When touring the Czech Republic's countryside and its many traditional grass airfields, you may encounter a little-known, tough-looking utility aircraft that has been buzzing around ever since Nikita Khrushchev called the shots in the Eastern Bloc. But the Aero L‑60 Brigadýr was hardly a successful aeroplane.
During World War II, many German aircraft were manufactured in the annexed Czech lands, Bohemia and Moravia, and several types continued in production for the Czechoslovak air force after the end of the war. These included the Fieseler Fi 156 Storch, which was manufactured by the Beneš-Mráz company in the small town of Choceň until 1949 as the Mráz K‑65 Čáp. To replace the K‑65 as an artillery spotter, two strange-looking aircraft were developed, the Aero Ae 50 and the Praga E‑55. Both had the observer seated in glazed position below a thin, long tail boom, and both were failures. In 1951 a government requirement was issued for a more conventional three-seat observation and utility type, and this resulted in the Aero company in Prague receiving the go-ahead for its L‑60, designed by chief engineer Ondřej Němec. At this time, Aero was getting busy with the production of Russian combat aircraft – the Il‑10 Shturmovik and the MiG‑15 – and responsibility for the L‑60 was transferred to the small company in Choceň which had built the Storch, now nationalized and soon to be known as Orličan.
There was no blood bond, merely a superficial resemblance between the Storch and the new aircraft. While the L‑60's high wing had leading edge slots and split flaps, assuring decent short field performance, the Storch's extreme VTOL characteristics were not required, as they came at the price of very low speed and very high fuel consumption. A brand new Czech engine was selected for the L‑60. This was to be its Achilles' heel, as the Walter company's M208B flat-six turned out to be an unreliable failure which never delivered its design rating of 240 hp. Nevertheless it was cleared for production as the Praga M208 Doris B, and every L‑60 was to be underpowered by it.
Ondřej Němec never saw his plane fly: he was killed in an Aero Ae 45 crash at the Choceň airfield in July 1953, before the first flight of the prototype XL‑60/01 from the same site on 24 December. It was provisionally fitted with an old Argus As 10 engine, the first flight with the M208B following in June 1954. The air force test pilots were unimpressed, and it was not just the engine that was to blame. The aircraft had shortcomings of its own, suffering from stability issues and structural deficiencies.
The second, civilian prototype was equipped for agricultural use, which was of increasing importance to the L‑60 programme as the military started toying with helicopters for observation and liaison duties. Significantly the type was given the name Brigadýr, which is not a one-star general, but a communist agricultural brigade worker.
First flown on 22 March 1955, the third prototype, the XL‑60/03, incorporated changes worked out by Orličan engineer Zdeněk Rublič. Some sources claim that he redesigned the whole aircraft, making it lighter, stronger and easier to build. This seems to be an exaggeration, but Rublič, who did not hold a university degree at this time, did improve the design. The vertical tail was revised and also the rear of the cabin was widened, making the L‑60 a four-seater. In this form, though still handicapped by its engine, the Brigadýr passed its official trials in 1956 and a pre-series of 15 aircraft was set up. Production only lasted until June 1959, but in this fairly short period a total of 273 was churned out by Orličan, in several versions:
The agricultural L‑60B entered service first, and either 64 or 86 aircraft were used by Agrolet, the agricultural branch of ČSA, from 1955 until 1969. They were replaced by the Zlín Z-37 Čmelák.
Bearing the service designation K-60, the L‑60A reportedly did not enter service with the Czechoslovak air force until 1958. A modest number of 58 K-60s were delivered, which may or may not include a small number of L‑60F staff transports. The Brigadýr only lasted in the air force until 1968.
Svazarm, a paramilitary sport organisation equivalent to the Soviet DOSAAF, was the third operator of the aircraft in Czechoslovakia, using it mainly for glider towing and parachuting. There cannot have been a lot of new L‑60Cs or Ds; instead, military aircraft were transferred to Svazarm in the late 1960s.
The Egyptian air force seems to have been the first foreign user of the Brigadýr, with ten aircraft received in 1956. Romania got three L‑60As the following year. The Polish Health Ministry ordered three civilian L‑60E ambulance aircraft delivered in 1957. Two of these only served for three years; the third continued flying in the Cracow area until it was donated to the aviation museum in the city in January 1974. Two L‑60Bs arrived in Hungary in 1958 or 1959 for brief use as agricultural aircraft. HA–BRB crashed in June 1959.>
The German Democratic Republic was the principal export customer for the Brigadýr, with 78 aircraft. Their use was mostly civilian, although the air force received 20 L‑60As in 1960. They were briefly used by the service's transport flying school, without the benefit of double controls, and transferred to the East German Lufthansa's agricultural wing in 1962, joining 45 L‑60Bs delivered between March 1957 and 1960. Interflug, as the company was renamed in 1963, used the type for spraying, but also for training, taxi flights and banner towing. The Germans found the Brigadýr 'not optimized' for agricultural flying, and no less than 30 were lost in accidents.
The GDR paramilitary sport organisation, GST, used another 13 L‑60s. Here the poor Brigadýr was found unsatisfactory in the parachuting role, too, as two serious accidents happened when prematurely opening chutes got entangled in the low-set horizontal tailplane. GST retired the last East German Brigadýrs in 1974.
Cuba became the third largest user of the aircraft when the Czechoslovak Defence Ministry supplied 20 in 1961. It is noteworthy that the Cuban L‑60s, like the East German air force ones, were delivered well after the last aircraft left the factory. It is likely that these machines were white tails unwanted by the Czechoslovak air force. Seven machines for Bulgaria were only delivered in 1963, apparently for paramilitary aero club use. Several other countries got one or a couple of L‑60s for evaluation: Yugoslavia, the USSR, China, Syria, Sri Lanka and Argentina. They must have been pushed from Prague, and the type can hardly be declared a global export success.
Three L‑60s were imported into Switzerland in 1960-61. Among the owners was a hotel manager from St. Moritz, Freddy Wissel, a pioneer in alpine rescue flying. He probably thought he was buying a next-generation Storch, unaware of the bad record of the Praga Doris engine. In March 1965, when Wissel was carrying a German couple in his L‑60, HB–EZC, the engine gave up and he had to make an emergency landing on the Pers Glacier at almost 9,000 ft. The sick plane was eventually towed out by Wissel's friend Hermann Geiger in his new Pilatus Porter. The authorities were not informed, and Wissel landed his Brigadýr at Samedan as if nothing had happened, although in glider mode.
First flown in April 1957, the L‑160 prototype was converted from an existing L‑60 with an all-metal wing and tail, eliminating some canvas-covered parts and allowing the V-struts bracing the wing to be replaced by a single strut. It was not built in series, and the L‑260, with the more powerful M208D engine, was never built. The L‑360, projected around 1960 with an Ivchenko AI‑14R engine, was also not produced as a new-built aircraft. However, some existing Brigadýrs were re-engined with this Russian radial under the L‑60S designation. The more powerful radial is both heavier and shorter than the inline engine, and to preserve the aircraft's centre of gravity the nose it had to be installed as close to the firewall as possible, resulting in a rather different and less elegant profile.
It is not clear when the AI‑14 was first mated to the Brigadýr, but the Bulgarian L‑60s were converted to L‑60S standard during the 1960s, before any Czech in-service aircraft. They flew until 1983. Surprisingly the sole surviving Hungarian L‑60B was converted too in 1966. This machine, HA–BRA, was simultaneously changed into a four-seat courier aircraft. It flew until in 1971 and ended up in the Transport Museum in Budapest. Only in the 1970s, with spares for the M208B running out, Czechoslovakia decided to re-engine the remaining Svazarm Brigadýrs with the Russian radial.
Polish-built AI‑14Rs were used in the L‑60S. The L‑60SF designation applies to four Brigadýrs re-engined in 1983 for Slov-Air, Agrolet's successor, with the Czechoslovak M462 version of the AI‑14R, as used in the Z-37 Čmelák. They were probably fitted with dual controls and used for pilot training. For aero club use, the L‑60S can handle three gliders or parajumpers rather than two. The robust radial turned the Brigadýr into a more reliable and useful aircraft, and 65 years after its first flight, there were over 20 L‑60s still flying. The Aeroklub České Republiky functions as an aircraft pool for the Czech aero clubs, and maintained most of the 13 Brigadýrs active in the Czech Republic in 2018. There were seven more flying in Slovakia, one in the USA and one in Lithuania, the latter, formerly HB–EZE, one of a couple of Praga M208B Doris-engined survivors that have joined the classic aircraft circuit.