Museo del Aire – Madrid, Spain

Wings at Four Winds 

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The helicopter collection in Hangar 4 of the museum.

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:

Outdoor Displays 

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Prototype of the domestically developed CASA C-101 Aviojet trainer.

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.

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The Dassault Mirage III was a fighter type of French origins once used by the Spanish air force.

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.

Indoor Displays 

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The British designed Bristol F2B fighter on display in Hangar 1.

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.

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Looking into Hangar 2.

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.

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Some occupants of Hangar 3.

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.

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Cierva C.12 autogyro in Hangar 4.

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.

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One of a pair of DeHavilland Dragon Rapide aircraft in Hangar 5.

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

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HA-200 Saeta trainer in Hangar 5.

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 mueum 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.

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Dassault Mirage F.1 fighter with the museum café in the background.

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.

Learning More 

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Sikorsky H-19 in Hangar 4.

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:

https://www.lowapproach.be/museums/spain/museo-del-aire-cuatro-vientos/

http://www.ruudleeuw.com/cuatro_vientos04.htm

http://www.sbap.be/museum/cuatrovientos/cuatrovientos.htm

This link will take you to Madrid’s multilingual tourism portal. Through the museums section of this site, you can find more detailed information about the museum’s hours of operation and so forth:

https://www.esmadrid.com/

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Dassault/Dornier Alpha Jet – A Tutor with Teeth

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Alpha Jet E of the French air force at Čáslav, Czech Republic in 2017.

A New Trainer for a New Generation

The early 1950s showed that dedicated jet powered trainers were required to properly and safely train pilots for jet aircraft. The performance gap between piston engine trainers and first generation jets was simply too great to prepare new pilots for the jets they’d be flying. First generation jets did not tend to have dedicated two seat variations for type specific training and so a new pilot’s first flight in a high performance jet fighter was solo in the early jet age. This resulted in many accidents and unacceptably high attrition in both aircraft and trainee pilots. Thus the idea of the dedicated jet trainer was born.

First generation jet trainers included the Fouga Magister from France, Aero L-29 Delfín from Czechoslovakia, Cessna T-37 from America, Aermacchi MB-326 from Italy, PZL TS-11 Iskra from Poland, BAC Jet Provost from Great Britain, Canadair CT-114 Tutor from Canada and Soko G-2 Galeb from Yugoslavia.

By the early/mid 1960s, the increased performance of second generation jet fighters had created the need for a second generation of jet trainers to match them. An additional demand on the second generation of jet trainers was an increased capability with regards to weapons. While a number of first generation training jets did possess some limited weapons capability and were even capable of light attack in some cases, many of the second generation trainers would be expected to have a weapons capability that would allow them to easily transition between the trainer and light attack roles.

The Dassault/Dornier Alpha Jet, which first flew in 1973, is an example of this second generation of jet trainers.

The Franco-German Tango 

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Another angle on the Alpha Jet E at Čáslav in 2017.

The 1950s and 1960s marked the start of cooperation between France and Germany, particularly with regards to military equipment development, that continues to the present.

In the aviation context, prior to the Alpha Jet, the relationship had borne fruit in the form of the Breguet Atlantic maritime patrol aircraft and the Transall C-160 tactical transport aircraft.

The Alpha Jet story began in 1967 when France and West Germany entered talks about creating a jointly produced aircraft to fulfil both nations’ need for a new trainer to replace their Fouga Magister and Lockheed T-33 fleets. However, from the start, there were some differences of opinion between the nations regarding exactly what the aircraft would encompass in the scope of its roles.

France wanted a simple jet trainer that was easy to maintain and attractive to the  export market while Germany wanted a light attack capability incorporated into the design as the Luftwaffe wanted to replace their fleet of Fiat G.91 aircraft as well as their Magister fleet. At the suggestion of Germany, it was ultimately agreed that the aircraft would be designed in two distinct versions to accomodate the desires of both nations.

There was  also some disagreement about the engine for the aircraft early on. While both nations specified that the aircraft would be capable of high subsonic speeds, France wished to use the domestically designed SNECMA Turbomeca Larzac turbofan while Germany leaned towards the American made General Electric J-85 turbojet. Using the American engine was not acceptable to France as it would allow America to exercise some control over the exportability of the aircraft. With France refusing to finance the purchase of American engines, Germany agreed to use the Larzac in their version of the aircraft.

