March 22 of 2021 marks the 65th anniversary of the first flight of the Let L-13 Blaník glider, one of the most successful of post World War Two glider designs and one of the most successful of Czech aircraft.
Unique among gliders for its all metal structure, the Blaník has a reputation for toughness and durability that few other gliders can match. Such qualities made it very popular as a training aircraft for many years as it could survive novice mistakes like hard landings without needing extensive repair work before it could go back into the air again.
The Blaník has enjoyed wide popularity at home and abroad and has been exported to more than 40 countries.
Here’s a few pictures I took of a Let-13AC Blaník in action at Brno’s Medlánky airport recently:
No, don’t worry, no big changes are coming to my “Pickled Wings” or “Beyond Prague” websites.
In January of 2021, we moved to a new flat in a different part of Brno. We’re still settling in in many ways, but a different view out the window and new areas to explore give some small relief to the monotony of the ongoing COVID lockdown measures.
The area we’ve moved into is a district called Královo Pole. it’s in the north part of the city and next to another district called Medlánky. I’ve discovered that Medlánky is not difficult to walk to from our new flat and I’ve made a couple of treks out there already.
Medlánky is known for open spaces, hills and the small glider airport out there. I’m definitely looking forward to taking walks out there in all seasons.
Here’s some pictures I’ve taken during a couple of walks out there. I’m happy to share them with you and hope they give you some pleasure and a bit of a mental holiday from the lockdown wherever you may be while experiencing it:
Green Leader: Operation Gatling, the Rhodesian Miltary’s Response to the Viscount Tragedy
By: Ian Pringle
The Rhodesian Bush War, which lasted from July of 1964 to December of 1979, was a pivotal event in the establishment of today’s independent state of Zimbabwe in Africa.
Like many of the conflicts that took place in Africa during the latter part of the 20th century, key factors that touched off the Rhodesian Bush War included: racial tensions, the desire for independence from colonial rule and arguments over what political ideologies the newly emergent self-governing nations should embrace. In addition to the internal factors, there was also external interests shown by the both the eastern and western sides of the Cold War in influencing the various sides in the conflict.
The Rhodesian Bush War was a drawn out affair with many complexities for which volumes could be written. The chapter of the conflict that this book highlights was known as Operation Gatling, a three stage retaliatory strike campaign against insurgent bases in Zambia carried out by the Rhodesian air force and army that took place in late October of 1978.
The catlyst for Operation Gatling was the shooting down of a Vickers Viscount airliner operated by Air Rhodesia in early September of 1978 by insurgent forces of the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA). The insurgents used a Russian supplied surface to air missile to shoot down the airliner. Of the over 50 people on board the airliner, 18 survived the crash, Ten of those survivors were brutally gunned down by the ZIPRA insurgents shortly after the crash.
The attack sparked outrage amongst most Rhodesian citizens regardless of race and retaliatory action was demanded.
This book tells the story of that retaliation.
Getting into the Book
I know very little about the the Rhodesian Bush War, or most other African colonial confilcts for that matter, so I wasn’t sure what to expect of the book. However, it had an airplane on the cover and was well reviewed, so I decided to give it a read. I’m quite glad I gave it the chance.
The book starts off a bit slow, painting something of a picture of what life was like in Rhodesia at the time and giving some background to the key players and the reasons behind Operation Gatling.
Once the background information is out of the way, the book moves forth at a good pace and stays engaging throughout. The writing style is easy to follow and not bogged down with any unexplained jargon.
The heart of the story is the men and machines of the Rhodesian air force. To carry out the strikes, the Rhodesian air force had a handful of obsolete English Electric Canberra bombers and Hawker Hunter fighters of British origins along with a small fleet of Cessna 337 aircraft locally modified for close air support and a fleet of French made Alouette helicopters in both troop transport and gunship variations. All of this was controlled from modified Douglas DC-3 Dakotas acting as airborne command posts.
Lacking in manpower and in modern equipment, the Rhodesian military overcame logistical hurdles that a more modern equiped force would have problems dealing with to stage a series of daring counter strikes against ZIPRA bases in neighbouring Zambia.
