Unveiling the potential of Aero’s L‑39NG in modern defense aviation

Date 8.8.2023

In the realm of aviation, various aircraft fill the skies, each with its unique purpose and capability. Among these, Aero’s L‑39NG, emerging from the heritage of the iconic L-39 series, holds a special place, standing as a testament to over a hundred years of aviation tradition in the heart of Europe. The L‑39NG represents Aero’s continued commitment to nurturing top-tier aviators worldwide for the next 50 years.

This subsonic jet is a significant step forward in Aero’s journey, being both modern and cost-effective. It features new design elements, improved avionic systems and the ability to integrate a variety of advanced payloads. This versatility allows it to serve a range of roles, from training and reconnaissance to light attack missions. Filip Gunnar Kulstrunk, the Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer at AERO Vodochody AEROSPACE a.s., is guiding this merger of past successes and future goals. Kulstrunk’s international experience in business, program management and leadership roles in the defense industry, combined with his education from the University of Oxford and the Manchester Business School, equips him well for navigating the intricacies of the defense aviation sector. Join us in a conversation with Filip as we delve into the future of the L‑39NG, focusing on its design philosophy, capabilities, and positioning in current and future pilot training systems.

Let’s explore Aero’s long-standing legacy and its aspirations, emphasizing their commitment to providing military jet fighter pilots with the necessary systems, technology, and support to ensure our world’s safety.

Filip, reflecting on the past year, can you share some of the significant achievements since you joined Aero?

The past year was very successful, particularly in terms of sales and advocacy for our interests both locally and internationally. My role primarily involves securing new contracts, and we’ve successfully secured two important agreements for the L‑39NG. The first was with Hungary in April, followed by one with LOM Praha, a Czech state-owned company, in November. These contracts are incredibly significant. Through LOM, we’ve established a domestic reference customer in the Czech Republic, where the L‑39NG will be the cornerstone of Czech Air Force pilot training. This naturally increases the interest from further international customers who often inquire about the domestic use of our aircraft. We also secured important customer support and services contracts, specifically for the L-159 of the Czech Air Force and the L-39 of the Bulgarian Air Force. In Bulgaria, we will overhaul and modernize the existing L-39s, provide additional equipment, ground crew and pilot training, before introducing the L‑39NG.  This approach is proving successful, which was further confirmed by another order from the Angolan Air Force in February this year, for the modernization of their L-39s, this time including re-engining with a new Williams engine, which is used in the L‑39NG.When looking at the L-39, our main goal is to continue supporting our key users, extend the operational lifespan of their L-39 aircraft through overhauls and modernizations for a few years. Then, after reaching their operational limits we can extract most of the newly installed aggregates, including the engine and avionics, and incorporate them into the L‑39NG. This is the ideal way to maintain continuity while radically increasing the capability of the user to train and perform light attack missions.

Can you explain the range of services that Aero offers its customers?

For our legacy platforms, we very much focus on general overhauls, modernization, and through life support services, such as integrated logistics support, engineering services and various training packages. However, for the L‑39NG system, we have introduced a wider, more complex range of new services aimed at maximizing the availability of the customer fleet, as well as state-of-the-art on-board and ground-based simulation solutions. We work very closely with our strategic partner, VR Group, to provide a variety of simulator solutions. These range from desktop trainers to fully certified, immersive full mission simulators. The time spent in these simulators is equivalent to the actual flight time in the L-39NG, thanks to full certification, compatible software, and an identical cockpit layout. This provides our customers with increased safety, reduces training costs, and gives them complete flexibility in their training curriculum, which they can tailor to their needs. While countries continue to have different views on the optimal balance between simulators and real flight hours, we see a clear trend in the increasing use of simulation for advanced aircraft systems. However, no matter how advanced a simulator is, it has its limits, and pilots will always need significant real flying experience. Real flight experience, or what we call „airmanship”, is vital and cannot be replaced. Studies show that pilots, although they can execute missions perfectly in a simulator, often struggle to reach the same level of proficiency in real flight if they do not have sufficient airmanship skills and experience.

Could you outline the main differences and advancements when comparing the L‑39NG with its predecessor, the L-39?

