Saturday 8 January 2022

From Trainer To Attacker: The Aero L-39C Albatros In Afghan Service

By Lukas Müller in collaboration with Stijn Mitzer
This is an updated and expanded version of an article that was first published in the August/September 2020 newsletter of the Asian Air Arms Research Group. The article also updates information on Afghan L-39s featured in the author's book Wings over the Hindu Kush.
The Czechoslovak-made L-39 Albatros jet trainer was widely exported and enjoyed a long and successful career in service of many countries around the globe. Afghanistan received its first L-39s in 1977 with the last two examples being withdrawn only in the late 2000s or early 2010s, after at least 30 years of service. The story of Afghan L-39s might not be over yet, though: in December 2021, mechanics at Kabul airport, now under the command of the Taliban, began testing the engines of the remaining L-39s, with a clear ambition of bringing the long-grounded jets back to service. [1]
The Early Years
Until the late 1950s, the Royal Afghan Air Force relied upon a collection of rather obsolete piston aircraft primarily of British origin. After the King Zahir Shah requested aid, including military hardware, from the Soviet Union, the country's air force experienced a period of rapid modernization: it not only received MiG-17 fighter-bombers but also Il-28 bombers and number of other relatively advanced types of airplanes and helicopters. [2] For training purposes, the air force employed Yak-11, Yak-18 two-seat military primary trainer and MiG-15UTI two-seaters jet trainers. However, in mid-1970s, Soviet advisers present in the country saw a need for a new, more advanced training aircraft and recommended deliveries of Aero L-39 Albatros that was becoming the standard jet trainer of Eastern Bloc countries. 
First batch of twelve L-39s arrived in Afghanistan in 1977, entering service within the 393rd Training Air Regiment of the Afghan Air Force (the word 'Royal' was dropped after the 1973 coup in which the king was overthrown) based at Deh Dadi airbase outside Mazar-e Sharif. [2] Aircraft delivered in the first batch were finished in a two-tone livery, with upper surfaces in white and lower surfaces in light grey. National insignia consisting of a green-black-red triangle were carried in six positions. Aircraft of the first batch received serials 001 – 0012.

A pre-delivery photo of Afghan L-39s over Czechoslovakia. Triangular roundels were carried on six positions.

A pair of Albaroses flying over northern Afghanistan shortly after delivery in 1977.

Barely a year later, in April 1978, the communists within the Afghan military launched a successful coup and established the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. Almost instantly, anti-communist uprisings initiated by Islamist parties erupted throughout the country: the Afghan civil war had begun, although training of cadets at Deh Dadi airbase was not seriously affected by these events. Helped by Soviet instructors, the 393rd Regiment continued operating not only its L-39s but also older MiG-15UTIs and MiG-17s. Among countless changes in political, economic and social life, the communist coup also brought about a replacement of the national insignia: traditional Afghan triangles were overpainted with red roundels with yellow Afghan coat-of-arms.

A row of L-39s with red roundels applied after the communist coup in 1978.

The Soviet Intervention

Within a year, it was evident that the communist regime was struggling to remain in power. The pressure of Islamist fighters was enormous and the communist army was being plagued by low morale and defections. Being afraid of the collapse of the relatively friendly Afghan regime, leaders in Moscow decided to intervene. In late 1979, Soviet special forces killed the Afghan communist leader, the Soviet Army invaded the country and a new president of a more moderate communist faction was installed in power. Perhaps unsurprisingly, following these events Afghan aircraft including L-39s received completely new design of roundels consisting of a red star outlined with circles of black, red and green. 
As the fighting raged, the Afghan Air Force's strength was bolstered with deliveries of large numbers of MiG-21s and Su-22s from the Soviet Union and the need for additional crews capable of manning modern fighter jets reached unprecedented levels. Although many aspiring Afghan airmen went to military schools in the USSR, others continued being trained in Afghanistan. Soon, those twelve L-39s delivered in 1977 proved to be too few to fulfil the requirements of the intensified training programme and between 1983 and 1984, two additional batches of 6 and 8 Albatroses respectively arrived at Deh Dadi. 
Newly-delivered machines received a standard camouflage applied on most of L-39s operating in Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, consisting of light brown-green and dark brown-green on upper surfaces and light grey on lower surfaces. In the coming years, all serviceable aircraft from the first batch were repainted in a similar fashion, probably in Czechoslovakia. At least one machine from the first batch became unserviceable or damaged before being repainted and ended its career at a huge scrapyard outside the country's capital. Serials of aircraft from the second and third batch are a mystery: whilst various Czech sources claim that there never were more than 26 Albatroses delivered, the highest photographically confirmed serial is 0027, not 0026 which would be more logical given the claimed total number of L-39s in Afghan service.

