Blue camouflage rocket ride – my flight in an L-39

I flew the L-39 jet, a former Russian military jet trainer, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The engine is a turbofan, giving it delightful, “push you back against the seat” power when you go to full throttle. Larry Salganek, master aviator and chief instructor, flew with me of course. I flew it from start to finish, Larry bravely never touching the controls, just offering advice through the hot mic.

L-39 on ramp
The hardest part? Getting in and taxiing the airplane.

I gladly agreed to Larry’s suggestion that he taxi it out of the crowded parking area because to steer, you press the rudder in the desired direction, then with your right little finger below the stick grip, press a bicycle-like brake lever – not natural at first but easy to learn. Out of the chocks and on the taxiway, he gave it to me, taking it back only after rollout after my full stop landing.

Before leaving for Santa Fe, I studied the L-39 Pilot Handbook, studying procedures, controls, airspeeds, power settings, and fuel management. Most importantly, I also got for Microsoft Flight Simulator X the L-39 aircraft program, which translates extremely well to flying the real thing. At the Santa Fe airport, I got some cockpit time, finding that the simulator experience made me feel very much at home in the actual cockpit.

Preflight accomplished, Larry signaled to plug in the ground power cart which energized the built-in APU, a small “Sapphire” jet engine aft in the L-39 which spins up the main turbine engine. A twirl of the fingers to the ground crew, starter was engaged, a sharp whoosh of air was first heard, then a low thrum as the turbine began to spin. Starter air produced 22%. The APU spun the engine to 45% and then turned off automatically.

Starting fuel was selected and with a low rumbling and tremor I felt in the seat of my pants, the start sequence begin. The tailpipe exhaust gas temp needle swung upward toward 540 degrees Celsius and the tach settled on 55%, normal idle rpm.

Ground power removed, we received taxi clearance and set flaps down 1/2. Larry spooled up power, got us out of the parking area, then I tried my hand at taxi. Once rolling, the unique taxi/steering system quickly becomes intuitive.

Cleared onto the active for takeoff, I lined us up on runway 20. Brakes set, power to 85%, systems checked, controls clear, throttle 105%, 600 degrees Celsius, left to right around the panel checked, I advised Tower that we were rolling on 20, and I released my fingers from the brake lever. The takeoff felt quicker than my trusty old Air Force T-33, more like the spirited United Airlines Canadair twin jet on which United brought us here. She handled easily, only a nudge of rudder as we accelerated to rudder speed of 85 knots. Takeoff airspeed 100 knots, and I eased in the 10-degree nose-up pitch attitude. In the backseat this put the horizon right on the bottom of Larry’s ejection seat headrest up front. (Our ejection seats were not active but we wore chutes. This is what you sit on… and what straps you in.)

L-39 cockpit
“The aircraft was frisky, yet stable, and a pure delight to fly.”

I held that 10 degree pitch attitude, then as the L-39’s wings took up the load, we flew off, the trailing-link main gears bumping, extending to hydraulic stops. Quickly, 130 knots showed on the airspeed, I increased pitch a bit to hold that for the climb, reducing power to 95%, two flicks of up trim. Climb rate was about 2,000 fpm. The aircraft was frisky, yet stable, and a pure delight to fly. I put the nose where I want it, added a couple of flicks of trim and she held steady as a rock. Pitch trim was a thumb operated “coolie hat” atop the stick grip. At level off, Larry invited me to “just try her out and get a feel for it.” I obliged using the flat topped cloud deck at 12,000 as my hard deck, rolling and turning, free as a breeze.

The jet was extremely powerful, quick, responsive almost to my thoughts and hand pressures, and a joy to fly. With a few hours in a Cessna 172 and a study of the L-39 handbook, any private pilot reading this could fly this one. At 25,000 feet and 95%, I flew about 300-450 knots, did some steep turns, stall series, barrel rolls, loops and a cloverleaf, rolled within puffy white cumulus hallways and canyons within brilliant towering cloud castles.

We had Approach Control’s clearance for a maneuvering block of airspace well off airways, floor 10,000 feet, ceiling 30,000 feet. I would just roll the plane lazily over, drop the sleek nose toward the desert and feel the thrumming speed in my seat as the airspeed needle raced around the dial towards our limiting Mach. Below us we saw dry riverbeds snaking back and forth on the sun-parched desert floor; a few white sand trails crossed the dry, empty landscape. Specks of green cactus and Joshua trees were scattered below us, and with a wrist pressure I made planet Earth turn and spin below us. Trading airspeed for altitude, I brought us near vertical, doing continued aileron rolls until she trembled a bit – telling me to roll out.

Upside down
Now this is fun.

I wished the ailerons had hydraulic boost; it took forearm muscle for rolling maneuvers in aerobatics as well as in the traffic pattern. After the hour flight, my arms felt as if I had been arm wrestling. The rear seat was nicely elevated so I had a clear view over Larry’s head up front; the cockpit is well designed, ergonomic control locations, everything in easy reach. Good peripheral vision all around. Pure joy to fly.

Most enjoyable were the touch and go’s we did after the free-wheeling aerobatics. We shot maybe a dozen touch and go’s. Our pattern stayed full – airliners, helicopters, bizjets – so we flew rectangular patterns like you fly at your home airport in a Cessna. Pattern speed downwind is 130 knots, holding minimum of 80% power, because with the gear, 1/2 flaps and speed brakes the aircraft has lots of drag, and once you drop below 130 knots dirty, it takes loads of power to recover. On final I preferred half flaps, because I could set my touchdown more accurately, and could hold the nose off longer than with full flaps.

Final is 120 knots absolutely minimum. I found that over the fence, I would start pulling power, hold the nose wheel off, keeping Larry’s ejection seat marker on the horizon. For a touch and go, keep the nose wheel up, bringing in power to 107 %. Once established in a positive climb, gear up then flaps up at 130 knots. I shot two military 360 overhead pitch-outs, but with the stiff ailerons, this was work. Touch and go’s were the real fun part to me: on go-around, the power of that thundering engine thrust really accelerated us.

As we taxied back to park after the flight, Larry asked me, “Bill, how old are you?” I told him and he replied, “I sure hope I can fly as good as you did today when I get to be 82.” My reaction to that nice compliment was Dirty Harry’s famous line, “Go ahead… make my day.”

5 Comments

  • Thanks, Cameron. This is a beautiful flying machine. On the preflight and up close it was obvious it is a very well designed and carefully manufactured aircraft.

    Bill

  • Great story Bill. I have seen a dozen or more pictures of the L-39, but have never read a pilots report of someone actually flying one. Sounds like a civilian fighter jet, someone can actually fly. My dream plane is the F-16. Just a rocket with wings. Thanks for all of your magazine articles on flying and experiences in the various aircraft you have flown. Gary

  • Hi Bill, you are an inspiration to all of us senior pilots. Not only are you still a great stick and rudder pilot but your ability to relate your adventure, in the written word, is extraordinary. I have enjoyed your prose for many decades. Please keep up the great work! Do you currently still have a canine co-pilot?

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