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