2018 marks the centenary of the founding of the old Czechoslovakia and several celebrations are going on across the Czech Republic and Slovakia through the year to mark the event.
Yesterday, on Brno’s Svobody square, a small group of Czech aircraft were put on temporary display along with other items showing Czech accomplishments in aerospace. This is to mark the 100th anniversary of Czech aviation, which also happens to be in 2018.
Yesterday saw me visit the 2018 edition of the annual airshow in Pardubice, Czech Republic.
The weather was hot and sunny with a few clouds and a constant breeze to cool things down a bit, but only a bit.
As 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the former Czechoslovakia, that event figured into the theme of this year’s show as the year also marks 100 years of Czech aviation.
As always with the Pardubice show, civilian and vintage aircraft are the focus with modern military aircraft taking a smaller part in the action.
This year had slightly bittersweet feel to it as 2018 marks the end of the Mil Mi-2 “Hoplite” helicopter’s Czech service career. The Mi-2s at Pardubice were the last of the type still flying in Czech hands and are in the process of being replaced by the Enstrom 480. While it certainly was sad to see such a distinctive aircraft as the Mi-2 bow out, the main role of Pardubice is flight training and they must have modern machines to carry out their jobs.
Some regular attendees of the show were notable in their absence. However, there were some new faces to fill in the gaps.
Tornado Over the Tigris
By: Michael Napier
Pen and Sword Books (2015)
The Panavia Tornado needs little introduction, the product of a trinational consortium put together to create a multirole flying machine that would play a vital role in forming the backbone of NATO’s strike and reconnaissance needs in Europe through the 1980s and 1990s, the Tornado has carved out a respectable place for itself in aviation history.
“Tornado Over the Tigris” was written by Michael Napier as a retrospective to his 13 year fast jet flying career in the Royal Air Force. The bulk of his carreer was spent piloting the Tornado Gr.1 variant from RAF Bruggen in the former West Germany. This tale follows his RAF Career from his basic flight training in the late 1970s to his last Tornado flight and retirement from the RAF shortly after the end of the Cold War.
This book is a very accessible read which makes just enough reference to the technical aspects of flying and maintaining the Tornado to effectively bring across the complexities of the machine without getting bogged down in dry technobabble. It’s a volume that is as much about the people that worked around the machine as it is about the machine itself. It’s a quite human story told with a level of humility and wit that makes it engaging and gives it great charm.
Throughout the course of the book, Mr. Napier emphasises the critical importance trust and personal familiarity play in creating an effective military unit, how important good people skills are when working in a multinational team and how filled with risk the military fast jet crew’s lives are even in the most routine aspects of their duties once the aircraft is aloft. At the start of the book, he takes time to list the names of Tornado pilots and navigators he personally knew who did not survive their time in service, either through combat or accidents, and dedicates the book to them.
The book starts as the typical story of a young man who is captivated by military fast jets in his childhood and sets himself the goal of one day flying them himself. Through diligence at school and determination, he achieves that goal. In this section, he gives the reader a good picture of what life in flight training school was like and what the various aicraft he learned to fly on were like.
The core of the book starts when the Author graduates from training on the Tornado and is assigned to his first operational unit, 14 “Crusader” Squadron, at the RAF station at Bruggen near the Dutch/German border. Most of the story happens at Bruggen and in the skies of the former West Germany.
I would say the book really shines in this part as it gives the reader a view of a period of RAF activities that is now firmly in the past. Following the end of the Cold War and the reunification of Germany, RAF bases and assets in the country were gradually reduced through the 1990s. The last of the RAF’s permanent presence in Germany ended in the early 2000s. This part gives the reader a window into the realities that a NATO fast jet pilot stationed in West Germany, the de facto front line of the Cold War in Europe, lived with daily. The primary reality was that any alarm calling them to action there could very well be the real thing rather than a drill.
We get a break from Tornado action when the author is assigned to RAF Chivenor, a former RAF station in the south west of England, where he trained to become a qualified instructor pilot. In this section, we get a good look at the Hawk advanced jet trainer as well as the much more relaxed atmosphere to be found on a training base in the UK at the time versus RAF Bruggen.
