Czech Republic has a long history in the area of military pilot training provided for a wide range of countries. The first real large-scale training occurred shortly after WWII when Israel was heavily supported by the then Czechoslovak administration. In the following decades, USSR satellite states´ pilots were trained in the country with hundreds of Czechoslovak pilots also deployed abroad. The past decade was busy with training of NATO members and allies. In total, more than one thousand pilots have been trained in Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic and the number is far from final.
The first foreign pilots came to Czechoslovakia between the wars, but those were primarily for conversion training accompanying deliveries of local planes abroad. The first large-scale training started only shortly after the end of WWII. The Czechoslovak political representation supported the declaration of independence of the yet to be constituted State of Israel and a part of this support was donation of defence materials and services. The most valuable services included, in particular, flight and ground crew training.
Several dozens of future Israeli Air Force fighter pilots were trained in Czechoslovakia including Ezer Weizman, a regular pilot at that time and the future president of Israel. It was a twist of fate that all Israeli pilots were trained not only on ex-UK Supermarine Spitfires, but mainly on S-199 fighters built locally after WWII as clones of the S-99 (originally German Luftwaffe Messerschmitt Me 109). The country’s support included also the donation of the S-89 Spitfires and the S-199s to Israel. These planes played a key role in the establishment of Chel ha-Avir, the Israeli Air Force, and contributed to Israel’s air victory in the late 1940s conflicts.
Establishment of the capability
After the change of the Czechoslovak political orientation in the late 1940s, the country focused on armament of the USSR and its satellite states and allies. The local aviation production focused on training aircraft such as the C-11s (Yak-11 copies), Zlín piston trainers, license-built MiG-15s and the later domestic L-29s. Especially the last-mentioned type significantly influenced the local training system. With many L-29s delivered to African and Asian developing countries, it was necessary to arrange a full-scale training for the new customers in an environment covered by the local air force. In 1963, the Piešťany and later the Košice based Aviation training regiments trained the first group of Soviet pilots and provided them with an L-29 type rating. Later, the same service was provided to Bulgarian, East German, Hungarian and Romanian pilots, whose air forces adopted the L-29 type as well.
In the late 1960s the training regiments provided full-scale training for Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, Uganda and Vietnam and the syllabus in many cases included also the initial flights on piston aircraft. Once each country’s personnel returned home, a Czechoslovak team was deployed at the customer´s base for continuous operational training and the Czechoslovak air force teams spent months in countries such as Indonesia, Iraq, Syria or Uganda. After successful development of the following L-39 type, the same situation occurred and some of its operators were trained at the Košice Aviation College and followed with training on other types such as the supersonic MiG-21s operated from the Přerov Air Base.
Košice, a major training facility of the Czechoslovak Federation, hosted pilots from various countries including Algeria, Hungary, Libya, Syria and others. In Libya, which became the second largest L-39 operator after the USSR with incredible 181 planes in operation, a massive Czechoslovak training team was in service with more than 200 pilots and technicians present in the country for several years. The situation continued well until 1989 when the interest of foreign countries and especially of the local air force started to decline.
In the early 1990s Egyptian and Tunisian pilots were trained at the Přerov Air Base because the L-39MS, a direct derivate of the L-59 bought by both countries, was operated from the same base. Since then, together with falling sales of domestic military planes, training of foreign pilots in the Czech Republic slowly came to an end for a period of time. In Slovakia, the Košice College continued to operate well after 2000 and for example Hungarian pilots used it until its end. As a support of surplus L-29 delivery to Angola, African pilots were trained by the Slovak air force as well.
Until 2000 the Czech air force concentrated all training squadrons with training planes at the Pardubice Air Base. Within the reform of armed forces introduced in 2002, it was decided to transfer the training under LOM PRAHA s.p. state enterprise. On the basis of the former 34th training base at Pardubice, a new Air Training Center (Centrum leteckého výcviku – CLV) was established. It inherited the Mi-2 and Mi-17 helicopters as well as the Z-142 piston trainers and the L-410 cargo aircraft from the fleet of disbanded squadron. It started its formal operation on 1st April 2004 and initially provided training solely to the Czech air force.
