The Estonian Aviation Museum

A nice and lively university town in the heart of the Estonian countryside, Tartu has really something for every kind of tourist – including those interested in aviation history. The Estonian Aviation Museum, or ‘Eeesti Lennundusmuuseum’ as they write it in the tricky local idiom, boasts a substantial and heterogenous collection of aircraft preserved in exceptionally good condition, which will not leave indifferent even the most knowledgeable aviation expert.

Having being for long a socialist republic in the realm of the Soviet Union – and today sharing a border with Russia – Estonia had access to massive surplus reserves after the end of the Cold War, so it is no surprise that Soviet aircraft are well represented in an Estonian museum. This already might appeal to western tourists, for the exotic, menacing silhouettes of MiGs and Sukhois are not often to be found except in less accessible spots in the former Eastern Bloc. Yet some more unexpected and rare models have been added over the years, including some SAAB aircraft from Sweden which are authentic collectibles.

The following photographs cover almost every plane that was there in summer 2017.

Sights

Most part of the collection has been preserved in a cleverly designed structure, made of small open-walled hangars with translucent canopies. The aircraft are illuminated by natural light, helping much when taking pictures, but they are not exposed to direct sunlight, rain or snow, which tend to damage both metal and plexiglas on the long run. Furthermore, the lack of doors and frames allows you to move around freely, and the place is not suffocating nor excessively warm.

The aircraft are basically all from the Cold War era, but some of them have outlived the end of the USSR and were retired more recently. The portraits are grouped here roughly based on the nationality of the manufacturers or aircraft mission.

Designs from the US

The American production is represented in this museum firstly by a McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, operated by the West-German Luftwaffe. The General Electric J79 turbojets have been taken out of the airframe, so you can see them separately.

A pretty unusual sight, also the antenna and electronic group in the nose cone have been taken out and are on display. This Phantom is a F-4F, a version specifically developed for West Germany from the basic F-4E. The former inventory number was 99+91.

Another iconic model on the menu is a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, formerly from the Italian Air Force. This exemplar is actually an Italian-built ‘S’ version, and among the latest to be retired by the Aeronautica Militare. The engine, again a J79, is on display elsewhere in the museum. An unusual crowd of instruction and warning stencils populate the external surface of the aircraft.

Soviet Military Models

The majority of the aircraft on display were designed in the Soviet Union or other countries of the Warsaw Pact.

Two aggressive aircraft include a MiG-21 and a MiG-23. The first, present here in the colors of the Polish Air Force, is a MiG-21bis Fishbed, the latest development of this fast delta-wing fighter/light-interceptor.

Possibly one of the most ubiquitous fighters of the jet age, the MiG-23 Flogger is part also of this collection. The aircraft you see in the pictures is a MLD variant, representing the last upgrade of this iconic fighter, which was also the basis for the very successful MiG-27 design.

It bears the markings of the Ukrainian Air Force, therefore it is likely an ex-USSR aircraft. The engine is sitting besides the aircraft, and two rocket canisters are placed beneath the fuselage, close to the ventral GSh-23 twin-barreled cannon.

A less usual sight is a MiG-25 Foxbat, a super fast interceptor/recce aircraft. Conceived in the late Fifties when the race for speed was in full swing, it was developed into a high performance platform to counteract the threat of the SR-71 Blackbird. It was built around two massive Tumansky R-15 afterburning turbojets, rated at a pretty high wet thrust of 110 kN, resulting in an incredible top speed around Mach 3.2! The aircraft is pretty sizable, and you can appreciate that looking at the picture of the main landing gear – search for the cover of my Canon wide lens close to the ground and compare sizes!

The menacing silhouette of this huge bird, with red stars on the vertical fins and a bare metal fuselage, will likely make relive in you an ‘Iron Curtain feeling’!

One which will not go unnoticed is a Polish Air Force Sukhoi Su-22M4 Fitter in a flamboyant, very colored livery. This massive fighter-bomber represents the export version of the Su-17M4 built by the USSR for domestic orders.

