Af­ford­able Ag­gres­sor

The story of Draken In­ter­na­tional and the L-39 and L-159

Aviation Classics - - CONTENTS -

If you had to sum up Draken In­ter­na­tional in one word it would be this: Pedi­gree. This ap­plies to the ser­vices it pro­vides, the air­craft it op­er­ates and the re­mark­able peo­ple that make up this com­pany, which boasts a larger fleet of mil­i­tary jets than many air forces.

Draken In­ter­na­tional was founded in Florida in 2012 by Jared Is­sac­man, a highly suc­cess­ful en­tre­pre­neur and a man of ex­tra­or­di­nary fo­cus. In 1999, aged only 16, Is­sac­man founded United Bank Card Inc, now known as Har­bor­touch, the mer­chant point of sale, trans­ac­tion pro­cess­ing and credit card pay­ment ser­vice provider. This com­pany is now a gi­ant of the bank­ing in­dus­try through its in­no­va­tive hard­ware and soft­ware, in­clud­ing its highly suc­cess­ful touch screen point of sale sys­tems that al­low a cus­tomer mer­chant to run their en­tire busi­ness. By 2005, the suc­cess of his rapidly grow­ing com­pany al­lowed him to pur­sue another pas­sion he had from an early age, avi­a­tion. Study­ing at the fa­mous Em­bry Rid­dle Aero­nau­ti­cal Univer­sity at Day­tona Beach in Florida, he be­gan amass­ing li­cences and rat­ings, buy­ing a Cessna 182 Turbo Sky­lane ini­tially fol­lowed by a Beech 58 Baron twin af­ter just a few months. This led to a se­ries of busi­ness jets of var­i­ous mod­els, in­clud­ing the Cessna Ci­ta­tion Mus­tang in which he at­tempted to break the round the world flight time record, miss­ing it by just one hour af­ter be­ing held up in Ja­pan and In­dia. In 2009, a sec­ond at­tempt in a Cessna Ci­ta­tion II achieved a new record of 61 hours, 51 min­utes and 15 sec­onds to cover 22,893 miles, beat­ing the old time by some 21 hours. His co-pi­lot on these record flights was another Em­bry Rid­dle grad­u­ate, Doug Demko, the pair spend­ing no more than 20 min­utes on the ground at each of their 14 re­fu­elling stops.

