UPDATED 4 November | Eight former Czech Air Force L-159 Alca trainer and light attack aircaft are heading to Iraq in November. They will join the Iraqi Air Force in a deal brokered by US company Draken International. A total of 21 Aero Vodochody L-159 will transfer to Draken International, with an initial eight of those moving on to Iraq. Four more are to follow, plus three spares.
UPDATE | The first L-159s left the Czech Republic on Wednesday 4 November, wearing Iraqi markings. See pics below.
The deal has been in the works for quite some time, with negotiations lasting 18 months and signatures finally inked in 2014. The number of aircaft sold varied a little while talks lasted, but both parties settled for 21 in the end. The Czech Air Force still has 24 L-159 Alcas in service with 212 squadron at Čáslav airbase.
Czech, Hungarian and Swedish Saab JAS 39 Gripens fighters show themselves from every angle during exercise Lion Effort 2015 in the Czech Republic these days. In-flight pictures are a top priority for many. However, not all are aware of the effort and preparations that goes into air-to-air footage.
See here and here for more recent air-to-air footage on Airheadsfly.com.
The actual release of the camera shutter is the culmination of a complex process which eventually makes the day for some of the photographers who get the chance to zoom in on the Gripen flying over Čáslav airbase, where over two dozen Saab Gripens operate alongside each other for two weeks.
This photo shoot was attended by a total of five Gripen jets – one Czech and two Hungarian and Swedish each – as well as one Czech Air Force L-159 ALCA and a CASA C-295.
Preparations begin long before the aircraft are launched. It takes a lot of coordination for the fighter pilots to join up with a Czech Air Force CASA C-295 transport aircraft from Prague-Kbely airbase, carrying the photographers and their equipment – on a space available basis.
Planning the mission involves a pilot briefing to decide which jets will be chosen for the photo session. Subsequently the choreography of the birds is coordinated with the photographers. Together with the pilots they arrange formations that allow unique and visually interesting aspects.
When everything is sorted out and agreed, the participants – jet and transport aircraft crews, the photographers – have to wait for their take off times and hope that the weather will hold.
The top priority is always on the safety of all involved. Various other factors need to be taken into account such as the speed, positioning and altitude of the fighters and the photo platform. Therefore pilots have designed each passing manoeuvre and brought it to perfection – all pilots exactly know their role in the photo shoot.
Once airborne the CASA and Gripen pilots maintain radio contact permanently to handle any challenges that may occur. Everyone involved – the jet pilots and the transport aircraft crews as well as ground controllers and ground handling crews – did an excellent professional job. And as you can see for yourself, the results show.
Lion Effort continues until 23 May, when an airshow at Čáslav celebrates the end of the exercise as well as ten years of flying the Gripen in the Czech Republic.
The Czech Air Force keeps its active combat fleet on 56 aircraft in 2015, the Czech Ministry of Defence acknowledged.
Spearhead of the force are 14 SAAB JAS 39C/D Gripen multi-role fighters, supported by 25 indigenous-developed Vodochody L-159 ALCAs. This brings the total fixed-wing combat aircraft fleet to 39. Closer to the ground 17 Mil Mi-24 and Mi-35 Hind attack helicopters provide a key function on the battlefield, giving the Czech a strenght of 56 aircraft.
Besides the combat aircraft the Czech Air Force in 2015 keeps 9 L-39 advanced training aircraft, 17 transport and observation aircraft (L-410, Yak-40, CL-601 Challenger, A319CJ, CASA/Airbus C295M), plus 35 unarmed transport helicopters (Mi-8, Mi-17 / Mi-171S, W-3A Sokol).
Source: Ministerstvo Obrany České Republiky (MOCR)
The sun and clouds paint a magnificent picture in the sky over Pardubice Airbase in the Czech Republic. The student pilots in two Aero Vodochody L-39C Albatros trainers approaching runway 09 have no eyes for it, and neither have the instructor pilots in the back seat of both aircraft. A nice formation landing completes the training mission, one of many of Centru Leteckého Výcviku (CLV), also known as the Czech Flight Training Center. In ten years of operations, this scene has been repeated countless times by countless student pilots from the Czech Republic and abroad.
After both L-39Cs have successfully performed their formation landing, the aircraft taxi back to the CLV flightline. Minutes before, the ground crew were staring at the fantastic duet between clouds and the sun, but now they focus their attention on the returning aircraft. The student pilots in the front perform post flight checks while the instructors sign the paperwork with an air of casual seniority. They have done this before. Afterwards, students and instructors walk the short distance to the CLV building, while a fuel truck pulls up alongside the Albatros trainers. “The most expensive part of flight training”, says a technician.
