Lying in the west of the Baltic State Latvia, the newly refurbished Jurmala Airport resides near the small historical town of Tukums. Since their inception in 2008, the Baltic Bees Jet Team have based themselves and their six immaculate and brightly coloured yellow and blue Aero Vodochody L-39Cs at this quiet ex-Soviet airfield. Duncan Monk visited their Headquarters at Jurmala Airport to find out more about the team and their aircraft.

The Baltic Bees Jet Team have existed since 2008 and are now part of the Wing4Sky Group, to create the first professional aerobatic team in the Baltic States. The team, who are completely self-funded with no backing from the Latvian authorities, are of a rare breed given the fact that they are a non-sponsored team; however, they are considering some sponsorship opportunities.

Designed and first flown in the 1960s, the Aero Vodochody L-39 is a twin seat, single engine fast jet trainer, but has also been – and in some countries, still is being – used in the light combat attack role. Mass-produced until 1996 by Aero Vodochody in the former Czechoslovakia for countries including Russia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Syria, Thailand, Bulgaria and Iraq, numerous examples of the type were widely available after the breakup of the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). Taking advantage of this, Aero Vodochody sought to increase sales to Western Europe with the type receive numerous updates, including new avionics, better engines and modern weapon systems.

The simplicity, low cost of operations, aerodynamics characteristics, efficiency and reliability of the jet is one of the reasons many civilian aerobatic teams such as the Baltic Bees and the Breitling Jet Teams use it as their mount.

The aircraft are easy to maintain, and the Wing4Sky Group operate an EASA Part 145 maintenance facility from the Baltic Bees hangar, servicing the Baltic Bee jets and other L-39s. The Group have a plethora of spare parts and various other -39s stored in one of the ex-Soviet Hardened Aircraft Shelters on site, including some well-known (and photographed) special schemed aircraft from airshows past. The company also lease L-39s back to various Air Forces, including the Lithuanian Air Force, who at present have three ‘Bees’ on lease to them.

Since the creation of the ‘Bees’ the team have been led by Artyom ‘Maverick’ Soloduha. At just 21 he became the words youngest jet team leader, having progressed from a Single Engine Piston (SEP) rating to the L-39C Albatross not long after completing his pilot’s licence. Since then, he has amassed well over 900 hours on the reliable Albatross.

The team currently fly as a six-ship formation, but there are plans underway to train a seventh pilot and to start the 2018 season with seven aircraft, to which Artyom eludes, “Training a formation aerobatic pilot is never easy, it is a long process that may vary between pilots. Some pilots get it faster than others, but we always manage to have our pilots fully prepared for the coming season.”

With Artyom leading the Baltic Bees the remaining five pilots, who have a mixture of military and civil aviation backgrounds, are:

Left Wing – Igor ‘Major’ Yudkin
Right Wing – Anatoly ‘Maestro’ Perekriostov
Left Outside Wingman – Aleksandr ‘Smoked’ Zarins
Right Outside Wingman/Solo – Valery ‘Godfather’ Sobolev
Slot Pilot – Alessandro ‘Giovane’ Scorrano

Alessandro is the newest pilot on the team, having joined at the start of the 2017 season. However, his relationship with the team first started in 2011 when his dream of becoming an aerobatic pilot started to materialize as he says, “I always dreamt of becoming a fighter pilot and to join my national aerobatic team, unfortunately I didn’t succeed in joining the Air Forces so I started a civilian aviation career” adding “I kept in contact with the team leader [Artyom] since contacting the team in 2011. The year after I was invited to join them at a show in Sweden, but in the meantime, I became a commercial pilot and started work as a flight instructor in Southern Europe, before I got the unexpected call to be asked to join the Baltic Bees, and to that I am very thankful.”

In 2017, The Baltic Bees Jet Team displayed at some 18 airshows across 11 different countries – China, Georgia, United Kingdom (Jersey), Greece, Poland, Russia, Estonia, France, Austria, Czech Republic and their home country of Latvia) – and flew 45 public displays in front of an estimated audience of over 7 million people!