Typ­i­cal of Is­sac­man’s phil­an­thropic na­ture is that the two record flights raised around $110,000 for the Make-a-wish Foun­da­tion, a chil­dren’s char­ity the story will re­turn too. Demko is the di­rec­tor of oper­a­tions at 26 North Avi­a­tion, an air­craft char­ter, man­age­ment and ac­qui­si­tion com­pany, one that Is­sac­man is part owner of. Is­sac­man also be­gan ac­quir­ing a va­ri­ety of his­toric air­craft at this time, in­clud­ing a North Amer­i­can T-28 Tro­jan and a Lock­heed T-33 Shoot­ing Star. He also pur­chased his first L-39, an L-39ZA and formed the Heavy Me­tal Jet Team util­is­ing his T-33 and four L-39ZAS in Novem­ber 2010, the air­craft be­ing painted in a strik­ing black, grey and white cam­ou­flage scheme. In July 2011, the T-33 was re­placed by a MIG-17, while in Oc­to­ber the name was changed to the Black Diamond Jet Team and the air­craft were moved from Lan­caster in Penn­syl­va­nia to Lake­land in Florida, a sec­ond MIG-17 be­ing added to the dis­play at this point. Is­sac­man, known by his call­sign ‘Rook’, flew the right wing po­si­tion with the team, which was led by EX-USAF Lt Col Jerry ‘Jive’ Kerby, Doug ‘Tut’ Demko fly­ing left wing and Ma­jor Sean ‘Stro­ker’ Gustafson, a for­mer mem­ber of the Thun­der­birds, fly­ing the slot. The team ex­panded still fur­ther with a fifth L-39 be­ing added, flown by Ma­jor John ‘Slick’ Baum, another pi­lot who had flown with the Thun­der­birds. The MIG- 17s were flown by ex-us Navy Cap­tain Dale ‘Snort’ Sn­od­grass, the fa­mous F-14 Tom­cat pi­lot, and Mike ‘Buick’ Eber­hardt, a for­mer US Navy Com­man­der. Act­ing as a backup and al­ter­nate pi­lot for the solo or slot po­si­tion with the team was Lt Col Mike ‘ Smithy’ Smith, a for­mer F- 14 and F-16 pi­lot. Is­sac­man con­tin­ued his sup­port for the Make-a-wish Foun­da­tion through the team, the Black Di­a­monds ded­i­cat­ing their first two sea­sons to the char­ity, in­creas­ing aware­ness of the work of the foun­da­tion and auc­tion­ing rides in the air­craft to raise money. By the mid­dle of 2012, the team had to be re­duced to five air­craft, a step deemed nec­es­sary be­cause the pilots and team man­age­ment had been suc­cess­ful in cre­at­ing an en­tirely new busi­ness ven­ture. The dra­matic bud­get cuts in the wake of the Cold War have caused many of the world’s mil­i­tary forces to seek more cost ef­fec­tive ways of main­tain­ing their readi­ness. One of the ar­eas this has been par­tic­u­larly ev­i­dent is in train­ing and sup­port mis­sions. Civil­ian con­trac­tors have been sought to pro­vide a wide range of train­ing ser­vices, sim­u­lat­ing threats and op­pos­ing forces, of­ten known as com­mer­cial air ser­vices (CAS). For naval and ground forces, this in­cludes sim­u­lat­ing at­tack­ing air­craft or mis­siles to hone de­fen­sive ca­pa­bil­i­ties against such threats, es­pe­cially in an elec­tronic war­fare en­vi­ron­ment, and also to train for­ward air con­trollers in the ap­pli­ca­tion of air power. For air forces, this in­cludes pro­vid­ing op­pos­ing forces or ‘Red Air’ as it is known in ex­er­cises to de­velop in­ter­cep­tion and air-to-air com­bat skills. Such sup­port to train­ing ex­er­cises may ex­tend to in­clude air-to-air re­fu­elling and flight train­ing of mil­i­tary per­son­nel in some cases, but there is no doubt in these times of lim­ited bud­gets that the abil­ity of con­trac­tors to sim­u­late a cred­i­ble level of threat is vi­tal in main­tain­ing mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties. Ob­vi­ously, there are lev­els of threat that a civil con­tac­tor would find im­pos­si­ble to em­u­late, so there is still a need for mil­i­tary ag­gres­sor units equipped with front line air­craft, but in sim­u­lat­ing the third and fourth gen­er­a­tion of air­craft and equip­ment still in wide­spread use around the world or, for ex­am­ple, a cruise mis­sile at­tack, it is pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive to use these re­sources. The cost sav­ings to mil­i­tary forces of util­is­ing skilled and well equipped con­trac­tors are not all ob­vi­ous. The cost of fly­ing a mod­ern com­bat air­craft to fill these roles is high when com­pared to the types of air­craft a con­trac­tor can use. It would be ex­tremely ex­pen­sive for any mil­i­tary to main­tain an op­pos­ing force of cheaper air­craft and the lo­gis­tics, main­te­nance and train­ing sup­port they would re­quire, so the ac­tual sav­ings in terms of cost per flight hour mea­sured in tens of thou­sands of dol­lars. What is less un­der­stood is that by ful­fill­ing the train­ing roles, the con­trac­tors are also sav­ing hours of air­frame life in the com­bat fleet. Ev­ery train­ing hour flown by an L-39 or A-4 is an hour saved on an F-15 or F-18. Fi­nally, the train­ing roles of­ten re­quire spe­cial­ist tech­niques to be learned which are of no use in com­bat, so there is no point in wast­ing valu­able flight hours in hav­ing com­bat pilots learn skills they will never need. Of course, in or­der to prop­erly pro­vide this level of train­ing, any con­trac­tor or­gan­i­sa­tion has to be equipped to a stan­dard that can em­u­late re­al­is­tic threats. In essence, util­is­ing civil­ian con­trac­tors in these roles means that the mil­i­tary flight and main­te­nance train­ing bud­get and sup­port ef­fort is con­cen­trated ex­actly where it needs to be, in the front line units of the armed forces. Against this back­drop, the needs of the US armed forces were ob­vi­ously a sub­ject of dis­cus­sion among the Black Di­a­monds Jet Team of highly ex­pe­ri­enced mil­i­tary in­struc­tor pilots and suc­cess­ful busi­ness lead­ers. From these dis­cus­sions a col­lab­o­ra­tive idea be­gan to take shape which, at the end of 2011, re­sulted in the for­ma­tion of a new com­pany, Draken In­ter­na­tional Ltd. Lake­land Lin­der Re­gional Air­port at Lake­land in Florida was cho­sen as the base for new com­pany, the head­quar­ters, main­te­nance cen­tre and train­ing fa­cil­ity all be­ing co-lo­cated on the south side of the air­field in a large hangar com­plex. The new com­pany al­ready had the L-39ZAS from the jet team which, while use­ful in many roles, lacked mod­ern avionics and the abil­ity to carry pack­ages to sim­u­late mod­ern elec­tronic threats, so quickly be­gan search­ing for new air­craft types that could em­u­late a higher threat level. As this search was con­tin­u­ing, the new com­pany won its first con­tract with the US Navy and be­gan fly­ing its first train­ing mis­sions in July 2012. The search for air­craft re­vealed that the Dou­glas A-4K Sky­hawk fleet of the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) had been re­tired, prior to which they had been ex­ten­sively up­graded with such ad­vanced avionics as the

ABOVE: Jared Is­sac­man, the man be­hind Har­bor­touch and the Black Diamond Jet Team, as well as CEO of Draken In­ter­na­tional. Draken In­ter­na­tional ABOVE TOP: The dis­tinc­tive L-39ZAS of the Black Diamond Jet Team was where the story of Draken In­ter­na­tional can be said to have be­gun. Black Diamond Jet Team

ABOVE: Three A-4KS, two TA-4KS and four MB-339CBS of the Draken fleet in­side their ca­pa­cious main­te­nance hangar at Lake­land. Draken In­ter­na­tional BE­LOW: Out­side the im­pres­sive head­quar­ters build­ing of Draken In­ter­na­tional at Lake­land Lin­der Re­gional Air­port in Florida one of the com­pany’s early A-4 Sky­hawks and a MIG-21UM stand guard, a pow­er­ful state­ment of the va­ri­ety, qual­ity and ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the Draken fleet. Draken In­ter­na­tional

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