The L-39 Albatros is a simple and efficient jet fighter, designed as a jet trainer and light attack aircraft.
In the 1960s, the Czechoslovakian manufacturer Aero Vodochody was booming. Hundreds of aircraft were produced each year, mainly L-29 Delfin training jets for almost all the air forces of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union’s client countries. But the L-29, as successful as it was, was beginning to show its age in the face of new aircraft coming on line. And Aero could not rest on its newly acquired laurels. So, in the mid-1960s, at the request of the Czechoslovak government and under the eye of the Soviet authorities, Aero Vodochody began to work on the development of a replacement. In November 1968, the new aircraft made its first flight. It is named C-39 in Czechoslovakia, and L-39 Albatros for export.
The L-39 is a simple, robust and economical aircraft. It receives two straight wings and a classic vertical stabilizer, the two ailerons being placed towards the bottom of the vertical stabilizer (and not at the top, as on the L-29). The aerodynamics obtained is good, in spite of some difficulties around the air inlets, which must be reworked several times. A great effort is made around the motorization. The Czechoslovak engineers seek in particular to improve the performances compared to the L-29. To do this, they called on the Ivtchienko firm, which provided a derivative of its Al-25 turbojet engine (already fitted to the Yak-40 transport and the Polish PZL M-15). This engine, the Al-25-TI (finally produced by the Ukrainian Progess) is twice as powerful as the small Motorlet of the L-29. It contributes to make the Albatros much more powerful and to increase its carrying capacity. The two air inlets are mounted behind the fuselage and above the wing, in order to reduce the risks of ingestion of foreign objects in the engines.
Two external cylindrical tanks are fixed to the wingtips. An APU allows the L-39 to be completely autonomous on the ground and not to depend on an auxiliary unit (the old models of fighters, in particular the MiG-15, had to be assisted with the starting by this kind of apparatus). A Czechoslovakian firm designed the ejection seats (the L-29 already had them, but all the specimens were not always equipped with them). And of course, the L-39 is just as capable as most of the Eastern aircraft to land almost anywhere, thanks to its reinforced landing gear.
Finally, after several years of testing, the first pre-production aircraft entered service in 1972. And like its illustrious predecessor, the military authorities of the Warsaw Pact (with the exception of Poland) chose the L-39 as their standard trainer, which guaranteed Aero a large number of orders. About 2,800 of them rolled off the Aero production line between the 1970s and the end of production in the late 1990s. Naturally, the Soviet Union was the main purchaser: it is estimated that nearly 2000 L-39s were used in the USSR, many of them being subsequently transferred to the former Soviet republics.
Many countries acquired the new aircraft, which was quickly declined in several versions. If the L-39C is not armed, other versions will be.
The different versions of the L-39 sold less than the L-29, but they were still quite successful, especially in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Compared to the equivalent models in the West, the L-39 appeared to be less efficient because it was older. It was more similar to the Aermacchi MB.326 than to the BAe Hawk for example.
More recently, the L-39 has found a second career, mainly in the United States, as a civilian aircraft (warbird category, with more than 100 registered aircraft). Many aircraft are still in active service: Russia still has nearly a thousand Albatrosses, and remains the main user country. Other aircraft have undertaken a more atypical career: L-39s are used by private companies, which rent their services to the armies of several countries. It is worth noting that the private air patrol Apache Aviation, sponsored by the Breitling company, uses seven Aero L-39s. Finally, it should also be noted that the L-39s of the Abkhazian air force (an autonomous Georgian republic recognised as independent by Russia and Nicaragua) have obtained several victories (probable, since local propaganda is made up of assertions and denials) at the expense of Georgian drones.
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