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Aviation Museum: The Living Museum

By Amy Bryzgel. 02.10.2008

Aviation Museum

Airport Riga, Riga
Phone: +371 26862707
Wokring hours: Mon-Sun 9:00 - 18:00,

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When Viktor Talpa set about collecting Soviet aircraft, he had no intention of turning his passion into the exhibition of the Riga Aviation Museum.

This aviation engineer cum flight instructor initially got the planes for much more practical purposes – he needed them for his students to practice on. To this day that remains one of the functions of these aircraft, as Talpa has generously agreed to cooperate with Riga Technical University’s (RTU) Aviation Institute and allow the engineering students to work with the planes in his collection.

 Whilst employed by the Latvian Civil Aviation administration in Riga in the 1960s, Talpa also got involved with the Young Pilot’s Club. The club was originally formed to give youngsters, ages fourteen and up, the opportunity to work with planes and flight simulators to get a taste of what the aviation scene was all about, before they were old enough for their studies. The experience they gained gave them a great advantage when applying to universities to study aviation engineering formally.

 The location of such a club is no coincidence. During the Soviet period, Latvia had one of the best aviation engineering schools in the Union. People came from all over the world – not only from Soviet countries – to study. Talpa himself, who is originally from Ukraine, graduated from the Irkutsk Aviation College in 1962 and then served as a naval aviator with the Black Sea Navy before coming to work in Latvia.

 Nowadays, the situation for the future of Latvia’s aviation engineers is much more dire. In 1999, the state closed the Latvian Aviation Institute that had attracted so many potential engineers to the country. Now there is a program operating out of the RTU’s Aviation Institute, which trains engineers not only in theory, but also in practice – all owing to Talpa and his collection of planes. Without his help, the students would actually gain no practical experience working with real airplane or helicopter engines. Although the machines don’t fly, they are all flyable. The students fine-tune the engines to keep them running, but only on the ground.

 When I toured the museum one sunny summer afternoon, there were a handful of young university students hovering around the premises, tightening bolts, moving parts, and even painting panels. Talpa was there too, in the trenches with them. All were students from RTU who were there to complete their required hours working with the machines. One of them, Olegs, quickly modeled his university-issued work-clothes, complete with overalls and a jacket, before running back to his work.

 “There’s no point in studying the theory if you don’t have practice working with the actual parts,” Talpa tells me. You can’t really know an engine until you’ve taken one apart, and put one back together – or so the theory goes. The enthusiastic engineer adds that it’s much better if they make a mistake tinkering with one of these engines, which are non-commercial, than one in the workplace where the stakes are much higher. Here, if a mistake is made, it can be pointed out and fixed with no harm done.

 Aside from offering potential engineers a veritable workshop, the planes are also part of the permanent display of the Riga Aviation Museum, which was founded as a private museum in 1999, with absolutely no support from the state. In this sense it is a living museum, with the students becoming part of the installations, at least when they are there working.

 The museum itself is worth a visit out to the airport, or a pop in on the way to your flight or between connections. Aircraft aficionados will be delighted to see a wide variety of airplanes and helicopters up-close. But even for those who know nothing about aviation, the machines are interesting enough as historical documents, preserving a time and a country that no longer exists.

 The crowning centerpiece of the museum, owing simply to its massive size, is the Mi-6 helicopter. After its creation in 1957, for many years the Mi-6 was the largest helicopter in the world, used primarily for transport in both military and civil aviation. Now the museum’s Mi-6 is both exhibition piece and exhibition space; inside it houses a large collection of aviation equipment, such as uniforms, gear, black boxes (actually, a bright orange ball), maps and other accoutrements. If the door is open you can wander inside, peruse the materials, and even try out the cockpit.

 Currently, the future status of the Aviation Museum is unknown. The Riga International Airport will commence stage five of its development plan next June, and the expansion of the airport may mean that the museum will actually have to move. This will be no easy feat if it comes to that, as many of the machines are old, heavy, and difficult to relocate. According to Santa Auguste, spokesperson for the Riga International Airport, the airport “is for the preservation of the Aviation Museum, as there are truly some unique objects in the collection.” They are currently working to find an appropriate place to house the museum, and one possibility is on the land near the Latvian Post Office building, which is located not far from the Riga Airport, says Auguste.

 For now, visitors to Riga and to the airport can continue to enjoy the pieces on display just one hundred meters from the main terminal, across from the long-term parking lot. Whomever you’re likely to meet there, as there is always someone milling around, will no doubt be happy to show you about, tell you a story about one of the aircraft, or answer a question or two. So why not take some time and explore these old Soviet-era military planes, before boarding your own Post-Soviet commercial one?




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