The Most Widespread Jet-Engined Trainer That Became a Toy for the Rich

Breitling L-39 Albatros 12 photos
Photo: Ronnie Macdonald/Flickr
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From private owners to official aerobatic teams, the L-39 Albatros crossed the borders of time and continents and became the most used jet trainer in the world. And it is over half of century old.
Maybe the name Aero Vodochody won't ring a bell. Maybe its products might not be very well known to you, but worth knowing that it produced more than 6,000 aircraft that became notorious for their abilities. They were not fast or heavily armed. Yet, they did their job flawlessly and proved that a small country could produce something excellent even though it didn't have the resources Northrop had when it made the T-38 Talon in 1959.

The Czechoslovakian company was not new on the market. Still, it had never made a jet-engined aircraft, or any other airplane, before. It was founded in 1919 and produced light or medium-weight cars powered by two-stroke engines. After WWII, it began assembling Skoda trucks under license. Then, it received orders to study a jet-engine aircraft, and it outstandingly did that. The L-29's first flight also happened in 1959, just a month ahead of the American twin-jet engined T-38. Unfortunately for the East-European company, they could only fit one turbojet in its build.

While the L-29 was produced in over 3,000 units and exported to many countries, including the Soviet Union and Egypt, the best was yet to come. Six years after this aircraft's first flight, it became obvious that it needed significant upgrades to make it faster. For starters, it needed a turbofan, which provided almost twice the thrust of a turbojet.

Five years after the Czechoslovakian engineering team started the work, the first L-39 took to the skies on its maiden flight in 1969. It was designed from scratch with a longer fuselage, shorter wings, and a slimmer aspect ratio. In addition, the improved powerplant developed 16.87 kN (3,790 lbf) of thrust instead of just 8.7 kN (1,960 lbf) offered by its predecessor. Even though it was nowhere near as fast as the American T-38 Talon (which was more than 10 years old), it served the purpose.

L\-39 Albatros
Photo: Flickr/Benrard Spragg
Aero Vodochody competed against other East-European aircraft manufacturers to create a jet trainer aircraft, and won. The L-39 Albatros provided several advantages that made it better. First, the pilots didn't need a special ladder to climb inside the cockpit. Thanks to its retractable, incorporated steps and foot-racks on the aircraft's left side, both could get inside quickly. The canopy was right-hinged, and it was easy to open and close, even in an emergency.

But the most striking aspect of this aircraft is the wings. They are short, a highly-appreciated feature for an aerobatic plane, and wingtip fuel tanks. Soon, the L-39 became a favorite among the Warsaw Pact members (East-European communist countries). It wasn't only easy to fly, but its maintenance was straightforward. For most operations, engineers didn't even need ladders or lifts. Even the Russians bought it to train their pilots for the supersonic MIG-19.

With a length of fewer than 40 feet (12,13 meters) and a wingspan of 31 ft (9,46 meters), the L-39 was very nimble. Its maximum take-off weight of 10,362 lbs (4,700 kg) was supported by the 202 sq-ft (18.8 sqm) wing area. I saw tiny homes with a smaller surface area than this aircraft, and people could live there. In addition, the easy-to-use and fly this bird transformed it into an icon for the aviation industry. And I mean not only in Europe but all over the world.

Unlike its predecessor, the L-39 didn't get any onboard weapons. Still, it was fitted with two external hardpoints and 100 liters (26 U.S. gal) wingtip fuel tanks. The plane was more agile and forgiving with pilots thanks to its improvements over the L-29. Later, several aircraft were transformed and got four hardpoints and even a twin-barreled, 23-millimeter cannon installed in a pod under the cockpit. The two-seat cabin allowed the instructor, seated in the back, to help or test the students. Unfortunately, the aircraft wasn't initially fitted with ejecting seats. In case of emergency, pilots had to manually release the canopy and jump out of the aircraft. Fortunately, there were only a few fatal accidents.

L\-39 Albatros cockpit
Photo: Flickr/Eric Friedebach
The U.S. Air Force also had the chance to get their hands on one of these birds in 1987, when a 21-year-old student from Romania ran away with a trainer aircraft and landed in Turkey. And it did that with no GPS or military maps. All it had was a tourist map and an excellent photographic memory that helped him avoid anti-aircraft guns from Romania and Bulgaria before reaching the Turkish airspace. Furthermore, he flew just 150 meters (492 ft) above the ground at 700 kph (435 mph).

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc, Czechoslovakia split into the Czech and the Slovak republics. Still, the factory, located near Prague (the Czech capital), continued to service the airplanes and offered complete restoration programs for these aircraft. Moreover, thanks to their low price, the L-39s began to be bought by private customers.

You may find some of these old warbirds in excellent flying condition in Australia, New Zeeland, Canada, or the U.S. Thanks to their low running costs and easy maintenance, it is preferred by those who want to fly a jet-engined aircraft. In addition, it proved to be very good in aerobatics. Nine of these L-39s are used by the Breitling aerobatic team, which is performing worldwide in these kinds of airplanes.

At the beginning of the 2000s, many American private pilots bought it to compete in the Reno Air Race. There were so many of them that the officials had to create a special class for them. After all, it was the world's most widespread second-generation jet-engined aircraft trainer. In addition, some versions were retrofitted with Garret, Honeywell, or Williams engines. They also benefited from modern avionics and improved fuel systems.

L\-39 Albatros
Photo: Flickr/FotoSleuth
Some of these aircraft can be found for sale at prices up to $300,000, with plenty of resources left before overhauls. Sure, they are without hardpoints but try to get versions with wingtip fuel tanks. With these, the L-39 can fly for almost four hours, so you can enjoy fast, 1,000-mile (1,609-km) trips.
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About the author: Tudor Serban
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Tudor started his automotive career in 1996, writing for a magazine while working on his journalism degree. From Pikes Peaks to the Moroccan desert to the Laguna Seca, he's seen and done it all.
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