Czechoslovak Aviation History
 

Czechoslovak Aviation History

By Radek Adamec  radamec@at.ibmmail.com

 
 
 
 
 
 

Legends

The Czech counterpart of Ikaros was Vit Fucik, also called Kudlicka (little knife) for his manual skills. According to a folk legend, he made wings from wood rods and bladders filled with natural gas, and used these to fly to the market in Pisek. Since his existence is doubtful, we'll stick with recorded facts.

Balloons

The first balloon was launched in 1783 by the Montgolfier brothers. The first manned flight took place the same year.

The first balloon in the Czech lands was launched one year later by Tadeas Hanka, a scholar.

First Attempts

In the days of balloons and airships, during the 1800s, many pioneers attempted to build "heavier than air" aircraft. These included Czech technician Vaclav Kaderavek with his "Czech flying machine". His attempts failed, because man powered or electro-magnet powered flight exceeded technical and financial possibilities of the day.

First Aircraft

The first real flight was realized by the Wright brothers with an engine powered biplane in the US in 1903. Santos Dumont took off in his aircraft in Paris in 1906. In 1909, Louis Bleriot crossed the English Channel.

Pilsen and Pardubice were the centers of Czech aviation in early 1900s. A flying club was founded in Pilsen in 1910. Its members, such as Cermak, Tucek, Bloudek, Potucek and Simunek, significantly influenced the development of aviation in the country. Aviation activities of the day reached their peak in the pioneering flights by Jan Kaspar and Eugen Cihak. Jan Kaspar covered the distance of 120 kilometers from Pardubice to Prague in his Bleriot in 1911: the longest flight in Austria-Hungary. Eugen Cihak became the first recognized Czech aircraft designer. He and his brother Hugo built their famous Rapid, which outclassed most of the contemporary types.

The fame of Czech aviation was spread significantly by one of the first female pilots in the world - Bozena Langlerova. The courage of this woman is admirable considering she had a crash during her first test, and suffered serious injuries. After she recovered, she enrolled for the test once again, and got her certificate in September 1911.

World War I

In the First World War, the Czechs served in the Austro-Hungarian army, but mass desertions were widespread. Czechoslovak legions were formed in France, Italy and Russia to fight for Czechoslovak independence from Austria-Hungary. This is why Czech pilots could be found on both sides of the conflict. Many Czech pilots were trained in France due to the activities of M. R. Stefanik - a Slovak scientist, French pilot and one of the founding fathers of Czechoslovakia.

The Creation of Czechoslovak Air Force

In October 1918, former Czech members of Austro-Hungarian squadrons met on the Zofin island in Prague. At that time nobody knew they were founding one of Europe's distinguished air forces. Many enthusiastic men gathered around sergeant Kostrba, but there were no planes to fly. That's why it was a matter of high importance to obtain the largest possible number of aircraft for the republic, and find suitable airfields. Several undamaged airplanes were obtained from the former flying school in Cheb. These were flown to a meadow in Strasnice, which became the first Prague airport. Several foreign types were soon added to the original trainers from Cheb.

The new air force was helped significantly by a French donation of 127 aircraft. This help was not quite as unselfish as it looked: France wanted to gain a new market for their military production in newly created Czechoslovakia.

Young Czech experts opposed attempts to make Czechoslovak aviation dependent on France. Especially well-known designers Alois Smolik, Antonin Vlasak, Antonin Husnik, Pavel Benes and Miroslav Hajn had their own ideas for the Czechoslovak air force. These ideas were very specific, because each of them represented an aircraft manufacturer.

This is why the first tests of Czech made aircraft were eagerly awaited. They were supposed to decide the future of the Czechoslovak aviation industry. The test results of Smolik's S-1 biplane were favorable for the local aircraft development and production. Final decision was taken after S-1 was joined by Aero Ae-02 and Avia BH-1. Local production beat the import.

At this time Czech aircraft were largely unknown and even ignored abroad. The aircraft of WW1 powers prevailed. It is not surprising that the first Prague Aviation Exhibition in 1920 went unnoticed abroad. The Czechs made up for this at the international aviation meeting in Zurich two years later. Alois Jezek, the company pilot of Letov, came in third with his S-3 in the category of precision take off and landing. He was also seventh in aerobatics.

Another company - Avia - also made the country famous. Czechoslovakia was among the first countries to start serial production of low-wing fighters. These were Avia BH-3's, direct successors to the very first low-wing aircraft in the country - Avia BH-1 Experimental. These were followed by the well known "Boska": the exceptionally successful Avia BH-5. This type was made famous by doctor Zdenek Lhota with his competition machine marked L-BOSA: thence the nickname of "Boska".