The book takes its title from the “Green Leader” pseudonym used by Canberra pilot, Squadron Leader Christopher Dixon (1943-2011) used to identify himself to air traffic controllers at the airport in Lusaka, Zambia. As his bomber formation approached the area of Lusaka he transmitted a message to them that all Zambian air force aircraft were to remain on the ground, or risk being shot down, while Rhodesian military aircraft were operating in the area.
The message was broadcast on radio and television in Rhodesia and became part of the national conscience. Dixon was considered a hero and many Rhodesians refered to Operation Gatling as the “Green Leader Raids”.
Beyond the retaliatory strikes, the book also covers the political goings on in Rhodesia and the major players on all sides of the conflict at the time.
It all makes for a very enjoyable, informative and absorbing read on a chapter of a conflict not widely known about outside of the region it was fought in or well known by those who were not directly involved in it.
About the Author
Ian Pringle is well versed in both aviation and the Rhodesian Bush War. Being a veteran of the conflict, witness to the transition of Rhodesia to Zimbabwe and a pilot; Mr. Pringle is definitely a very qualified voice to speak on this subject.
In September of 2020, the Czech air force retired its Russian made Yakovlev Yak-40 jets from service.
One of the retired jets, “0260” was taken into the collection of the Brno Technical Museum. Through a cooperative arrangement, the aircraft was placed on loan to the Kunovice Air Museum. It made its last flight in October of 2020, landing at the Kunovice airport and being placed in storage awaiting display in the museum.
On Saturday, February 13, the aircraft was moved into the museum’s public display area and was given a place near the museum’s Tupolev Tu-154, “Nagano Express”.
In 1981, the Ministry of the Interior of the former Czechoslovakia transfered two Yak-40s to the air force. The aircraft operated primarily in the VIP transport role. Both were retired in September of 2020.
This article, published at the time the Czech air force Yak-40s were decommissioned, will give you a bit of background into the Yak-40 in Czechoslovak and later Czech service.
The bravery and sacrifice of the many Czechoslovaks who, at great personal risk, left their homeland to bolster the Allied ranks against Axis forces in the Second Word War is a point of pride for many Czechs and Slovaks today.
Without a doubt, the story of the airmen who travelled to Great Britain to fly with the Royal Air Force is the best known of the Czechoslovak contributions to the Allied cause in the conflict. A number of museums across the country have exhibits on those airmen and there is the winged lion monument in the Klárov district of Prague that is dedicated to them.
If you travel to the second biggest city in the country, Brno, you can visit the Air Café in the centre of the city and enjoy drinks and food while immersing yourself in the ambience that comes with being surrounded by a small museum’s worth of Second World War artefacts and paraphernalia dedicated to the Czechoslovak pilots.
Approximately 30 kilometers south-west of Brno, you’ll find the small city of Ivančice. It’s a decidedly non-touristy place and its main claim to fame beyond Czech Borders is as the birthplace of famed Art Nouveau painter, Alfons Mucha (1860-1939). However, it is also home to a combination museum and restaurant called RAF House that’s very much worth the trip there to visit.
Located in a brick building near the edge of the city, RAF House has the look of a building that could have come directly from a WWII era RAF flying station if it were not for the prominent metal letters spelling “RAF” on the facade echoing the riveted construction of aircraft of the era.
I first learned of the existence of RAF house in early 2020 when someone posted some pictures of a very unique looking restaurant with an aviation theme on one of the online forums I frequent. They gave no information for where it was, so I did a bit of internet searching based on one of the photos and quickly found it was not only in the Czech Republic but was an easy trip from where I live in Brno. In that moment, I knew I had to visit. In June of 2020, that visit was made.
Walking up to the main entrance of the solid brick building and taking in the aforementioned metal “RAF” letters on the facade as well as the placards near the entrance that are filled with names of the Czechoslovaks who served in the RAF during WWII, it’s quite clear that a good deal of thought and passion was put into this place.
Once inside, I found myself in a corridor with a rustic looking restaurant section to the left and an aviation museum and lounge to the right. The museum is named after General Emil Boček (1923-), a resident of Brno and the last known surviving of the Czechoslovak airmen who flew in the RAF.
The museum consists of display cases full of photos, flying gear and instruments, uniforms, personal effects and much more connected to the RAF Czechoslovak airmen.
