Pilot flies vintage Aero 145 from Australia to Czechia
Richard Santus is a pilot and a vintage plane collector. He recently acquired a 1960 Czechoslovak-made Aero 145 aircraft and flew it all the way from Australia to his museum in Podhořany in east Bohemia. Due to all sorts of troubles, including several days spent in jail, it took him nearly two months to cover the 20,000-kilometre journey.
I met with Richard Santus shortly upon his return to Czechia and I first asked him what makes the Aero 145 so special that it was worth taking the trip:
“I think this airplane is the most famous design from former Czechoslovakia and there are only a few left in the world that are still flying. There are a couple more on static displays, but this one has been flying since 1960, when it was made in Czechoslovakia.
“There was only one left in Australia, apart from two more which are in Czechoslovakia, one is in Czechia and one in Slovakia. So it was a sort of natural decision to go down and bring it back.”
Can you tell us a bit more about this plane? When was it designed, and what makes it so special?
“The initial design started secretly in 1947 in former Czechoslovakia and it only took a year before the first prototype was flown in 1948. So that that was the Aero 45.
“The airframe is famous for being really aerodynamically clean, fast and low on fuel consumption.”
“The production of Aero 145 started in 1956. It had more powerful engines and enhanced design of the airframe. The airframe is famous for being really aerodynamically clean, fast and low on fuel consumption.
“It was very popular in those days and it actually won a prize in 1955 at the World Exhibition in Brussels. That's where the business success of the design actually started.”
How did this particular plane get to Australia?
“It was interesting. It was flown there on power in 1961 and without knowing this, I wouldn't probably dare flying it back. But in those days, the Australians, a father and a son, took delivery of the airplane in 1960 and flew it over to Australia. The journey took them two months and they were apparently having a good time on the way, stopping in Italy, Corsica.
“But it was much more complicated navigation-wise without the GPS. My journey was complicated because of the people, the security issues and the geopolitical situation.”
How did you discover the plane?
“I didn't have to discover it, really. It was known that the airplane had been there for years. We, as aircraft collectors, are basically in touch worldwide, knowing each other. And if there's a chance to buy something, it is never a question of selling price. It's always about making sure that that the airplane would be in good hands.
“And that was the case, because the owner of this airplane in Australia passed away a few years ago. His son didn’t want to get rid of the airplane. It was just that he had to leave the hangar he was renting for the airplane.
“He is doing business in Hong Kong and he eventually came to the decision to sell it. He came to me saying, You’re the one that we are willing to sell it to, and I simply couldn't resist.”
Why did you decide to fly the plane back? You could have had it shipped to Czechia.
“We would have to make a special wooden crate for the airplane, because it is quite big, even when disassembled. So that was one complication.
“It was actually flown in 1961 in much worse conditions navigation-wise, so I would take it as a shame if I didn't fly.”
“And much more than that, there was the fact that it was actually flown in 1961 in much worse conditions navigation-wise, as I mentioned. So I would take it as a shame if I didn't fly.
“I have been flying aircraft across the world back and forth, so I thought it wouldn't be such a huge complication. So I decided to fly the plane instead!”
What was the itinerary? Was it the same as the one taken by the father and son duo in the 1960s?
“Good question. It was definitely not. It was similar, but in those days they were able to fly across Syria, which today would be something unimaginable.
“The main deviation of the track was that they flew the airplane across the Mediterranean to Syria and then across Iraq and Iran, which these days would be a complication.
“It took us five weeks to get a permit across Saudi Arabia, so we did have some issues on the way, we managed to finally complete the journey, after 56 days I think, out of which 17 days we were actually flying the airplane.”
You set out on the journey on December 3 and the original plan was to make it to Czechia by Christmas. In the end you returned on the January 29. What happened? What kind of problems did you run into?
“As I say, it was the system and the people. I was an abnormality on the way. They are not used to small airplanes, they are not used to seeing a fellow who had bought an airplane in Australia made 70 years ago and was flying it across the world. They are used to seeing Boeings and Airbuses.
“So all the way up to Darwin, everything was okay. But with the first landing in Indonesia I realized I had to switch the way I was thinking and follow their systems and their way of doing things. I ended up in jail for a night in Indonesia because I had to divert to a domestic airport.