The design that would eventually become the Alpha Jet, was put forth by a team made up of the Breguet, Dassault and Dornier companies. Initially known as the TA501, the design was a mixture of existing Breguet and Dornier concepts and competed for the Franco-German trainer requirement against designs from another Franco-German team, SNIAS/MBB, and a Dutch/German proposal from VFW/Fokker. All three aircraft were designed around a pair of Larzac engines.

The TA501 was announced as the winning design in July of 1970.

Through 1971 and 1972, the foundations for building the new aircraft were laid and prototypes for both the French and German variations of the aircraft were constructed.

The French and German prototypes had their maiden flights within months of each other, with the French aircraft flying first in October of 1973 and the German version in January of 1974.

It is also worthy of note that Dassault merged with Breguet in 1971 and the Alpha Jet became the first aircraft to be built under the Dassault-Breguet name.

Taking on the Field 

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Former Luftwaffe Alpha Jet A in Red Bull fleet colours. Seen at Pardubice, Czech Republic in 2017.

The Alpha Jet was one of the first second generation trainers of its class to take to the air and enter production and the first of western design.

While it was beaten into the air by the Aero L-39 Albatros from Czechoslovakia; it did have a distinct though narrow head start on its primary western rival, the Hawker Siddeley (later, BAE Systems) Hawk trainer which first flew in August of 1974.

Though it flew before the Hawk, the British aircraft entered service before the Alpha Jet. This should not come as a surprise as the Alpha Jet was a multinational project while the Hawk was fully British. The logistics of Alpha Jet production were more complex as the workshare was split between Dassault-Breguet in France (front and centre fuselage), Dornier in West Germany (rear fuselage, tail and wings) and SABCA in Belgium (nose and wing flaps).

While the Alpha Jet and Hawk have been frequently compared to each other over the years, they really are very evenly matched machines. When looking at the lists of user nations for the two types, it becomes quite clear that historical diplomatic ties to the aircrafts’ respective country of origin may have had more to do with which aircraft a nation chose than aircraft performance did. The Alpha Jet did well with nations in northern Africa that were former French colonies and kept strong ties to France while many nations who chose the Hawk had stronger historic ties to Great Britain.

The Alpha Jet had certain advantages over the hawk including a better thrust to weight ratio, higher cruising speed, higher operational ceiling and a stronger airframe.

The Alpha Jet’s high set wing also allowed it to carry some larger weapons and other underwing stores that there was inadequate ground clearance for under the low set wing of the Hawk. The Alpha Jet’s ability to carry the large French made Exocet anti-ship missile is one example of this.

The Hawk does have the advantages of longevity, Alpha Jet production ceased in 1991 while Hawk production continues to the present, and higher capacity for upgrading. However, the Alpha Jet has done well for itself on second hand markets in refurbished forms. Ex-Luftwaffe Alpha Jet A variants were particularly popular with second hand users after Germany retired and sold off their fleet through the 1990s.

Additionally, former military Alpha Jets have found favour with a number of civilian operators as either aerobatic display aircraft or in the Aggressor role in training air combat tactics to military fighter pilots.

Baring the Teeth  

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Former Luftwaffe Alpha Jet A in Red Bull colours at Pardubice in 2016.

When it comes to sending the Alpha Jet into battle, Nigeria has most certainly been the aircraft’s biggest user.

Extensive use of Nigerian Alpha Jets was made during the First Liberian Civil War which lasted from 1989 to 1997.

Since 2013, Nigerian Alpha Jets have been used against insurgent actions of the Boko Haram terrorist group which is active in the northern regions of Nigeria as well as areas of neighboring countries.

During the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s, Alpha Jets of the Qatari air force were used for coastal patrol to protect against potential Iraqi beach invasion.

Moroccan Alpha Jets were used in the counter insurgency role during the Western Sahara War which lasted from 1975 to 1991.