The focal point of the lounge is a wall mural of a Spitfire fighter in the markings of 310 Squadron, one of the Czechoslovak RAF squadrons. The wing of the Spitfire extends from the wall and forms a very unique dining table. The chairs that surround the table are modelled on a Spitfire seat.
The lounge also features a leather sofa and chair set that surround a coffee table that uses a radial aircraft engine for a base. There are also some pub type tables around and some evocative black and white period photographs on the walls.
When one looks across to the restaurant section, it becomes clear that wine is as much a passion as aviation at RAF House. This part of the establishment has a wine bar at the heart of it and is clearly set up to host wine tasting events as well as being a restaurant
The wine connection is no surprize as two of the restaurant’s three founders are wine makers and use the restaurant as a prime point of sale for their RAF brand wine. The labelling on their wine bottles is on a clear aviation theme, and the “RAF” in their wine brand comes from their surnames, Rajníc and Fischer, as well as Royal Air Force.
There is also an events hall in the building that can be rented for special occaisions.
Enough Banter, Let’s Eat!
Like many Czech restaurants, RAF house provides a daily lunch menu in addition to their standing menu.
The standing menu is presented on a set of cards that fan out from a central hinge point and has both Czech and English languages on it. The menu is comprised of hearty traditional dishes as well as some house specialities. A selection of the aforementioned wine as well as good quality Czech draft beer or Guinness are also on the menu to wash the food down with. There is also a respectable selection of spirits on offer as well. On the back of each card in the menu is a WWII era photo related to the Czechoslovak airmen.
I chose the fish and chips as my main course with a large draft Pilsner to accompany it. I followed it up with the house special RAF chocolate cake and coffee. Everything was delicious and the English style fish and chips seemed the appropriate meal to eat given that the famous white cliffs of Dover make up the background of the Spitfire wall mural.
I enjoyed my meal on the Spitfire wing table and I must say that it lent a very evocative feel and ambience to my dining experience.
The service, as well as the food, was excellent. Both servers who attended to me on my visit spoke English to a respectable standard.
Paying a Visit
If you are travelling to Ivančice from Brno, the trip can be made by car in around 30 minutes. There is also bus and train service between the cities that takes about an hour or so. If you travel by bus or train, you will need to transfer at least once on the way.
As RAF House is on the edge of town, the bus and train stations in Ivančice are not particularly close to it. However, it is a fairly straightforward walk to the restaurant from either station. Walking from the bus station, which is near the main square of the town, I was able to reach RAF House on foot in about half an hour. It wasn’t a demanding walk as it was mostly on flat ground with pedestrian paving all along the way. As long as the weather is good, this could be a nice way for you to build your appetite enroute to the restaurant.
With the close proximity of Brno to Ivančice, it is possible to find taxi service between the two. However, Czech taxis have a reputation for being very expensive and I would not recommend that option unless you speak Czech proficiently or are travelling with a Czech native who can act as an intermediary between you and the taxi company and driver.
I noted there was a local public transportation stop near the restaurant, but a quick look at the schedule showed that the bus runs only once an hour, so may not be the best option for getting there.
These two links will take you to the RAF House and RAF Wines websites. While both are completely in Czech, they do respond reasonably well to online translator functions.
This is just a small update to let you know about some goings on behind the scenes at Pickled Wings.
In the process of updating existing articles, I’ve learned that the new block editor that WordPress has put in place will take more learning yet and the “Classic” editor they claim to have retained for those of us who prefer it does not work quite as it used to. Notably, I find the image insertion process does not operate quite as it did so I have ended up replacing all of the images in updated articles where I only intended to add one or two new ones. That is because the thumbnail sizing in the new editor is not consistent with the sizing of the previous editor.
At any rate, the learning continues with every new article written and existing one updated. There are certainly bugs for WordPress to get out of the new editor and I hope they will do so.
I’ve updated the following articles:
In the 1940-1949 section, the Aero Ae-45 and Ae-145 article has received all new photos.
In the 1950-1959 section, the article on the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-19 “Farmer” has received new photos and a slight text update.
In the 1960-1969 section, the Tupolev Tu-154 “Careless” article received new photos while the Zlín/Let Z-37 Čmelák article got new photos and an update to the links in it.