“Then I took two nights off in Singapore and was supposed to be off to Thailand but I realized that I had a failure on the engine, so I had to fix it and spend another night in Singapore.
“And then I spent five more days in a jail in India for similar reasons and one more night in a home jail in Pakistan. So after arriving in Dubai on December 20 I told myself it was time to stop and have a rest.”
What is the maximum distance the Aero 145 can cover at a time?
“It's a really nice airplane because it's really clean, so it cruises fast and with low fuel burn. That provides the endurance of seven hours, which with the speed of 230 kilometres can take you up to 1600 kilometres.
“The longest I flew on this routing was 1,250 kilometres in five hours and 33 minutes. But you never really want to be on the edge, flying over the open sea and in the mountains, so the plane always needs to have an hour or one hour and 30 minutes reserve.
“But there was a day back in 1950 when this airplane was flown from Buenos Aires to Milan. That was much more complicated over the open seas and it was really on the maximum range of the airplane. Luckily, I didn't have to use it on this trip, because the open sea was a maximum of three hours flying time.”
Still, do you have to be prepared for the possibility of landing on the open sea?
“You've got to be prepared, but it is something you don't want to imagine at all, because ditching is something that nobody really wants.
“You do have your dinghy on board, as well as survival and communication equipment. But if you do survive a landing on water, which is a 50-percent chance then you've got to evacuate the aircraft, because it's actually ditched down under the sea.
“So if you do evacuate and find yourself on a raft, then you still have only a 20 percent chance that they will find you, depending on where you crash or ditch the airplane. So really, if that happened, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here.”
So, what was the most difficult moment you encountered on your journey?
“I was really desperate when I was locked up in jail not knowing what would be next. So I think the most difficult moment was when I couldn’t continue my trip and all the permits from the authorities were expiring. If they lock you up in jail for five days then you've got to reapply for permits which is really complicated.
“And with this sort of airplane, flying so low across the world, I am suspicious everywhere I step in, so I would say that was the critical moment, sitting there and being desperate. Otherwise, I didn't have any serious issues with the plane and with flying the plane.”
When you finally arrived in Czechia, you made a stop in the town of Kunovice, which is where the plane was produced. What kind of welcome did you receive there?
“Fortunately, it was Monday, so not too many people appeared, only about 30 to 40. But there were some of the old chaps who witnessed the production back in 1955 and bringing me the original documents for the airplane, which is an important part of history.
“And also of course, Kunovice is famous for Slivovice, which is a typical Czech spirit and a good one, I should say. But the main reason, of course, is that the plane was built there so it returned back to its place of origin after 63 years.”
The plane is now a part of your collection of vintage craft in Podhořany, which is in East Bohemia. Can people already see it?
“Yes. We are a private museum keeping our vintage airplanes airworthy, so that they can take part in displays, flight sighting memorials and so on.
“We’ve got World War II aircraft, mostly British aircraft or British- built aircraft. More importantly all those airplanes have a direct connection to our exile pilots who were flying in the Royal Air Force during the war.
“This collection can be seen in our airfield on the weekends and, if the weather is good, also weekdays. On our website there is a schedule of events, where those airplanes can be seen outside their home base, like displays, air shows and this kind of thing.”
What is the most valuable airplane on your collection well the most valuable?
“The most valuable is the Miles Magister. It’s a 1938-made aircraft which is still in its original condition, making it the only one in the world in such a good shape, apart from four others based in the UK that are still flying. However, two of them are completely rebuilt and two of them are half-rebuilt. So this one is the only original.
“It was flown by our pilots in England during the war. We found it in Argentina and acquired it and restored it, based on the original specification, in the UK. It is now flying and bringing joy not only to us, but also to other people. So that's the most valuable airplane of the collection.”
Is there any particular plane that you don't own but you know about that you would really like to be part of your collection?
“There are so many! But with these vintage things, it is always a question of money, not just with airplanes but also with cars. Of course a Spitfire is something we're looking at, but Spitfires, after Covid, cost an extra one and a half million pounds more. So it's more or less a question of money, but I do keep dreaming!”