Czech government approves deal to offload excess fighter jets

L-159, photo: archive of Czech Army

One of the longest running military sagas was successfully concluded today with a deal to sell surplus Czech fighter aircraft to a leading US company. As Chris Johnstone reports, the estimated half billion crown sale is good news for the aircrafts' owner, the Czech Army, and its local manufacturer.

L-159,  photo: archive of Czech Army
For much of the last decade the Czech army has been touting its excess L-159 fighter and trainer aircraft for sale to foreign armies or companies. During that time the planes have been wrapped in protective covers in hangers and accumulating ever growing storage costs met by the Ministry of Defense.

Previous sale deals for L-159's have been fuelled in the past only to crash at the last minute. Throughout most of last year, the Czech government invested a lot of time and effort in a bid to sell the planes to Iraq, only for the deal for mostly new planes from Aero and a couple from the army to collapse in December.

Final agreement to sell up to 28 of the fighter aircraft to Florida-based Draken International Inc. transforms the cash drain into a one off windfall for the ministry. The agreement should be sealed this month. But the consequences could be even more important for the producer of the jet aircraft, leading Czech civil and military plane maker Aero Vodochody.

Aero has been very much involved in the negotiations between the ministry and Draken International, a company which specializes in training pilots and hiring out planes for combat simulations and has the biggest private fleet of fighter aircraft in the world for such purposes.

One of the reasons is that in service and airborne L-159 aircraft will be a lot better publicity for Aero Vodochody than a large slice of its production sitting in hangars. Aircraft in use rather than the equivalent of military mothballs will also boost the spares, maintenance and service market for the models which represent a valuable ongoing earner for the manufacturer and other companies.

Back in November last year Aero said that the pending deal with Draken could boost the export potential of the L-159 on Latin American markets in particular, where Aero Vodochody sees some of its rosiest prospects.

In spite of the problems offloading the surplus fighter jets - the Czech army was the only customer for the planes with an original order for 72 of them but found most of them surplus to requirements and is now only using 24 - Aero is seeking to stay in the sub-sonic fighter segment and build on its know-how.

L-39 Albatros
Aero announced in December that it wants to develop the L-169, a new fighter/trainer jet to follow on from the L-159. One of the major advantages of the new model should be extra fuel capacity which will increase the plane's range by around 600 kilometers compared with the current versions. Other updates and modifications could easily be added on, according to the manufacturer, with 2015 earmarked as a possible launch date for the new plane.

The Czech manufacturer believes that is has a solid global reputation to build on in spite of the sluggish sales of the L-159. Its predecessor, the L-39 Albatros, took to the skies in the early 1970s and 1980s, becoming the one of the biggest selling light jet trainer aircraft. An estimated 2,800 aircraft are still in service although production ended in 1999. Starring film roles for the unfortunately named Albatros model included a role in the James Bond action thriller 'Tomorrow Never Dies.' Hope never dies might just appear a more appropriate title for the L-159 saga following the latest chapter of the tale.