Despite the shape, roughly similar to that of the MiG-21 also on display, the size of this aircraft is much bigger – you might think of Su-22 as a case for a MiG-21…

Soviet bombers are represented by a pretty rare Sukhoi Su-24 Fencer, which is today still in service in Russia. The example on display bears the markings of the Ukrainian Air Force, meaning it was once a Soviet aircraft.

This massive twin-engined beast outsizes all other military aircraft on display. The aircraft is on display with three support tanks under the fuselage and the inner wing pylons.

A less common sight is a Yakovlev Ya-28P Firebar, a long-range intercept version of this multi-role platform from the early Sixties. This design is very interesting, with a four-points undercarriage and a very long nose cone, where a radar system for a target-tracking and missile guidance system was located. The two turbojet engines are mounted in cigar-shaped underwing pods. The relevant sweep of the wing suggests a significant speed capability, yet many variants of this aircraft were developed to exploit also its good range performance. The antenna originally placed in the nose cone is on display besides the aircraft, which bears original Soviet markings.

Soviet Transport Aircraft

Two aircraft which could not find their way in covered shelters mainly due to their bigger size, are a Tupolev Tu-134A-3 and a Yakovlev Ya-40. Both can be accessed, so you can get a view of the inside, including the cockpits.

The Tu-134 twin jet, with its distinctive glass bulge in the nose ahead of the cockpit, has been for long a ubiquitous aircraft in the USSR and in many countries of the Eastern Bloc. The exemplar on display was taken over by the Estonian company Elk Airways, created after Estonia left the USSR.

Notwithstanding this, the aircraft betrays its Soviet ancestry and ownership in every particular, from the all-Cyrillic writings to the hammers and sickles here and there, from the design of interiors to the exotic cockpit, painted in a typical lurid Soviet green and with prominent unframed black rubber fans for ventilation.

The Yak-40 is an interesting three-jet executive/small transport aircraft. The one on display went on flying for at least some good 15 years after the collapse of the wall in Berlin.

The internal configuration features an executive room ahead of a more usual passenger section and tail galley. The style of the cabin and of the pure analog cockpit is really outdated for todays standards!

A rugged workhorse still flying today in many countries is the Antonov An-2, a single propeller, radial-engined, biplane tail-dragger transport. There are two of them in the collection. One is under a shelter and can be boarded. The interiors are very basic, but the visibility from the cockpit is very good especially for a tail-dragger with an engine on the nose.

Swedish Aircraft

An unusual chapter in air museums except in Sweden is that of SAAB aircraft, which are represented in this collection by two iconic models, a Draken and a Viggen, and an extremely rare, very elegant Lansen. All are in the colors of the Royal Swedish Air Force.

The Saab 35 Draken features a very distinctive double-delta wing, and was developed in the Fifties for reaching a high supersonic speed. The design turned out to be pretty successful, and was operationally adopted primarily as a fighter by Sweden and other European countries as well.

The one in the collection is painted in a bright yellow livery. The infra-red pod under the nose cone of this aggressive attack aircraft looks like the lidless eye of an alien!

The Viggen is a an attack aircraft from the late Sixties, developed for the domestic military needs into some sub-variants. With the JA 37 version displayed here, the Viggen went on to constitute the backbone of the intercept fleet of neutral Sweden, and was retired only in the early 2000s. The aerodynamic configuration features a prominent canard wing, and the Viggen was notably the first in such configuration produced in significant numbers.

The most unusual of all three SAAB designs on display is surely the SAAB 32 Lansen. A very neat design from the Fifties, loosely recalling the Lockheed P-80 and the Hawker Hunter, the Lansen was a jet fighter of the early Cold War developed specifically for Sweden and gaining a good success. The ‘E’ version on display was converted from the original fighter variant (‘B’) for the ECM role, and kept flying almost until the end of the 20th century. The green painting of the Royal Swedish Air Force is really stylish, definitely adding to an already elegant design.