L-39 '0027'.

Moreover, a photo of a derelict L-39 taken in Mazar-e Sharif in 2001 indicates that the Afghan Air Force may have received some second-hand L-39s from the Soviet Union, as the machine in the photo seems to carry Soviet red stars under the faded-out Afghan national insignia and its serial is 003x, the last digit being unrecognizable. Thus, it is almost certain that the number of L-39s serving in the Afghan Air Force was over thirty. The ex-Soviet machines could have come to the Afghan 393rd Training Air Regiment from the major Soviet Bagram air base north of Kabul where Soviet L-39s operated in the 1980s. It seems plausible that these were left in the country after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989.

A heavily damaged L-39 found by Coalition forces at Mazar-e Sharif airbase after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. The machine carries the serial '003x'; the last digit may have been 1.

A pair of Soviet L-39Cs deployed to Bagram air base, 1986.

Although L-39C is able to carry various types of light bombs and rocket pods on two hardpoints, it's currently unknown if the aircraft saw combat in throughout the 1980s. Photographs showing Afghan L-39s armed with rocket pods or bombs are very rare and while the type's combat deployment can't be absolutely ruled out, the armament was probably installed for weapon training purposes. The reason for such a conclusion is the fact that the Afghan Air Force had hundreds fighter jets and helicopter gunships that were more suitable for ground strikes, which means that the L-39s were likely only used in their intended role as advanced jet trainers.

The Albatros in the foreground is carrying UB-16-32 rocket pods while the machine behind it carries what probably are FAB-100 bombs. Deh Dadi, 1980s.

The warlords and the Taliban

After the Soviet Union and United States agreed to cease military aid to all warring Afghan parties and the Soviet Union dissolved in late 1991, Afghan communist regime started to crumble and in April 1992, Islamist parties took over the power in the capital and established the Islamic State of Afghanistan. In reality, though, the country was fragmented among several major parties and countless local commanders with the internationally recognised government only controlling parts of Kabul and several provinces. While the civil war continued, the Afghan Air Force now found itself divided among warring parties. 
Northern areas, including the city of Mazar-e Sharif and all local airports came under the control of Uzbek leader Abdul Rashid Dostum whose military continued to operate all remaining L-39s of the 393rd Training Air Regiment. Dostum's air force replaced the communist regime's red star insignia with the traditional pre-1978 triangles but didn't change the serials or camouflage colours. It is possible that training of new pilots continued at Deh Dadi even after Dostum took over the airfield but it is not known to what extent. 
All 'private' air forces of Afghan warring parties suffered from lack of resources and although Dostum's military was relatively well-staffed and well-equipped, training of new pilots may not have been a priority, especially when there were enough skilled ex-communist air force pilots available. Photos taken during Dostum's reign over northern Afghanistan suggest that the Uzbek general's L-39s operated not only from Deh Dadi but also from the main Mazar-e Sharif airport and from the smaller airfield outside the city of Sheberghan.

One of General Dostum's L-39Cs photographed at Sheberghan airfield in the north of the country. Serial 005 means that the airplane comes from the first batch delivered in 1977.

