Sometimes things just don’t work out – G-CCWB, Aero L-39ZA Albatros, IWM


Sometimes you make plans – big plans – sometimes you take chances, and they come off; and sometimes it all goes awry. This is just what happened to Aero-Vodochody L-39ZA Albatros, formerly G-CCWB, seen here in Hangar 2 at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford. First, a little scene-setting…

When the Warsaw Pact was at the height of its powers, it distributed the production of some aircraft to the various ‘satellite’ countries of the Soviet Union. For example, the majority of the production run of the Antonov An-2 utility biplane was undertaken at WSK PZL-Mielec, in Poland, then distributed around the WarPac countries as required. Similarly, when the Warsaw Pact needed a primary jet trainer, the Czech aircraft manufacturer, Aero-Vodochody, built the first generation L-29 Delfin for all the Pact countries that needed it. The Delfin was a simple, straightforward aircraft, but one that was hardly suited to weapons training, so when the time came for a new generation of jet trainer, Aero was tasked with producing something of higher performance, and greater utility.

Mr Jan Vlček, the Chief Design Engineer of Aero-Vodochody, chose a straight wing with only a minimal amount of taper, when most jet trainers of the 1960s had a moderate degree of sweep, and coupled that with the reliable Russian-designed Ivechenko AI-25TL turbofan of 3,792 lbf, to produce a very handsome aircraft called the L-39 Albatros (strangely, this never had a NATO reporting name assigned to it). The prototype’s first flight was on 4th November, 1968, and full-scale production was underway by 1972. There were the (by then) usual configuration of tandem cockpits for the pupil and instructor, which the rear (instructor’s) canopy being higher than the pupil’s. Trailing link undercarriage – as used by many trainers, back as far as the Fokker S-11 Instructor – made for easier landings, and there are twin air brakes, aft of the wing. The wing tip stations are normally occupied by 26 gallon fuel tanks. The initial users of the L-39 Albatros were the then-USSR, Czechoslovakia (as it was), and East Germany. Pretty soon, these were followed by the air forces of: Bulgaria, Rumania, Afghanistan, Chad, Libya, Iraq, Thailand, Nigeria, Estonia, Kyrgyzstan, Syria, Nigeria, Uganda, Slovakia, Bangladesh, Algeria and Angola. In fact, over 30 air forces have used the L-39, and the 2,800 plus military examples have accumulated more than 4,000,000 flight hours. Even the Lithuanian Air Force has ONE example!

There were three main variants, the L-39C two-seat trainer, the L-39ZO – two-seat armed weapons trainer, and the L-39ZA a dedicated close-support, attack aircraft (developed from the -ZO), with advanced avionics, a strengthened wing spar, and beefier undercarriage . The L-39ZA is quite a capable light strike machine, in that it has provision for a ‘conformal’ pod on the centreline containing a Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-23L twin-barrelled 23 mm cannon; the 180 rounds of ammunition for this are held inside the fuselage. There are four other stores stations, able to carry a total of 2,425lb of free-fall bombs, 57mm or 130mm rocket pods and air-to-ground missiles. The outer two stores pylons are capable of carrying K-13 ‘AA-2A ‘Atoll’ or R-60 Vympel ‘AA-8 Aphid’ air-to-air missiles. Given the relatively low power of the Ivchenko engine, the performance is quite respectable – initial climb, 4,130 ft/min, maximum speed, 466 mph, and range on internal plus external fuel of 995 miles.

Many countries of the former Warsaw Pact are slowly divesting themselves of their L-39 fleets, as newer generation aircraft are acquired. These have been sold-on to countries in the Third Word, e.g. the 910th Air Training Regiment of the Vietnam People’s Air Force is equipped with the L-39C. The L-39ZA is still in front-line use by a number of countries – the Bulgarian Air Force had some at Dolna Mitroblia in July of this year, likewise the Czech Air Force at Pardubic and Prerov. The Thai Air Force had them at Udon Thani, and with the 401st Squadron, 4th Wing at Don Muang, as well.

There has also been a rush to acquire the Albatros by many private pilots in the USA and elsewhere who want an affordable ex-military jet, as well as those who wanted to set up a ‘fly in a jet fighter’ type of operation, or offer military style training, such as the ‘Airborne Tactical Advantage Co’. There are several civilian jet display teams using the L-39, including the Florida-based ‘Black Diamond Jet Team’ with four Albatros and one CT-33 Silver Star aircraft, and there will also be a ‘Jet Class’ – with many L-39s – at the National Championship Air Races at Reno, Nevada on 11 – 15th September, this year. All this interest has given rise to some former WarPac countries selling ‘job lots’ to warbird dealers in the United States, who have them sold them on all over the world; and this is where G-CCWB comes in….

Romania is a country with a fairly weak economy, even with EU support, and has consistently sold batches of L-39 aircraft, sometimes to the U.S. specialist Worldwide Warbirds Inc. of Phoenix, Arizona, who have reconditioned and sold more L-39s than anyone else. They have what is known as the ‘Buyer Assistance Program’ which is designed to make things easy for buyers (especially foreign ones). Worldwide will perform the acceptance flight, ferry the aircraft for maintenance, relocate it for dis-assembly and finally pack it for shipping. It is this process which probably happened to N404ZA (L-39ZA, ex-Romanian A F, built 1982, # 132036). In 2004, a rather shadowy outfit called Free Spirit Charters, from Bristol, UK acquired the aircraft and had it placed on the British Register as G-CCWB. It appeared in Hangar 2 at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford in April, 2004 in an unpainted state, save for its registration on the fuselage. This is where I photographed it; and there it stayed, until a note appeared on its Civil Aviation Authority records on the 22nd February, 2010, ‘PWFU’ – ‘Permanently Withdrawn From Use’. By July, 2010, the aircraft had been towed over to the south side of the airfield (away from the public), and left out in the open. The latest piece of news from an observer of the Duxford scene is that by October, 2012, it had been classified as ‘abandoned’.

I am uncertain what Free Spirit intended doing with its L-39ZA. It may be that they wanted to undertake jet training. It did occur to me that some Third World country might want a perfectly viable light strike aircraft, and the company thought of selling it on – but we shall never know.

The late G-CCWB, an Albatros around somebody’s neck!

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