Air Museums in the Former GDR

Due to its strategic relevance to the Soviet empire in the years of the Cold War, the territory of the former German Democratic Republic, or ‘GDR’, experienced an uncommonly intense military presence, growing over the years from soon after WWII to the end of the Soviet Union and the retreat of Russian troops to their home Country.

The coexisting armies of Eastern Germany and of the Soviet Union each managed land, sea and air groups operating from the GDR. As a result, still today the countryside of the former communist-ruled part of Germany is full of airports – many of them abandoned or converted to solar powerplants – and former tank training camps.

Besides this hardware, leaving clear traces reaching to this day, the quick collapse of the Soviet system and the end of the Cold War generated an enormous quantity of military surplus at all levels in the mid-Nineties.

In particular, soon after reunification the People’s Air Force of Eastern Germany was merged with the West-German ‘Luftwaffe’, whose name was retained and which became the German Air Force still operating today. The result of the merger was not ideal from a logistic and supply chain point of view, with too many aircraft and helicopters with radically different designs – implying different spare parts, maintenance procedures, specialized training, … Consequently, all Soviet models, which had been the backbone of the East German forces, were soon stricken-off the military register, many of them going to private collections.

For this reason, you can often find former GDR aircraft in museums all over Europe. Clearly, many of them remained in the territory of their bygone mother Country, enriching local air collections and museums. This post is about two less-known gems of the kind close to Berlin and Leipzig. These photographs were taken during visits in 2017.

Flugplatzmuseum Cottbus

This collection is located on the outskirts of the town of Cottbus, easily reachable about 70 miles southeast of Berlin. The premises occupied by this mainly open-air museum are to the south of the former local airport/base which was more recently converted into another solar plant. Actually, a hangar from here dating from WWII was dismounted and relocated to the state of Virginia.

The collection here is very rich, the majority of aircraft are kept in a well-maintained, non-flying condition, with a pretty large area devoted to aircraft restoration, and a well prepared and perfectly presented inside part with memorabilia, artifacts, aircraft parts, models, … – all in all, a primary attraction of the kind, well worth visiting for any aviation enthusiasts.

By passing the gates you will walk between a part of an Airbus A380 used for testing – a bit of an outlier for a military museum… – and an array of MiG-21, MiG-23 and MiG-27 formerly in service with the air force of the GDR.

The display of these aircraft side by side, the MiG-21s also in multiple different variants, is very interesting for making comparisons and spot both obvious and less evident differences between these iconic Soviet models.

A more rare, recently restored MiG-17 is proudly standing in front of the entrance to the main building of the museum.

Other highlights of the collection include two Sukhoi Su-22 aircraft. One of them bears markings of the Luftwaffe, suggesting it was used for some time in the air force of reunified Germany. The difference in size between the two massive Sukhois and the sleek MiGs is apparent having them sitting close to each other!

On the grass closer to the former runway are some Soviet helicopters, including a very well-preserved Mil-24 attack helicopter, also in Luftwaffe colors.

Close by, a couple of other MiGs in a bare metal colorway – one of them from Tschekoslowakia – can be spotted, together with some old western models, in the original colors of the Luftwaffe – these include an F-84, F-86, T-33 and a rare Italian G-91.

Other less aggressive aircraft in the area include a Let L-200 twin-propeller aircraft possibly for training, a Yakovlev Yak-11 acrobatic aircraft and some other aircraft for training, observation or crop dusting.

A full array of service trucks from various Soviet manufacturers are aligned in an open hangar, where a Soviet anti-aircraft SA-2 missile with its light launch gantry is also present.

The inside collection – not the usual dirty-and-dusty collection typical of wannabe air-museums, but instead a clean and well-presented, good-level small museum in itself – shows something on the local history of the former airport, various jettisonable seats from Soviet aircraft from different times, technical schemes for maintenance and training, as well as local findings of aeronautical interest. Among the latter, some pretty rare parts of downed aircraft from WWII, both from Nazi Germany and from the Allies – including the Soviet Union.