Doctor Lhota was an aviation enthusiast who quit his successful practice as a lawyer to link his future with the Avia factory. He gained the first trophy for Czechoslovakia in 1923, winning the Brussels International Tourist Aircraft Contest. His skyrocketing career continued until 1926. In that year he flew to Italy to defend the most valued trophy of the day - Coppa d'Italia Cup - which had been held by Avia since Frantisek Fritsch won the contest in 1925. Doctor Lhota flew the BH-11 low-wing monoplane. He disregarded the designers' instructions and performed headlong flight during the preparations. This caused a crash and Lhota died together with his engineer Volenik. Czechoslovakia won the trophy anyway. Another pair of pilots, Bican and Kinsky, won the contest and defended the valuable trophy for Czechoslovakia.

The aviation of the 1920's was not just Avia and doctor Lhota. Frantisek Lehky broke the world record at 100 kilometers with standard load on Aero A-12 on September 7, 1924. Karel Fritsch won the above mentioned Coppa d'Italia in Rome in November 1925, and one year later pilot Stanovsky undertook a long distance flight with Aero A-11. This was a trip around Europe across the tip of Africa and Asia Minor.

Captain Malkovsky was among the best Czechoslovak pilots of the late 1920s. He started the tradition of Czech aerobatics. His red Avia BH-21 was the top attraction of most public shows, and he was one of the first pilots in the country to master higher aerobatics. Unfortunately, he got killed at an air show in Karlovy Vary in 1930. Other distinguished personalities of pre-war aerobatics include Hubacek, Novak and Siroky. Frantisek Novak, in particular, is considered the best Czechoslovak aerobatic pilot of all time.

The Avia factory was the avant-garde: their low-wing series was very much ahead of its time. On the other hand, these planes had various problems, especially in that they required careful control. Most pilots were used to comfortable flying with stable biplanes, so there were many accidents with Avia monoplanes. This is why the company had to switch to biplanes. The designers did a good job again building the above mentioned biplane Avia BH-21, made famous by captain Malkovsky. Other famous Avia types included the best Czech serial fighter B-534, as well as modern low-wing planes B-35 and B-135. These last two types were built just before WW2, and were still undergoing further development in 1938 when Czechoslovakia was dismembered by Germany. Later, these planes were seized by the Germans, just like the entire country. Avia B-35 was a very promising design. Its prototype was flown with fixed landing gear, and an engine from the B-534 because the gear and engine intended for this plane were not ready yet. In spite of this, the aircraft achieved the speed of 480 kmph and showed excellent handling qualities. After the German takeover its development continued. It resulted in Avia B-135. Twelve of these machines were sold to Bulgaria in 1941 together with the manufacturing license. It is too bad this plane was developed so late and never had the opportunity to oppose the German army. It can be assumed this plane would have been a worthy opponent for the Messerschmitt.

Avia B-534 was an excellent machine, and its only fault was that it was not replaced in time. It was used by many air forces well into the war. The last biplane kill of WW2 was scored by F. Cyprich flying an Avia B-534 on September 2, 1944. This was in the Slovak uprising, and the plane shot down was a German Ju 52/3m in the area of Radvan.

The Letov factory continued with their successful line started by the Letov S-1 biplane. This light bomber had a wooden airframe with canvas cover. The 1926 S-16 model is among the best of Smolik's designs. This biplane was used by lieutenant-colonel Skala and engineer Taufr for their long distance flight to Japan. The most modern of Smolik's design was a full-metal two engine bomber S-50. It was also seized by the Nazis.

The Aero company also started with biplanes. The very first Aero design, the Ae-02 fighter, was a success. It was followed by a reconnaissance biplane A-12, and a very interesting high-wing bomber A-42. The 1930 design was the most modern Czech bomber of the day. Due to some of its faults and the lack of understanding in the military administration, this plane stayed a prototype. Aero also attempted a fighter monoplane A-102, but this project was abandoned when Avia came up with a more modern design (B-35). Aero produced the most modern Czech pre-war bombers (with the exception of Avia's licensed production of the Soviet SB-2 bomber). These bombers were Aero A-300 and A-304. They too were captured by the Nazis.

These lines create the impression that the Czechoslovak aviation industry only consisted of Avia, Letov and Aero. In reality, there were other companies such as Praga, Tatra, Zlin, Benes-Mraz, as well as designers including Jaroslav Slechta, Karel Tomas, Frantisek Novotny, Robert Nebesar and Jaroslav Lonek.