What you’ll likely notice first is that the updated articles have larger thumbnail images for the photos in them. They are a bit bigger than I’d like, but they don’t overpower the text and the next size down was too small for my tastes.
I won’t be announcing all updates to articles, but if you open an existing article and notice the photos in it are bigger that you’re used to at Pickled Wings, you’ll know an update has taken place.
The Czech Republic has a remarkably colourful history in aviation that dates to before the first Czechoslovak aircraft company, Letov, was founded in 1918. The small nation has given the world a wide range of capable aircraft in categories including aerobatics, agriculture, general aviation, gliders, trainers and transports among others.
As Czech aircraft manufacturers go, Let is a relatively young company. Founded in 1936 in the south eastern Czech town of Kunovice, Let started as a maintenance branch of the much older Avia company. It would not be until after the Second World War that Let would come into its own as a company after the Communist government that took over the former Czechoslovakia in 1948 nationalized the contry’s industries. It was at that point in time that Let was split from Avia and made into a separate company.
In April of 1969, the prototype of a new aircraft rose from the Kunovice runway into the air for the first time. Designated the XL-410, it was the beginning of a long lived family of transport aircraft that would grow to not only serve as the flagship product of the Let company for over five decades, but also a global symbol of Czech prowess in aircraft design: the L-410 Turbolet.
Upon first impressions, the L-410 Turbolet may seem nothing more than one of the many twin turboprop powered commuter aircraft types out there. Its unassuming appearances belie an aircraft of robust construction, remarkable flexibility, cost effectiveness and short take of and landing (STOL) performance that few aircraft in its class can match.
Still in production five decades after its first flight, used by air arms and civilian operators in over 70 countires across five continents and still going strong; the L-410 is without a doubt the most succesful of Czech aircraft.
Let’s spend some time with the L-410 Turbolet:
A Hard Act to Follow
From the outset, the Turbolet was intended to be a very self-sufficient aircraft that could operate in extremes of temperature and from rough or completely improvised airstrips in very remote regions. These specifications were arrived at as one of the aircraft the L-410 was designed to replace was the venerable and legendary Antonov An-2.
The Antonov An-2 is in the history books as the largest single engine biplane ever put into production. Being a biplane first flown after World War Two, the An-2 was something of an anachronism when it was introduced. However, the aircraft had a very unique set of flying characteristics that would make the job of any aircraft intended to replace it a very high order indeed. The An-2 was an extremely self-sufficient aircraft noted for its tough-as-nails construction and STOL performance that has been next to impossible for any other fixed wing aircraft to match.
While the Turbolet certainly has never been able to equal the An-2’s STOL capabilities, in its STOL optimised form it does possess the performance to give it a place among a small handful of aircraft in its class that are capable of operating from the Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla, Nepal.
Tenzing-Hillary has a long standing reputation as one of the most demanding and dangerous airports for any aircraft and pilot to operate from. This comes from the high altitude the airport is situated at, its short runway length and the unforgiving mountainous terrain that surrounds the airport. Any aircraft and pilot must hold special certifications to fly into and out of the airport. Along with the DeHavilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter and the Dornier Do-228 from Germany, the Turbolet is among those few aircraft in its class to be certified for operations from this airport.
As with its nearest contemporary designs, the Turbolet is built relatively low to the ground with its wing set high on the fuselage. This configuration allows good access to critical areas of the aircraft for servicing while still allowing maintenance crews to stand on the ground or require nothing more advanced than a basic stepladder to do their jobs. The configuration also allows for easy loading of cargo or passenger boarding as no specialized airstairs or cargo lifting machinery are required to load the aircraft.
Certified to operate in temperatures that range from -50C (-58F) to 50C (122F), there are very few environments on Earth where the Turbolet would be unfit to work.
With a take off run of around 510 metres (1,673 feet) and a landing run of around 500 metres (1,640 feet) in its STOL optimised versions, there are very few places in the world the Turbolet could not get into or out of.
A Bit of East and a Bit of West
Studies for the aircraft that would become the L-410 started in the 1966-1967 timeframe. In the same period of time, the domestically designed Walter M601 engine that would eventually power the L-410 was under development.
