Flying The L-39 Albatross

by Larry E. Nazimek

Many of us have thought about flying, and possibly owning, a surplus military jet, but even for those who can afford it, there are many considerations that tend to be “turn-offs.” Questions arise, such as: “Where can I get the training, as well as advice on purchasing and owning one?” While there have been places that could meet the need, they were far from the Midwest, until Gauntlet Warbirds was established at Aurora Municipal Airport (ARR) in Sugar Grove, Illinois, in 2005.

Gauntlet’s fleet includes an L-39 Albatross, two SNJs, a YAK-52, an N2S Stearman, an Extra 300, and a Decathlon. These aircraft provide training, whether you simply want a flight for the experience or a complete check out and certification. For those interested in ownership and upkeep of warbirds, Gauntlet is also happy to help.

FAA safety seminars are often held at FBOs and flight schools, and many are held at Gauntlet. A primary characteristic of the seminars held there is that they are for the crowd that was attracted to aviation for reasons other than a desire to learn endless FARs, take tests and checkrides, and fly straight and level on autopilot. Furthermore, the instructors wear military flight suits and not starched white shirts with neckties.

The L-39 Albatross

One of Gauntlet’s popular seminars is about the L-39 Albatross. Chief Pilot Greg Morris delves into the training, ownership, characteristics, and systems of the aircraft. Naturally, as more pilots, from those with a casual interest to those seriously considering ownership, hear about the plane, they want to know more about it. There are definitely good reasons for the L-39’s increased popularity.

If one is thinking about buying a warbird, the L-39 has a lot going for it. The first, and most obvious factor (whether one is talking about planes, cars, or…) is appearance. Morris points out that the plane is a “trainer that looks like a fighter.” This also means that it’s like owning a fighter for the price of a trainer.

The L-39 is mostly used for flight training, but some models are also used for training in weapons delivery, just as the U.S. Air Forces uses the Northrop AT-38B Talon. In addition, some third world countries use the L-39 as a light attack aircraft, such as Uganda, which had offered Morris a job training their pilots. (He turned down the offer. A decision he does not regret.)

A major deterrent to operating a jet is the amount of fuel it burns, but in comparing the L-39 to a T-28, Morris explains that, “…the L-39 burns fuel; the T-28 burns parts.” In other words, the operating costs are on a par.

There are about 2,800 L-39s operated by various air forces, and Morris estimates that there are some 300 in the U. S. Aero Vodochody, a Czech company, manufactures the L-39, which is powered by a single AI-25TL turbine engine, which is made in the Ukraine.

The availability of parts is a major consideration in buying a foreign military aircraft, but Morris explained that they are readily available through their Slovak outlet. If you have the money, they have the parts.

The cost of any aircraft varies with market conditions. Morris says that the L-39 can now be purchased in the U.S., used, for about $170,000. A major factor in the cost of any aircraft is the time remaining on the engine before it must be replaced, but for the L-39, Morris advises that when a new engine is needed, that it is best to buy another aircraft, instead of a new engine, since new engines are very expensive. If he had to get another aircraft for this reason, Morris said: “I’d see which plane had the better airframe, and if the one I’m flying was the better one, I’d swap engines.” Engine changes in the L-39 are relatively easy, as the entire tail section can be removed for maintenance. As for the aircraft that would not be flown, “…I’d keep it in the hangar for parts.”

Morris can give you the cost for just about any part on the L-39. As for the annual inspection, “Expect to pay about $10,000.” It’s a plane that you don’t simply “own;” you “support” it.

I flew with Morris to see what it was like to fly the Albatross. Morris has a passion for instructing and has little in common with those who are in it to simply accumulate flying hours. Testament to this, Morris was recently awarded a USAF contract to provide flight training at the USAF Test Pilot School in his SNJ.

The L-39 is the only jet used in Russian pilot training, so its performance is between that of the T-37 and T-38. It’s definitely not supersonic, and the speed brakes automatically deploy at .78 mach.

One of the first things I noticed is the excellent visibility from the rear seat…something that is best appreciated by those who have flown other aircraft where this was not the case. The rear seat is higher than the front, comparable to the arrangement of the T-45. When coming in for a landing, with the higher attitude, the back-seater cannot see the runway directly ahead, but he can get a rather good view from the sides, thus allowing safe back-seat landings. (Worked for me.)

Morris wrote an “L-39 Procedures Manual” for Gauntlet Warbirds, but it clearly states that it is for the plane they operate, N992RT, and there may be differences between it and other L-39s on the market.

Naturally, a parachute is required, and the four-point harness for strapping in the seat is very different from American planes.

The various switches are also different from what we are accustomed to seeing. Some of the writing in the cockpit is in the Cyrillic alphabet, but this is not a problem, as long as the operator knows what everything is for. The gauges, many of which are original, may express quantities in kg, but as long as the pilot knows what is good and what isn’t, this is no problem. The flaps are positioned with three push buttons for the up, 25 degrees, and full down positions. Lights next to the buttons serve as flap indicator positions.