The Czechoslovak air force and aviation industry played a distinguished role between the wars. It was not the fault of Czech pilots or their machines that they never got the chance to stand up to the enemy.

World War 2

Although Czechoslovakia was taken without a fight, we can say proudly that Czech pilots did a good job during the war. They started leaving the country in 1939 to oppose Germany abroad. They went to Poland, Yugoslavia and France. After the war started, they were at all fronts, in all kinds of uniforms and airplanes, helping to stop the attacker.

They saw their first great victory in the Battle of Britain, where they were among the best. Pilots in the 311th Czechoslovak Bomber Squadron performed night bombings over enemy territory.

Following an agreement between the Czechoslovak government in London and the Soviet Union, some Czech pilots went to the Eastern front. They formed the first Czechoslovak Fighter Regiment, whose members were the first Czechoslovak exile soldiers to enter the liberated Czechoslovak soil. This was during the Slovak uprising. The group of pilots from the West was joined by Czechs living in the Soviet Union and deserters from the Slovak fascist army. The regiment was then expanded to a combined division flying both fighters and attack aircraft. A bomber regiment was planned, but was not formed by the end of the war.

In the meantime, the Czechs at the western front kept fighting the Luftwaffe. They patrolled the Atlantic, destroyed the V1 missiles and took part in the invasion of Normandy.

There is no exaggeration in saying that while nobody knew about Czech pilots in 1918, they were among the best in the world in 1945.

After WW2

In 1945, the Czech pilots returned home with their Spitfires and Lavochkins used in the war. These machines became the standard fighters in the first post-war years. There were also some planes left behind by the Luftwaffe. New planes were delivered by Avia. During the war, the company produced Messerchmitts Bf-109 for the Reich. The natural thing to do was continue with this production. There were, however, no original engines for the Bf-109 in the country. That's why the engine was replaced by a heavier and more powerful type, which was plentiful. The plane was too nose heavy and the engine was overpowered for the design. The Avia designers did their best to improve the qualities of the plane, but this was only partly successful. The result was called Avia S-199, and its two-seater version was CS-199. The pilots called it "mezek" - a short form of Messerschmitt, but also the Czech expression for "the mule", due to its mule-like behavior. The plane was difficult to balance, and had a tendency to roll over during the landing (this was a problem even with the original Bf-109). If this happened, the engineers had to smash the cabin with a long pole to get the helpless pilot out. When the pilot revved up the engine during the take-off, the movement was so strong that the plane was in danger of hitting the ground with the wing. In spite of these problems, hundreds of S-199's were produced and used until 1955.

The moment of glory for S-199 came with the Israeli war of independence. Czechoslovakia was the only country ready to equip Israel with aircraft and train their pilots. A number of Spitfires and Avias were delivered to Israel. Israeli pilots learned to use the excessive engine moment for unexpected sharp turns in combat. According to some sources, if it hadn't been for Avias, there would be no Israel. It is ironic that the only Czech plane that played a decisive role in a real conflict was at the same time one of the worst Czech designs.

The communist coup of 1948 was an important turning point. From this time, Czechoslovak aviation became increasingly dependent on the Soviet Union, which had no interest in a prosperous Czechoslovakia. The superior light industry was suppressed and replaced by heavy industry. Aircraft manufacturers had to move to a different kind of production. Avia made licensed Soviet aircraft in the beginning, but starting from early 60s, aircraft production was stopped. Avia now makes trucks.

The licensed Soviet aircraft made in Avia included Il-10 and Il-14, while Kunovice produced Yak-1 trainers. The army used Soviet made jets: Yak-23, Mig-15, 17, 19, 21, 23 and 29. Bombers included Il-28, Su-7 and Su-25.

There was one positive aspect to this development. The Soviets never spared any expense on their weaponry, so their aircraft were mostly top of the league. Since some MiG's and Sukhois were made in Czechoslovakia, the know-how could be used in original Czech designs. These were the first Czechoslovak jet L-29 Delfin, its aerobatic version L-29A, and Aero L-39 Albatros. The Delfin was chosen as the standard trainer jet in the Warsaw Pact, and hundreds of them were produced. It is still used for training in many countries. The experience gained on Delfin was used in the construction of the best Czech aircraft so far, Aero L-39 Albatros. (Vanity makes me mention that my father made some of the electronics for the Albatros. R.A.)

Passenger Transport

The beginnings were hard. Lack of suitable airports, planes and experienced pilots delayed the first commercial flight until 1923. There were some earlier attempts, mostly oriented on sightseeing, but they did not succeed. As in most countries, air transport was started by the army. The first airliners were modified military machines with military pilots.

