Last month, Tom Cruise appeared on a pre-taped segment for The Late Late Show with James Corden. Cruise was promoting his new film Top Gun: Maverick, which is currently dominating the box office. Consistent with the theme of the film, Cruise took Corden flying, first in a gorgeous North American P-51 Mustang, and then, in the jet that happens to be the primary jet trainer of the Russian armed forces: the Aero L-39 Albatros, a plane the cast of the movie trained on.
Cold War Bird
Created behind the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia, the L-39 is a high-performance trainer that first flew in 1968. The L-39 was the first trainer aircraft ever equipped with a turbofan engine, which in part led to the model’s popularity and longevity. The Albatros is the most widely used jet trainer in the world – and is still in use with the Russian Air Force, as a stepping stone to the more advanced Sukhoi and MiG fighters.
The L-39 was built as a low-cost, simple aircraft – something Warsaw Pact clients could afford. The trainer was designed with simplicity, affordability, and operational flexibility in mind. To that effect, the onboard systems were simplified, making maintenance relatively easy. And the Albatros was designed to be able to handle a variety of airfields, including rugged or remote strips, again, to maximize operational flexibility. Additionally, the L-39 is regarded as an easy jet to fly – perfect for training – or perfect for an actor who happens to fly on the side.
Trainer With Bite
Despite being designed as a trainer aircraft the L-39 has, at times, been outfitted and used as a light-attack aircraft. Perhaps the most notorious user of the L-39 is the Taliban Air Force. The Taliban somehow managed to procure about five L-39s. With the aid of foreign pilots and technical support, the Taliban used the L-39s in combat during the Afghan civil war against the Northern Alliance.
Iraq is believed to have outfitted its L-39s for attack roles, too. During the second Iraq War, U.S. Navy F/A-18 Hornets attacked parked L-39s. The Syrian Air Force also uses the L-39 for attack purposes. In Syria, the Albatros has routinely been deployed against rebel ground forces. Allegedly, ISIS successfully captured a few L-39s from Syria. Whether ISIS was ever able to get the jets into the air is unclear, although, the terrorist group did release a propaganda video showing an airborne L-39.
In America, both the Patriots Jet Team and the Black Diamond Jet Team operate L-39s. In fact, Cruise was flying one of the Patriots’ L-39s when he took Corden for a spin. Performing barrel rolls and inverted flight, Cruise demonstrated why the L-39 has become so popular on the civilian market. Running a relatively reasonable $200-300,000 USD, the Albatros has become coveted amongst wealthy civilian pilots hoping to experience the L-39’s 470 miles per hour max speed, 4,100 feet per minute rate of climb, and 8g capabilities. As the only second-generation jet trainer readily available for public purchase, the plane is sought by those looking for agility in a personal jet.
The L-39 is not a toy, of course. Aerobatic pilot Mike Mangold was killed on take-off in an L-39. And Atlas Air CEO Michael Chowdry and Wall Street Journal aerospace reporter Jeff Cole were both killed when their plane crashed in Colorado.
Cruise and Corden survived their flight. The video segment currently has 18 million views on YouTube.
Harrison Kass is a Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison has degrees from Lake Forest College, the University of Oregon, and New York University. He lives in Oregon and regularly listens to Dokken.