Also interesting was a temporary exhibition about the MiG-21 and its world-class success. The only thing I regret about the inside part is that all explanations were given in German only.

Some very interesting findings on the outside include a largely complete wreck of a Focke-Wulf FW190, what appears to be a bulky Napier Sabre II 24-cylinders engine, possibly from a Hawker Tempest or typhoon, a MiG-15 awaiting restoration, plus other engines and aircraft parts.

I would recommend this place for a dedicated visit about 1,5-2 hours long, especially if you are touring the area south of Berlin, very rich in terms of recent and past military history.

Getting there

Cottbus can be reached quickly by train from Berlin, but the museum is far from the town center. Going by car is definitely more convenient, a very fast highway going to the border with Poland – a few miles away – connecting Berlin and Cottbus in about 1 hour. Contact and information from their official website (in German, but basic info on opening times and location can be obtained very easily with some Google translation). Small parking nearby.

Flugwelt Altenburg/Nobitz

Similarly to the museum in Cottbus, this collection – whose name ‘Flugwelt’ translates into ‘World of Flight’ – is built on the premises of a former airbase – Altenburg/Nobitz, 20 miles south of Leipzig. Actually this was a very active center, managed by the Soviets who operated from here in the years of the Cold War with MiG-21, 23 and 27, and was also one of those sites in the GDR selected for nuclear weapons storage. Tactical missiles batteries were located also here in response to the deployment of Pershing missiles by the US on the territory of Western Germany. in the Eighties.

The airbase has been converted to non-military use, and today it is active mainly with general aviation flights. Some former hangars are used by private companies.

The air museum is made of two physically separated parts. The main building with the ticket office is the former entrance to the Soviet airbase. Here an incredible, original mural from Soviet times is still gracing the wall, together with a map of the airfield, again from Soviet times. From there you access the inside exhibition, cluttered with aircraft parts, engines, flight suits,… Not everything from the Soviet part of the Iron Curtain though, as uniforms and parts from Western Germany and other non-communist Countries can be spotted.

Among the most interesting artifacts in the exhibition, a large explanatory scheme of a servo-actuation plant of an aircraft, with explanations in cyrillic alphabet, and a simulator for a radar mounted inside the MiG-21. Both really used training items, very uncommon to find.

A part of an A380, two gliders, some Interflug memorabilia – the flagship airline of the GDR – and tons of models and radio-transmission hardware complete the picture. Unfortunately, also here everything is in German only. The volunteers are welcoming and helpful, but unfortunately communication is not easy due to language issues.

In a first part of the open-air exhibition it is possible to find a couple of MiG-21, one East-German and the other Soviet, a helicopter of the Police of the GDR, plus other aircraft from the West-German Luftwaffe, namely a Dassault Atlantique patrol, a G-91 and an F-86.

The two MiGs have been carefully restored, and the Red Army one appears to have been a former gate guardian at Altenburg/Nobitz.

Another part of the open-air collection can be found across the street, where a big Transall C-160 a Lockheed F-104 and a Sukhoi Su-22 can be spotted. The area is big and there is room for more aircraft – hopefully, this good-caring staff will have the chance to add even more items to their well-preserved collection in the future!

Curiously enough, the area was liberated from the Nazis by US troops in 1945, and handed over to the Soviets only after the end of WWII. A memorial stone remembers the actions of the US divisions fighting in the area in wartime.

Not time-expensive to visit (about 45 minutes to 1 hour for aircraft-minded people), besides a valuable aircraft collection and some rare artifacts of interest for aviation enthusiasts, this places offers the unique chance to enter a preserved gate building of a former Soviet airbase.

Getting there

The airport is located about two miles east of the nice historical town of Altenburg, itself about 30 minutes southeast of Leipzig. I would recommend going with a car and a good nav, for reaching the exact location of the museum may be a bit tricky with visual navigation. Website here, with some basic info also in English. The place is run by volunteers and it’s closed except during weekends in the good season, so carefully check opening times.

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