States.  As the old Soviet Union disbanded, the pilot training requirements for former Warsaw Pact air forces decreased dramatically and many L-39s became available.  Simplicity, ease of maintenance and a purchase price lower than some new single engine piston airplanes made the L-39 extremely attractive to enthusiast pilots seeking a personal jet.  Today, over 2,000 belong to private owners in the United States alone and are flown as Experimental category aircraft.  Their popularity led to the development of the Jet Class competition at the annual Reno Air Races, a category dominated by the now-ubiquitous Albatros.

 Aero continues to offer a remanufactured L-39 with avionics upgrades ranging from simple Global Positioning System navigation units to full glass cockpits complete with heads-up displays.  Aero has also turned westward for support of its newest production model, the L-159 ALCA (Advanced Light Combat Aircraft).  Aero partnered first with Rockwell North American and ultimately with Boeing to develop this single seat light attack aircraft.  The L-159 is based on the L-39 airframe, but includes a radar system and more sophisticated avionics.  The L-159 has not met with the same widespread acceptance as the original L-39, but remains in limited production and serves as a frontline aircraft in the Czech Republic.

 Today, Aero’s involvement with the West continues to grow as it cultivates relationships with several major manufacturers.  It builds door subassemblies for the Boeing 767 and Embraer 170 and 190 commercial aircraft, and both the US Navy’s F-18 fighter and USAF’s new C-27 light transport include components built by Aero.  Since 2001, Aero has also produced fuselages for the popular Sikorsky S-76 helicopter. 

The Hiller Aviation Museum recently welcomed an Aero L-39C into its display collection.   It was built at Vodochody in 1985 and was transferred to private ownership following the end of the Cold War.  In 2005, it raced at the Reno Air Races.  On October 12th, 2009 it completed its final flight with a perfect touchdown at San Carlos Airport and delivery to the Hiller Aviation Museum.  Come and experience this impressive jet aircraft firsthand, out from behind the Iron Curtain and now on display in the Museum’s Gallery.

Sources:

                AERO Vodochody Company History, www.aero.cz/en/history.html, downloaded October 2009

                AERO Vodochody L-39 Product Brochure, 2008

                GlobalSecurity.org, Georgia Air Force, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/georgia , downloaded October 2009

                Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, 2001-2002

                L-39 Enthusiasts, www.l39.com, downloaded October 2009

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