But from the very beginning the interest to provide the services to foreign customers was clear, although at that time this was not allowed by the Czech legislation. In 2009, following a lot of effort, the law was changed and CLV gained its first international customer under a contract with US companies Honeywell and Lockheed Martin. It was the Afghan Army Air Corps rotary wing pilots and flight engineers, but the contract also allowed training of US personnel. The very first course finished at the end of 2011 when the first group of Afghan pilots and flight engineers successfully completed the training and gained type rating for the Mi-17 helicopters. The course, mostly conducted at Pardubice with extensive utilisation of the CLV fleet and simulators, also involved training in Ostrava-based HTP Ostrava full mission simulator of Mi-171. Since then, several hundreds of pilots both for Afghan and US governmental operators have been trained there.
In 2014 LOM managed to acquire another large-scale contract, this time with the Iraqi air force and again focused on Mil helicopters, but also requiring fixed wing training. The first course started with theoretical tuition in 2015 and finished in July 2016. By then, LOM had already been operating for several years the Tactical Simulation Centre (TSC) intended for tactical training of fighter pilots. Because of its modular concept, its advanced simulators can replicate the L-39 Albatros, the L-159 ALCA and the JAS-39 Gripen fighters. With this selection, LOM soon became a true star in local training with hundreds of pilots coming from Europe as well as from Asia and Africa to be trained there every year.
It complemented the CLV skills in an unmatched way and made the local system very much attractive for various operators. With the training requirements booming, the CLV fleet has expanded by adding the Cessna Caravan and other types of planes. Some formerly non-military training Czech-based companies also started to participate in the system. In addition to these training projects, LOM initiated a major fleet renewal and acquired the new Enstrom 480B-G, which may be an interesting and attractive asset for many central European countries which currently lack training helicopters. Additionally, under the umbrella of Czechoslovak Group, a small fleet of four UH-60A Black Hawk helicopters is about to appear in Košice and its operator, Slovak Training Academy (STA), is ready to start training of foreign pilots. STA’s fleet also includes lighter helicopters.
In parallel with the CLV and LOM efforts, also Aero managed to perform the first large-scale foreign pilot training programmes. From 2008, the company’s L-159B prototype was deployed in Hungary for almost three years and used for advanced training of local fighter pilots. Later on, since 2015, also Iraqi air force pilots have been trained at Aero directly. This training, unlike the others, returned to the roots of the Czech training system and provided full training completed by a type rating for the L-159, the plane acquired by the Iraqi air force. The syllabus utilised the TSC and also L-39 Albatros. Iraqi pilots were then deployed in live combat operations soon after they returned home as the country was fighting with ISIS at that time. With the current interest in the L-39NG project, many more customers will be trained in the Czech Republic. In addition to meeting its own needs, the Ministry of Defence approved the acquisition of four L-39NG aircraft for LOM PRAHA and its CLV training facility with the aim to support training of foreign pilots.
The Czech and Slovak companies and organisations have well demonstrated their significant role in the area of military pilot training. With the new production programmes such as the L-39NG one may expect significant domino effect in the training requirements and the system is well prepared to cater for significantly increased demand. From training focused on eastern platforms, the portfolio has fortunately diversified and today also provides services related to US aeroplanes and helicopters and, therefore, is open to any potential client. Unlike in other Eastern European countries the Czech training system survived the difficult 1990s and started to be independent, vital and attractive again. As many of the pilots trained in Czechoslovakia in 1980s are now in high-rank positions in their countries, their sentiments and positive feelings towards our countries may play an important role. Training, consisting of knowledge sharing and tutoring, is considered to be a high value-added service and represents the kind of industry that is much needed and that has long-term prospects.
Text: Jakub Fojtík
Photo: autor and his archive