From Chivenor, we are returned to Bruggen for the author’s second tour on the Tornado. This time he is assigned to 31 “Goldstars” squadron and gives us a good look at how different the internal atmospheres of different squadrons can be as well as the trials and tribulations of reaquainting himself with friends from his first Tornado tour, getting accepted by existing members of his new squadron as well as carrying an elevated level of experience and authority than he had on his first tour.
Along the way, Napier takes the reader along on various exercises such as weapons camps in Canada and Italy as well as multiple trips to the famous Red Flag exercise in America. These parts of the book show well the many challenges of working with other militaries towards a common goal.
Also detailed is a period the author spent based in the Middle East in the early 1990s as part of a detachment to control airspace in Iraq. In this section of the book the author brings across well the gravity he was hit with when, for the first time in his career, he saw live bombs mounted on his aircraft and knew he would be taking them into a real combat zone to drop “in anger”.
The author also uses his time in the Middle East to underline how important it is to have absolute trust and knowledge of the people you are working with in a military unit. As the Tornado is flown by a crew of two, the trust between the pilot and navigator is paramount. The difficulties the established roster of the detachment had in adjusting to the arrival of two new crews was very enlightening. While the new crews were certainly qualified on the Tornado, they were total strangers as people to the existing personnel and their integration into the unit was not without interpersonal friction.
The book concludes with a very descriptive detailing of the author’s final flight in a Tornado in which he flies the length of Great Britain at low altitude. It’s a quite satisfying end to the book.
This book is written with a minimum of ego and it’s clear how acutely aware the author is of how privileged he was to be able to achieve a dream that many have yet a rare few realise.
I can recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of the Tornado and would like a solid look at operations with it that goes light on the technical end of things, or for anyone who just likes a good military flying memoir.
This link will take you to the book’s page on the publisher’s website:
Located just south of Madrid’s historic Cuatro Vientos (Four Winds) Airport, this is the official museum of the Spanish air force. Known officially as Museo de Aeronáutica y Astronáutica o Museo del Aire, the facility is typically referred to simply as Museo del Aire. I paid this museum a visit in mid April of 2018.
While the museum was established at its current location in 1981, the idea for it and development of it had been in slow progress since the end of the Spanish Civil War. The museum has existed, at least on paper, officially since 1966.
The Cuatro Vientos location, in the south-west suburbs of Madrid, could not have been a better choice as a place for the museum from a historical standpoint. Aviation activity has been going on in Spain since before the First World War; Cuatro Vientos and nearby Getafe Air Base are two of the oldest airports in the country, both having been formally established in 1911. The area truly is the cradle of Spanish aviation.
Museo del Aire is a sweeping collection of more than 150 aircraft in both indoor and outdoor displays spread across an area of almost 67,000 square metres. As European air museums go, this is a major one.
All eras of Spanish military and governmental aviation are well covered between the outdoor exhibits and the seven hangars holding the indoor exhibits. A good cross section of domestically designed and produced aircraft are on display alongside various foreign types which saw Spanish service.
At that, let’s take a look at Museo del Aire:
The sizable outdoor display area is the first part of the museum to greet visitors after they pass through the entry gate.
This part of the collection is organised into sections for fighters, helicopters as well as transport and utility types.
It doesn’t take long after entering the museum for the diverse history of Spanish military aviation to become apparent. Spain saw many political changes through the 20th century and the various alliances the nation held through the century dictated where much of their military hardware came from at any given time.
Aside of domestically developed aircraft; visitors can also see aircraft of American, British, Canadian, French, German and Italian origins to name but a few. There are also a number of foreign aircraft types which were built under license by Spanish companies.
Among the aircraft you can see in the outdoor section in Spanish colours are the hulking Boeing KC-97 tanker aircraft, the domestically designed CASA C-207 transport, Canadair CL-215 firefighting aircraft, Dassault Mirage III and F.1 fighters as well as the distinctive Lockheed F-104 Starfighter.
The outdoor collection is not limited to aircraft which saw service in Spanish hands, a number of types in foreign colours are also on display. Among the fast jets, you can see Soviet designed Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17, 21 and 23 types as well as a Sukhoi Su-22 strike aircraft. There are also a couple of former Swedish air force types in the form a Saab 32 Lansen and a Saab 37 Viggen.