Soviet Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAM)

Curiously enough, an extensive collection of SAMs is part of this rich collection. All major missiles from SA-2 to SA-6 are represented, some of them in multiple exemplars. The size of these missiles, especially the oldest, is really striking. They are stored outside, besides some cases for missile transportation, deployable radar antennas, and what appears to be a flak cannon from Hitler’s Germany – a bit of an outsider…

Jet Engines

Many of the engines of the aircraft on display have been taken out of the corresponding airframes and put on display besides the plane where they used to belong, or in a dedicated part of the museum together with others. The J79 belonging to the Italian-built F-104 can be recognized from the Italian plaques on many components.

Many soviet engines bear markings in Cyrillic, and one of them, a larger turbofan which does not fit in any bird on display, has been cut to show all components.

More…

More aircraft in the collection include some Mil and Kamov utility helicopters, a BAe Hawk of the Finnish Air Force and other trainers mainly from countries of the Warsaw Pact, some of them now on the civilian register.

A further notable aircraft is a Dassault Mirage IIIRS from the Swiss Air Force – with multi-language French and German stencils all over.

There are also some anti-aircraft guns, armored vehicles, tanks, and other curios items to whet your appetite!

Getting There and Moving Around

The museum can be reached 10 miles south of central Tartu on road 141, about 15 minutes by car from there. There is a free parking area nearby the entrance. As remarked, the collection is well-kept and somewhat publicized locally. There is a website with all information in English. The time required for visiting may vary from 45 minutes for a quick tour to 2.5 hours for photographers and those with a specific interest in the matter.

Monino – Central Museum of the Russian Air Forces

Probably the most famous air museum in Russia – and formerly in the whole USSR – the Central Air Force Museum in Monino doesn’t need a presentation for aviation enthusiasts from every part of the world. As a matter of fact, still today this is probably the world’s largest collection of military and experimental aircraft manufactured in the Soviet Union.

Similar to many air museums in western Countries, this aircraft collection has been located on the premises of an active airbase since it opened its doors back in 1958. For this reason, in the years of the Soviet Union and even for some time after its collapse, the collection couldn’t be visited without prior permission. A specially restrictive visiting policy was applied to foreign visitors, due to the technological content of the exhibition. Today things have greatly improved in this respect, and visiting is absolutely free for everybody, both Russians and foreign tourists, like it is the case for most similar sites in the West.

To be sincere, I expected something like what you can find in former peripheral Countries of the Soviet bloc – an array of rotting fuselages, landing gears, rusty jet engines and no information around. It turned out I was totally wrong. What caused my inaccurate prevision was I had failed taking into account the singular passion and nostalgia that Russians show still today for their Soviet past, at least when it comes to military power and technological glory. In this respect, many other more ‘western’ and politically correct neighbor Countries in Europe, like Italy and France, have a much colder attitude towards aviation and their own past aeronautical endeavors.

So, at Monino the conditions of the aircraft both inside and outside are extremely good, especially if you consider the harsh weather that aircraft bodies have to sustain in the terrible Russian winters. From photographs on the web you can rapidly realize most aircraft are covered in snow in winter, so visiting may be also not much rewarding in that season. I visited in September, and except for a Soviet-grey, cloudy day I could enjoy a normal visit.

From the technical viewpoint, the collection is composed of many aircraft and engines up to WWII, hosted indoor, plus a huge outdoor collection of aircraft covering the majority of military models deployed by the Air Force of the Red Army over the years of the Cold War, in their respective roles – strategic bombers, fighters, …

Also some really rare prototype aircraft are part of the exhibition – some of them, like the Tupolev Tu-144 and the Sukhoi Su-100, are unique and very famous. There are also some iconic (gigantic) Mil helicopters, and some liners. There is much information around for less experienced enthusiasts, almost all placards both in Russian and English – a very rare sight in English-unfriendly Russia! If you can speak or understand Russian – unlike me – you can also have guided tours with former Air Force staff, which are reportedly much interesting.

The following photos were taken during a visit in September 2015.

