Some of Finland’s Aviation Treasures

I travelled to Finland twice during the late 1990s and spent some time exploring bits of the country’s aviation heritage.  Specifically, I visited two of the Nordic country’s larger air museums that displayed many airplanes that had been either recovered and restored, or retired and preserved.  Finland’s Air Force (in Finnish “Ilmavoimat”) has operated an eclectic collection of Western and Soviet designs for decades.  Civilian pilots and operators chose from local and regional designs which weren’t widely exported, or from both Eastern and Western manufacturers.  This diversity allowed for museums to collect quite an array of unique or seldom seen airframes.

Finland twice fought for its independence against the Soviet Union during World War II.  Without a robust aircraft manufacturing industry, Finland had reached out to import aircraft from many of the world’s major manufacturers prior to the first conflict, known as the Winter War.  This conflict was fought during 1939 and 1940, and ended with a peace treaty after the Soviets gained a quantity of Finnish territory.  During the Winter War, Finland operated many types of fighter aircraft against the numerically superior Soviets.  Fighter aircraft from America (including the Brewster Buffalo and Curtiss Hawk 75), Great Britain (Gloster Gladiator, Hawker Hurricane), France (Morane-Saulnier M.S. 406), Italy (Fiat G.50) and the Netherlands (Fokker DXXI) were all used in relatively small numbers.  Damaged and captured Soviet aircraft, especially Polikarpov I-15/153 and  I-16 fighters, were often repaired and were flown by Finnish pilots against their former owners too.

After the conclusion of the Winter War, Finland requested German defense assistance against the Soviets, and troops and material flowed into Finland.  The second conflict, called the Continuation War, erupted in 1941 after Soviet bombing attacks against multiple Finnish cities.  This time, Finnish and German forces responded, and after months of heavy activity, a defensive stalemate occurred with little change in positions on the ground for some time.  Finland received dozens of Messerschmitt ME-109G fighters from Germany, and retired many obsolete aircraft as time passed.  In 1944 though, the Soviet Union had turned the tide against Germany and set its sights on pushing the Germans out of Finland, as well as regaining the ground it initially won in 1940 and subsequently lost.  After more bitter fighting, a diplomatic agreement between Finland and the Soviets ended the Continuation War.  A third conflict (the Lapland War)was soon waged to force German troops from Finland. Thus, during World War II, Finland fought both the Soviet Union and the Germans.  Many aircraft from the three country’s forces survive in museums today.

After the Second World War ended, the Ilmavoimat adopted military jet designs from the Soviets, Britain, France, and neutral Sweden too.  A modest local manufacturing base provided more aircraft.  Since the 1970s, Finland has turned towards Western Europe and American manufacturers.  As one follows this history, you can see how some rare and interesting airframes could wind up in Finnish air museums.

The first museum I visited is known as the Finnish Aviation Museum, located adjacent to the Helsinki-Vantaa international airport.  The large collection included a mixture of civilian and military aircraft, ranging from gliders to supersonic jet fighters.  Civil transports displayed included a retired Finnair Convair 440, plus a Kar-Air DC-3 and Lockheed 18 Lodestar… the latter was modified with magnetic anomaly detector (MAD) antennas for geological surveying.  A large collection of gliders, many suspended from the ceiling, included many local designs.  A Finnish-built Karhumaki Karhu 48B (similar in appearance to a beefy Stinson 108) and an orange Czech-built Letov S.218 biplane from the 1930s were just a few of the new discoveries I made.  Former military aircraft included a rare Polikarpov UTI-4, which is a two-seat trainer version of the stubby I-16 Rata fighter.  The Ilmavoimat has operated many Soviet-designed helicopters; two notable examples on display were a Polish-produced Mil-1 known as the PZL SM-1, and a Mil-4.  Finland operated two models of British-built Gloster biplane fighters (the Gamecock and the Gladiator) through the initial stages of World War II; the remains of a crashed Gamecock on display documented what the state of the art in hybrid wood/metal/fabric aircraft production of the 1930s looked like.

The second museum I visited was the Aviation Museum of Central Finland.  Located near Jyvaskyla, about 275 km north of Helsinki, it is nestled on the south side of the city’s airport, in the neighborhood of Tikkakoski.  This facility became the national Finnish Air Force Museum in 1987.  One of my favorite aircraft there was the VL Humu, a highly modified Brewster Buffalo.  The Buffalo was not very effective during WWII when used by the U.S. Marines and Navy, British Commonwealth forces, and Royal Netherlands East Indian Army against Japanese fighters in the Pacific.  However, Finnish pilots operated them with considerable success against Soviet aircraft, especially during the Winter War. The Humu was an attempt to use wood instead of metal to capitalize on the local availability of strategic building materials, and quickly produce more aircraft while copying most of the Buffalo’s design.  By the time the prototype Humu was first flown, it was overweight, underpowered, and was surpassed by newer designs in performance and  availability.  The Museum’s Humu is the only airframe ever produced.

During the latter part of its cooperation with Germany during World War II, the Finnish Air Force obtained three different versions of the Messerschmitt Bf-109G fighter.  A pristine example of a “Gustav” fighter is on display, along with the Finnish attempt to reengineer and improve the design, known as the VL Pyorremyrsky.  The latter was another attempt to use wood in place of metal to reduce weight and consumption of precious metals; it used the powerplant and propeller from the Bf-109, but carried a redesigned landing gear assembly with a wider track to address operational needs for flying from unimproved airfields.  As with the Humu, only one prototype was completed, and it also stands on display in Tikkakoski.  Finnish aircraft manufacturers had begun to produce airframes under license and some home-grown designs grew into fruition, including the VL Vihuri II trainer; one of which was on display.  Additional aircraft of note here included a Fokker D.XXI on skis, Focke-Wulff FW-44J trainer, Fouga Magister, DeHavilland Vampire trainer, an Ilyushin IL-28R and a MiG-21.

With the help of the world wide web, I’ve returned to see what I have missed in the other museums, and learned what has been added over the years to the two collections I visited in the 1990s.  The Aviation Museum of Central Finland has added a restored Bristol Blenheim, and has a recovered Ilmavoimat Brewster Buffalo (serial BW-372) on display until the summer of 2013, when it will be shipped to the U.S.’s National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola Fl.  The Finnish Aviation Museum has a LET Z-37 Cmelak agricultural plane on display too.  With other museums displaying more rare and fully restored relics, I’m thinking of going back soon and furthering my education about Finland’s fascinating aviation history.

Ken Kula

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