Keeping Czech Wings Strong
The Czechs have been making significant contributions to the field of aviation almost since the dawn of powered flight. The first Czech aircraft companies were established in 1919, less than 20 years after the Wright Brothers’ historic flight.
The groundwork for what would eventually become the Let company was Established in the south eastern town of Kunovice in 1936 as a branch of the much older Prague based Avia aircraft company, itself a division of the Škoda company at the time. This makes Let a relatively young company as far as Czech aircraft manufacturers go; however, a short history does not always mean a dull one.
What began simply as a branch of something larger that spent its early years servicing and building other companies’ machines came into its own and developed its own designs, several of which have gone on to great export success worldwide.
In the Service of Others – Modest Beginnings
When it was established as a branch of the Avia company in 1936, what would become Let was not intended as a point of aircraft construction. Rather, it was seen as a servicing point for Avia’s own aircraft. It would not be until after the Second World War that full aircraft production would begin to be undertaken at Kunovice.
As with other aviation companies in Czechoslovakia, the still incomplete facilities at Kunovice were commandeered by the occupying German forces during World War Two and forced to perform service on a variety of Luftwaffe aircraft types.
Shortly after the end of the war, the Avia company was nationalised and extensively restructured. It was at this time that their holdings at Kunovice began to be turned into the entirely separate Let company and a new aircraft plant was built at the location between 1950 and 1953.
The first aircraft to be constructed at the new plant were other companies’ designs. Most significantly was the C-11 military training aircraft, a licensed copy of the Yakovlev Yak-11 trainer from the Soviet Union. This aircraft would serve as the standard basic trainer for military pilots of Soviet influenced nations through the 1950s. Today, several still remain flying in the hands of vintage aircraft collectors.
More intrinsically Czech was the Ae-45 and 145 family of twin engine touring aircraft designed by the Prague based Aero company. The latter part of this aircraft family’s production was undertaken largely at Kunovice and many of the upgrades that set the Ae-145 apart from the earlier Ae-45 were devised by Let themselves.
The Ae-45/145 series of aircraft were a significant stepping stone for Let as they saw very good export success and were well regarded as air taxis, air ambulances and general touring aircraft. They gave the young company solid ground to stand on when it came to designing the first aircraft that would truly be their own.
Into Full Flight
The late 1950s saw Let transition from doing work for other companies to becoming a credible aircraft design house in their own right.
1957 saw the first flight of the L-200 Morava, a graceful twin engine aircraft in the spirit of the Ae-45/145 series and fully a Let product nose to tail. From the start, the L-200 was intended to pick up where the Ae-45 and Ae-145 left off and it proved to be a most worthy heir indeed.
The Morava took on all of the older aircraft’s duties with ease and experienced a similar level of success on the export market. A number of L-200s continue to fly in practical roles today and are appreciated for their very good handling qualities and robust construction.
In 2008, to mark the 50th anniversary of the L-200 design, two Czech pilots flew a Morava from Prague to the North Pole and back again.
1958 saw the debut of the L-13 Blaník sailplane. The Blaník was revolutionary in many ways as glider design of the period was concerned, most notably was the extensive use of metal in its construction. It is this use of metal that has been key to the aircraft’s longevity and popularity as a trainer for first time glider pilots; it gives the Blaník a structural strength and durability to withstand beginners’ mistakes and heavy handling that sailplanes constructed of lighter materials don’t possess.
With a total of around 3,000 made, the Blaník is the world’s most produced post World War Two designed sailplane. It has been extensively exported across five continents and several remain flying today.
The basic L-13 has been made in updated versions as well, known as the L-23 and L-33.
From Strength to Strength
From the success of the L-13 sailplane in the late 1950s, Let entered the 1960s on a high note. Their first aircraft design of the decade was a joint project with the Zlín aircraft company. The Z-37 Čmelák (Bumblebee) as the new aircraft was named, was the first purpose built agricultural aircraft built in the Czech lands.
As both companies were located in largely agricultural regions, they were well placed to gather first hand information about what users of the new aircraft would require of it and optimised it accordingly.
The Z-37 did well on export markets and won awards for its design. Today, for the most part, its crop dusting days are behind it. However, some can still be found in flying clubs working as glider towing aircraft or trailing advertising banners.
While Let had proven itself a capable designer of aircraft, the company spent part of the 1960s helping to produce the L-29 Delfin jet trainer which was designed by the Aero company. This was an important aircraft for Let to be involved with for a few reasons:
The L-29 was the first domestically designed and produced jet aircraft in the Czech lands and went on to be the standard basic jet trainer for most Soviet influenced contries’ militaries through the 1960s and 1970s.
Some L-29s still fly today in civilian hands as aerobatic and vintage aircraft.
From the late 1960s to the present, Let’s primary focus has been their wildly successful L-410 Turbolet commuter aircraft.
The Turbolet has seen service with civilian and military operators in over 50 countries through the years; while new versions are being developed and sold, it also does well in second hand markets and refurbished forms.
Owing to its robust construction, ease of operation and maintenance as well as its relatively low purchase price; the Turbolet has found many customers among regional airlines in underdeveloped and developing nations of Africa and Latin America where fully modern airport facilities and asphalt runways can be rare.
Beyond continuing in the aircraft construction business, Let also runs its own aircraft mechanic school.
If you wish to learn more about the Let company, its history and scope of activities; the company’s official website is a good place to start.