Nigerian Air Force is one of the long-term operators of L-39 aircraft from Czech aircraft manufacturer Aero Vodochody. Today, the company is closely cooperating with Nigerian army on ensuring the L-39 will reliably fulfil its role in the Air Force in following years.
A good aircraft producer knows that the moment an aircraft makes its first flight by a customer is not a finale, but the beginning of a long relationship between the OEM and the operator. The customer care and MRO services are as important as the production of the aircraft itself. This is confirmed also by Aero Vodochody, producer of the L-29, L-39, L-159 and L-39NG aircraft.
Aero has more than a 100year long history of production of military training aircraft. After the Second World War, it has shifted its production from a mixture of civil and military prop aircraft to jets, starting with MiG-15s built under license. In the very end of 1950s, it has introduced L-29 Delfin, its first indigenous jet trainer. Soon, Aero started to write first chapters of a story of a relationship with one of its most traditional partners – Nigerian Air Force (NAF).
Half of a century of collaboration
The history of Aero aircraft in the most populated African country starts in the 1960s, when Nigerian Air Force ordered 16 L-29s. The first Delfins began serving in Nigeria as early as 1967, deliveries continued until 1970, and in 1979–1981 another ten machines purchased from the Czechoslovak Air Force joined the fleet. They all flew at the Kano base in the north of the country and were used mainly for training, but also took part in the civil war in 1967-70. In the late 1980s, NAF donated ten L-29s to the Ghana Air Force and with some others lost to accidents and catastrophes, there were only few Delfins left at Kano. But by that time, Nigeria already had new Aero aircraft in its fleet.
In the 1968, Aero made a maiden flight of its new aircraft – L-39 Albatros. Produced mainly in 1970s and 1980s, almost 2,900 L-39s were delivered to countries all over the world. Over the years, L-39 became the most successful jet trainer in the history, valued not only by many air forces, but also by civilian operators, including more than a dozen of flight display teams. Besides the training version called L-39C, Aero also developed several other configurations including armed versions.
Albatrosses in Nigeria
The Nigerian Air Force ordered 24 new L-39ZA aircraft in the mid-80s. The L-39ZA is armed and in this case it was also “westernized”, ie equipped with Western avionics, which suited better to the composition of the Nigerian Air Force. The aircraft arrived in Nigeria in two batches in 1986 and 1987, on its own axis. The Nigerian Air Force even ordered another 27 Albatrosses, but in the end it withdrew from the delivery due to funding issues. Machines originally intended for Nigeria eventually went into service, for example, in Algeria or Bangladesh.
Currently, the L-39 still belongs to the pillars of the Nigerian Air Force. The Albatrosses serve at the base in Kano at the 303rd Aviation School and their main task is to train pilots, but they also serve for patrol and reconnaissance missions as well as ground attacks. Not all the aircraft from the original squadron are airworthy, but thanks to the cooperation of Aero and the Nigerian Air Force, the L-39s are gradually getting back into service.
For example, in 2012 Aero reactivated two aircraft; in 2016 it overhauled 12 VS-1 BRI ejection seats. The cooperation continued also in the following years. In 2019, Aero completed repairs and life extension of three Nigerian Albatrosses. All three jumped really fast in full operation. In just one year, Nigerian pilots were able to fly almost 500 hours on a single machine.
Satisfaction of local pilots with the L-39 and at the same time the need to expand the number of active aircraft led to an agreement on general overhaul of three other Albatrosses in the spring of 2020. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, the aircraft were transported from Nigeria to the Czech Republic in early July and the overhauls started immediately after. Moreover, in the autumn, the growing need of the Nigerian Air Force resulted in repairs and life extension of another three aircraft, which were put into operation during December.
The relationship between Aero and Nigerian Air Force can serve as an example of extended cooperation between the company and its customer. While the general overhauls take place at Aero premises in the Czech Republic, the life extensions were performed directly at the base in Kano by a team of specialists from Aero supported by local engineers and technicians. The collaboration does not end with simple maintenance service; it also includes extended upgrade of the avionics.
Satisfaction on both sides
“We are systematically strengthening and developing relationships with current L-39 users. Aero Vodochody as the original manufacturer is the only one in the world authorized for this type of overhauls and modernisation,” describes Jan Štechr, vice president for military programs at Aero Vodochody. The customer expects the overhaul and upgrades should bring benefits not only for pilots, but also for aircraft maintenance.
In December 2020, the Nigerian Air Force took over the L-39 after life extension during a ceremony at Kano Air Base in the presence of of its Chief of the Air Staff, Air Marshal Sadique Abubakar. “This will certainly add value to what we are doing in terms of fighting insurgency in the North East as well as armed banditry in the North West,” he noted and he also praised the 403 Flying Training School based in Kano: “I must say that the school has lived up to the expectations of the Nigerian Air Force as it has continued to produce top-notch pilots for the NAF and equally provided the needed air support for the various ongoing internal security operations. The additional aircraft will enable the School to continue to operate optimally,” said Abubakar.
Overhauls of the aircraft, which are currently in Aero, should be completed this year. The squadron of active L-39ZA at the base in Kano will therefore be soon further expanded. And the cooperation between Aero and Nigerian Air Force might be too.
Text by: Tereza Vrublová
Photos by: AERO Vodochody AEROSPACE, Nigerian Air Force