The aircraft and crew flew an impressive 15,000+ nautical miles with no show cancellations or technical failures – quite a feat for a self-funded team that do not have the luxury of a dedicated support aircraft like a lot of aerobatic teams have. To get by this, the team rely on conveying small spare parts in the aircraft and the high standard of maintenance carried out at their home base, which is clearly exemplary as the aircraft flew to China and back with no faults. This kind of serviceability is why the EASA Part 145 L-39 maintenance facility at Jurmala Airport is regarded so highly.

Each ‘Bees’ display lasts around 30 minutes is split into two parts, the first part being harmonic formation flying which sees the aircraft in a number of close complex vertical manoeuvres. A ‘waterfall’ split is used to start the second half, which allows the solo pilot [Valery Sobolev] to commence his own program whilst the other five pilots re-join to carry on their display. Team leader Artyom is in no doubt, which is the hardest manoeuvre. “I think the hardest manoeuvre to fly for the team are the initial three loops, where the pilots are constantly under G forces, and subject to quick changes of speed. All vertical manoeuvres require a high level of concentration and skill, especially due to the slow reaction of our L-39’s engines”

All the L-39C aircraft are individually named (you can find the names just aft of the cockpit) after Latvian folklore and traditions; as of January 2018 the aircraft are named as follows:

1 – YL-KSH “ Hercogs Jekabs” – Was a Baltic German Duke of the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia (1642–1682). Under his rule, the duchy reached its peak in wealth and engaged in colonization.

2 – YL-KST “ Talivaldis” – Was a Latgalian elder, the ruler of Tālava, whose support for Albert of Riga and the German crusaders brought about his death at the hands of the native Baltic peoples.

3 – YL-KSZ “Zelta Zirgs” – Was a book “The Golden Horse” written in 1909 by Latvian writer Janis Pileksans

4- YL-KSM “Milda” – Goddess of Love and Freedom

5- YL-KSL “Lielvarde” – Lāčplēsis is an epic poem by Andrejs Pumpurs, a Latvian poet, who wrote it between 1872–1887 based on local legends. Lāčplēsis is regarded as the Latvian national epic.

6- YL-KSP “ Maestro Raimonds Pauls” – Latvian composer and piano player who is well known in Latvia, Russia, post-Soviet countries and worldwide. He was the Minister of Culture of Latvia from 1988 to 1993.

Whilst winter training is underway and their 2018 season calendar is being firmed up, (the team have expressed a desire to participate in the United Kingdom again after debuting at Jersey in 2017) they do offer a unique experience – the chance to fly in an L-39C with one of the team from Jurmala Airport.

The aerobatic experience flight lasts 20 minutes, and in that time you will start out with some simple aerobatic manoeuvres that increase with difficulty during the flight. You will also be given the opportunity to fly the aeroplane under the guidance of your Pilot Instructor. Included in the cost is ejection seat training (40 minutes), learning the history of the aircraft, aircraft systems and basic laws of aerodynamics – depending on your interest level of course!

The team’s film crew who will create a memorable set of professional photographs of your flight covering the preflight preparation, take-off and landing. In addition, you will be given a video of the footage of your flight by way of an onboard GoPro mounted camera. You will also receive a certificate of completion to show you passed the aerobatic flight.

(Flights cost 1,700 Euros, and for more information on how to book please see this web page or call +371 26 011 695.)

Although L-39 production was stopped in 1996, a new variant is about to hit the production line at Aero Vodochody in the shape of the L-39NG or ‘Next Generation’. First flown in 2015, production will begin in earnest this year with the biggest visual difference being the loss of the wingtip fuel tanks and a modified airframe. The L-39NG will also be re-engined with the AI-25 turbofan replaced with a Williams FJ44 engine, and receive an upgraded avionics suite. As it stands, the Breitling Jet Team are one of the new aeroplane’s launch customers – the team replacing their trusty L-39Cs.

Whether the Baltic Bees follow suit in purchasing the L-39NG in the future is yet to be seen, but for now, the Latvian aerobatic display team will continue to amaze crowds around the globe with their trusty well maintained L-39C Albatross aircraft. Increasing their stable from six to seven aircraft will give the team a much wider scope with regard to formations and allow them to keep the aircraft crowd centre for longer periods, thus engaging the expectant crowds for the duration of their immaculate precise displays.

AeroResource would like to thank Janis Bokums at Jurmala Airport, along with Artyom Soloduha and Allessandro Scorrano for their invaluable time and access to the Baltic Bees facility.