Riga Aviation Museum

   - darkometer rating:  3 -    
The Aviation Museum right next to the international airport of Latvia's capital Riga is in a way more a junk yard than a museum proper, but for those into Soviet aircraft an absolute gem of a site. Amongst the highlights are a Tu-22M supersonic strategic bomber and a specimen of one of the largest helicopters ever built.  

>More background info

>What there is to see


>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations



More background info: The Riga Aviation Museum (or Riga Airmuseum, as its new website now has it) is the private initiative of founder-director Victor Talpa, a retired aircraft engineer who once served in the Black Sea Navy but also worked for Aeroflot. The collection grew out of training equipment for the Young Pilots' Club, starting with a used MiG-21.
The Club folded due to lack of funding after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but the director managed to secure help from the administration and was given the current premises to store the old equipment. The whole collection was moved there in 1998/1999.   
Thanks to his good contacts within the military Talpa rescued many a Soviet-era aircraft from around the region including some very rare gems. The collection has developed into the current museum, but still feels more like a repair workshop cum junk yard. But that in its own way adds to the specific charm of the place.
You can see the guy whose pet project this museum is still pottering about constantly mending bits and pieces of equipment. Sometimes he gives visitors impromptu guided tours (at whim though – it's not part of the admission fee!).
Goodness knows what will become of this place when he gets too old to look after the museum like this. I hope there will be some kind of successor prepared to continue this endearing project. 
What there is to see: If you fly into Riga on a commercial airliner and happen to sit by a window on the correct side of the plane you can even get an aerial view of the museum (for free, as it were).
If so, the largest piece in the collection will immediately catch your attention: a massive dart-shaped plane with a big red Soviet star on its tail fin. This is a Tupolev Tu-22M  (NATO code name “Backfire”), a supersonic strategic bomber of Soviet design from the late 1960s/early 1970s that was produced until well into the 1990s and is still in use in the Russian Air Force today.
Before the introduction of the Tu-160 and the American B1, the Tu-22M was the largest variable-swing wing plane in the world. It is a truly impressive relic of the Cold War, rarely seen in museums.
On the ground you can't get closer to it than viewing it over a fence. And for that you don't even have to enter the museum grounds proper. Just walk up the long-stay car parks and peek over the wall to see the plane from behind.
But of course you have to actually go into the museum as well. And it does have more exceptional things to offer.
The second-most notable aircraft on display can also be seen from afar, but it only properly hits you with its immense size the minute you set foot onto the premises. This is a Mil-Mi-6 helicopter. And a true monster of a helicopter it is.
It was long the world's biggest, heaviest and at the same time fastest helicopter. Its rotor blades have a diameter of 36m (almost 120 feet)!! It was able to carry small tanks or armoured personnel carriers inside its big belly, or 65 passengers, or lift electricity pylons and other heavy cargo into place.
This is also the one aircraft that you are allowed to clamber around inside of. And being able to inspect the Soviet-era cockpit technology from close up is indeed a rare treat. Visitors of small enough build could even take a seat inside the aircraft's glass nose.
Many other planes in this collection are in somewhat bad shape, a few have large sections missing, so they look more like wrecks than like your typical shiny museum exhibits. Fairly intact additional aircraft that are quite impressive include a MiG-25, the second fastest jet airplane ever built (beaten only by the USA's legendary SR-71 Blackbird), and a couple of MiG-23s.
A number of other MiGs (15, 21, 29), Sukhois 7s, and some civilian planes are about too as well as yet more helicopters – but none are as impressive as those mentioned above. There are also small training planes as well as a number of vehicles (including an airport fire engine).
Furthermore you can see see plenty of parts of planes, e.g. a row of sawn-off cockpit sections of civilian aircraft, lone pieces of landing gear, missiles, rocket launchers, propellers, various jet engines and other bits and pieces (literally strewn about), adding further to the junk-yard atmosphere. I found it quite endearing.
There is virtually no commodification or information except for some specs sheets for some of the planes (those in better shape mostly). These are at least also given in English. But this is really only for technology geeks. Nothing is made out of the aircraft's actual roles or the (Cold-War) politics behind their development.
So this museum will not be for everyone but will primarily appeal to fans of vintage aircraft of Soviet design. If you can get a certain kick out of shabby-chic as well, all the better. Just don't expect to learn a lot here or be presented with shiny restored machines. It's more a private, informal junk-yard-like playground for big boys. I admit I enjoyed it (but my wife even refused to come along, preferring to while away her time in the hotel sauna).  
Location: right next to Riga's international airport.  
Google map locator:  [56.925, 23.981]