From the outset, the aircraft was designed as a short haul machine that could carry between 12 and 19 passengers or 1850 kg (4079 pounds) or cargo into or out of a wide variety of airport and runway types. The aircraft was designed to operate from airstrips made of grass, sand, gravel, clay or snow at rudimentary airfields with equal ease as it would operate from a well prepared asphalt runway at a fully equiped airport.
The reason for designing this level of versatility into the aircraft was to ensure it had a chance of meeting specifications put forth by the former Soviet Union for a new aircraft requirement of the state airline, Aeroflot. The airline needed a modern, well built, durable and dependable aircraft to replace the older types they had to serve the communities on their more remote routes.
The former Soviet Union was the world’s largest nation, a distinction that contemporary Russia still holds today. Outside of the major cities, there are wide tracts of less developed areas with far flung communities that can only be reached with aircraft. Typically, these regions have climates that are harsh and unforgiving on man and machine alike. Needless to say, the bushflying art is alive and well in these remote corners of the world.
The turbolet met the specifications and many of the type were exported to the former Soviet Union and quickly gained popularity among those who worked with it. It still enjoys a good deal of popularity in Russia.
While the former Czechoslovakia was solidly within the Socialist sphere of influence at the time the Turbolet was being developed, there was a western component to the prototypes and earliest production versions in the form of the Pratt and Whitney Canada PT6 engine.
The choice of the PT6 came about from the fact that the Walter M601 would not be ready for flight at the time the prototype Turbolets would be completed, so a substitiute engine was required to make sure the prototypes got airborne on schedule. The PT6 was a proven engine that was a close match for the sort of performance the M601 would provide later versions of the Turbolet.
Let also considered Garett engines from America and Turboméca engines from France before settling on the PT6.
Refining the Machine
From the first flight of the XL-410 in April of 1969, it was clear that the Turbolet would be a solid performer and worthy of further development. However, as it is with all machines, the prototype and production versions can differ quite a lot.
This is a general overview of the Turbolet family development across major production models:
The prototypes of the Turbolet line were designated as XL-410. Three XL-410 prototypes were built, the first and third were flying prototypes while the second was used for stress testing.
The first production series of the family was the L-410A. Like the prototypes, aircraft of this series were powered by the PT6 engine.
The L-410A line differed from the prototypes by having a completely redesigned main landing gear as well as structural reinforcements nose to tail. Other differences included a small stabilizing fin being added to the underside of the rear fuselage as well as changes to the propellers and aircraft de-icing system.
A total of 31 aircraft were made to L-410A standards. Significant among them was the L-410AS, a specialized version for the Soviet Union that proved the Turbolet’s excellent performance in climatic extremes and rudementary airport and airstrip conditions.
The second production Turbolet series, the L-410M, debuted in 1973 and is the series that defined the Turbolet family on the world stage.
The L-410M was the first series of the family to be powered by the Walter M601 engine. Most of the development that took place between versions of the M model concerned the fitting of improved versions of the M601.
An offshoot of the L-410M, the L-410UVP is different enough to be considered the third production series of the Turbolet family.
While all members of the aircraft family are capable of STOL performance, the UVP versions were optimised to bring those qualities of the aircraft to the fore.
The UVP versions had more powerful engines as well as increases to the wingspan and tail area. All of this was to meet a STOL specification set out by the Soviet Union. While the UVP met the specification, it turned out to be a machine of compromises.
The increases in wingspan and tail surface area translated into an increase in overall weight in the UVP versions and corresponding decreases in performance as far as payload, range and economy of operation were concerned.
Beyond the basic UVP version, this branch of the family includes:
L-410UVP-S: VIP transport version with an executive interior fitted.
L-410UVP-E: Improved version with more powerful engines, five bladed propellers and wing tip fuel tanks.
L-410T: A cargo optimised version with a larger cargo door.
L-410FG: A specialised version with a glass nose for aerial mapping and survey work.
Debuting in in 2015, the L-410NG “New Generation” is at once a member of the Turbolet family and a substantial departure from what has gone before it in the lineage.
The NG was developed from the UVP-E and maintains the spacious passenger cabin the aircraft family is known for as well as the robust construction and mission flexibility.
Where the NG differs is in a redesigned wing that allows for more fuel to be carried and has resulted in a significantly increased range for the NG model. The NG also can carry more cargo in a lengthened nose and has a fully modern cockpit and avionics suite.
