IN A SAFER PLACE: The crashed Albatross looked like this one, which was produced earlier. The pictured Albatross, after serving in the Lithuanian Air Force, was presented to the Lithuanian Aviation Museum in Kaunas.
VILNIUS - On Aug. 30, a Lithuanian Air Force aircraft, the Czech-made trainer fighter jet L-39ZA Albatross, collided in the air at a four kilometer height with a French fighter jet Mirage 2000c during the usual joint training some six kilometers from the NATO military base of Zokniai, situated near the northern Lithuanian town of Siauliai. An interception operation was imitated during that training of Aug. 30 and the Lithuanian plane was imitating actions of a non-NATO plane which intruded into Baltic airspace. The Lithuanian aircraft crashed. It fell into a swampy forest near the lake of Rekyva.
Both Lithuanian pilots ejected successfully – Marius Matulaitis landed in the lake of Rekyva while Povilas Stucka was found in the swampy forest nearby, where they both were saved by members of a local yacht club. Nobody was seriously injured, though both Lithuanian pilots got some bruises. The French fighter jet landed successfully at the Zokniai airbase. Some repair will be needed for the Mirage jet. The French Mirage fighter jets were taking part in NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission. On Aug. 31, four Danish F-16 fighter jets and 70 Danish soldiers arrived to Zokniai to replace the French shift, which ended on Sept. 2 - NATO countries rotate their mission at the Zokniai base every six months.
“After the collision, the pilots did what they could to direct the aircraft to a non-residential area to avoid harm to civilians,” Lieutenant General Arvydas Pocius, the chief of defense of Lithuania, said at his press conference held in the Lithuanian Defense Ministry three-and-a half hours after the morning’s incident on Aug. 30. At the start of that day, Lithuania had two L-39ZA Albatross, while after 10:30 that morning, the Lithuanian Air Force’s training fighter jet fleet decreased by 50 percent. “We had more of these planes in the past, but only two planes were left to exploit, recently. Those two planes were in good technical shape,” Pocius said. He refused to answer the question “Will one fighter jet will be enough?”
“It is a humoristic question and I’ll not answer to it,” Pocius said.
According to Edvardas Mazeikis, the chief of the Lithuanian Air Force, Albatross fighter jets are important for training of Lithuanian staff, which controls flights from the ground – the same staff takes care of flights of fighter jets of the allied NATO countries based in Zokniai. The Czech-made Albatross is one of the world’s most popular fighter jets for training. Mazeikis refused to speculate if new Albatross jets will be purchased by Lithuania, pointing to Estonia, which owns no fighter jets at all. The Estonians borrow such jets instead of buying them. In the past, the Lithuanian Albatross fleet was bigger, but four old Czechoslovakia-made L39C Albatrosses, bought cheaply by Vilnius in Kyrgyzstan in 1993, are not used by the Lithuanians anymore.
The crashed jet, as well as the functioning one, cost 3.7 million litas (1.07 million euros) each when they were bought in the Czech Republic in 1998. In 2007, the pilot cabin equipment of both of Lithuania’s Albatross jets was totally renewed in Romania. Now the Czech Republic produces newer versions of the Albatross in cooperation with the American Boeing company. According to Mazeikis, the three Baltic States could cooperate and buy 10-12 of such relatively non-expensive jets for their common usage, but it is up to politicians to make the decision. The purchase of two new Albatross planes would cost a similar sum that is now spent each year on five military orchestras of the Lithuanian Defense Ministry, i.e. 6.5 million litas.
After the collision on Aug. 30, the crashed jet was just a smoky hole in the ground. For several days, the Lithuanian army managed to lift pieces of wreckage with a helicopter because it was the only possible way to lift the plane from that swampy place. The black box was lifted out as well. “The black box is indeed black because it was badly damaged by flames,” Lieutenant Colonel Virginijus Simonavicius, chief of the Lithuanian Air Force’s aviation base, said, adding that there will be no use of that black box and the incident’s investigation will be based mostly on the data fixed in the Mirage jet. On Sept. 1, experts from the French Defense Ministry arrived to participate in the joint investigation. According to Lithuanian Defense Minister Rasa Jukneviciene, no financial claims will appear, whoever will be found guilty in the incident, because it is business between allies.
The NATO Baltic Air Policing mission is approved by the North Atlantic Council to last until 2014. Jukneviciene said that Lithuania will seek that this mission would become officially permanent, i.e. unlimited in time.