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 four less-known gems of the kind close to Berlin and Leipzig. These photographs were taken during visits in 2017 and 2021.

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Flugplatzmuseum Cottbus

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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.

Luftfahrtmuseum Finowfurt

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The Luftfahrtmuseum – i.e. aviation museum – in Finowfurt has taken over a part of the former Soviet airbase of Finow, about 35 miles northeast of Berlin. Over the last two decades of the Cold War, this airbase was pretty busy with high-performance Soviet MiGs, ranging from the older MiG-21 fighter-interceptor, the ubiquitous MiG-23 fighter, the rare super-fast MiG-25 interceptor, and up to the modern MiG-29.

Finow received a plethora of aircraft shelters, including the older AU-13 for MiG-21 and -23, but also AU-16(2) and AU-16(3), the former intended for the Yak-28 and MiG-25, the latter for the MiG-29. The picture below portray the relatively rare AU-16(2), with its non-circular vault, in the still-active part of the airport in Finowfurt, today a general aviation field.

The museum, encompassing the northwestern corner of the former military premises, offers the chance to walk close and inside AU-13 shelters, with their heavy reinforced doors, self-actuated by means of motors mounted close to their own bodies, and moving on a rail.

Parked ahead of a group of such shelters, a MiG-21 and a MiG-23 make for a scenario closely resembling the days of operation of this former Soviet installation. The shelters are interspersed with former technical gear from the base, including searchlights of evident Soviet make – see the writings in Cyrillic.

A spherical dome on top of one of the shelters may have been the case for a rotating aerial.

An Ilyushin Il-14 old two-engined transport and a Yakovlev Yak-28 bomber sit on the opposite sides of a former taxiway, typically built with large concrete slabs.

To the far end of the museum area, a low building, possibly a former canteen or technical facility, hosts a nice collection of artifacts, which tell much about the history of Finow over the years. For instance, during the Third Reich, this airbase was involved in testing the Allied aircraft landed in emergency on German territory – models of B-17 and B-24 in the unusual colors of the Luftwaffe witness this episode.

Of course, most of the material on display is from Soviet times. An original schematic of the base, and old signs in Russian – both propaganda posters and more technical explanations – are included in this collection.

Also a few naive paintings from Soviet times have been preserved.

An interesting collection of Soviet technical gear includes aircraft cameras for optical imagery, helmets, flying suits, as well as weapons partly dismantled possibly for instructional purposes.

Ahead of the small museum building, a statue of Lenin can be found, possibly relocated from another spot of the former Soviet base.

On a spot nearby, anti-aircraft and theater missiles can be found together with ranging aerials – as well as an ubiquitous Antonov An-2 transport biplane.

An imposing sight in the museum is a freshly refurbished Tupolev Tu-134, in the colors of the East German flag-carrier Interflug. It was not the case on the day of my visit, but it is likely the aircraft can be boarded on some occasions. Nearby, also a large Mil helicopter – a former transport – can be found ahead of yet another aircraft shelter.

On display in the latter are some aircraft jet engines, as well as some communications rigs, and some explanatory panels, likely from a former technical school for air personnel.

A particularly interesting collection is hosted in an adjoining shelter, wisely converted for the scope. It is based on relics from crashed aircraft, from the years of WWII. A very active group of aviation archaeologists operates in Finow, and this fantastic display is the result of their preservation effort.

Artifacts range from engine parts to aircraft components from all the air forces involved in WWII, and include substantial remains from the wrecks of a Soviet Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik, and a German Föcke-Wulf FW-190, a high-performing fighter manufactured in great numbers, but today sadly very hard to find even in museums.

Finally, closer to the former runway, two shelters cover a few helicopters, including some formerly in service with the Volkspolizei – the police of the GDR – as well as a MiG-15 with two seats for training, and a MiG-21.

Outside on the grass, a MiG-27 fighter bomber and a MiG-17, both in the colors of the GDR Air Force (aka NVA).

Approaching the exit, a deployable aircraft-stopping harness for emergencies can be seen, close to a movable SAM launcher from the NVA, and a massive Sukhoi Su-22 similarly in the colors of the NVA, like those to be found in Cottbus (see above).

The ticket office of the museum is hosted in a former technical facility with reinforced doors, possibly a storage for special ordnance.

Thanks to the proximity with Berlin and the wealth of interesting artifacts, this museum is a highly valuable Soviet counterpart to the Westwardly-oriented museum in Gatow (on a former British airfield near Potsdam, website here). Besides a rich collection of aircraft and technical gear, complemented by a display of interesting findings from the aviation archaeology group, Finow allows to get a flavor of how a Soviet base looked like in the days of operation. For aircraft enthusiasts, a visit may easily take 2 hours or more.

Getting there

The museum is conveniently located in Finowfurt, immediately out of the highway A11 (exit Eberswalde), going from Berlin to Szczecin in northern Poland. It is less than 1 hour driving from downtown Berlin. The museum is mostly open-air, with some collections hosted in former aircraft shelters. A large free parking is available on site. Website here. Please note that credit card may not be accepted. Going with cash is recommended.