Additionally, the NG has more powerful engines from General Electric. In fact, the new engines are a development of the M601 and bear General Electric branding due to the Walter company becoming subsidiary to General Electric in 2008.
The L-410NG has been in series production since 2018.
Flexing to Function and Fun
As mentioned in previous sections of this article, the Turbolet was designed with a good amount of mission flexibility in it. This is thanks largely to its spacious cabin area.
Beyond standard passenger and cargo variations, the cabin can be fitted with air ambulance or emergency medical service interiors. It can also be fitted with an executive interior for VIP or corporate flying.
Along with the roomy cabin, the L-410 has the power and range to make it useful for aerial survey and mapping work as well as patrol and surveillance work. Special modifications for aerial mapping and photogrammetry created the L-410FG version with its distinctive glass nose.
The flexibility of the Turbolet was further tested in Russia in 2017 when experiments were carried out to test the type’s suitability for ski and float landing gear.
It’s not all work and no play for the Turbolet. The aircraft is very popular worldwide as a platform for skydiving. With a good climb rate and the roomy cabin, it lends itself very well to getting larger groups to jumping height efficiently.
If you’re a more intrepid holiday maker who looks for more exotic and remote locales to visit, you may very well find yourself on a Turbolet for at least part of your journey. As mentioned earlier, the Turbolet is one of the few aircraft types of its class that could get you to Nepal’s Tenzing-Hillary Airport.
Come aboard, It’s Perfectly Safe
In some quarters, the Turbolet has been branded an unsafe aircraft. However, this is quite unfair and borders on the ridiculous.
The fact that more than 1,200 examples of the Turbolet have been built over the years and it’s still in production more than five decades after it first flew is testament to the soundness of the design and the competence of its designers.
On the surface, it would seem the Turbolet is an accident prone machine. It’s been involved in over 100 accidents that have resulted in over 400 fatalities. However, before one judges the accident record of an aircraft like the Turbolet, one must keep in mind a few things about it:
A vast majority of accidents the Turbolet has been involved in were traced back to human error rather than any issues inherent to the design of the aircraft.
Very few aircraft can operate in places where the Turbolet can and many of those places are inherently risky to fly in even for the most rugged of aircraft and most seasoned of aircrew. Accidents are bound to happen in such places even under the most ideal of circumstances.
Turbolets are often operated in developing or underdeveloped nations where regulations are poorly if at all enforced. That in combination with many operators of the aircraft being small and remotely located has often lead to poor quality control in both ground maintenance and aircrew training.
The L-410 Today and Learning More
While some Turbolets have found their way into museums, the type is still very much an active flyer earning its keep in air arms and on civil registers worldwide. As such, your chances of seeing one in action aren’t particularly scarce.
Without a doubt, the best place to see the bulk of the Turbolet family line in one place is Kunovice, in the south east of the Czech Republic. Kunovice airport is home not only to the Let company, but also the Kunovice Air Museum. The museum dedicates most of its activities to preserving the aviation history of Kunovice. In the museum collection, you will find the first and third XL-410 prototypes as well as early production Turbolet models. A visit to Kunovice could also see you in a position to watch resident Turbolets operating at the airport.
Still in production more than fifty years after it was designed, the Turbolet shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.
This link will take you to a website with a wealth of information on all aspects of the Turbolet and its development. The site is in Czech, but responds well to online translator functions.
These links will take you to pages about the L-410UVP-E and L-410NG at the Let website.
September 5 and 6 of 2020 mark the annual Oldtimers Weekend at Medlánky airfield in Brno Czech Republic.
The weather was beautiful and there was a good selection of vintage sailplanes and general aviation aircraft on view.
With the COVID crisis of 2020, many famous airshows around the world have been cancelled, including a couple I regularly attend here in the Czech Republic. I’m very happy that the Medlánky Aeroklub didn’t cancel their Oldtimers Weekend this year. It’s likely to be the only airshow I get to see this year.
I’ll just let the pictures speak for themselves and show you the atmosphere of the day:
Aerobatics is a category of flying that has been with us in one form or another almost as long as powered flight. Perhaps this should be no surprize as humanity has always seemed to have a fixation of not only driving the technology we create forward, but also pushing what we create to its very limits. As far as civilian aviation is concerned, specialist aerobatic aircraft may well be the ultimate expression of that drive.
