Thirty-six years ago, the talented Czech aeronautical engineer Jan Vlcek designed a remarkably handsome two-seat, single-engine military jet. Vlcek hoped his Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatros would be adopted as the primary trainer for all Warsaw Pact air forces, and in 1972 it was. From then until the collapse of communism, the L-39 schooled generations of Russian, East German, Czech, and Ukrainian farm boys, who stepped straight from its cozy little cockpit into enormous MiG-21s, -23s and -29s.
What Vlcek never in his wildest dreams imagined, however, was that the L-39 would become a toy of the very American capitalists it opposed.
Dial forward a few years. In 1997 Carl Ludwig, a shy, obsessive electrical engineer and software maven (he was one of the pioneers of cinematic computer animation, having developed the digital film recording equipment used on Tron) went to an airbase outside Moscow. After drinking far too many vodka toasts, Carl and a friend bought two L-39s from a Soviet Air Force colonel who may or may not have been entirely authorized to sell them. Never mind, they got the proper seals, stamps, signoffs, and export papers, and the L-39s were soon on trucks, across the border, and aboard a ship. Carl's arrived at the airport in Montgomery, New York, where my own airplane was based, in a shipping crate the size of a Manhattan studio apartment.
I'd known Carl ever since he started flying a Beech T-34 ex-Air Force trainer and driving the very first Porsche 911 in our little town-he still owns both-and immediately volunteered my meager talents to the L-39 project. Carl spent two years reassembling his Albatros. (His buddy got cold feet and sold his at a nice profit without ever taking it out of the box.) We worked together rewiring the Albatros and installing modern avionics, and it quickly became apparent why L-39s would become the most popular of all privately owned jet warbirds. Even perched on jackstands in its weathered Soviet camouflage-the Russians had crudely chiseled off the red stars-Carl's plane was a beauty. It looked like a potent fighter, not a docile trainer. Big tiptanks counterbalanced the ends of stubby, low-aspect-ratio wings. A thrusting needle nose trailed back over a tandem-seat Plexiglas canopy to a tall fin and a fat turbofan tailpipe.
When it was ready, Carl had it painted in the absolutely authentic colors of the Royal Thai Air Force's 102nd Fighter Squadron, which operates nicely armed ground-attack L-39s. This was a plane to love. At $600,000 a pop, the cleanest, lowest-time L-39s are today more valuable than better-known jet fighters such as the North American F-86 Sabre, the Lockheed T-33 T-Bird, or the Hawker Hunter. (A few Northrop T-38s and F-5s are in private hands, and they are worth perhaps twice as much as the best L-39s, but these are cranky and demanding exotics.) The popularity of the L-39 made it ideal for collectors: When we needed parts, they were a phone call away. With 3,000 Albatroses operating everywhere from Cuba to Bangladesh, there are still warehouses full of spares.