AERO: 100 YEARS OF CONQUERING THE SKY

Date 11.3.2019

AERO Vodochody AEROSPACE celebrates this year its 100th anniversary. Unlike with many other aviation companies, switching to plane building from other types of industry, the entire Aero history is connected with aviation and lasts in such way up to now. With more than 11 000 of jets produced, the world footprint of Aero is literally ubiquitous.

Text by: Jakub Fojtík

EARLY STARTS

The establishment of Aero is connected with the early years of newly born Czechoslovakia. The then Ministry of defence was heavily supporting boom of the local technology companies and saturated them with large scale orders with pressure on a full localisation of the production of any high tech components acquired from abroad. In such situation one manager and one entrepreneur formally established a brand new company called “Aero, an aircraft factory” at a meeting on 11th of January 1919. Its first business project was the repair of WWI biplanes used by the Czechoslovak air force followed by repairs of bombers and fighters. The establishment of Aero was practically a result of need for technical sustainment of the military aircraft fleet inherited from WWI, but the ambitions of its founders, including later coming general manager and Prague-based lawyer and subsequently a solo owner Mr. Kabeš, were much wider. In 1919 the company finished its first aircraft called Ae-01, a licensed and improved copy of German Hansa Brandenburg B.I type. Two years later first domestic design, a biplane fighter called Ae-02, was test flown for the first time. In less than two years from its establishment the company managed to finish its own design from paper drawing to the flight and attracted significant number of experts from various aviation specialisations. Later several more designs were finished, but it was the Aero A-12 biplane observing and bombing plane, which first entered a large scale serial production resulting in 93 planes built. In 1924 the first A-11 multipurpose biplane type was test flown and the orders for the plane came not only from local ministry of defence but also from Finland. The northland country became the launch export customer and later ordered also the Aero A-32 biplane observation and attack plane. Shortly after 1925 the company started a plane variants spree with more than 25 models and almost 800 mostly own design planes build yet before the start of the WWII. In 1929 the company has started production of cars, which were designed by aerodynamics experts working simultaneously on planes as well. The cars became soon popular and the family then included several mid-class models, of which a significant portion was exported. It worth noticing the number of produced cars exceeded 14 000 units till it was transferred to other plants after WWII.

UNDER FOREIGN INFLUENCE

During the German occupation, the company shut down all of its own production and re-focused on the support of Luftwaffe with production of Bücker Bu-131 training planes and later also of Siebel Si-204D and Focke Wulf Fw 189A-1 planes. Although the company had to leave its premises in Prague – Kbely, it had almost doubled the number of planes built in the pre-war era. After the war, the company continued with the production of German designs, creating the backbone of the newly restored Czechoslovak Air Force. In 1945, all companies were nationalized and Aero was no exception. Under the new company management, appointed by the state administration from the ranks of shop floor workers, a group of designers finished the first post-war design, an extremely elegant and timeless Ae-45 liaison and passenger plane. In total, over than 150 planes were built and they soon gained excellent reputation both at home and abroad with many planes operated in western European countries. The design works on this plane started during WWII, but the design team managed to hide them from the Germans. Unfortunately, at the time of Ae-45 production, the company was given a new task – to prepare for mass production of Soviet jet fighters. The promising Ae-45 production was ceased, but due to continuous market interest it was later reopened at Kunovice, a Moravian aircraft assembly plant, with new variants introduced there. By the way, the Ae-45 was the very first Czech plane which flew over the Atlantic Ocean. In 1953, the company moved to a brand-new location next to the Vodochody airport. New premises with enough area for growth were needed mostly because the expected large-scale production of licensed Soviet MiG-15 fighters. First of them was test flown in April 1953 and within just two years an incredible number of 821 planes were built, of which one third was exported. In addition to the original variant, the improved MiG-15bis and double seat MiG-15UTI training model were also produced; 620 units of the former were built, with production of the latter reaching 2,081 (of which 1,857 were exported) by 1961. As the MiG-15UTI model was used by no less than 40 countries worldwide, Aero managed to set up ties with many countries through the exclusive state export agency Omnipol. The MiG-15 was followed in the production by MiG-19S and MiG-21F-13, however, both reached less impressive results in terms of success in export markets and production quantity.