Competition level aerobatics exists at four main levels: Sportsman, Intermediate, Advanced and Unlimited. Aircraft designed with the Unlimited class in mind are highly specialized machines indeed, with little if any consideration given to any type of flying outside of top tier aerobatic competition when designing them.
An aircraft of the Unlimited class sacrifices nearly everything else in the pursuit of combining high thrust with low weight that will allow the aircraft to perform all the required moves for the class and yet not tear the aircraft apart in the process.
Needless to say, an aircraft of the Unlimited class is not one for the novice pilot. Indeed, any pilot that advances as far as the Unlimited class will have amassed hundreds of hours of flying hours before reaching that level. They will also be a very physically fit individual quite worthy of being seen as a top level athlete.
The Extra 300 first flew in 1988 and became an iconic machine in the Unlimited category through the 1990s. Let’s spend some time with it:
An Insider’s Knowledge
The Extra 300 was created by Walter Extra (1954-), an award winning aerobatics pilot from Germany who created his own aircraft company in 1980. The Extra Aircraft company is located near the Rhine river in the town of Hunxe, in the North Rhine-Westphalia state of Germany.
Beyond being a decorated aerobatics pilot, Walter Extra also is qualified as a mechanical engineer. The impetus to create his own aircraft company was to create a machine fit for the Unlimited class that would be an improvement on the aircraft by other designers that he had been flying up to that point. His experience as a competitive pilot and his professional engineering qualifications ensured that he could achieve that goal.
The first aircraft developed by Extra Aircraft was the Extra 230 which first flew in 1983. While the Extra 230 was the direct ancestor of the Extra 300, one needs to go back rather further to see where the Extra 300 lineage really starts.
The Extra 230 and 300 are extreme developments of the Stephens Akro, an American aerobatics design from the late 1960s. While quite rudimentary compared to the Extra designs, the Stephens Akro was a popular and successful design that could be homebuilt and lent itself well to modification.
What links the Stephens Akro to the Extra designs is the Akro Laser Z-200, a one-off modification of the Akro that won a number of aerobatics championships between 1975 and 1982 in the hands of American pilot, Leo Loudenslager (1944-1997).
The Akro Laser Z-200 served as the basis for the Extra 230 design. The Extra 230 was fairly conventional in design, featuring a tube steel frame fuselage with wooden wings. A refined version of the 230 was created and called the Extra 260, though very few were ever made.
The Extra 230 was a very popular and successful aircraft that was produced from 1983 to 1990 and set the stage for the watershed event that the Extra 300 would be to the aerobatics world.
The New Standard
The usual desires for reduced weight and increased power that drive competitive aerobatics also primarily drove the leap from the Extra 230 to the Extra 300. However, it was rather more than just competition in the air that led Extra to create the machine that would become their flagship product for three decades.
Materials and manufacturing processes figured very prominently in the evolution of the 230 to the 300. While the 230 had some carbon fibre composite structures in it, the 300 would include much more composite materials in its structure. Significant among these was the wing of the 300, which was of fully carbon fibre composite construction as opposed to the plywood wings of the 230.
While the plywood wings gave the 230 light weight, the material itself was maintenance intensive and difficult to control the quality of. Walter Extra was having difficulty finding plywood of a suitable quality to make wings from and so made the decision to make the wings of the 300 from carbon composites. The dividends of this decision were enjoyed from the factory all the way to the end users of the aircraft
The first advantage of switching to composite materials was that quality control was much easier right from the start. Carbon composite was a much more predictable material than plywood and this reduced the amount of testing time required for each individual aircraft leaving the factory. The predictability of the composite material also reduced manufacturing time as factory workers assembling the aircraft didn’t have to worry about the sort of variability plywood could have from one piece to another.
For the end user, that same predictabilty resulted in reduced inspection and maintenance time which resulted in reduced operating costs. The composite wing also gave the desired weight savings as it was lighter than plywood. An additional benefit the composite wing gave to the end user was a substantial increase in structural strength that allowed for higher performance in competition.
Another advantage the Extra 300 came with was that it was designed as a two seat aircraft from the start. For an Unlimited class aerobatics aircraft to have two seats as an option is a very unusual thing and the two seat option made the Extra 300 attractive to flying schools that offered aerobatics courses as well as experience rides.