Above all, CLV is the main supplier of Czech jet pilots, most of them aspiring to fly the Czech Air Force’s Saab JAS 39C/D Gripens one day. The L-39C Albatros is a proven method, as since its first flight in 1968, almost 3,000 of these sturdy trainers were built by Czech company Aero Vodochody for clients worldwide. The L-39 is an ideal trainer, with the Russian built Ivchenko AI-25TL turbofan supplying 3,792 lbs of thrust, giving the aircraft a top speed of 405 knots and a maximum range of 593 miles on internal fuel. No wonder the next two students at Pardubice eagerly await their instructors. They’re next up for a turn in both L-39Cs.
CLV has seven of these jet trainers available for training future Czech Air Force pilots, next to eight Zlin Z-142 single engine aircraft for elementary training, two L-410 twin engine turboprops for multi-engine aircraft training, plus six Mil Mi-2 Hoplites and six Mil Mi-17 Hips for rotary wing training. With its fleet, CLV covers not only all elementary, basic, advanced and even ‘combat ready’ flight training, but also line maintenance training. The company, part of LOM PRAHA, offers technical training to aircraft technicians from a number of countries.
The airbase of Pardubice is the main operating base for CLV, although extension of operations to the former military base of Přerov is on the cards. “We’re thinking of using Přerov for helicopter training in difficult conditions, such as brown out conditions”, says a company spokesman. The CLV Mil Mi17 training also consists of formation flights, mountain take offs and landing and Night Vision Goggles (NVG) flights. A full mission simulator is also used. Combat and tactical training on the L-39 is also done by simulation, in the Tactical Simulation Center (TSC), also located at Pardubice.
But, the two students now starting up their L-39Cs under the watchful eye of two instructors and the ground crew at the Pardubice flightline, will train for the same thing as just before; formation flying. While they concentrate in their cockpits, out of nowhere, three Czech Air Force Saab JAS 39C show up overhead the airfield. One of them acts as an intruder and is forced to ‘land’ by the other two at Pardubice. The landing actually turns into a low approach, after which the three Gripens disappear.
It’s future stuff for Czech CLV students. In general, the next stage for them after 200 hours on L-39s at CLV, is the L-159 ALCA light attack aircraft, on which they accumulate further flying and tactical experience. Only after a number of years and based on experience gained, they will have a chance of getting to fly Saab Gripen, the Czech prize fighter. A plan is in development however, to mix up pilots a little more between the ALCA and the Gripen. At the moment, only young pilots fly the ALCA, and only senior pilots fly Gripen. This situation is not ideal, according to sources in the Czech Air Force.
It is of no concern yet to the two pilots now taxiing both L-39C Albatros aircraft to the Pardubice runway for another training flight, which will complete today’s CLV flying schedule. The clouds and sun still paint a picture worth looking at. Then, two airborne L-39Cs add to the picture. The scene is a familiar one, and with CLV in town at Pardubice, it will remain a familiar one for years to come.
Sahara sand. It’s not what you’d expect to hear at 07:45hrs on a February morning at the Czech Republic’s airbase of Čáslav. Yet, it’s exactly what the assembled Gripen pilots are told during their morning briefing. The airbase is covered by a fine layer of Sahara sand, brought by yesterday’s rain. The crew smile, because they know their equipment will have no problem with a bit of sand. Nearing a decade of flying the Gripen, the Czech are confident but also looking for further ways to get the maximum out of their prize fighter.
In fact, in some ways the Czech are already getting the max out of their twelve Saab JAS 39C single seaters and two JAS 39D dual-seat Gripens. The Czech Air Force (Vzdušné síly Armády České republiky) has proven to be the type’s most extensive user. The leased aircraft spend more hours in the air than their Swedish brethren.
“We took the lead last year with some of our aircraft passing 1,400 hours of flying time”, says major Jaroslav Tomaňa (38), commander of 211. taktické letky (tactical squadron) during an exclusive interview with AIRheads↑FLY. “We are at the forefront of JAS 39C/D Gripen operations. In 2015 we’ll celebrate ten years of flying this aircraft.” Up to now, the Čáslav Gripens spent 16,840 hours in the air in total.
The Czech have had a steep learning curve behind them, says Tomaňa, who himself has 1,100 hours on the type. Last year, he took command of 211 ‘Gripen’ squadron. “I first flew the JAS 39A Gripen in Sweden in 2005, flying the L-159 ALCA before that. The Gripen immediately proved an amazing, smooth aircraft to fly. But transitioning from the JAS 39A to the C-model was initially quite hard, since we had no two-seat operational trainer available at the time. However, it all worked out.”
The military airfield of Čáslav is
officially known as the 21st Tactical Air Force Base Zvolenská.
It is located just north of the city of Čáslav, about an hour drive (45 mls / 75 km)
east of the Czech capital of Prague. Čáslav is home to the Czech Republic’s only
frontline multi-role fighter unit: 211. taktické letky (tactical squadron)
flying the Swedish made SAAB JAS 39C/D Gripen.