BACK TO OWN DESIGNS           

In 1955, the Czechoslovak Air Force officially started to seek a new basic trainer allowing easy transition of post-war pilots from piston planes to jet MiGs. The design requirement was answered by an engineering team from the Czechoslovak Aerospace Research Centre (VZLÚ). After many meetings, consultations and requirement modifications, the C-29 concept was presented. As the demand of the local Air Force barely exceeded 100 planes, it was soon necessary to seek customers in export markets for the project to progress. For this reason and also for better chances of the project in general, the plane was presented to the Soviet Air Force. It evidentially impressed the Soviet military council and for the first (and last) time in the USSR military history, an international tender for a new all-Warsaw Pact jet trainer was announced. The C-29, then known as L-29 Delfin, competed with Polish TS-11 Iskra and Soviet Yak-32. Although the first prototype was test flown only in April 1959, in August 1961 one of the prototypes was sent to the Soviet Union for thorough fly off. When compared with its rivals, the performance of L-29 was evidentially the most balanced across all qualification criteria and the plane was pronounced to be the winner. This important step allowed the Czechoslovak industry to reasonably expect continuation of the jet plane mass production. On Valentine´s day in 1963 a contract between Czechoslovakia and the USSR was signed for the delivery of more than 2,000 L-29s. Since the “main customer” expected all the planes to be delivered in less than 10 years, a parallel final assembly line was opened at Kunovice Aircraft assembly plant in Southern Moravia. In the course of just twelve years, a total of 3,665 L-29s were completed, i.e. an average yearly production of more than 300 aircraft. The L-29 Dolphin was widely exported to many countries, of which many had a positive experience with the Vodochody-produced MiG-15s.

   The enormous success of the L-29 led to Aero being directly asked by the USSR military administration to develop a successor, which later became known as L-39 Albatros. Its prototype made its first flight in November 1968. As the equipment of jet fighters had evolved dramatically, many L-29 operators naturally selected the L-39 as a supplement to, and later solo solution for, their training needs. With production running only at Vodochody, almost 2,900 planes were built by 1991, of which 2,081 went to the USSR. Unfortunately, the break-up of the USSR and the sudden loss of the major customer and its allies negatively influenced the future life of the L-39. While the L-39s were still produced with the last few planes delivered in 1994 to Thailand, its successor, the L-39MS never entered the Soviet Air Force and was adopted only by the domestic Air Force, as well as Egypt and Tunisia. Aero still sold some L-39 planes in 2000, but all of those were aircraft originally intended for the USSR or other customers unable to take them over under changed conditions. After 1990, Aero attempted to penetrate the western markers several times, including with the introduction of the L-139 model with US-origin engine within a co-tender for the US JPATS competition. Nevertheless, all such attempts including the promo flight of L-39MS and L-139 down to South Africa failed and no new customers were found, partly as a result of the overall world defence budgets reduction in the early 1990s. Instead of its traditional training concept, Aero focused on the Czech Air Force requirements in mid 1990s. The local Air Force wanted to introduce into the service a light combat platform allowing for the phasing out of the Soviet-origin planes and thus to increase the country’s independence in terms of aircraft sustainment. Based on unique Czech Air Force requirements, a new L-159 ALCA (Advanced Light Combat Aircraft) was rolled out in 1997. The Czech Air Force acquired 72 units, which helped the Air Force to quickly and effectively transform from the Eastern standards to those of NATO. Paradoxically, after joining NATO and the subsequent defence policy reassessment, the 36 L-159s were grounded. With majority of prospective customers seeking rather the “cheaper” grounded planes, the new production was ceased. Luckily, after Boeing acquired a stake in the company, Aero launched its first sub-contracting business in 2000, the production and assembly of almost complete Sikorsky S-76 helicopters. More projects such as central wing boxes, fuselage panels, doors and rear fuselages including risk-sharing projects for various world OEMs followed, helping to sustain the key know-how in house. The situation changed in 2014, when all the stored L-159s found home in the United States and Iraq. The result of new business energy gained from selling the L-159 in export markets was the L-39NG jet training aircraft, a true follower of the ubiquitous L-39 model, introduced in 2014. First rolled out and test flown in late 2018, it should be the corner stone of a new era in the life of this traditional aircraft maker with a tradition lasting over a century. And it can still benefit from its predecessor’s significant market share.  

 

Photo credit: AERO Vodochody a.s., author

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