Thanks to the classic L-39 Albatros from the Cold War era, modern flying enthusiasts can enjoy that Top Gun feeling, as our own Iceman Ben Griffiths discovers
What better way to celebrate the end of the coronavirus lockdown than jumping into a jet fighter and satisfying your pent-up need for speed? This summer the follow-up to Top Gun is due to land at a cinema near you. The thrills and spills of the original film’s outrageous flying sequences are normally the preserve of the real-life Top Guns who sign up for military service.
But, if you know where to look, it is possible to strap into an ejection seat yourself and buy a taste of jet combat. You won’t regret checking out one of the world’s most prolific fighter trainers, the Czech-made Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatros. The type has been in operation since the early Seventies with more than 30 armed forces, including the former Soviet and East German military. Some 3,000 were delivered, with about 300 thought to be in civilian hands today.
The jet combines an efficient but powerful engine with a streamlined, 12m-long fuselage and weighs just four tons, creating a strong but economical trainer. Excellent handling and reliability make it ideal for aerobatics and formation flying. One of the top venues in Europe to climb aboard an L-39 is Apache Aviation, based at Dijon-Bourgogne Airport in France.
Founded by Jacques Bothelin in 1982, the company runs a fleet of jets and turboprops for aerobatic and formation experience flights and training. Bothelin is one of the world’s most experienced air display pilots; his team’s flagship sponsorship by Breitling recently ended after 17 years, but the Swiss watchmaker remains a co-sponsor.
I’ve been lucky enough to fly twice with the team, who include several former members of the Patrouille de France (the French equivalent of the Red Arrows). The sorties remain among my most memorable, not least because they were my first experience of jet formation aerobatics, but also because it’s rare to fly with such experienced pilots. It was also the first time I strapped into a live ejection seat – a process that concentrates the mind as your pilot explains the sequence that will remove you from the aircraft in the event of a catastrophic failure.
In essence, you are sitting on a live rocket!
But it might just save your life should you need to pull the handle. The tandem cockpit is spacious but basic, with a well-planned layout of instruments and controls. On starting, a small engine spools up the fan in the main engine to get it to operating speed before the jet bursts into life. Outside the cockpit is a cacophony of sound while inside all remains tranquil, thanks to our helmets and soundproofing. The team flies as a formation of seven, itself quite a sight as we line up in procession for the long taxi to the active runway.
Quickly our first group of three are lined up and raring to launch, looking very close together even as we sit on the ground. Once aloft we would soon be drawing much nearer – within three metres at times (but never less than two metres, of course – perish the thought!). As my pilot – François Ponsot, nicknamed ‘Ponpon’ – nods his head the jets surge forward together, rumbling over the gaps in the tarmac with speed building.
Suddenly that delightful sensation as the wings bite the air and lift is generated, our gleaming black L-39 taking to the air followed by the thump-thump as the wheels retract and we power on our way. As we climb out, we’re rapidly joined by the other four jets, appearing close enough that I can clearly see the smiles of our fellow flyers below the dark visors of their helmets. It seems I can almost reach out to touch our wingman and feel the airflow streaming over his craft as we ride along in tight formation.
With so many aircraft in proximity, it’s hard for the brain to process what the eyes are seeing. As we dive down into a loop, speed topping 400mph, I fail to properly prepare for the onset of ‘G’, the force of gravity as we pull up into the vertical.
I’m looking backwards enjoying the view as my head – now four times its usual weight due to the acceleration – is pushed on to my left shoulder, blood rushing towards my feet and leaving me with greyed-out vision. It is uncomfortable and I don’t make the same mistake twice, looking forwards and bracing for the manoeuvres.
After a series of loops and rolls, the formation breaks apart into smaller groups so I can practise formation flying. The aircraft feels very responsive, with minute pressures on the control column to remain in position. It’s harder than it looks, and I’m constantly jiggling the stick and thrust lever to stick with our leader.
All too soon it’s time to head back to Dijon and relive the experience by watching the cockpit video. For those looking to enter the jet scene, Apache Aviation or the Latvia-based Baltic Bees can provide conversion training on the L-39.
Good examples of the aircraft are on sale around the world for around £200,000, depending on engine hours, equipment and general condition. Anyone with a regular private pilot licence can fly these aircraft after sufficient training and a type rating.
It costs around £1,500 an hour to operate an L-39. But for that, you not only get to feel like Maverick but the skies anywhere in Europe will become your playground.
This piece first appeared in issue 74 of Spear’s, available now. Click here to buy a copy and subscribe