Aero has kept the aircraft’s aerodynamic design philosophy – it’s still a low-wing monoplane, built robustly to withstand heavy usage, operate from unpaved surfaces, require minimal maintenance, and resist potential accidents or damage, like foreign object damage or hard landings. The result is safety, ease of use, simple maintenance and low cost of operation – all of which is crucial for pilot training.  At the same time however, the L‑39NG truly is a brand-new aircraft. We now use a substantial amount of composites for the airframe to lower the total weight of the aircraft. We have removed the wing-tip fuel tanks and introduced wet wings, resulting in better maneuverability and lower fuel consumption. We now have a full glass canopy which, combined with an elevated seat of the rear pilot, provides much better visibility and awareness. The aircraft is powered by a brand-new engine, the American-made Williams FJ44-4M, a militarized version of the engine used in business jets. This engine stands out for its long service life and cost-efficiency – it’s economical, not fuel-hungry, a crucial characteristic for a training aircraft. This aircraft is designed to fly frequently, enabling a pilot to learn all basic, intermediate, and some advanced flight and tactical maneuvers. Therefore, they spend time in the air, sharpening their skills and their ability to think and control the aircraft without being overly stressed. This allows the modern pilot, whose primary task these days is not so much controlling the aircraft but communicating and processing information, to fully concentrate on making tactical decisions to successfully perform the mission. For this purpose, we have modernized the avionics, with head-up displays and two large multi-functional displays, providing all information the pilot needs. We newly have an integrated virtual training system where we use a simulated radar to create and train tactical scenarios. In terms of technical parameters, the aircraft has a certification for 15,000 flight hours and overload tolerances for substantial stress: -4G +8G. It features five hard points for various payloads (sensors, bombs, rockets etc.), enabling the L‑39NG to perform reconnaissance and light attack, air-to-air and air-to-ground missions, such as border patrolling, close air support, neutralization of low and slow flying targets, and much more. Being a jet aircraft, the reaction time is much faster than performing similar missions with a turbo-prop aircraft or helicopters, which can mean the difference between mission failure and success. For many of our customers, this fast, flexible light attack capability added on top of pilot training is extremely important, so this is a big focus for us going forward.

Could you explain the main competitive advantages that distinguish the L‑39NG from other platforms in the market?

Our L‑39NG is unique in its category, and we don’t have direct competition – our nearest competitor is the Italian manufacturer Leonardo with the M-345 – but we don’t see evidence of it being a serially produced and utilized aircraft due to continued technical issues. Generally, Leonardo is our main competitor within Europe with their M-346 platform, which is significantly higher in terms of flight performance and avionics systems, but also, naturally, cost of acquisition, cost of ownership and overall complexity of operation.

So rather than comparing platforms, I always focus on understanding the requirements and constraints of our customers, specifically their current aircraft inventory, training syllabus and their mission objectives, all in the context of any financial constraints. The L‑39NG covers a position from advanced turboprops up to advanced trainers, and we define ourselves for basic and advanced training and conclude somewhere at lead-in-fighter-training (LIFT), where we are partially limited by the engine power and aerodynamic design. Vital to us today are the Czech and Hungarian customers, who are creating new NATO Flying Training Europe (NFTE) campuses and have selected the L‑39NG as their main training component. Both will in the short and medium term use the L‑39NG to transition to the Gripen – they’ll go from a turboprop to the L‑39NG, then to the simulator or a quick outsourced LIFT course, and then to the Gripen. Air Forces today start to increasingly utilize shared training centers, such as NFTE campuses, and in some areas, it makes a lot of sense. It’s vitally important for pilots from various NATO countries to foster cooperation and ensure interoperability by spending time together, training together and learning from each other. This is especially true during international exercises or collaborative training within flight schools. Sharing knowledge and capacities adds significant value to the training process. In a potential conflict situation, NATO must respond as a unified entity. Therefore, it’s crucial that pilots can communicate effectively and are also familiar with each other’s work habits and operational procedures. Still, having said that, I firmly believe that this should only form a minor part of a training syllabus, as preserving a state’s ability to train its own pilots is essential.

