Flying an Aero L-39 Albatros Jet

Please excuse a little departure from covering race events and racecar modifications.  I figure there is a lot of overlap between interest in racecars and jets.  I have no flying experience but did grow up in the age of Top Gun and went to several air shows as a kid.  Jets have always fascinated me.  Seems like the ultimate performance machine.  Thanks to my wife (coolest wife ever!), I was given a ride in an L-39 Albatros for a birthday present.

The L-39 is a Czech Air Force high-performance jet trainer aircraft produced between 1971 and 1996.  This particular plane was built in 1976.  The Albatros is the most widely used jet trainer in the world and has also flown combat missions in a light-attack role.  The plane weighs 7,600 lbs dry and has a max takeoff weight of 10,300 lbs.  Maximum speed is Mach 0.80 (609 mph).  The Albatros is a two-seat airplane with the seats in tandem orientation.  Both seats are equipped with full instruments and controls.

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MigFlug (Migflug) offers several flying experiences in many cities and countries.  I flew the L-39 Albatros in Chino, CA.  The pilot and plane owner, Istvan “Steve” Kalmar has a lifetime of experience and was fantastic.  The day started off learning about the plane, emergency procedures, and getting familiar with the cockpit and controls.  You are strapped into a parachute harness and seat harness.  Ejection seats are no longer functional but in the event of an emergency, such as fire, you manually pop open the canopy, unbuckle your seat harness and jump out with the parachute.  Steve moved the plane out of the hanger and fueled up the tanks with 2,000 lbs of jet fuel.  I then hopped in with Steve in the front seat, fired up the engine and taxied to the runway.  I’m not a highly emotive person but I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face as we rolled down the runway and lifted into the air.  Once airborne, we banked hard to the left and flew south to an open test area above some foothills.  Steve gave me the controls and instructed me to perform some turns and eventually some rolls.  The controls are very sensitive and require very little effort.  Plane seems extremely stable and easy to fly.

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With Steve back in control, we performed a number or aerobatic maneuvers including rolls, loops, cuban eights, etc.  Then we flew down into a canyon for some low altitude canyon carving.  This was really fun as you get a better appreciation for the speeds (roughly Mach 0.5 / 350 mph).  There was a pretty strong wind coming over the foothills which made the canyons a bit bumpy.  We exited the canyons and hugged a field just above the tree line (maybe 40-50 feet off the deck) and then went near vertical with some rolls thrown in.  Steve then picked a target on the ground and performed some bombing maneuvers which consisted of a steep descent directly on top of the target and pulling up at the last second, going vertical, and looping around to dive bomb the target again.  At that point, we gained some altitude and started heading back to the airport.  Steve was playing with the clouds, diving in and out and finding routes between them.  It was really fun and I loved that Steve has this playful nature after performing this same flight hundreds of times.  I always imagined flying a jet to be a very free experience similar to a bird and playing in the canyons and clouds brought that concept to life.

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After 45 minutes of flight time, we landed with minimal drama despite some high cross winds and burned a total of 170 gallons of fuel.  Overall, the experience was fantastic.  I learned so many new things and after some reflection realized 3 big takeaways that I hadn’t realized or expected:

  1. There are no lateral forces.  Seems fairly obvious but I’m so used to racing cars on race tires with downforce and expecting very high cornering forces.  In racing, you are never coasting.  You are either accelerating, braking, cornering, or ideally, a combination.  In racecars, transitions are fast and violent.  The jet was very smooth and most of the time was spent in a neutral state.  Even carving through canyons was primarily neutral with some hard cuts here and there.  When the plane is rolled so it’s wings are vertical, there are still no forces until you pull the stick back.  All the forces in a plane are vertical with respect to the pilot/passenger.
  2. Human limit vs machine limit.  In car racing, you often operate right on the edge of the car’s limits.  You exceed the limits and recover.  The limits are dictated by grip and are easily exceeded within the human operating window.  With the jet, the g-loading of the pilot determines the limit.  The plane can easily exceed the human limits especially with no g-suits used.  Steve explained the effects of g-loading which start with a “grey-out” where your vision turns grey.  This is followed by tunnel vision until you pass out completely.  Passing out while operating a jet is not advised.  The body’s reaction to g-loading depends on amplitude and time.  You can sustain a moderate g-load for a long time or a high g-load for a very short time but once you add duration to high g-loads, you lose blood flow/oxygen to the brain and pass out.  Steve started with low g maneuvers and added intensity while checking on my condition.  We ended up at about 4-g loops which was close to my threshold.  I did start to grey-out at one point but by the time I was ready to alert Steve, the maneuver was over and I was fine.  The effect disappears nearly instantly once the g-loading is reduced.  The L-39 is capable of 8-g’s.
  3. Controls are physically calm and delicate.  When operating a racecar at the limit, your inputs should be smooth but smooth doesn’t mean slow.  Especially with a twitchy short wheelbase car, you need to quickly counter steer to recover.  Driving full tilt is physically demanding.  This plane has such light and precise controls that there is a bit of a disconnect for me between the g-loads you feel vs the light touch used.  It’s a bit analogous to playing video games or driving a modern performance car with digital nannies keeping you on track.

I’d highly recommend this experience to anyone that doesn’t get car/sea sick.  It’s not cheap but well worth the entry cost to check this off the bucket list for me.  Steve is very personable and knowledgable and I never felt scared or unsafe.  The plane is obviously well taken care of and spotless.  Every part of the experience met or exceeded expectations.