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.

Aircraft Carriers of the West Coast

Among the countless interesting places and sights the States of the West Coast have to offer, even aircraft carriers need to be mentioned. There are three ‘capital sites’ that will surely appeal to war veterans, pilots, seamen, historians, technicians, children and everybody with an interest for ‘CVs’ – an acronym for ‘carrier vessels’. Two are super-museums in California, where the USS Hornet and USS Midway are permanently preserved and open to the public, and a third is the Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington, which is an active installation of the US Navy in the premises of the Naval Base Kitsap, where maintenance work is carried out on the current CV-fleet, and where part of the reserve fleet – including most notably some aircraft carriers – is moored.

Here you can find some photos of these sites from visits of mine in 2012 and 2014.

USS Hornet (CV-12) – Alameda, CA

This ship is an Essex-class carrier commissioned in late 1943. Since then, she saw extensive action throughout WWII in the Pacific theatre, being involved in frontline operations leading to the defeat of Japan. As a matter of fact, aircraft from this ship totalled a number of downed aircraft ranking second in the general list of aircraft carriers of the world, behind USS Essex – which enjoyed a full year of service more than Hornet during the war with Japan.

The original appearance of the ship was much different from today’s, first and foremost due to the straight-deck construction of the Essex-class – just like all other carriers until the Fifties. For Hornet the current shape of the deck is the result of SCB-125 modification in 1956, introducing an angled landing deck. This feature, which came along with other major changes to the overall structure also resulting in a significant weight increase, allowed independent take-off and landing operations. Differently from other ships of the class, Hornet wasn’t upgraded in the late-fifties with steam-powered catapults, retaining hydraulically powered ones instead, thus being incapable of launching heavier aircraft like the Phantom, Intruder, Vigilante, or even the Hawkeye. It was then assigned to a support role as an ASW carrier, equipped with Tracker aircraft and helicopters for anti-submarine missions.

In the late Sixties Hornet was involved in the race to the Moon, serving as a rescue platform for the first moonwalkers returning from the succesful Apollo 11 mission, and subsequently in the same role for the astronauts of Apollo 12.

Similarly to all other Essex-class vessels – with the exception of the venerable USS Lexington, operated as a training ship until late 1991! – it saw limited action in the Vietnam War, when much larger and more suited carriers had become available for war operations, and it was retired in the early Seventies.

During your visit you are basically free to move all around the many well-preserved areas under the flight deck.

There you can see the striking proportions of this relatively ‘small’ carrier. The mechanism of the central elevator can be seen to the bow of the ship. An impressive table with the number of targets hit recalls the primary role this ship had in WWII.

On the main aircraft storage level there are some preserved aircraft, not all from the history of this unit. Among the many interesting features in this area, a replica of the helicopter which took the astronauts of Apollo 11 on board. This very helicopter was used in Ron Howard’s movie ‘Apollo 13’ starring Tom Hanks. Also the mobile quarantine facility for the astronauts can be found here. Neil Armstrong’s very footsteps from the helicopter to the quarantine facility are marked with white paint.

Moving back to the stern of the ship it is possible to visit a very interesting technical area for aircraft maintenance and servicing, as well as for mission preparation. It reminds the primary role of aircraft carriers as a frontline-deployed, moving airbases, with everything that is necessary for operating the aircraft onboard on a regular basis for offensive missions. A hatch leading to the compartments on the lower levels has been left open, and this allows to appreciate the actual size of the ship, really huge, with multiple storage levels for aircraft spare parts and ordnance.

Also very interesting are the big fireproof sliding doors for cutting the aircraft storage deck into compartments in the event of fire – possibly due to some ordnance piercing the deck of the ship, as well as to accidental causes.

Further interesting sights in the self-guided part of the visit include the operational briefing room, some service rooms, dormitories and a large area for the anchor moving mechanisms.

A second part of the tour is guided. You move around is small groups and you access the flight deck and the ‘island’, the command and control center of all operations – deck management, flight mission control, and ship control & navigation. The guides are very knowledgeable and enthusiastic veterans, able to tell you detailed explanations of what you see as well as anecdotes from the history of the ship.

The Presidential Seal has been placed where president Nixon was standing to oversee the recovery of the moonwalkers from Apollo 11.

This part of the visit will be extremely interesting for more technically minded subjects – you will see original wind signals for landing aircraft, an original LORAN navigation device for sea navigation, the normal and emergency arresting systems, the Fresnel optical landing aid system, and tons of other extremely interesting items which were actually used in real operations.

From the stern of the ship and the flight deck it is possible to take fantastic pictures of downtown SFO.