While, as one might expect, a number of the outdoor aircraft show one degree or another of exposure to the elements; a pleasing number of them have clearly been given fresh paint quite recently. It’s good to see such a clear sign of a museum taking care of their outdoor collection.
As mentioned earlier, the museum’s indoor exhibits are distributed among seven hangars. They are organised largely by theme rather than era. During my visit, not all the hangars were open.
Hangar 1 focuses on early aviation themes running from the pre WWI period to the Spanish Civil War. The hangar was partially closed during my visit, so I was only able to view the parts covering up to the First World War.
The exhibited aircraft I saw in Hangar 1 are well presented, but the dim lighting made photography a very challenging prospect.
Hangar 2 is dedicated to aeronautical technology themes such as airframe structures and engines through the years.
Here you’ll see not only engines ranging from very early piston types to modern turbofan types, you’ll also see flight simulators for a variety of aircraft types as well as examples of aircraft stripped to their bare frames to show internal structures.
Hangar 2 also has displays of unmanned drone aircraft, bombs and missiles as well as some items of space exploration.
As with Hangar 1, low lighting conditions make photography in Hangar 2 a similarly challenging task.
Hangar 3 focusses on light aircraft and training types through the years.
The diversity of aircraft that have been used by Spanish military aviation over the years is displayed particularly well here as there are American, British, Czech, German and Italian originated aircraft on display here to name a few.
Hangar 3 houses aircraft displaying markings of both sides of the Spanish Civil War as well as more modern Spanish air force markings.
Aside of powered aircraft, there is a selection of sailplanes hanging from from the ceiling of this hangar.
As with the first two hangars, photography is also something of a challenge here. Partly the challenge comes from artificial and natural light sources conflicting with each other and the aircraft being in very close quarters with each other so as to negate many pictures focussing on a specific aircraft.
Hangar 4 is dedicated to rotary flight and displays a good selection of autogyros and helicopters.
Significant in this hangar are examples of Cierva autogyros. Created by Juan de la Cierva (1895-1936) in 1920, the autogyro was a truly Spanish contribution to aviation history.
More importantly to rotary aviation, Cierva also developed the articulated rotor. This was a critical moment in helicopter development as it enabled stable rotary flight.
For the invention of the autogyro and associated technologies, Cierva was awarded the 1932 Daniel Guggenheim Medal for aeronautics and the 1933 Elliot Cresson Medal for invention.
Aside of the aircraft in this hangar, there are several display cases lining the sides of it with more detailed information about Cierva and the autogyro.
Hangar 5 is rather less focussed than the first four. Here, there is a range of military and civil aircraft covering interwar, early jet and sport flying categories.
Upon entering this hangar, one is greeted by a pair of DeHavilland DH.89 Dragon Rapide aircraft, one in British registration that Francisco Franco himself flew in and one in Nationalist markings of the Spanish Civil War.
The early jets include a North American F-86 Sabre fighter, a Lockheed T-33 trainer and two variants of the domestically developed Hispano Aviación HA-200 Saeta trainers.
Two North American T-6 Texan trainers and a small selection of civil sport aircraft can also be found in Hangar 5.
Unlike the first three hangars, photography is quite easy in Hangars 4 and 5.
At the time of my visit, Hangars 6 and 7 were closed. However, through information in a leaflet I received upon entry to the museum and some internet searching, it seems that Hangar 6 contains the museum’s Dornier Do 24 flying boat and a pair of Heinkel He-111 bombers while Hangar 7 contains a display of scale models.
Paying a Visit
Museo del Aire’s size and scope are more than enough to justify a special trip to see it if you’re in the Madrid area and you’ll certainly see some unique subjects on display that you might not see otherwise. For example, less than 30 CASA C-207 Azor transport aircraft were made and only five are known to have escaped scrapping when the type was retired. Two of the world’s remaining Azors are here.
While I heartily recommend a visit to Museo del Aire, there are some things to be aware of before you go:
Despite its size and status as the official museum of the Spanish air force, Museo del Aire has some surprisingly limited hours. It pays to get there for opening time as they are open only from 10:00-14:00.