The first test flight was performed by the military transport group from Prague to Bratislava in 1923. The aircraft used was Aero A-14: originally an observer two-seater biplane Hansa-Brandenburg.

The equipment used by the military transport group was taken over by the Czechoslovak State Airlines (CSA) the same year. At first they used a collection of foreign aircraft, but these were later replaced by new Czechoslovak designs and some leading foreign machines. One of the first Czech built airliners was Aero A-10, which can be seen at the Aviation Museum in Kbely.

The improving financial situation of the company made it possible to buy aircraft abroad, and introduce more demanding flights. Saro Cloud, the British amphibian two-engine high-wing aircraft was used for the Prague - Brno - Bratislava - Zagreb - Susak connection. The plane took off from a normal airport in Prague and touched down on the sea near the Yugoslav spa of Susak.

A new express connection from Prague to Moscow was started in 1935. The aircraft used was Airspeed AS-6 Envoy: a British two-engine low-wing aircraft called the Russian express. The flight took 9 to 10 hours.

The Prague airport was turning into an international crossroads.

The second largest airline in the country was the Czechoslovak Aviation Company (CLS). It used the BH-25, the first Avia airliner, and the top of the league aircraft of the day - Douglas DC-2 and DC-3.

The situation in 1945 was similar to 1918: transportation was managed by the military. In March 1946, CSA and CLS merged to form the Czechoslovak Airlines (CSA). Unlike in 1918, there were enough pilots, but aircraft was a problem. Former Luftwaffe machines were used, including some adapted bombers. The situation improved with the purchase of surplus American military Dakotas. After the communist coup of 1948, western aircraft was out of the question. CSA bought Soviet Ilyushins Il-12 and Il-14, also made in Avia. Other aircraft used were Tu-104, Tu-124, and Tu-134 as well as Jakovlev's and Iljushin's designs. The Czechoslovak aviation industry worked on in spite of all kinds of hurdles. Avia was prevented from the production of a new turbo-propelled airliner, and its aircraft production was abolished as a whole, but development continued in Let Kunovice. Their two-engine turbo-propelled medium distance airliner L-410 was first flown in 1969. Excellent steering qualities, economical operation and reliability made it a success both in Czechoslovakia and abroad. The best CSA airliners today include turbo-propelled L-610 from Kunovice and Airbus A-300.

Air-taxi

The first attempts at building a small passenger aircraft date back to early 1930s. Ing. Jaroslav Slechta built his Praga E-120 four-seater. It was an exceptionally modern machine in its time: a high-wing monoplane with two engines placed at the trailing edge in a push configuration. Ing. Slechta was very much ahead of the time with this machine, and his design was copied in many countries. His work was interrupted by the war.

The Aero Ae-45 was an elegant two-engine low-wing aircraft used after the war. It was introduced in 1947. It's qualities can be illustrated by the fact that Ae-45, and its successor Ae-145, is still used in a few flying clubs. The Aero 45-145 product line was also the first Czech built aircraft to cross the Atlantic. Aero Ae-45, Ae-45S and Ae-145 were followed by another successful two-engine type - L-200 Morava. This machine is also still in use.

Helicopters

The first helicopter patent in the country was granted in 1919. This was followed by various amateur designs.

Real helicopter development started after 1945. It was headed by Jaroslav Slechta, who had acquired know-how during his Totaleinsatz (compulsory assignment by the Nazis) in Halle, Germany. The first helicopter flown in the country was actually a German design - Focke Achgelis Ra 223 Drachen. Avia used parts of these helicopters to complete two testing machines.

The first Czechoslovak design was XW-II-C followed by other Slechta's projects: serial production of HC-2 and HC-102, as well as the HC-3 and HC-103 prototypes.

A team headed by ing. Mikula was formed in Otrokovice in 1959. They built two Z-35 and Z-135 prototypes, but the communist government ordered the manufacturers to stop helicopter productions soon after. Czechoslovak helicopter development was another victim of communist mismanagement. It is not surprising that the country switched to Soviet types.

Agricultural Aircraft

This area of aviation started with leased Soviet Kukuruzniks and adapted German K-65 Storchs. Original Czech designs followed soon, such as L-60 Brigadyr. Machines used today include other Czechoslovak types, such as Z-37 Cmelak, and Soviet Antonovs An-2.

Sports Aircraft

The first sports aircraft in the country were built in the 1920s. The most significant companies specializing in this kind of production included CKD Praga, Tatra, Zlin and especially Benes-Mraz from Chocen.