Luftfahrttechnisches Museum Rechlin

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The museum of Rechlin can be found in the former premises of an Army research center dating from the years of the Third Reich. It is located in the open countryside, about 80 km north of Berlin, in the vicinity of lake Müritz. Following the Soviet occupation of the area in 1945, the center went on as a technical site of the Red Army.

The museum has restored the original buildings, and set up an exhibition mainly focused on the history of German military aeronautics. The exhibition is both indoor and outdoor.

The indoor part has on display a number of German aircraft, aircraft engines and several related parts, mainly from pre-WWII or WWII. A highlight of the show is a number of reconstructed exemplars, created putting together original parts and some reproduced components. Of course, the result is now airworthy, but considering how hard to find these aircraft are today in collections, this is a rare opportunity to have a first-hand look at how these models looked like.

A very interesting collection of original engines and components from the Third Reich period is on display. The level of engineering sophistication reached in the years of WWII is really astonishing. It was at that time that piston power reached its top development in aeronautics. Furthermore, the first jet engines entering production date from the final stages of WWII too, and are here represented.

Another hangar is mostly dedicated to large 1:1 mock-ups of extremely rare German designs from WWI and WWII, including a Dornier Do-335 in a push-pull configuration, which have been accurately assembled, providing a vivid portrait of how these now very rare-to-find aircraft.

Other exhibits include Soviet-made aircraft, partly dismounted for didactic purposes.

In another wing, the museum displays a rich exhibition of original artifacts from the era of Soviet occupation. These include many aircraft components, jettisonable seats, helmets, several radio components, papers and pictures.

Simulators for aircraft and helicopter cockpits are also part of the display.

Memorabilia include everyday items, Soviet newspapers, badges and celebration plates. The page of a German newspaper, from the date of the final withdrawal of then-Russian troops back home from Germany, titles ‘Farewell, Muzhiks!’ – really a momentous event.

In an adjoining room, uniforms and emblems from both the USSR forces and the East-German NVA can be found in display cases.

The outdoor exhibition is centered on a few original aircraft and helicopters, as well as fast motorboats and other vehicles. Aircraft include a MiG-21, MiG-23, and a massive Sukhoi Su-22.

As for helicopters, there are a Mil-2, Mil-24 and a Mil-8 – all Soviet-made. The latter two have the main rotor blades still dismounted.

The research center, and today the museum, is located just about 5 km north of Rechlin/Lärz airfield, active in the Third Reich in aeronautical research – Messerschmitt Me-163 Komet rocket-powered interceptors were studied here. The airfield became a large Soviet base from 1945 to the time when the then-Russian troops left. Today the airport has been converted for general aviation use. A report from an exploration of its premises can be found here.

Getting there

This is a proportionate collection, friendly to visit for everybody, in a nice rural setting. Memories from the history of aviation in Germany before and during WWII, as well as from Soviet operations taking place in the area – an often overlooked but crucial chapter in the military history of the GDR. The exact address is Am Claassee 1, 17248 Rechlin, Germany. Official website here. Visiting may require 45 minutes to 1.5 hours.

Flugwelt Altenburg/Nobitz

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Similarly to the museum in Cottbus and Finowfurt, 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.

Aerospace Museum of California – Sacramento

Albeit being a rich and fine collection of military aircraft, possibly among the best in California, the Aerospace Museum of California, located a few miles north-east of downtown Sacramento along interstate 80, is still a somewhat unusual place – at least, it’s not so famous as other attractions in town, like the State Capitol, the Railroad Museum, Sutter’s Fort and the area of the former river port.

The museum is located on the eastern side of the area of McClellan airport. McClellan used to work as a support Air Force base and a station of the Coast Guard. The latter is still operating from this airport today with Lockheed C-130 Hercules, but the Air Force left in 2001.

The following photographs were taken during a visit to the museum in August 2014, and portrait some highlights of this interesting and often overlooked collection.

Sights

The museum is made of a relatively small hangar, where you pay and can also find some nice books. The hangar hosts a few more delicate aircraft, like a refurbished example of the ubiquitous Boeing Stearman training biplane, as well as a nice collection of piston, jet and liquid fuel rocket engines from various ages of aviation.

Also preserved inside is an escape unit of a General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark, which was unique in the sense that it was a totally detachable part of the aircraft. Instead of having jettisonable seats, the pilots would trigger separation of the whole cockpit unit, leaving the canopy intact. This section of the aircraft then descended gently with a parachute. The canopy is open, so you can have a look to the cockpit.

You can board a Dassault Falcon 50 of the Coast Guard, and inspect a North American F-86 Sabre.

The collection outside is hosted on a relatively small fenced apron – good if you don’t want to walk – differently from the USAF museum at Wright-Patterson in Ohio… – but not so good for taking pictures of single aircraft. Among the most unusual sights here, you immediately come across a FedEx Boeing 727 freighter, which can be boarded on some days.