Flying the L-39 Albatross

Training to fly aerobatics in the ultimate personal jet warbird.

Alex Kowtun in L-39 Albatross
Training to fly aerobatics in a highly modified L-39 with airshow star Scott Farnsworth.Alex Kowtun

Scott Farnsworth is a California native, ­airline captain and the owner of Farnsworth Aerosports. He is a proud father and ­husband who started flying airplanes at the age of 15 while working odd jobs ­including washing aircraft to fund his flying. He was determined and focused on becoming a pilot, and by age 22, he was the youngest first officer ever hired by his employer, a major U.S. airline. By age 29, he’d moved into his current position as an Airbus A321 captain for that carrier.

Despite his early success, Farnsworth’s entrepreneurial spirit kept him pushing for even more in the aviation field. He built his first racing airplane in his garage and soon began flying competitive aerobatics. This year, he is on track to become the fastest athlete in the world.

On the airshow circuit, Farnsworth noticed the huge public exposure that air racing and aviation events offer. He decided to create one-of-a-kind opportunities and experiential marketing for select sponsors and ­showgoers. Farnsworth Aerosports currently operates two highly modified Czechoslovakian L-39 jets on the airshow circuits in North America and China, as well as at the Reno National Air Races in Nevada. The team travels with the jets, a tour bus and a virtual-reality crowd experience designed to deliver heart-pounding performances in the sky, and an engaging, customizable VR experience for ­spectators on the ground. Farnsworth Aerosports receives over 55 million impressions per year on social media and is growing exponentially. His efforts help generate enthusiasm and appreciation for the aviation industry, as well as attract the next generation of pilots and innovators.

Alex Kowtun and Scott Farnsworth during their preflight briefing
Alex Kowtun and Scott Farnsworth during their preflight briefing, preparing for the L-39 flight.Courtesy Alex Kowtun

Farnsworth's L-39 Missions

The Aero L-39 Albatros is a Czech fighter-jet trainer ­produced by Aero Vodochody. It was originally designed in the late 1960s, with the first production aircraft produced in 1971. The jet is still used as a trainer by some air forces around the world. It is considered a second-generation jet of the five generations of fighter jets in existence. Some countries have even used the trainer as a light attack aircraft. In 1996, production of the L-39 ended. Over the years, a total of 44 nations have operated the airplane. There are currently 255 L-39s in private hands, and in 2002, it began racing in the jet class at the Reno Air Races.

We all can respect how rare it is to own a fighter-jet trainer. However, Farnsworth did not purchase his L-39s for pleasure flying. He had two very specific missions. The first was to become a top airshow pilot, which he accomplished in short order. The second mission was to become the fastest athlete in the world by winning the gold jet class at the Reno Air Races. To achieve the second goal, he designed and built the Super39GXT conversion to create the highest-performing L-39s in the world. An engine swap makes the jets more efficient, much faster and safer, and quite possibly revolutionizes the future for all L-39s. It will be exciting to watch Farnsworth battle it out this month at the 2019 Reno Air Races.

L-39 Albatross preparing for takeoff
Farnsworth in his L-39, preparing for takeoff in Reno, Nevada, to race in the Reno Air Race Gold Class.Courtesy Alex Kowtun

My Previous L-39 Experiences and Aerobatic Prep

I am a pilot, entrepreneur and aviation fanatic who lives in South Florida. Over the past 10 years, I have had the ­privilege of flying a wide range of different aircraft—­everything from a Piper J-3 Cub to a Beechcraft Premier jet and a whole spectrum in between. However, my ultimate childhood dream was to fly fighter jets. Three years ago, I met Farnsworth, and my dream was finally within reach.

During the past few years, I have trained many times with Farnsworth in his first L-39, Race 38. That jet has more thrust than a production L-39 and has been highly modified to save weight and squeeze every extra knot of performance out of the airframe for racing. We have done $3,000 hamburger flights, light aerobatic flights and some interesting formation flying. For our most recent flight, I wanted to push the jet to its limits and experience how that felt in full force.

Farnsworth agreed to put me through the rigors of his entire airshow routine. I knew that it was going to be an ­outrageous experience, and I had the cameras ready. In previous flights with him, I had experienced air ­sickness toward the end of each. However, with each passing sortie, I felt better and built up more of a tolerance to the G-forces and unusual altitudes. Still, I wondered, what would it be like in the L-39 as Farnsworth pushed the machine to its limits?

L-39 Albatross in flight
Jeffrey Alan took this photo from the right seat of Phillip Bozek’s Daher TBM 930 during a post-Sun ’n Fun formation flight with Lovepreet Singh in the rear of the aircraft.Jeffrey Alan

Up to that point, when people asked me how it felt to do the positive-G maneuvers, I would explain that, at first, the body gets very heavy, as one might expect. The interesting or even unexpected part is what happens to your vision. As the G-load increases, your peripheral vision narrows into tunnel vision. Next, the world becomes white.

For me, it felt like driving a car without sunglasses and turning into the blinding sunlight. That “white-out” can be mistaken for sun on your first few high-G experiences. In reality, it is caused by oxygen deprivation, which leads to confusion and what appears to be only brightness. If the G-load continues or increases without proper muscle flexing and breathing, your vision will darken and go black. Given the seriousness of the effects, I was determined to practice and prepare ahead of time.

