Just 40 miles west of the Latvian capital Riga in the small sleepy town of Tukums sits Jurmala Airport. Once a Soviet air base, the site is now home to an interesting yet largely unknown museum concept known as the Jurmala Airport Air Zoo. Conceived initially by KSAvia, Duncan Monk visited for AeroResource to find out more.
The former Soviet air base at Tukums – built in 1939 – was occupied by ‘red stars’ for most of its military use. Falling to the Germans under Nazi occupation in June 1941, it would not be September 1944 that the Russians took back control. In later years, Tukums became a reserve military airfield and was used by the Russian Army and the Baltic Fleet’s 668 Sea Aviation Regiment. As well as housing a squadron of Sukhoi Su-24M Fencers in the seventies, the airfield is known to have been used to store nuclear weapons that were hidden in two large cemented hangars concealed by vegetation and soil. Historical information suggests that air-to-land missiles with nuclear ‘material’ along with both the RX-24 and RX-26 nuclear bombs were stored here.
In April 1993, following the breakup of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR, the airfield was handed back to the Latvian Air Force and recognised as the Reserve Airfield of Tukums (RAT). However, before the leaving forces departed, they destroyed the majority of the airfield, selling virtually anything and everything possible to the local population to make money prior to leaving.
Remaining pretty much vacant and derelict until March 2005, the airfield and its 2.5km long runway were soon in the hands of Tukums Airport Ltd who started a long renovation process. As of January 2018, the airport – now known as Jurmala Airport – sits with an impressive, albeit empty, terminal while awaiting certification to operate international passenger flights (and open up Latvia’s west to tourists) from the Latvian Civil Aviation Agency. It is also home to the Latvian aerobatic team the Baltic Bees who carry out training and maintenance on their six L-39 Albatross aircraft during their ‘winter season’ in an immaculately renovated hangar.
The Air Zoo itself is situated in the Northwest corner of the airfield with the aircraft laid out on taxiways between four old Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HAS) that are now used for storage. The Air Zoo was created with the intention of bringing tourists to the area as well as to inspire families and youngsters (in various ways) by utilising ex-military and civil aircraft and respraying them in unique schemes depicting animals or insects to create a colourful and family-friendly environment.
The aircraft on display are as follows:
- Antonov An-2T YL-CAO Civil (Latvia)
- Ilyushin Il-18V 3X-GGU Civil (Guinea)
- Yakolev Yak-40 LY-AAC Civil (Lithuania)
- PZL TS-11bisB ‘1021’ – Polish Air Force
- Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21UM ‘18’ – Hungarian Air Force
- Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21bis ‘5531’ – Hungarian Air Force
- Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23BM – Bulgarian Air Force
- Mil Mi-24D ‘115’ – Hungarian Air Force
- Sukhoi Su-22M4 ‘3405’ – Czech Air Force
- Sukhoi SU-22UM3K ‘305’ – Polish Air Force
- Sukhoi SU-22M4 Fitter K ‘3910’ – Polish Air Force
Some of the aircraft still retain their original schemes and are yet to be painted, such as the collection’s Il-18 which is to be painted in a black and white scheme similar to an Orca. The Yak-40 wears a striking ‘Zebra’ scheme and the ex-Polish Air Force SU-22M4 wears a spotty orange and black scheme not too dissimilar to the ex-Royal Air Force SEPECAT Jaguar GR3 XX119 that now resides at RAF Cosford.
Most aviation aficionados will likely despair at the sight of the new paint schemes that have covered the Cold War era schemes once worn by these military aircraft. However, you have to applaud the company who have rescued the aircraft from the scrap man, in an attempt to inspire aviation to the next generation and bring tourism to a quiet and rarely visited area of Latvia.
Jurmala Air Zoo is only accessible by appointment at present and is part of a package tour of the airport, which takes between one and two hours at a cost of €5, although there is a minimum tour fee of €30 + VAT. Requests can be made through the following methods:
T: +371 20202165
More information can be found on the official Jurmala Airport website: http://jurmalaairport.com
AeroResource would like to thank Janis Bokums at Jurmala Airport for the privileged access.