The cockpit indication of the landing gear being down and locked is three green lights. In addition, small striped rods (one in the nose and one on each wing) raise up approximately 3 inches, something that is common with most Eastern Bloc planes. When the wheels are up, the cockpit indication is three red lights, something American pilots are not accustomed to seeing.

The attitude indicator takes a bit getting used to. While it indicates pitch like other planes, when in a bank, instead of the attitude indicator banking, the miniature aircraft symbol is what banks.

Regarding steering, the manual states: “Steering on the ground is one of the biggest challenges in the L-39 checkout, unless the student has flown aircraft with Russian-style steering systems before.” This is by no means an exaggeration. The plane does not have nose gear steering, so differential braking is used, but the way this is accomplished is a skill that must be mastered. Instead of toe brakes, braking is accomplished by pushing a rudder pedal full forward while squeezing the brake handle, a metal device on the control stick. The radius of the turn depends largely on the amount of pressure applied to the hand control. When one is in a turn and the brake handle is released, the plane will not automatically go straight, since the nose wheel free castors and does not automatically center itself. Braking straight ahead is accomplished with the pedals, even while squeezing the brake handle. This system cannot be too bad, however, because the Russians have been using it for many years. Morris likes its simplicity.

Unfortunately, this same steering system is used on the takeoff roll until the rudder becomes effective at higher speeds. Naturally, if there is a lot of braking used to maintain directional control, this braking lengthens the takeoff roll. For formation takeoffs, the lead pilot must use reduced power in order to compensate for brake applications on the part of the wingman.

Pilots must be very aware of the slow spool up time for the engine. In other words, when the throttle moves forward, the pilot must wait for the thrust to increase, unlike a piston engine; it’s far from instantaneous, something that T-37 pilots can relate to. In order to compensate for this, speed brakes are deployed when coming in for a landing, thus requiring the engine to be kept at a higher setting, so if a go-around is required, retracting the speed brakes will provide a boost while waiting for the power to increase.

Pilots must understand the engine’s characteristics. While the engine provides 3,800 lbs. of thrust at full power, reducing the power to 99.6% for cruise gives you only 2,800 lbs. At the top of the range, reducing the RPMs 7% accounts for a loss of 25% of the thrust.

It’s a great plane to fly, with excellent maneuverability and roll rate, and the perfect aircraft for the frustrated fighter pilot. Hard turns can be easily made with full power as the wings buffet…a great welcome feeling if you’ve done it before, but not for a long time. If you simply want to cruise straight and level, there are many planes to choose from that are more cost-effective for that purpose.

The L-39 is also a great plane in the landing pattern, provided you fly it properly. It likes 120 knots on final approach, and while the pitch attitude may appear low, the nose is actually well above the horizon. Pilots should never try to stretch the glide by bringing the nose up, as the airspeed will decrease rapidly. If at any time (except for when you are about to touch down), the airspeed gets below 110 knots, or the power gets below 70%, a go-around should be initiated immediately by increasing the power to full and retracting the speedbrakes. Aerobraking is used as much as possible for full stop landings, since brakes cost approximately $3,600 per wheel.

Training Requirements

Morris has trained many pilots in the L-39, and the checkout requires about 10 hours of flying, depending on the pilot’s experience. He recommends 3 hours in the books for every hour of flying.

Recent changes for FAR 61.58 require pilots of “Experimental-Exhibition Jets” (EEJs) to have an annual checkride in order to carry passengers. If you fly more than one EEJ, you need only complete this checkride in one of them. This checkride can only be given by an FAA Experimental Aircraft Examiner (EAE) or an FAA Pilot Proficiency Examiner (PPE). Greg Morris is a PPE in the L-39 and the bulkier L-29 Delfin.

One might assume that Morris is a former military fighter pilot, but such is not the case; his eyes kept him out. He’s only 30 years old, but has been flying since he was 14. Morris got into aerobatic flying in college and did very well in competition. He currently has a low-level aerobatic waiver in the L-39 and T-6/SNJ. His 4,000-plus hours includes time in the FM-2 Wildcat, P-51 Mustang, Extra 300, Su-29, Pitts S-2B and S-2C, Lazer Z-200, Cap-10B, Great Lakes Biplane, T-34, T-6, T-28, Ju-52, and he is rated in the L-29 Delfin and L-39 Albatros.

Morris’ checkride, however, will only allow you to fly non-paying passengers. To put this into perspective, if you are a pilot, you can go to Gauntlet Warbirds to get a flight and it is considered training. If you are not a pilot, however, you cannot pay for a ride in the L-39; you must settle for a ride in one of their non-jet aircraft, but these are fun, too.

Many people feel that American adults should be able to make a well-informed decision for themselves about the safety of these aircraft and decide for themselves if they want to fly in one. Consequently, an effort is underway to allow exemptions for “living history flight experiences” for carrying passengers for compensation and hire.

If this passes, then Gauntlet anticipates a significant increase in business. Morris will then “…buy another aircraft.”

For additional information on Gauntlet Warbirds, go to http://www.gauntletwarbirds.com/, or call 630-999-2044.

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