An interview about Aero aircraft with Jared Isaacman, Draken International CEO
The recent return of AERO Vodochody AEROSPACE to the traditional aviation markets was, no doubt, triggered by the sale of the stored L-159s a few years ago. An agile US company Draken International became the first buyer and it soon introduced the L-159 to a very promising aggressor market. With 21 jets to be delivered in total, the L-159 plays a significant role in Draken future as well as in the training of US Air Force, and the Navy and Marine Corps.
Interviewed by: Jakub Fojtík
How did Draken start and how did you, from a financial sector, come to work in military aviation?
Draken evolved from the Black Diamond Jet Team that was started in the summer of 2010. After a successful season flying formation acrobatics in L-39s, T-33 and MiG-17s across the United States and Canada, we decided to transform into a commercial organization flying high performance aircraft on behalf of the Department of Defence. While there were one or two companies performing a similar service, none possessed a very large quantity of aircraft or tactically relevant capabilities (like radars). Draken would differentiate in that regard – by ultimately possessing substantial capacity and unique capabilities. Of course, there was no actual demand or government requirements at the time, but we had overwhelming belief in the eventual need for the service. In November 2011, we purchased our first fleet of aircraft from the New Zealand government to include A-4K Skyhawks and MB-339s, and so Draken International was born.
What types of aircraft have you had a chance to fly with and what has been your favourite?
I have flown probably a dozen different types of business jets (Citation III, V, CJ1, CJ2, CJ3, Mustang, Premier Jet), plus numerous ex-military aircraft including the MiG-29, several variants of the A-4 Skyhawk (TA-4K, TA-4F, A-4L, A-4K, A-4N), MB-339, T-33, L-39 and L-159. My favourites would be the L-39, A-4N and L-159. If I had to pick just one it would be the L-159 for sure.
Why did you decide to start using the L-39? Was it just because of the availability of the plane in the USA, or was it for different reasons?
Yes, the L-39 was available in sufficient quantities in the USA and supportable. It is also a very safe aircraft.
How do you see the operation of the L-39 with more than a decade of experience?
It´s an incredibly reliable aircraft. We flew probably thousands of sorties across our L-39 fleet with very few unscheduled maintenance issues. The L-39NG program is really genius giving a new life to what is still a very successful platform.
The Black Diamond was well known for its “extremely tight” formations, probably tighter than any other jet team in the world. Was there anything specific about L-39 that made it possible, or could you fly the same formations with any other plane?
We did fly very tight during the Black Diamond days. I attribute this to a very close team of pilots. We practically lived together throughout all of 2011 and 2012. We did not cycle in new pilots like some other military jet teams. The L-39 definitely helped. The manual flight controls, compared to hydraulic like in other aircraft, and the straight wing make it possible to have a great feel for the aircraft.
Can you describe Draken in terms of its current size, fleet, capabilities and skills?
Draken is the world’s largest private air force. We own over 100 fighter jets – almost all equipped with modern capabilities including radars and other sensors. The aircraft are flown by some of the best pilots in the world – many graduates of the USAF or USN “Top Gun” or Weapons School. We are able to perform an incredibly important mission on behalf of the USAF, USN, USMC and other customers all while saving tax payers hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
Who are the key people beyond the Draken brand?
Really everyone. You can see the executive management team and advisors on our website, but it´s a total team effort. We have nearly 200 people in the organization that perform a job every day that the military would require 2,000 to perform. That takes a special kind of workforce that is very dedicated to the mission.
What made you choose the L-159? The plane had not been sold to foreign customers before, and you had no opportunity to see the planes stored in closed protective cocoons before the sale was completed…
Our experience with the L-39 and familiarity with the L-159 design is what attracted us to the platform. There was nothing not to like. It possesses all the same characteristics that make the L-39 a safe platform, plus a modern engine with double the performance, a sophisticated radar and current avionics package. The aircraft is efficient, safe and lethal. Plus, they were essentially brand new. We were incredibly fortunate to be able to purchase such a fine fleet of aircraft. If there were more stored in cocoons, we would have bought them.
What exactly is the role of the L-159 aircraft in your fleet?
The L-159 is flying 100% air-to-air aggressor missions. It´s possible it may perform some air-to-ground JTAC work in the future, but for the last 2+ years and foreseeable future it´s fulfilling an air-to-air aggressor role.
With your significant experience and wide deployment, how would you describe the benefit of the L-159 for Draken and for the red air market?
The L-159 is the ultimate platform for our mission. Sure, from a capabilities stand-point you would love to operate Su-30’s or J-10s, but that´s simply not achievable. Our industry exists because we are cost effective (affordable) and capable at the same time. The L-159 strikes that perfect balance.