When fitted for attack roles, the Alpha Jet is able to carry a respectable range of guided or unguided weaponry under the wings as well as American made AIM-9 Sidewinder or French made R.550 Magic air-to-air missiles for self defense. It can also be fitted with 27mm Mauser or 30mm DEFA cannon pods on the fuselage centreline. A reconnaissance pod was another option for mounting on the centreline.

Some variants of the aircraft are fitted with laser targeting equipment thus allowing them to designate targets for other aircraft carrying laser guided bombs.

The Alpha Jet Family 

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Portuguese air force Alpha Jet A seen at Zeltweg, Austria in 2013.

Alpha Jet production lasted from 1973 to 1991 and a total 512 were made with more than half being exported.

Generally speaking, the aircraft family can be divided into three generations:

First Generation

The first generation consisted quite simply of the original A and E models built to German and French standards respectively.

Owing to the German desire for light attack, the Alpha Jet A was a more complex aircraft than the E model from a standpoint of avionics.

Externally, the most immediately visible difference between the two models was the nose. The A model had a smooth pointed nose while the E model had a blunt nose with strakes on either side.

The first generation also included Belgium’s Alpha Jet B model, though it was a standard E model when it entered service.

Second Generation

Three models of the aircraft represent the second generation: MS1, MS2 and Alpha Jet 2

The MS1 was the designation given to the Egyptian export version of the E model trainer. These aircraft were assembled in Egypt from kits supplied by Dassault-Breguet.

The MS2 was an attack optimised version based on the MS1. It included many improvements to avionics as well as more powerful engines.

The Alpha Jet 2 was a ground attack optimised version of the E model that incorporated aspects of the MS2.

Third Generation

This generation never really existed beyond paper concepts. It included the Alpha Jet ATS and Lancier variants.

The ATS (Advanced Trainer System) was to be a fully modernised version with full glass cockpits and other modern avionics.

Lancier was to be the attack optimised variation and was to have included all the upgrades of the ATS version plus an attack radar.

Alpha Jet B+

In 2000, Belgium initiated an upgrade program for their Alpha Jet B fleet.

This upgrade included modern flight controls and heads up display along with a modernised navigation system among other improvements.

In the late 2000s, France had a number of their E models upgraded to the B+ standard.

The Alpha Jet Today 

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Another Portuguese Alpha Jet A at Zeltweg in 2013.

The Alpha Jet has flown in the air forces of 12 countries and has found its way onto civilian registers in Austria, Canada, Germany, Great Britain and the USA.

It has served as the mount for military demonstration teams from Egypt, France and Portugal.

In civilian service, it is used for aeobatics displays, but is also highly valued as a platform for research and test flights as well as an aggressor aircraft for modern military fighter pilots to fly against in air combat training.

As of late 2017, the Alpha Jet continues to serve most of the military operators who selected it. However, the type’s European military users are seriously considering replacing their Alpha Jets or retiring them without replacement.

Whether in civil or military hands, it looks like the Alpha Jet will still be taking to the air for a while yet. How many chances are left for the public to see the type perfom is another matter entirely.

Learning More

This link will take you to a brief history of the Alfa Jet on Dassault Aviation’s web site:

https://www.dassault-aviation.com/en/passion/aircraft/military-dassault-aircraft/alpha-jet/

This link will take you to the Alpha Jet page of the Red Bull fleet:

http://www.flyingbulls.at/en/fleet/alpha-jet/

This link will take you to a photo essay of Alpha Jet based demonstration teams of the Portuguese air force (Some great pictures here!):

https://maptia.com/joseantunes/stories/20-years-of-alpha-jet

This link will take you to a short article about the arrival of civil registered Alpha Jets in Australia and their intended use as aggressor aircraft there:

https://downunderaviationnews.wordpress.com/new-alpha-jets-providing-operations-support-for-royal-australian-air-force-training/

While slightly dated, this page will give you some information about Belgian Alpha Jets:

http://www.air-passion.be/fas/report/alpha%20jet/article.htm

This link is to an article about Nigerian air force Alpha Jet operations during the First Liberian Civil War:

https://beegeagle.wordpress.com/2012/08/30/ecomog-air-operations-during-the-liberian-civil-war-a-brief-overview/