The L‑39NG will form the core training platform in Hungary and the Czech Republic. The Hungarian Air Force is rebuilding its national capability to train jet fighter pilots and will implement all the skills, experience and lessons learned from training at NFTC Canada in the past 20 years. This is a perfect example of an Air Force realizing how crucial domestic training capacity is, as well as willing to contribute to EU and NATO allies. On the other hand, LOM Praha, through its subsidiary – Centrum Leteckého Výcviku (CLV) in Pardubice, is already a significant player in the field of pilot training, providing pilot training not only for the Czech Air Force, but also other customers. By becoming an NFTE campus and with the L‑39NG, CLV is perfectly positioned to increase the range of pilot training services both domestically and in Europe. After operating the L-39, CLV will receive four L‑39NGs, with options for additional batches of four aircraft within the next three years. This investment in the L‑39NG positions LOM Praha and CLV as our key customer and partner going forward. The introduction of the L‑39NG expands the range of procedures that pilots can learn and broadens the content of training that can be conducted in the Czech Republic. It’s worth noting that the training program is currently optimized for Gripen training, with some elements being performed by the Air Force on the L-159 platform, on simulators, and in Sweden. This shift indicates the growing importance of training pilots for 4th and 5th generation aircraft, domestically and worldwide.

Could you update us on the current production progress of the L‑39NG and give some hints about its future prospects for our customers?

At Aero, we handle over 400 suppliers. In the L‑39NG program, about 60% of our suppliers are based in the Czech Republic, with whom we have strong, long- standing relationships. Our focus is to successfully manage our supply chain and continue modernizing our own production, to ensure timely delivery of our contractual commitments. It is important to understand that since the world has seen many shocks in recent years that have had big impacts, naturally we face challenges, such as availability and increasing prices of raw materials, subcomponents and shortage of skilled colleagues. These are challenges for the whole aerospace industry, and we are doing our best to handle it.

Our production is in full gear, with the ability to produce 12 aircraft a year. We are taking steps and are in the process of increasing our capacity to 17 aircraft a year by the end of next year, if we activate the investment in new machinery and human capacity – this will be decided by further orders. For now, we are practically fully booked until late 2025 with a typical 24-month lead time. The first serial aircraft will be delivered to customers in the second half of this year.

Could you discuss the potential of introducing the L‑39NG into the fleet of the Czech Republic’s armed forces?

Apart from training, the L‑39NG is capable of performing certain reconnaissance and light attack tasks. The Czech Air Force currently uses the Aero L-159 for the performance of training and light combat missions. The L-159 is a capable, reliable, hard-working platform in mid-way through its lifecycle, with a good 20 years ahead. We are currently looking into modernization options, primarily focused on reliability and obsolescence management, but also adding new capabilities. Should the Czech Armed Forces decide for it, the potential and role of the L-159 can be greatly expanded through modernization and the addition of new technologies. This is something we have already done with some of our other customers and could offer for the Czech Air Force as well. Whether its increased combat capability, increased training capability, or both, everything today is on the table. We are currently awaiting the release of the new Concept of the Czech Armed Forces, which should provide more clarity on the requirements and roles of the L-159 in the future. Should the Air Force decide to also add the L‑39NG into its fleet, we are ready to optimize the platform to be interoperable with the chosen fighter aircraft, once a decision is reached.  When I look at it objectively, the use of our platforms is currently greater for the Gripen, than potentially for F-35 aircraft. We definitely would appreciate a close relationship and collaboration with the manufacturer of the next fighter to be chosen by the Czech Republic.

Could you talk about the future enhancements planned for the L‑39NG platform, or maybe any new or upcoming platforms currently under development at Aero?

Our primary focus is on the L‑39NG. Aero today has three pillars: 1. L‑39NG 2. MRO (maintenance of L-39 and L-159) and Industrial Cooperation (aerostructures – Airbus, Embraer and others). The L‑39NG success is critical for the future of Aero and the platform indeed has a huge potential. We are focused on offering the L‑39NG in the current, certified configuration, but at the same time, we are already planning to improve capabilities – the “next generation” L‑39NG – more advanced avionic systems, continued integration of modern weapons and payloads are definitely the focus. We want another upgrade of the current aircraft’s capabilities in both training and light military mission fulfillment. Our primary goal is to offer a modern system for all phases of jet pilot training at a reasonable price. Generally, there is still a need to train a large number of pilots, and we say: here is an inexpensive platform to acquire and very cheap and sustainable to operate, in which the pilot has to learn to fly. The next step is to increase the value of the training, where we already train on this. At the same time, it is vital to understand that improvements must not only be made to the aircraft itself, but to the entire training system around the aircraft, the quality of simulators, the interconnection of simulators with live L‑39NGs but also other types of aircraft, at once in a live, virtual and constructive system. Such a system enables the creation of endless scenarios and hence truly maximizes training possibilities.

Interviewed and edited: Katerina Urbanova
Photo credit: Jan Pirgl, APC Geert Van de Put, AERO Vodochody

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