Two days before the aerobatic training flight with Farnsworth, I ate only very light meals and did intense cardio at the gym. The day of the flight, my diet was purely liquids. I practiced breathing and muscle flexing to keep oxygen and blood flowing to my head while pulling heavy-G maneuvers. I knew I was going to be filmed the entire time, which was also daunting, but I was ready to live my dream.

Wild Ride

Our flight began at Homestead Air Force Base in Miami after the Thunderbirds completed their performance at a large airshow. With the cameras rolling, I confidently strapped into the rear seat of the L-39. We received ground clearance to proceed to the taxiway following Thunderbird 6. After all of the ground checks were complete, we were cleared for takeoff to the east. At 2,000 feet, Farnsworth gave me the controls, instructed me to fly a southwesterly heading and climb to 8,500 feet. Once we reached our desired altitude, I flew along the coast of Florida and did some clearing turns. Farnsworth stated “my aircraft” and the “cage match” began. I can’t think of a better term to describe the aerial battle that ensued.

Within five seconds of Farnsworth at the controls, I knew this was going to be unlike any other flight we had ever done together. The jet was moving violently from left to right, and the direction changes seemed to be happening instantaneously. Before I could comprehend what was happening, we were pointed straight down, and our airspeed was accelerating at an incredible rate. The ground was coming at us so fast, but with a hard pull, the G's pinned me to my seat. I flexed my muscles as ­forcefully as possible. My preparation paid off, and I made it through the maneuver. It turned out to be a 4.8-G pull to ­straight-and-level flight.

Then, seconds later, we entered a series of very fast ­aileron rolls. This maneuver did not G-load the aircraft but was still an assault to the body because the rolls started so quickly and ended so abruptly. After another clearing turn, we gained some altitude in exchange for the airspeed that we had built up from the initial dive. I was shocked at how quickly things were happening and how much more ­aggressive the maneuvers were compared to the basic ­aerobatics we had done in the past in the L-39.

L-39 Albatross Jet
Photo taken by Antonio More during the formation flight after-hours at the Sun ’n Fun Airshow with Farnsworth and Kowtun in the L-39.Antonio More

With our altitude much higher now, it was time to start pulling some very heavy G's, and here is where the experience became out of this world. From that point forward, I have no clear recollection of the maneuvers we did—just the memories of flexing hard, breathing and fighting for consciousness. While looking down, I briefly saw what I believed to be the Homestead-Miami Speedway. What seemed like an eternity later, I thought I was driving a car on the racetrack below us. I hadn’t passed out, but I lost vision and had a complete “gray-out.” Once Scott unloaded the G's, I came to and was a bit confused, but I realized I was still in the jet and not on the ground racing a car on the track. It turned out that we were not even over the race track during those maneuvers.

Still, I was ready to continue the flight and get my head back in the game. With the next few maneuvers, I entered yet another state of confusion and thought I was at home and very sleepy. My breathing had faltered. I believed I was in bed and accepted the fact that I was very tired and going to take a nap. Just as I started my slumber, we unloaded the G's, and I fully came to again. By now, my entire body was ­covered in sweat, and my flight suit was soaking wet.

Next, we began some less intense maneuvers and climbed again to gain altitude. Then it was straight back to the heavy G's. I was more determined than ever to stick with it and fight through the assault to my body. After several more high-G maneuvers, my body felt like it was shutting down. Fortunately, Farnsworth put the airplane upside down and pulled some negative G's. This was the first time in my life that I had ever longed to be upside down because it is normally so uncomfortable in its own right. However, being upside down with negative G's—allowing the blood to rush to my brain—proved tremendously relieving after the ­confusion and all of the heavy-G maneuvers to that point.

Alex Kowtun giving thumbs up after flight
Courtney Quinn capturing Kowtun's victory smile after getting through the most intense flight of his life.Courtesy Alex Kowtun

Sure enough, we immediately shot back to heavy positive G's and that dreadful confusion returned. My hands began to feel tingly and numb. I kept trying to move my fingers to get rid of the feeling but just couldn’t focus on that simple task as we repeatedly pulled heavy G's. Finally, enough was enough, and the maneuvers came to an end.

I was beyond beaten—both mentally and physically. I had never felt so defeated, drained and taxed. On the way back, Farnsworth asked if I was up for one more very hard pull with a midfield break over the runway. Our friends were watching down below at the airport. How could I say no? With time to prepare, I didn’t think much of one last ­quick-planned maneuver. This turned out to be our hardest-G pull of the day. I have zero memory of it. I completely G-locked halfway through the turn and passed out. Game over.

I woke up a few seconds later and had no idea what happened—no idea who I was and no idea where I was. I was completely defeated by the machine. I’d lost the ultimate cage match.

two men in flight suits
Dash Aerosports getting a photo of Farnsworth and Kowtun together post-flight.Courtesy Alex Kowtun

Lessons Learned

Despite the fact that I don’t recall certain portions of it, this experience was still the most memorable flight of my life. It reminded me that we are not invincible. It was an amazing ego check. If I had been flying the jet alone and G-locked in a similar fashion, it would have been all over for me, the airplane and possibly people below. I was also reminded how crucial training, preparation and knowledge of your aircraft can be. There is no such thing as too much training, nor too much experience. I learned the importance of flying within your personal limits and the potential dangers of being arrogant, overconfident and irresponsible. Sometimes the skies, or at least those of us flying in it, do have limits.