According to Afghan sources, in the first half of the 1990s Dostum exchanged several of his L-39s for a small batch of Su-17 fighter bombers from the Republic of Uzbekistan. Nothing concrete is known about this deal and it is even possible that it didn't happen at all. [3]
While Dostum's northern provinces were relatively stable and peaceful, the rest of Afghanistan suffered from bitter civil war. In autumn 1994, the Taliban movement conquered the major southern city of Kandahar and in autumn 1996, it evicted the internationally recognized government from Kabul. After these events, general Dostum allied with the ousted government and started an anti-Taliban campaign that lasted till May 1997 when one of Dostum's commanders, general Abdul Malik Pahlawan, made an alliance with the Taliban, turned against Dostum and forced him into exile. As a result, basically the whole of Dostum's military, including the air force, went under Malik's command. In the chaos that was engulfing the city of Sheberghan, one of Dostum's pilots, General Yousuf Shah, defected to Kabul in his L-39 and joined the Taliban. 
General Malik soon felt betrayed by the Taliban who promised him a high-ranking position within their regime but eventually failed to keep their word. In a matter of a few days, Malik turned against his short-time ally and the whole northern Afghanistan became engulfed in multiple battles between the radical Islamic movement and Malik's forces. In a bid to save his aircraft from being captured, Malik ordered his remaining pilots to evacuate their machines over the border to Tajikistan. Available reports indicate that several L-39s indeed landed at a Tajik base of Kulob while the rest of the fleet was captured by the Taliban and transferred to their main air base outside Kandahar when the Taliban overrun northern provinces in summer 1998. 
Photographs clandestinely taken probably in 2000 show four airworthy L-39s parked on tarmac at Kandahar airport which means that the Taliban might have resumed training of new pilots or at least used its L-39s for refreshment flights of ex-communist air force pilots who had joined the movement after long breaks in flying. The Taliban's L-39s were also deployed to Mazar-e Sharif and other airports closer to the frontlines but no further details are available in this regard. [3] What is known is that the Taliban deployed its L-39s over northeastern Afghanistan, where remnants of the ousted government army led by the famous commander Ahmad Shah Massoud resisted multiple Taliban offensives. L-39s operated by the Taliban-founded Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan Air Force carried either UB-16 rocket pods or FAB-100 bombs and would attack positions of the enemy that by that time had no jets that could threaten the trainers-turned-atackers. In 1999, however, one of Taliban's L-39s was shot down by either an anti-aircraft (AA) gun or MANPADS; the fate of its pilot(s) remains unknown.

The tail section of the Taliban Albatros that was shot down near the town of Imam Sahib in Kunduz province in 1999.

While in service of the Taliban, the L-39s retained their standard camouflage. Several machines continued carrying the triangle insignia applied while they served in Dostum's air force while at least one got an unknown variant of Taliban roundel applied in light colours on the fin and possibly also on the wings.

One of several blurry photographs of an L-39 carrying an unknown variant of Taliban insignia on the fin – or was it a weathered-out triangular roundel? Mazar-e Sharif airport, late 2001.

Russian sources claim that a Taliban pilot defected with his L-39 to Tajikistan in August 2000 but this information remains unverified: according to the sources in question, serial number of the aircraft should have been 239 but this is inconsistent with the range received by Afghan Albatroses. [3] The only confirmed defection of a Taliban L-39 crew thus remains an escape of two pilots to Uzbekistan. They took off with their jet from a base in the north and landed probably at the Uzbek airport of Termez right across the border. Their Albatros carrying serial 0022 was subsequently put into use by the Uzbek Air Force and in 2020 it was overhauled at Aero factory in the Czech Republic. [3]

Albatroses in the Afghan National Army Air Corps

After the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on 11 September 2001, the United States and the United Kingdom staged a military intervention (Operation Enduring Freedom) in Afghanistan and in a matter of a few months – and with extensive help of anti-Taliban opposition forces on the ground – routed the Taliban movement and established a new internationally recognized government of Afghanistan. U.S. and British airstrikes destroyed virtually the entirety of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan Air Force, including the L-39s based at Kandahar and other air bases.