Many internationally successful types were produced soon after. These included modern low-wing monoplanes by ing. Pavel Benes. His best known designs are Be-50, Be-51 Beta Minor, aerobatic Be-52 Beta Major and tourist models Be-550 Bibi and Be-555 Superbibi. The Zlin company added two-seater low-wing planes Zlin Z-XII and Z-212. Tatra developed an elegant progressive monoplane T-201, while Praga made the Praha E-114 high-wing aircraft.

We should also mention amateur designs. Kunkadlo, built by the Simunek brothers, is one of the best-known pre-war amateur aircraft. Its wing-span was only 7,20m, weight 104kg, and engine power 10kW (14 hp). There was no denying the designers had gotten their start as aircraft modelers. This machine is on display at the National Technical Museum in Prague.

Avia built special aerobatic biplanes for Frantisek Novak and his team. These planes were among the best in the world, and the pilots made full use of them at the 1936 Olympics. Siroky won the silver medal, Novak got bronze, and Ambrus came in eighth. Too bad there was no team contest. Czechoslovakia would have won gold.

Sports Aviation after WW2

Former German aircraft were usually flown after the war. These included C-104 (Bu 131) biplanes, Z-381 (Bu 181) two-seater biplanes, and K-65 Cap (Fi 156). Soviet Kukurizniks (Po-2) and pre-war Czechoslovak machines were also used.

Real mass flying and numerous international records were, however, realized on new Czechoslovak designs. Various versions of the Sokols are among the best known. These were universal machines suitable for tourism, navigational training, and they even carried skydivers. The two-seater Zlin Z-22 Junak was very successful, and many were exported. We have already mentioned the Aero series (Ae-45). They were popular in Svazarm flying clubs, and so were later types Ae-45S, Ae-145, and L-200 Morava.

The top performances of post-war flying were achieved on the Trener series. When the first Trener was conceived, nobody knew this was the beginning of an aerobatic trainer generation of which the world would become envious. The basis of a new Czechoslovak aerobatic school was laid in 1946. Excellent parameters of the machines, especially their steering qualities, safety and robustness enabled figures unknown before.

The first Z-26 model was soon followed by specialized aerobatic versions Z-226A Akrobat and Z-256FS Akrobat special. The original two-seater was also improved. Using the experience gained on the Akrobat specials, the designers built a two-seater Z-326 Trener Master, and the last two-seater so far, Z-726 Universal.

Contemporary aerobatics are more than smooth turns. There are increasing numbers of vertical figures with sharp right-angle turns. A new, highly specialized machine was required to replace the Trener. A decision was taken in 1973 to build an aircraft that would bring Czechoslovak pilots to the top once again. Z-50L built in Moravan Otrokovice first took off in 1975. This was one of the best, possibly the very best, aerobatic machine in the world. It's a full-metal design made of dural, steel and titanium. An excellent Lycoming engine and simple steering make a wonderful sports tool. The designers' effort was not in vain. Ivan Tucek and ing. Petr Jirmus became absolute world champions at aerobatics on this machine.

The number of amateur designs is increasing. There are two flying at this time: W-1 Broucek by Vladislav Verner, and SK-1 Trempik by Jan Simunek. Both machines have very good flying qualities, and are frequently shown at air shows.

Soaring

Gliders became common in the country after WW2. The one-seater high-wing glider Z-24 Krajanek was built in Otrokovice in 1945. It was loosely based on a German design - Grunau Baby IIb - but a modern Czechoslovak glider Z-25 Sohaj followed less than two years later. Other versions of Sohaj influenced local soaring significantly. Owing to their good parameters, long flights were made possible, as well as the qualifications for the highest sports categories, such as the Gold C badge with diamonds.

The same performance as with the Sohaj series was offered by Z-130 Kmotr, and a "fighter glider" LF-107 Lunak. Lunak was capable of full aerobatics, so it was used by military pilots for up-keep flying.

The glider that deserves the highest credit for the training of the new gliding generation in the fifties is a two-seater trainer LF-109 Pionyr. This started a new way of basic training. Difficult figures could be included thanks to double steering. Before Pionyr, the novice was alone in the cockpit, which made training lengthy and dangerous.

Pionyr was a good glider, but the transfer to the new high-performance gliders was difficult. This is why a new two-seater was developed: Blanik L-13. It retained the advantages of both a trainer and a high-performance glider. Two-seater full-metal Blaniks are demanded abroad, and there are many of them flying overseas.

Current gliders are made in extremely clean shapes with the usage of wood, metal and plastics. One of these high-performance designs is VSO-10 Gradient Club called Vosa.


Literature

  1. Vaclav Sorel: Plastikove modelarstvi

  2. Mlada fronta, Prague, 1992

 
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