You made the first L-159 flight in the USA. Can you remember that moment and share your feelings from that time?
It was an incredible feeling. The L-159 purchase journey began back in 2012. My team and I made dozens of trips to the Czech Republic (which was always an excellent time!) to ensure the deal ultimately got done. It was a long journey that culminated in that first flight in the USA. It was a privilege to take the jet in to the air and it performed exactly as expected. I was able to repeat that feeling having flown the L-159 in its first government contract at White Sands Missile Range and then to land the first L-159 at Nellis Air Force Base (Home of the Fighter Pilot!). Memories I will never forget.
For the Czech industry, the L-159 was the first “fully westernized” plane. What is its commonality and compatibility with western jets from your point of view?
Almost all of the L-159 pilots (other than myself) have previously flown F-14, F-15, F-16, F/A-18, F-22 and even F-35’s. They have all taken to the L-159 quite naturally. They even nicknamed the jet the “Honey Badger”.
What is unique about Draken when compared to its competitors and how is the L-159 contributing to its unique position?
Draken was the first commercial company to operate fighter aircraft with modern radars. This occurred in 2011 when we purchased the A-4K Skyhawks in New Zealand. Now, in the end of 2018, we are still the only company in the world flying ex-military aircraft with radars. The difference is, we have a lot more of them now and the L-159 is the workhorse in that regard. The radar capabilities we possess is what makes us such a great adversary for our customer. The L-159 has the best radar in our inventory and that ensures our customers receive quality training.
The L-159s were used in a dissimilar air combat training against USAF fighters such as F-16, F-22 or even F-35. How did the aircraft perform with respect to its physical speed limitation?
No question the speed is a limitation of the L-159, but it’s still a small and agile platform with a very good radar. If our customer does everything perfectly, the L-159 should lose. When our customer makes a mistake, the Honey Badger is more than capable of punishing the mistake.
Your L-159s were shortly deployed in the Netherlands two years ago. Was it something unique, or do you plan more European deployments?
The Netherlands deployment was rather unique. I know the team that flew the jets across the pond had a great time. I wish I could have been on that trip. We had availability at the time to meet the requirement in Europe, but there is now so much demand in the USA for our services – it’s hard to imagine our L-159s will ever leave the country again.
What are the plans of Draken with L-159 for the future in terms of its utilisation, deployment and capabilities growth?
The L-159 is still the workhorse for our fleet. We operate each jet approximately 300 hours per year. It’s a great tempo and we do not see it slowing down anytime soon. The demand for our service and especially for the L-159 is at unbelievable levels. In terms of capability enhancements, the jet is already the best in the industry. That stated, I am sure we will look to add certain capabilities like a helmet cueing system and a datalink in the future.
How do you see the “red air” market in 10 years?
Honestly, I think there will be a lot of disappointed customers. Our industry exists for a reason, because it’s too costly to do the red air mission with F-15’s, F-16’s and especially F-22’s, F-35’s, Eurofighters, etc. The aircraft that are affordable like T-38s and F-5’s do not have any endurance or useful capabilities (radars). So that leaves a very limited niche of affordable yet capable aircraft to operate and Draken really purchased them all. The demand though far exceeds the capacity. So I am sure Draken will be very busy for decades to come – but unfortunately, not all the demand in the world will be satisfied.
What do you think of the L-39NG next generation aircraft?
As mentioned above, it’s brilliant. What a great way to give the L-39 platform a new lease on life. Great aircraft + great engine + great avionics at an affordable price = total win!
Do you know any Czech aviation companies other than Aero?
We have interacted with some other companies for engine work and other parts, but our relationship is really with Aero Vodochody.
What do you think of the Czech aviation industry in general?
I like everything I have ever flown that was manufactured in the Czech Republic!
Jared Isaacman (*1983)
Jared is the founder and the current CEO of Harbortouch, a leading US based payment processing company with more than 12 billion USD processed annually and still growing. Jared founded the company at the age of 16 in the basement of his parents´ house and built it from scratch. In 2011, he also started Draken International, which became one of the leaders in the “red air” industry in less than four years. Jared is also very active in charitable work and philanthropy. He is married and has two children.
L-159E Honey Badger
The L-159s for Draken were named the “E” model and nicknamed by their crews as Honey Badger. The animal is known as the most fearless creature in the world willing to attack any opponent, which it has common with the small L-159s fighting against the latest sophisticated F-22 an F-35 fighters. In total Draken will operate 18 L-159s with three more kept in reserve. For Aero, the L-159 was the first export of effectively brand-new jets in almost two decades.
Photo: Draken International