While it is not widely advertised, a number of websites I’ve visited indicate that the museum is closed completely through the month of August.
The museum has a decently stocked gift shop. However, you may want to take a snack with you or eat a big breakfast before you go as the museum has no proper restaurant, only a small café with very limited options, and there are no larger dining establishments in the immediate vicinity of the museum. There is enough walking around at this museum to build an appetite.
Museo del Aire is something of a challenge to get to given the size of the attraction and its importance.
If you go by road, it will involve a trip along the A5 motorway. The A5 is a six lane road connecting Madrid to the Alcorcon and Mostoles suburbs. There is not much in the way of signage for the museum along the road and save for a small watertower with “Museo del Aire” painted on it, the museum is not visible from the road. The museum has some free parking available if you go by car.
If you don’t have a car, the most common ways to get to the museum are by going to the Principe Pio train station and taking one of the green Intercity busses in the direction of Alcorcon and Mostoles, there’s four bus routes that run quite regularly along the A5 between the city and those suburbs.
If you go by bus and don’t speak Spanish, have “Museo del Aire” or “Escuela de Transmisiones” written on a piece of paper to show the driver where you want to go. The latter term is the name of the precise stop you want to get off at for the museum; based on my experience, it may be the better option to show the driver.
Once you get off the bus, there is a bridge over the A5 that you have to cross to get to the museum.
As an alternative to the bus, you can take the Madrid Metro train as far as Cuatro Vientos airport. Take the Line 10 in the direction of Puerta del Sur and get off at the Cuatro Vientos station.
The Metro option comes with the advantage that it lets you off on the museum side of the A5. However, getting to the museum itself will require a kilometre and a half or so of walking from the station.
Unfortunately, it seems the museum doesn’t have much of a presence of its own on the internet. Most of the web addresses I have located that are supposed to take one to the museum’s website are no longer functional.
However, I was able to locate the following links to reports written about the museum by others who paid visits to it prior to my own.
Between these links, which both show aircraft in the museum collection that I did not have access to when I visited, and what I have written here; you can get a very good idea of what there is to see there:
Established in Prague by the Czechoslovak Defense Ministry in 1918 for the purpose of repairing aircraft of the fledgling Czechoslovak air force, Letov was the first Czech aircraft company.
The company is credited with the design and production of the first indigenous Czech military aircraft, the Š-1 surveillance biplane, which first flew in 1920.
The company performed very strongly in the interwar period, producing a number of aircraft models in a wide variety of categories, both civil and military. As with all Czechoslovak companies, Letov spent the Second World War forced into the service of Hitler’s Germany. In this period of time, they served as repair depot for Luftwaffe aircraft and production site for military variants of the Junkers Ju 290.
The company briefly returned to making its own aircraft in the late 1940s, the LF-107 Luňák glider being the most significant of the company’s designs in that period.
From the start of the 1950s to the present, the company has focused on building components and structures for a number of other manufacturer’s aircraft.
Since 2000, Letov has been a subsidiary of French based Groupe Latecoere. Today, Letov makes components and structures for civilian aircraft from Airbus, Dassault and Embraer.
First flown in 1948, the Luňák was one of the last complete aircraft that Letov produced before being moved into construction of components for others.
Let’s spend some time with the LF-107 Luňák:
Acrobatics Above All
For a period of approximately ten years between the mid 1940s and mid 1950s, design and production of sailplanes enjoyed some popularity among several Czech aircraft companies. A number of those designs found great success internationally. The most recognised of Czech sailplanes from this period is the Let L-13 Blaník from 1956.
Letov’s LF-107 Luňák, which first flew in 1948, was a sleek, single seat glider of largely plywood construction that was designed as an aerobatics specialist suitable for both solo and formation performances as well as aerobatic training.
Design of the aircraft was started in 1947 by a team overseen by chief engineer, Vladimír Štros. The aircraft was designed with the intent that it could exceed the aerobatic abilities of the German made DFS Habicht sailplane which debuted in 1936 and was well respected in competitive circles.
