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

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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.

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.

Flying over Moosehead Lake & Lobster Lake, Maine

Probably not so famous for bush-flying activity as other locations on the West Coast, especially British Columbia and Alaska, the easternmost state of the US – Maine – has still much to offer in this sense. Besides the beautiful coast going from Portland to the famous Acadia National Park and the border with New Brunswick, the central and northern part of the state are totally wild areas, with few roads and many lakes, forests, wildlife and breathtaking panoramas you can appreciate from the air.

Similarly to the Rockies in the West, the Appalachians constitute an ideal backbone of all states in the North-East of the US. Of course, being far elder than their western counterparts, the Appalachians seem less massive and their peaks are not so high, yet the almost isolated domes of the last mountains of this range in Maine make for very unusual sights.

The wild features of this land, as in other parts of the US and Canada, make it a perfect place for bush flying and related photo opportunities. Determined to explore this part of the country from the air, in a party of three we found a nice company to fly with, with a base in the nice town of Greenville, ME.

The following photographs were taken during our stay there in 2011.

Getting there

We booked with Currier’s Flying Service – website curriersflyingservice.com. The planes of this company are all beautiful floatplanes, and in summer they can be spotted resting on water in a protected cove – named ‘West Cove’ – on the western border of the town of Greenville, the largest town on the shores of Moosehead Lake.

The small nice wooden terminal of the company is clearly indicated and can be found besides the main road (West Street), just before passing a railway bridge leaving from downtown Greenville heading for N.15 and Quebec City.

Sights

We had booked in advance via phone, and we were greeted by Sue, the wife of the owner, Mr. Roger Currier, who is also the pilot. We profited of a short time waiting for Mr. Currier to have a look at his incredible mechanics shop and hangar, which looked like it had come out of a National Geographic’s documentary or a book on open range explorations!

Besides an array of radial engines, including one with a fully assembled two-bladed propeller, we could see a hangared Cessna 195 on floats – Mr. Currier owns two of these, we flew on the other white and blue painted one -, a canoe, a historic small truck, and tons of engine parts, propellers, deer antlers, tools and cabinets. Going to the nearby pier, we could see the other aircraft belonging to the company, the Cessna 195 we were to fly on – I had expressly asked for this, due to the extreme rarity of this model on a world scale -, a modern Cessna 180 Skywagon, and a larger and nice De Havilland Beaver, a more common site in the Northwest, as Kenmore Air operates some on a regular timetable even from downtown Seattle.

After meeting with Mr. Currier we boarded the 195, with me in the front right seat – I am a pilot, so I’m often offered the first officer’s seat on similar occasions, just in case! This aircraft has only one yoke, which can be shifted to the left or to the right, leaving the not-in-command seat with much room. This and the fact that 195 has a high wing with no struts, similarly to the Centurion and Cardinal models, make this airplane a perfect choice for observation and photography missions. Those in the front seats enjoy a great lateral visibility, but the huge radial engine limits the view to the front, at least on water – things improve a bit in flight.

Furthermore, the two seats in the back are arranged in a saloon configuration, with much legroom and very good, unobstructed visibility to the sides – optimal for photography.

We taxied on water to the north for a while and took off to the south, making a left U-turn over Greenville and setting course again to the north. Another seaplane hangar, larger than that of Courier, can be spotted close to the center of Greenville. It used to be the home base of another flying service company, named Folsom, once famous for operating one of the few Douglas DC-3 on floats ever manufactured. Also the hangar of Jack’s Air Services can be spotted nearby.

Following the eastern shoreline of Moosehead Lake stationing at a 1600 ft above sea level, hence at a convenient zoom-lens distance to the ground, I could take pictures of the many coves and bays, including Sandy Bay, Lily Bay and Spencer Bay. From the photographs, it is clear that soon after leaving Greenville you really get into the wild. Looking east you can see in the distance mount Katahdin, the easternmost peak of the Appalachians.