Extra Feature – Treasure Island Pan Am Terminal

A little ‘extra’ you can find on your way if you are travelling from San Francisco via the SFO-Oakland Bay Bridge to the site fo the USS Hornet is Treasure Island. This artificial island was taken out of the water at the end of the Thirties for the Golden Gate International Exhibition in 1939. Coincidentally, Pan Am, which had recently inaugurated its trans-Pacific ‘Clipper’ air service with the huge Boeing 314 seaplane, built a facility on the island, with a passenger terminal and service hangars for maintenance. Operation of the Clipper were moved here for good, and the aircraft took off and alighted on water between Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island, the smaller natural island to the south – the cove is today called Clipper Cove. Later on the service was relocated to Alameda as the island was taken over by the military.

Unlike most of the buildings dating from the exhibition, wiped out soon after it, the terminal survived and it is a proportionate, nice example of the airport building style of the late Thirties.

Also the foundations of some of the original passenger pier, as well as concrete slides for seaplane operations on the shore of Clipper Bay, can be seen still today. The Pan Am terminal building was used to simulate the terminal at Berlin Tempelhof in Steven Spielberg’s movie ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’.

Treasure Island is also a good place for taking pictures of downtown SFO, as well as the most famous items on the bay – Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Getting There

The ship is permanently anchored by one of the piers close to the former Alameda NAS, on the southern side of the island of Alameda. It can be reached very conveniently and quickly from downtown San Francisco via the Oakland bridge (I-80), and from Oakland, Berkeley, San Leandro and all districts on the eastern side of the bay. Full explanation and info on their website. Treasure Island is located roughly mid-way along the Oakland Bridge. Visiting the Pan Am terminal is a quick detour from the interstate. Large parking nearby both sites.

USS Midway (CV-41) – San Diego, CA

This is the first and the only remaining of the three Midway-class ‘super carriers’ – which included USS Franklin D. Roosevelt and USS Coral Sea. The origin of the class dates back to WWII, when it was decided that larger, armored, metal decks were to replace the vulnerable wooden decks of the Essex-class carriers. USS Midway was commissioned in September 1945, immediately after VJ-Day, with a straight deck, albeit steel-made. The steel construction was considered a relevant asset for jet aircraft operations, and all three carriers were kept in active service following the progressive transition to the new type of aircraft propulsion, with only minor modifications needed to the flight deck.

USS Midway was involved in the early stages of US missile experimentation, with the first tests of sea launched V-2 rocket clones, originating from the German design, and Regulus I air-breathing cruise missile.

The current shape of USS Midway is the result of subsequent major modifications. Program SCB-110 in the late Fifties added the angled deck to enhance simultaneous launch and recovery operations and flexible flight deck operations. Also the curved ‘hurricane-proof’ bow was added, together with steam-powered catapults.

In 1966 this ship was the only of the three of her class to receive the very expensive SCB-101.66 modification, resulting in a lengthening of the flight deck, the adoption of more powerful steam catapults and a new arrangement of the higher-load elevators. All three ships were on active duty in Vietnam, USS Midway apparently launching the first and last US air attacks of the war.

Even though USS Midway – the largest and best equipped of the three – could not operate the Tomcat, it could take four squadrons of Hornets, thus remaining effective in frontline service well into the Gulf War in the early Nineties, the last major operation in which she was involved before retirement and re-opening as a permanent exhibition – notably among the most popular in San Diego alongside the zoo.

Similarly to the USS Hornet described above, the tour of the Midway starts with a self-guided exploration of the aircraft storage deck and of the air deck. Among the tons of interesting sights here, to the bow you can find under the air deck the steam reservoir for the catapults and the system for moving the anchors.

Further back the main hangar for storing the aircraft is really huge. You can get an impression of the size of the ship by looking at the lower storage levels, where jet engines and air-launched ordnance are still visible.

With respect to the USS Hornet the exhibition is somewhat more ‘lively’, also with some reconstructed scenes, notice-boards, prepared dinner tables and so on. On the cons side, the place can get really crowded.

You can explore the crew areas, with dormitories, kitchens, canteens, medical services – including a fully equipped surgery compartment.

Most interesting is the propulsion system. Midway-class ships, as well as the later Forrestal-class, were all conventionally powered – non nuclear. Oil was supplied to burners, heating water and generating steam. By supplying steam to turbines mechanical power was obtained and transferred to the propeller shafts. This involved monstrous reduction gears. You can see the control room of this very complex system as well as burners, turbines gearboxes and propeller shafts, all explained with technical schemes – this will be extremely interesting for technically minded people. Close by, the similarly important air conditioning and ventilation system – an ancillary system at a first glance, it is absolutely necessary for all computers and electronics.

Other interesting sights are the briefing rooms for both flying and non-flying personnel, the chapel, and the inertial navigation system – buried close to the buoyancy center of the ship to reduce the influence of oscillations.