Access and costs: easy to walk to from the airport, otherwise a longish bus ride from Riga city centre; not particularly cheap by Latvian standards, but OK.
Details: the airport is easily reached from Riga city centre by bus, the regular local line 22 is ideal (and cheap – see under Riga) as long as you only want to go to the aviation museum and return to the city afterwards. It is less good if you arrive by plane and have a lot of luggage ... in that case take the Airport Express (but avoid taxis).
Once at the airport you can find the museum just a few minutes' walk north past the passenger terminal and opposite the long-stay parking lots.
Opening times: normally/nominally Mondays to Fridays from 9 or 10 a.m. to 5 or 6 p.m., and by appointment only at weekends. But this is all quite theoretical anyway, as you are dependent on whether or not the curator/director is in or not, and for that those stated times are merely a rough guideline but are not  guaranteed.
You have to ring the bell by the gate to be let in. If the curator is not in for whatever reason and no one answers, you can ring the phone number posted at the gate (+371 26862707) and you might get him to cycle up and open the gate for you. He speaks Russian and a bit of English and German (in addition to Latvian, of course).
Admission: I'm pretty sure I paid less when I was there in spring 2014, but the latest in-your-pocket-guide now says 7.12 EUR for foreign tourists and 2.85 EUR for locals (such a discriminatory difference is quite common in the former Eastern Bloc, so don't be outraged by it).
Time required: tech freaks can probably poke around for a couple of hours here; I spent about 45 minutes (also taking advantage of the incredible photo ops), but I saw some groups of visitors spending no more than 10 minutes in the museum.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
local public transport connects the airport to Riga (see above), so that city's many attractions are naturally the most obvious combinations.
But you can also get long-distance buses to all manner of destinations all over the Baltics straight from (or to) here as well. In fact I arrived by bus from Tallinn, visited the museum in the afternoon, spent a night in the airport hotel and then caught the first flight out of Riga when I was there in May 2014.
If you arrive by plane at Riga airport you can also first pick up a hire car and go independently exploring other parts of Latvia, as well as neighbouring Lithuania, before taking to the city. That's what I did on my Easter 2014 round trip. After touring those two countries extensively I dropped the car off at Riga airport before exploring Riga itself (where a car is not needed and you can't park so easily anywhere) and then pushed on to Tallinn and back by bus.   
Combinations with non-dark destinations: see under Riga.
  • Riga aviation museum 01 - beyond the car parkRiga aviation museum 01 - beyond the car park
  • Riga aviation museum 02 - ring the bell to be let inRiga aviation museum 02 - ring the bell to be let in
  • Riga aviation museum 03 - MiGsRiga aviation museum 03 - MiGs
  • Riga aviation museum 04 - lots of old MiGsRiga aviation museum 04 - lots of old MiGs
  • Riga aviation museum 05 - Tu-22M strategic bomber just beyond the fenceRiga aviation museum 05 - Tu-22M strategic bomber just beyond the fence
  • Riga aviation museum 06 - Tu-22M seen from the wall by the roadRiga aviation museum 06 - Tu-22M seen from the wall by the road
  • Riga aviation museum 07 - MiG-25Riga aviation museum 07 - MiG-25
  • Riga aviation museum 08 - MiG-25 from the frontRiga aviation museum 08 - MiG-25 from the front
  • Riga aviation museum 09 - air intakeRiga aviation museum 09 - air intake
  • Riga aviation museum 10 - red starRiga aviation museum 10 - red star
  • Riga aviation museum 11 - red chopperRiga aviation museum 11 - red chopper
  • Riga aviation museum 12 - missile and helicopterRiga aviation museum 12 - missile and helicopter
  • Riga aviation museum 13 - MiG-23Riga aviation museum 13 - MiG-23
  • Riga aviation museum 14 - pack of armamentsRiga aviation museum 14 - pack of armaments
  • Riga aviation museum 15 - in heapsRiga aviation museum 15 - in heaps
  • Riga aviation museum 16 - jet engine with typical colorationRiga aviation museum 16 - jet engine with typical coloration
  • Riga aviation museum 17 - more engine junkRiga aviation museum 17 - more engine junk
  • Riga aviation museum 18 - beyond the junkyard museum is the active civilian airportRiga aviation museum 18 - beyond the junkyard museum is the active civilian airport
  • Riga aviation museum 19 - sawn-off aircraft nosesRiga aviation museum 19 - sawn-off aircraft noses
  • Riga aviation museum 20 - see-through aircraft noseRiga aviation museum 20 - see-through aircraft nose
  • Riga aviation museum 21 - star piece - a Mil-Mi-6Riga aviation museum 21 - star piece - a Mil-Mi-6
  • Riga aviation museum 22 - you can go inRiga aviation museum 22 - you can go in
  • Riga aviation museum 23 - through this doorRiga aviation museum 23 - through this door
  • Riga aviation museum 24 - Mil-Mi-6 cockpitRiga aviation museum 24 - Mil-Mi-6 cockpit
  • Riga aviation museum 25 - noseRiga aviation museum 25 - nose
  • Riga aviation museum 26 - windowRiga aviation museum 26 - window
  • Riga aviation museum 27 - vintage technologyRiga aviation museum 27 - vintage technology
  • Riga aviation museum 28 - hi and low tech juxtapositionRiga aviation museum 28 - hi and low tech juxtaposition
  • Riga aviation museum 29 - a black box, in fact always orangeRiga aviation museum 29 - a black box, in fact always orange

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