Aero L-39 Updated
Civilianized L-39 in flight
Aero Vodochody, the Czechoslovakian/Czech Republic aircraft manufacturer celebrated their 100th anniversary of existence in 2019, making it one of the oldest surviving aircraft manufacturers in the world. The company boasts that they’ve built some 11,000 aircraft over that century, providing aircraft to over 60 air forces and many more civilian concerns.
Aero L-29 Delfin
The company is quite successful in the military jet trainer market, beginning with the in-house-designed Aero L-29 Delfin, and then the L-39 Albatros. In 1964, the company began design work on the successor of their (already successful) L-29 Delfins. This became known as the L-39 Albatros, a tandem twin-seat trainer with a modern ejection seat and a new turbofan jet engine, the Ivchenko AI-25 turbofan engine of Russian design. The second Albatros prototype made the type’s first flight on November 4, 1969, and soon this model of Czechoslovakian design took over the reins of most of the Warsaw Pact countries’ jet training needs, as older L-29s were phased out.
Originally an advanced trainer in the 1970s through the 1990s, the type was adapted as a weapons trainer, target tug and a light attack aircraft too. Production of the L-39 ended in 1996. However, newer versions, called the L-59, L-139 and ultimately the L-159 were designed and produced. Main improvements to the original aircraft included Western jet engines and avionics, as well as increased stores capacity and utility. Some effort was put into simply upgrading existing airframes too, such as the 40 L-39ZA/ARTs upgraded by Elbit Systems for the Royal Thai Air Force.
Aero L-39 NG in flight… photo (c) Aero Vodochody Aviation
In 2014, the L-39NG program was announced by Aero Vodochody. Improvements and modernization are readily apparent. Now powered by a Williams FJ44-4M engine, it adds a redesigned cockpit with a heads-up display, new avionics containing glass panel displays and night vision compatibility, plus a new, single piece canopy which improves visibility. By September, 2015, the L-39NG technology demonstrator (called the L-39CW) completed its development work. On December 22, 2018, the first pre-production L-39NG trainer made its first flight. On December 9, 2019, a second L-39NG took to the skies.
Stage 1 L-39NG versions will be converted from existing airframes, while Stage 2 aircraft will be newly-built aircraft from the ground up. The air forces of Senegal and the Czech Republic have ordered L-39NGs, as well as the Portuguese company Skytech, the American company RSW Aviation, and another American company, DRAKEN International. Some of these orders include both –NG and –CW versions.
An important opportunity for the L-39 series to extend its’ longevity isn’t just with new aircraft, but with retired military jets too. There are a few hundred L-39s, mainly the –C trainer version, that are privately owned by civilians. Most are in the U.S., where the type has become an economical warbird jet to operate (if there ever was one!). They have their own race class at Reno’s National Championship Air Races, and there are multiple civilian airshow teams that perform in the U.S. and Europe too.
Here’s a breakdown of most of the L-39/L-159 variants:
L-39X 7 prototype and static test airframes, two of which never flew
L-39C Albatros 2260 standard trainers with 2 underwing pylons, Ivchenko IA-25 engine (Photo of a civilianized version)
L-39CM/L-39M1 Modernized versions used by Slovakia and Ukrainian Air Forces
L-39V target tug version, 9 produced
L-39ZO Weapons trainer with 4 pylons, 337 built
L-39ZA Upgraded L-39ZOs with stronger landing gear and expanded weapons storage, 208 converted (Photo of a civilianized version)
L-39ZA/ART Thai Air Force version, 40 built
L-139 One prototype with a Garrett TFE731 engine fitted (Now in civilian operations)
Above: L-159A single seat attack version. Below: L-159T1 modernized trainer
L-159A ALCA and L-159B ALCA Upgraded aircraft with newer avionics, weapons systems and Honeywell ITEC F124 engine
L-159E HONEY BADGER Single-seat L-159 version for DRAKEN International, acting as adversary trainers, threat simulation and chase aircraft, close to two dozen airframes could be converted to this configuration.
L-39NG Stage 1 aircraft are existing airframes fitted with a FJ44 engine and new avionics (called the L-39CW), and a Martin-Baker “zero-zero” ejection seat. The Stage 2 aircraft are new-build airframes with the same new engine and avionics, plus a new, wet wing design that does away with the wing tip tanks. (Image from Aero Vodochody).
With an operational lifespan of over fifty years (1969 through 2020), the Aero L-39 Albatros has been a familiar sight at both military and civilian air fields. It has been a large part of Aero Vodochody’s success for half of the company’s existence too. With newly-overhauled and -built airframes being rolled out over the next few years, the light jet should be earning its keep as a trainer, attack jet and sport aircraft for another few decades too.