Getting there

One of the reasons for so few interested people actually include Monino in their visit plan is the fame of the place as almost unreachable, inconvenient and expensive. This fame is due to the many companies on the web chattering about permissions, passport requests, tickets in advance, many hours to get to the place and so on. These companies usually ask for many hundreds dollars for taking you on the trip.

These are genuine tourist traps. There is no need for any permission, the place is not any more an active base (since long) and you are not asked any document. Plus, getting there with the local railway system serving the greater Moscow area is very easy – the train has Monino as destination – and the totally inexpensive trip takes about 1h 20min, only due to the countless stops.

First of all, note that I don’t speak russian nor can I read the Cyrillic alphabet. Nonetheless, I managed to get to this place about 20 miles from center Moscow to the East without troubles and traveling solo.

Trains going to Monino depart Moscow Yaroslavskaya in central Moscow rather frequently, about two to four times per hour – accurate timetable available briefly googling for local trains from Moscow to Monino. The terminal is the local railway terminal, placed right behind the main cottage-like building of the railway station (from where you can go as far as Vladivostok…). You can buy a ticket from one of the countless automatic vendors – in Russian, impossible for me – or from one of the countless ticket offices – this was my option. I got a ticket for both ways – you just have to say “To Monino and back”, even though Russians are not friends of English, this request was immediately understood by the officer. The fare is very cheap. The line I considered terminated at Monino, reached after many many stops and about 1h 20 minutes later. Note that the railway ticket is required also for leaving the station on arrival, so you’d better keep it safe.

If all you had seen before in Russia is St. Petersburg and central Moscow, you might be a bit shocked, and feel like you had leaped in the past and well back into the Soviet era – large and cheap concrete buildings, partially paved roads, many elderly people walking around along silent streets and more bicycles than cars around. Sure the village is nothing special and far from monumental, but it’s not dark nor scary or unsafe. Plus you can notice signs of its past vocation, as ghost insignia and abandoned control booths typical to a former military installation can be spotted immediately close to the railway station and around the village, together with a Lenin’s statue still proudly placed in a small square on your path to the museum.

The only problem is that there are no signs for reaching the museum – not any until you are in front of the gate -, which is about .7 miles from the station to the other end of the village (South). You can take a (rare) taxi, or enjoy the walk. The latter was my option. The road is extremely straightforward. Actually it’s basically straight. If you don’t have a digital map, you can simply print the Google map of Monino with a satellite view of the buildings – this again was my option – and this is definitely enough to get to the place. I prepared this small map with the path I’ve followed and some notable sights.

The ticket to the museum is less than 3 dollars, very cheap.

For going back you just reverse the plan. Travel time in total for the trip both ways may be 3h 10min, including train and transfers between the gate and Monino station by foot. Adding about 3 hours for visiting the museum with a relaxed pace, a visit to Monino from central Moscow may take about 6 hours, so you may plan something more than half day for this visit.

Opening times can be obtained from the official website http://www.monino.ru, some Google-translation is needed if you like me don’t know Russian.

Sights

Including descriptions of all aircraft in Monino would be impractical and probably uninteresting. For this reason I will include only photographs and some comments. For an almost-full list of the aircraft in Monino, with something about each of the preserved exemplars, I would recommend the book in English A guide to the Russian Federation Air Force Museum at Monino by Korolkov and Kazashvili, published in the US.

In the blue-roofed building of the ticket office some early aircraft engines and panels about the history of aviation in Russia are presented.

Then you can enter the neighbor hangar, with some unique aircraft from up to WWII. These include an exemplar of the world-famous Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik.

The rest of the exhibition is hosted on the other side of the road. Immediately past the gate on one side you have probably the world’s largest helicopter, the twin-rotor Mil Mi-12. Facing this monstrosity, some iconic bombers, including the Tu-4, i.e. a licence-built Boeing B-29, and a prototype Tupolev Tu-22M, with ancestral engine fairings later replaced on the production version. Also notable are a Tu-22, Tu-128 – a really massive interceptor – and two very famous Soviet prototypes, the Myasischev M-50 and the Sukhoi Su-100, with its characteristic Concorde-like deflectable nose.