The sad remnants of a Taliban L-39 that was struck by a bomb at Kandahar air base during the first days of Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001.

However, the saga of Afghan L-39s was not over: several months after the fall of the Taliban, two L-39s (005 and 0021) were photographed at Sheberghan airfield in northern Afghanistan. It is not known, though, if these machines had been operated by the Taliban and survived the allied attacks while parked at the airfield or if they were among those few jets that had been evacuated to Tajikistan before the Taliban conquered northern provinces and that their pilots returned back home after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. 
No matter their previous fate, Afghan crews later flew these two L-39s from Sheberghan to Kabul and put them under the command of the newly-created Afghan National Army Air Corps (ANAAC). The third L-39 (0023) that returned to the scene after the fall of the Taliban regime is a kind of mystery: it performed in front of cameras only in April 2002, overflying a huge Afghan National Army parade in Kabul. A dark green patch on the fin suggests that it had previously been operated by the Taliban. Afghan mechanics probably overpainted the previous owner's 'improper' insignia with a dark green colour, lacking time to replace it with the triangular roundel that only appeared on the machine later.

A low-quality video still of an L-39 serialed 0023 flying over Kabul in April 2002. The machine carries what probably was a crudely overpainted Taliban insignia on the fin.

In the mid-2000s, machines 0021 and 0023 underwent a complete overhaul in Russia while 005 was grounded and served as a source of spare parts. The overhauled machines received a new, two-tone camouflage pattern of green and brown on upper surfaces and light grey on lower surfaces. Traditional triangular roundels were applied on six positions. According to various sources, these last two Afghan L-39s were flown by veteran pilots trained in 1970s and 1980s and were grounded only in the late 2000s or early 2010s, mainly because the pilots in question couldn't speak English and weren't able to communicate with foreign air controllers in Kabul. [3] This pair of L-39s was mainly used for ceremonial purposes, occasionally taking part in military parades in Kabul. These last two airworthy machines certainly didn't see any combat since the ANAAC had more suitable air assets intended for this role.

Two L-39Cs that were overhauled and completely repainted in Russia flying over Kabul in 2007.

Two ANAAC L-39s flying over Id Gah Mosque in Kabul

The Taliban, again?

As the Afghan Air Force had little interest in acquiring new jet aircraft, the last two operational L-39s were grounded only several years after their overhaul in Russia. Together with the L-39 '005' that had previously been used as a source of spare parts, they ended up languishing in open storage at the military zone of the Kabul International Airport where they remained with their ejection seats removed up to the summer 2021 when the Taliban entered the capital without a fight, abruptly finishing the existence of the Republic of Afghanistan. To the surprise of many, in December of the same year, an al-Jazeera television report showed old mechanics who obviously had been trained by the communist regime in the 1980s working on the stored L-39. If they succeed in bringing the aircraft back to operational condition, we'll surely see the venerable jets flying over Afghanistan once more.

With their ejection seats removed, the trio of L-39s sits exposed to the elements at Kabul IAP in 2021.

An Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan Air Force L-39C undergoing engine test at Kabul airport in December 2021.

An old mechanic working on the L-39C 0023.

In addition to the three aforementioned L-39s, the last known Afghan L-39 that survived the turmoil of the civil wars that have been ravaging the country for the past 40 years is a machine serialed 0017 that has been on display at the Omar Mine Museum in Kabul and, at the time of writing of this article, is still present at the site. Its individual history is unknown to the author, though.

Have you got more info on this subject? Were you deployed to Kabul and perhaps have photos you'd like to share? Or do you have any additional information on the L-39's career in Afghanistan? Don't hesitate to contact us. We are always looking for people who can make our articles more informative.

[1] الحكومة الأفغانية المؤقتة تعلن إصلاحها أكثر من 40 طائرة حربية عطلها الجيش الأمريكي
[2] Wings of the Hindu Kush - Air Forces, Aircraft and Air Warfare of Afghanistan, 1989-2001
[3] Information obtained by the author.