Written in 2000

AeroVodochody L159AeroVodochody  


The military aviation world is full of high-tech war machines that have been developed for the Super-Power market. However, the fighting machine world is growing more complex and there is a niche market for reasonably priced, light attack combat aircraft. The 'affordable' option has become even more significant since the 'Peace Dividend' associated with the lowering of the Iron Curtain has, quite rightly, put the squeeze on defence budgets in favour of internal, domestic needs. Aero Vodochody are past masters at filling this niche market having built some 7,000 aircraft that fit into this light combat/trainer role. However, the majority of these aircraft have been developed for, and sold to, the old Soviet market.

Aiming at a wider market Aero Vodochody's latest aircraft off the production line is a marked departure for them concentrating on NATO requirements rather than former Eastern requirements. The need for NATO compatibility was increased in July 1997 when the Czech Republic was invited to become a member of NATO. Part of the joining process involved being able to participate in NATO activities with inter-operable military equipment. The L139 trainer/light attack aircraft started the transition towards this compatibility but the L159 advanced trainer/light attack combat aircraft has been totally designed, from the outset, to be NATO 'kit' inter-operable, including NATO weapons and maintenance fittings and standards. The cockpit would not be out of place in any of the conventional Western equivalents (Hawk, etc). A pilot trained in the West would feel immediately at home, surrounded by 'familiar' looking avionics, including a head-up display (HUD) and multifunction head down displays (HDD). Any pilot that has tried to fly an aircraft that is fitted with the Soviet-style artificial horizon, has airspeed in kilometres per hour rather than knots, height referenced in meters instead of feet, will know just how difficult it is to transition to an alternative method of presenting the cockpit information. Neither way is necessarily better than the other - just different, although it is probably fair to say that the Western horizon is more compatible with the HUD than its Eastern counterpart! These and many other NATO-standard modifications make the aircraft a serious contender for filling both Western and Eastern nations' light attack combat aircraft requirements. It could also serve as a relatively cheap transition aircraft for the many countries who, in the past, have always operated Soviet aircraft (MiG 15s, MiG 21s, etc) and are now equipping, or potentially equipping, with sophisticated Western hardware.

At Farnborough International 2000 I was given the chance to evaluate the prototype two-seat L159 to see how well the NATO concept had been implemented.


COMPANY HISTORY  (back to top)

The history of the Aero Company dates back to 1919, when the Company was established as a private firm by Dr Kabes, in Vysocany, Prague. Initially, the work involved the repair and rebuilding of surplus aircraft left in the new Republic by the French after WWI. Gradually, the workshops developed into a full production factory. As one of the early entrants into the aerospace industry the Company expanded rapidly, particularly with a strong demand for their products. By the late 1920's Czechoslovakian aircraft had been receiving international acclaim and Aero, along with the other Czech aeronautical factories, were exporting their aircraft to Finland, Romania, Yugoslavia and the Baltic states. In the late 1930's the rate of production increased steeply in anticipation of the coming war. Unfortunately, when war came it was under occupation and the Company had to produce German aircraft in the factory. As peace returned the Company found itself back in the rebuilding and repairing business making good aircraft (including Spitfires, Ilyushin, Dakota, etc) that had been obtained by the Czechoslovak Air Force from allied nations. However, the design office were quickly turned to the task of designing indigenous aircraft types. The Ae-45 air taxi was their first 'home' product and went into production in 1948 and continued in production until 1961.

In 1953 the Czechoslovak government decided that a new modern aviation plant would be established to take advantage of higher quality, rapid production techniques, specifically to produce the new Soviet jet fighters under Licence. The new facility was located at Odolena Voda some 10 kilometres north of Prague - and so the jet age began for Aero Vodochody. The company turned out more than 3,500 MiG aircraft, starting with the MiG 15, through the MiG 19 to eventually the MiG 21. The MiG-15 production rate culminated at 120 aircraft per month. It was with this experience that the company developed the first Czechoslovak designed and built jet trainer: the L29 (Delfin). The prototype first flew on 5 April 1959, powered by a British Rolls Royce Viper engine! The L29 became the standard training aircraft of the Warsaw Pact member countries. The production continued from 1961 until 1974, with 3,665 aircraft being built. The next aircraft in the 'L' family was the L39, Albatross (first flight 4 November 1968). This was a much more modern looking aircraft and was built both for the basic and advanced trainer roles. With such a wide market this was another hugely successful aircraft (over 2,800 produced), being exported to over 25 Air Forces in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America. It was from this aircraft that all the proceeding designs were developed. The L59 (first flight 1 October 1989) was a more specific advanced weapon system trainer with improved ground attack capabilities and updated avionics.