The Czech Air Force is now an almost independent user, with only three staff personnel of the Swedish Armed Forces Materiel Agency (Försvarets Materielverk; FMV) still present at Čáslav. “We have gained a lot of experience over the years, flying and maintaining this machine”, says Tomaňa while just outside the squadron building, preparations for the first sorties of the day are ongoing. Usually during this time of year, an old, truck mounted L-29 Delfin engine is used to clear the runway of ice. Now it is used for clearing the apron of Sahara sand.
The 211 squadron consists of 127 professionals, including 17 qualified Gripen pilots. A further five Czech Gripen pilots are stationed elsewhere – like with the general staff in Prague. 211’s mission is to protect the airspace of the Czech Republic and its NATO allies. Tomaňa: “We have two aircraft on a constant Quick Reaction Alert or QRA, ready to be in the air within 15 minutes. A third aircraft is on standby. This puts quite a lot of stress on the rest of the fleet. Usually we have seven to eight aircraft ready to fly, including those on QRA. The other 4 to 5 aircraft are available for our regular flying program, which should give each pilot 120 hours in the air yearly. They also spend another 40 hours on the simulator.”
But the most fun part is spending time up high above the Czech countryside, practising defensive counter air (DCA) or offensive counter air (OCA) manoeuvres. Sometimes, a bit of dissimilar air combat tactics (DACT) is needed, with L-159 ALCAs acting as opponents, or even better, German EF2000 Eurofighters. Tomaňa: “We occasionally meet up with them somewhere over Germany, because the temporarily reserved airspaces (TRAs) over our country are somewhat limited. It’s good training, and despite the Typhoons better thrust-to-weight ratio, our Gripen performs well. Its smaller size is an advantage in close range air combat. I’m not afraid of the Typhoon”, smiles the squadron boss.
Hooking up with various tankers such as French C-135s or a Swedish tanker C-130 equipped with an in-flight refueling system, is another thing that keeps 211 squadron busy. Fueling up in mid-air requires careful planning and a lot of verification and certification before hook-ups can actually take place.
“It involves a serious amount of work, as tankers are high value assets in peacetime as well”, says Tomaňa, who himself was actually the first Czech pilot ever to perform air-to-air refueling (AAR). “We have to be creative in our planning. For example, last year we flew several AAR-sorties with a Swedish Hercules that visited a Czech airshow. The French tankers we usually meet over France, making these 3.5 hour missions the longest we fly. If along the way we have to land somewhere, it’s no problem because our pilots know how to cross service their own aircraft. It’s a perfect example of the flexibility of Saab Gripen.”
During the traditional Tiger Meet, the yearly gathering of NATO member squadrons that fly the big cat emblem, the Czechs show their flexibility even more. In 2010, number 211 squadron became a full member and immediately took home the silver trophy for best overall tiger squadron. Next June, the Czech will meet their fellow tigers at Schleswig-Jagel in northern Germany. In the not-to-distant future, Czech Gripen pilots will further enhance their performance during these large scale exercise with the addition of real-time data exchange option Link 16.
Thoughts of organizing a Tiger Meet back home at Čáslav are cut short by a lack of funds. Major Tomaňa: “Our resources don’t allow this, but we have come up with a innovative alternative in the shape of a virtual Tiger Meet. This exercise was first held last autumn and proved to be very successful.” Several Tiger squadrons sent delegations to LOM Praha‘s hi-tech Tactical Simulation Centre (TSC) in Pardubice, where pilots and Ground Controlled Intercept (GCI) operators practised tactical simulations with the help of eight interlinked cockpit simulators and two GCI stations. The TSC provides full NATO standard briefing and debriefing facilities.
During AIRheads↑FLY’s visit at Čáslav, the daily program had several training flights, a tango (training) scramble – with squadron boss Tomaňa himself taking part – and a display practice for the upcoming airshow season. “We have a busy schedule this year. Apart from the QRA task here at Čáslav, we will take on the Iceland Air Policing mission in the second half of 2014. That means running two QRA operations at a time, stretching our resources. In 2016 we will provide the Iceland Air Policing mission once more. We are also planning the Baltic Air Policing mission in 2019, like we did in 2009 and 2012.”
Gripen User Group
Besides the Czech meeting NATO obligations, they contribute to the Gripen User Group (GuG). This co-operation of air forces currently flying the JAS 39 fighter is aimed at sharing logistics and experiences. The GuG’s member nations are Sweden, the Czech Republic, Hungary, South Africa and Thailand. The number of flying hours give the Czech an experience advantage, which they share with the other Gripen users.
The Saab aircraft is bound to serve the Czech Air Force for another 14 years, although finalization of the lease extension has been delayed somewhat by a change of government. Major Tomaňa is confident: “It’s a matter of time. The Gripen was and still is the best choice for our country.”