Speedy blue bird attracts attention

00:06, Oct 30 2009
Speedy blue bird attracts attention
LET'S ROLL: Plane owner Alan Caudwell, centre, his partner, Julia Vogt, and test pilot Grant Bissett prepare for a flight in the jet aircraft.

Thunderbirds are go. The bright blue jet skimming above Nelson skies this week is on a mission far removed from its original duties training astronauts at a Russian cosmodrome.

The Aero Vodochody L-39C Albatros has finally emerged from its hangar at Nelson Airport, and has attracted wide attention during its first test flights this week.

Owner Alan Caudwell, who has retired from a career in aviation which included a role as an engineer at Helicopters New Zealand, is now pursuing a project in which he hopes to be able to offer adventure flights in the jet.

Mr Caudwell is working with the Civil Aviation Authority on the introduction of legislation that would allow the aircraft to be used for the mode planned, but CAA was being "very, very wary", he said.

Mr Caudwell bought the aircraft from Kiev in the Ukraine, had it shipped here in parts and then re-assembled it. There are three of its type in New Zealand.

He declined to say what he paid for it, but the price being "little more than a ham sandwich" was the reason it was affordable. "If I wanted to buy a Mustang [fighter] I'd be looking at US$2-3 million."

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The rebuild has made the Albatros lighter with the removal of around 182kg of "military stuff". Putting it back together was made easier by a Russian who was on a contract job at Nelson Airport at the time, who strolled over one day and was able to interpret manuals for them, Mr Caudwell said.

The ex-Russian serviceman then recognised his former commander's name in the aircraft's engine log, and realised he had once trained in the exact aircraft.

It was a different colour then. Mr Caudwell has re-painted the jet in the particular blue colour Toyota used on its Land Cruiser.

The L-39C Albatros jets were manufactured in the 1980s, and are a step up from an earlier model developed in Czechoslovakia during the 1960s as a basic jet trainer. The aircraft described as "the most popular jet warbird on the US market", is still used by several air forces around the world, and in basic and advanced pilot training.

Mr Caudwell said its maximum speed was Mach 0.8 (750kmh). Its take-off and landing speed was about 110 knots (203kmh), which was something Mr Caudwell said he was "having to get used to".

He said the aircraft's popularity in the US, where they were used in tourism ventures, meant it was easy to source parts.

Nelson Airport chief executive Kaye McNabb said they had received a lot of inquiries about the jet. Most were positive, and commented on how beautiful it looked, and there had been one complaint about noise.

She said noise from the jet was well within the airport's limits.

"This is yet another advancement in the whole Centre of Aviation work being put forward now," Mrs McNabb said.

The Nelson Mail