The move towards NATO standards really started with the L139 (first flight 8 May 1993). This aircraft was equipped with a modern avionics suite, a Garrett turbofan and an armament system that corresponded to NATO standards. The L159 was the logical next stage in the family development and was designed with the NATO market in mind. It first flew as a two-seater variant on 2 August 1997, with the single-seater first flight on 18 August 1998. However, the company was still a relatively unknown commodity in the Western world. Therefore, as part of a restructuring plan, and to increase its exposure to Western markets, in 1997 the Czech government initiated a tender to identify a strategic partner for the Company. Boeing Ceska, a consortium comprising Boeing, McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) and Czech Airlines, was eventually selected and it subsequently bought a 35.29 per cent stake in the Aero Vodochody Company. As well as this strategic partner they have developed partnerships or subcontractor deals with over 40 other companies, including BAe Systems. With this new exposure to the Western world and more than 7,000 jet trainers/light attack aircraft under their belt, Aero Vodochody are a force to be reckoned with.


L159 CONCEPT  (back to top)

The L159 A ALCA (advanced light combat aircraft) was developed under a Czech Air Force contract and specification for a new standard Light Multi-role Combat Aircraft. The L159 B is a two-seat version designed for the Lead-in Fighter Training role. The majority of the aircraft structure, systems and operational characteristics are identical for both versions. The design aim behind the aircraft's multi-role capability was to make it suitable for close air combat, tactical reconnaissance, air defence, counter insurgency, border control, anti-ship missions, training for all of these missions and lead-in-fighter and weapons training. The Company decided that design drivers to cover such a wide capability included accurate navigation and weapons delivery; the ability to carry a wide range of stores including the common NATO weapons; enhanced survivability and self protection; tactical mobility including the ability to use semi-prepared airstrips in an autonomous way and; to ensure NATO compatibility by integrating the avionics via a MIL-STD-1553-B databus and ensuring that the pilot vehicle interface was compatible with the latest generation of high-performance fighters.

The decision was made to fit a Western engine, the Honeywell/ITEC F124-GA-100, to the aircraft. This is a non-afterburning engine developing some 6,330 pounds of static thrust. The engine is controlled by two Full Authority Digital Electronic Control (FADEC) fuel systems, that automatically limit the critical engine parameters, offering the pilot unrestricted throttle movement at all airspeeds, altitudes and angles of attack within the engine flight envelope. An Engine Monitoring System (EMS) is embedded in the FADEC to provide data for engine life management, hardware tracking and performance trend monitoring. To aid the autonomy of the aircraft for off main-base operations, a SAFIR Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) has been fitted for ground and airborne engine start up. It can also be used in an emergency to provide hydraulic power for the flight control system.


Weapons And Self Protection  (back to top)

The backbone for the stores management is a Hamilton Sunstrand system, which controls the weapons carried on the seven hardpoints. Again, the system is very much NATO compatible (complies with MIL-1760) and can be used with a wide range of Western weapons, including AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, Mk-82 bombs, CRV-7 rockets and AGM-65 Maverick air-to-ground missiles. Provisions have been put into the aircraft to allow it to carry other future weapons (medium range air-to-air missiles) and special pods for electronic counter measures (ECM), reconnaissance and night navigation and targeting. (The Farnborough static aircraft had a Thermal Imaging And Laser Designating pod fitted to it.)

On the self-protection side the system is modular and can include the BAe Sky Guardian 200 Radar Warning Receiver, Vinten Vicon Countermeasures Dispensing System, cockpit composite/ceramic ballistic protection and the carriage of an ECM (jamming) pod. To try to reduce the explosive nature of a fuel tank hit from enemy fire the aircraft has an on-board inert gas generating system, which supplies the fuel tanks, to hopefully prevent unwanted combustion! Should all this protection fail the aircraft comes fitted with a VS-2B ejection seat, that has a zero-speed, zero-height capability!

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