Because of the Luňák’s projected high performance, Letov was able to engage the interest and support of the Czechoslovak military at a very early design stage. The air force was looking for a high performance sailplane with which they could test the fitness of their fighter pilots in aerobatics.
The prototype showed very good qualities during its maiden flight in June of 1948. Test pilot, Jan Anderle, reported the aircraft and its performance to be flawless during that flight. A second flight was performed the following month in front of delegates from the ministries of defense and transport as well as a number of military and civilian pilots. On that flight, Anderle put the prototype through a series of aerobatic figures that demonstrated well the agility and speed of the aircraft as well as the robustness of the design. Authorisation for series production of the aircraft was given shortly after this second flight.
Even before production began, the Luňák prototype was catching eyes internationally. In 1948 and 1949, it appeared at competitions in Poland and Switzerland and turned many heads with all aspects of its design and flight.
While Letov had envisioned a production run of around 200 of the type, rising Cold War tensions led to only 75 Luňáks being made in total before the company was ordered to cease production and was charged with producing components and structures for other aircraft companies who were producing Soviet designed MiG-15, MiG-19 and MiG-21 fighter aircraft for the Czechoslovak military.
Aside of the baseline LF-107 model for civilian use, a small number with simplifications made to the design were built for the Czechoslovak military and designated VT-7. Additionally, a derivative of the LF-107 known as the XLF-207 Laminar was built to experiment with laminar flow wings and was one of the first sailplanes to be equipped with them.
The Kite Aloft
The word, luňák, translates into English as “kite”. Kites are predatory birds known for their mastery of both soaring and agile flight; they are also known for bursts of high speed when diving on prey. It was a very appropriate name for an aerobatics sailplane that had a maximum speed of 300 kilometres per hour.
The aircraft’s agility and speed led it to be nicknamed “Engineless Fighter” and similar by some people.
From the point of view of the experienced pilot, there was a lot to like in the Luňák beyond the aforementioned agility and speed.
The cockpit was spacious and the fighter style bubble canopy that covered it gave the pilot an excellent view all around the aircraft. In the style of fighter aircraft of the day, the canopy opened by sliding backward. This feature allowed the aircraft to be flown with the canopy open if the pilot wished.
The Luňák was known for being very responsive on the controls and , in spite of its aerobatic design, was appreciated for being quite stable and controlable in most aspects of flight.
Owing to its aerobatic optimised features and single seat cockpit, the Luňák was not considered a suitable aircraft for less experienced pilots.
In spite of the small number produced, the Luňák found some popularity outside of its mother country. Small numbers were exported to Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and Romania. Outside of former Eastern Bloc countries, examples of the type are known to have flown in America, Germany, Switzerland and the UK.
By the early 1970s, the arrival of more modern and efficient sailplane designs resulted in a majority of Luňáks being placed in storage or being destroyed in one way or another after they were replaced with newer types. During the 1990s, a renewed interest in the type and vintage sailplanes saw some Luňáks restored to airworthy status.
It is perhaps the best testament to the type’s qualities that one of the world’s few remaining Luňáks won the British national aerobatics championships in 1999, 2000 and 2001.
The Luňák Today
With a production total of less than one hundred, it should perhaps come as no surprise that there are only a very small handful of Luňáks left in the world regardless of if they are in museums or airworthy.
It would appear, as of early 2018, that the fewer than ten remaining airworthy examples of the type are to be found in the Czech Republic, Germany, Great Britain and Slovakia. It would also appear that very few made it into museums, so your chances of seeing a Luňák in any form could be very slim indeed.
There isn’t much English language information out there about the Luňák. However, these Czech language links responded acceptably to online translator functions and can give you some further reading:
This is just a short post to bring your attention to a news article that recently appeared in the English language section of the Radio Prague news website.
The article contains an interview with Tom Doležal, the founder of the Free Czechoslovak Air Force website and expert on matters of Czech and Slovak participation in the Royal Air Force during WWII.
In the interview, Mr. Doležal recounts how his father and a number of other former Czechoslovak RAF pilots carried out the world’s first triple hijacking in order to defect from post 1948 Communist Czechoslovakia.
The Communist government was very fearful of the former RAF men, as they had been exposed to western influences, and went to great lengths to marginalize them from society and erase them from the history books: