Text by Karl H. Kazaks
Photos by Tom Wallace [realpixs.com]
With his sinewy build, trim mustache, clear blue eyes and collected manner, Tony Royal comes off as a man of action. Put him in a flight suit, and you might take him for a fighter pilot. As it turns out, Royal really is a fighter pilot, and he owns a Czechoslovakian-made fighter jet, an Aero L-29 Delfin, which he hangars at the Virginia Tech Montgomery Executive Airport.
Royal, who was born in Christiansburg and has lived in the area most of his life, acquired the plane a few years ago from a man in Minnesota who got it from the former Czechoslovakia in 1994. The Delfin (or Dolphin) was designed as a military trainer jet aircraft in Soviet satellite countries. In some cases, the plane (of which some 3,600 were manufactured), was modified to carry live armaments, with machine guns, bombs or rockets attached to two underwing hardpoints. Such planes saw action as part of the Egyptian air force in the Yom Kippur war. Saddam Hussein converted them into pilotless drones and used them in the first Gulf War.
“We shot them down like turkeys,” Royal says.
Today, Royal features his L-29 in air shows, performing aerobatic stunts including rolls, the Split S and banana passes. That later maneuver involves flying in a trajectory which resembles the shape of a banana and involves a high speed pass of the air show site at heights as low as 100 feet and speeds as fast as 300 knots. “All you can see is a blur,” Royal explains of the terrestrial scene outside of his window during a banana pass.
Beyond Royal’s piloting acumen, air show crowds can admire the look of Royal’s jet – it sports a red nose and red wingtips – as well as the distinctive whistling sound made by its jet engine. “It draws a crowd wherever I go.”
Royal is permitted to fly the plane only for exhibitions and training. Recently, he did some formation training with two other jets, another L-29 and an Aero L-39. During the training, the pilots flew their jets 10 feet apart, wingtip to wingtip. He’s also allowed to fly the plane only under visual flight rules (VFR), which means when the weather is good enough to allow Royal to see where he’s going.
Royal’s Dolphin was manufactured in 1967. It has a pressurized cabin, an oxygen system and ejection seats (without charges). The flight controls are manual. The cockpit can fit two passengers, designed for the trainee to fly up front and the trainer, slightly elevated, in the rear. When the jets were converted to live combat use, the rear passenger controlled the ordnance. The only space for storing luggage is right under the seats.
When you account for the capacity of underwing drop tanks, as well as the internal fuel tank, the plane has a range of about 500 miles. It wasn’t made to be flown long distances. The Motorlet M-701c 500 turbojet engine generates 1,960 pounds of thrust, but by capturing only about 25 percent of the total power generated. The rest is used to turn the engine. Some think that the planes were outfitted with inefficient engines specifically in order to prevent defections from the Soviet bloc.
Royal’s jet has been remarkably durable. When he bought it, it had been sitting more or less unused in a hangar for 17 years. He had to change the tires and fuel filter and service the hydraulics. He is an FAA-certified airframe and powerplant mechanic with inspection authorization. He put radios in, and then he was ready to fly it home from Minnesota.
It was a three-and-a-half hour flight, with four fuel stops. The plane can fly on kerosene and aviation gasoline as well as jet fuel. “It’s a good aircraft,” Royal relates. “It flies like a charm. The Czechs are very ingenious people. They designed a very good aircraft, simple and effective. It’s like a truck, very reliable.”
Royal estimates that there are about 125 L-29s registered in the U.S., with only 10 or 15 on the east coast. Probably only 30 of the planes nationwide are actively flown. The planes themselves aren’t particularly expensive, but a full load of fuel costs about $1,500.
That’s a big expense, but it does allow you to travel at speeds over 400 mph and as high as 36,000 feet for more than 400 miles.
Being able to control a plane with that kind of power and capability, more than his looks and bearing, is what makes Tony Royal truly a jet pilot.