While nobody could ever accuse the Extra 300 of being an aircraft for the novice, it is known as a pilot friendly aircraft for its class and the two seat option makes it easier and quicker for a pilot to learn and master the 300 than some of its contemporaries.
The qualities of the 300 have given it popularity in team as well as individual aerobatics. There are a number of civilian aerobatics teams around the world that use the 300 to perform while the military air demonstration teams of Chile, Jordan and Malaysia all use the 300 as their mount.
The Extra 300 Family
Since its first flight in 1988, the Extra 300 has seen more design evolution than perhaps any other aircraft in its class. For an Unlimited class aerobatics aircraft design to have lifespan of three decades and still be in production and competitive is truly a remarkable thing and testament to the drive of the designers to keep pushing for more from it.
Another unusual aspect of the 300 is that it has demonstrated an adaptability to other flying categories that some of its contemporaries in the Unlimited class have not. While always having aerobatics at the heart of the design, the 300 has also been adapted to air racing and touring.
As of mid 2020, almost 800 examples of the 300 had been built across a dozen variants and sub-variants:
Extra 300/300 S
The Extra 300 was the baseline two seat model of the 300 family. The aircraft took its name from the 300 horsepower Lycoming engine that powered it.
The Extra 300 S is a single seat development of the baseline 300 that also features a reduced wingspan and improvements to flight controls.
Extra 330 SX and Extra 300 SP/SHP
The 330 SX was a more powerful development of the 300 S that included a 330 horsepower engine and larger control surfaces on the tail. A number of 300 S models were refitted with the larger rudder of the 330 SX.
The 300 SP was a variation of the 300 S that had reduced weight and the 330 SX rudder fitted to it.
The 300 SHP was a higher performance variant of the SP.
Extra 300 SR
The 300 SR was a version fitted with a wing optimised for racing. Most specifically, it was designed for the Red Bull Air Race series that ran from 2003 to 2019.
Extra 300 L/300 LP
The Extra 300 L is the most produced of any member of the 300 family. It’s a two seat variant with the wings set lower on the fuselage than previous versions. The repositioned wing had no effect on the aerobatic qualities of the aircraft, but did make entering and exiting the aircraft easier for the pilot.
The 300 LP was to the 300 L what the 300 S was to the baseline 300; a weight reduced version with higher performance for competition flying. As of 2020, the 300 LP is still in production.
Extra 330 SC/LX/LT
The Extra 330 SC was developed to replace the 300 SP and 330 SX. It’s a single seat competition level aircraft with an improved roll rate over previous members of the aircraft family. The 330 SC really is the ultimate development of the Extra 300 design as pilots flying it have won the biannual World Aerobatics Championships five times: 2009, 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2019.
The 330 LX is a two seat version of the SC.
The 330 LT is a development of the LX that is aimed at touring. Retaining most of its aerobatic abilities, the LX includes a baggage compartment and has all the required cockpit instruments and avionics required for longer cross-country flying.
As of 2020, all three of these versions are still in production.
Extra 330 LE
First flown in 2016, this was a fully electric powered single seat version powered by a Siemens engine. In 2017, it set new speed records for electric powered aircraft and became the first fully electric powered aircraft to tow a glider aloft.
The Extra 300 Today
In 2019, Extra debuted their Extra NG, a fully new aerobatics machine that will hopefully prove a worthy successor to the Extra 300 legacy.
With a lifespan much greater than most aircraft in its class could hope to have, around 800 produced and still more being made along with a healthy demand for the type on second hand markets; the Extra 300 family is far from flying into the proverbial sunset.
Still a top notch performer in competitions and a reliable crowd pleaser at airshows, your chances of seeing a member of this aircraft family being put through its paces are far from remote.
This link will take you to the website of Belgian aerobatics pilot, Kristof Cloetens. It’s a good “Voice of experience” type website that will give you insights into the life of an aerobatics pilot as well as judging criteria for competitions and so forth: Link to Kristof Cloetens’ website
I would like to extend thanks to Mr. Christian Hochheim of Extra Aircraft for providing me with extra information that filled some blanks I encountered while doing research on this article.