A Retro Weekend in Budapest: Flying on the Lisunov Li-2 Over the Danube

A Retro Weekend in Budapest: Flying on the Lisunov Li-2 Over the Danube

If the aircraft above looks familiar to you, then it’s because looks like the well-known Douglas DC-3. However, rather than being the DC-3 itself, it’s the license-built Soviet version of the DC-3, Lisunov Li-2.

Back in October 2018, I had a chance to fly on a short sightseeing flight over Budapest onboard the last remaining airworthy airframe of the type, HA-LIX. You can read about the flight further down in this article. First, let’s take a quick look at the aircraft type itself and at the history of the last remaining airframe.

A Brief History of the Lisunov Li-2 and HA-LIX

While at first sight, the DC-3 and Li-2 look the same, over 1,000 engineering changes were made to the original DC-3 drawings. The Li-2 was in production between 1939 and 1952, and during that period, about 5,000 airframes were manufactured.

The aircraft type was operated by several air forces and airlines of the Eastern Bloc including the Soviet, Czechoslovak, and Polish air forces on the among others on the military side, and Aeroflot, CSA, Malev, and Tarom on the civil side.

OK-BYQ Czechoslovakia Government Lisunov Li-2
OK BYQ, a Lisunov Li-2 that was operated by Czechoslovak Government displayed at Slavnica museum in Slovakia.

As mentioned in the beginning of the article, currently, there is only one airworthy example of the type in the world, HA-LIX.

The aircraft (construction no. 18433209) was delivered to Hungarian Air Force back in 1949, and then it was transferred to Malev in the late 1950’s where it operated under the same registration as it does today. The aircraft was returned back to the military in 1964 when Malev stopped using the type.

The aircraft was retired in 1974 and then displayed in Szolnok before its current operator – the Goldtimer Foundation – transported it to Budaors in 1997 to start its restoration. The Li-2 took off for the first time after its restoration in September 2001, and has been appearing at airshows and operating sightseeing flights since then.

HA-LIX Lisunov Li-2
HA-LIX at Piestany airshow in Slovakia back in 2010.

Checking-in for the Lisunov Li-2 Sightseeing Flight

Jumping to my flight on the aircraft, the retro experience started at Aeropark Budapest, a great aviation museum located right next to Budapest airport terminal 2. At the entrance, I presented my ticket, and was given a blue armband which was reserved for people flying on the Lisunov Li-2. (By contrast, my parents who were just visiting the museum got a yellow one.)

As I still had some time until the flight would depart, I showed my parents around the museum a bit. This was my third visit to the museum and I enjoyed it as much as the previous times – looking at Soviet classics like the Il-18 and Tu-154 never gets boring!

Malev Tupolev Tu-154
Tupolev Tu-154 at the museum. (Taken during my previous visit.)

I will not write about the museum in more detail here, since I already wrote about it in great detail here and here. I also did a Facebook Live video-tour of the museum back in 2007. You can check that below:

At 11:00AM, fifteen minutes before my flight was supposed to depart, I headed out of the museum and took my place in a line of people waiting for to board the bus that would take us to the aircraft.

The Retro Experience Begins

About ten minutes later, the bus driver showed up, and after checking our IDs, we got on our way onboard the historic Setra 208H bus. We entered the airport through one of the “staff” gates and drove towards terminal 1 where the Lisunov Li-2 was waiting.

Along the way, we switched buses with a different tour group and got onboard the very charming and even more historic Ikarus 55 bus in a retro Malev livery. This model was in production between 1955 and 1973, and the one that took us to the aircraft was made in 1969.

Malev Setra 208H Bus
Setra 208H.
Malev Ikarus 55 Bus
Ikarus 55.
Setra 208H and Ikarus 55
Changing buses.

The drive took us along some of the maintenance hangars before dropping us off in front of the Lisunov Li-2, HA-LIX, which was parked next to a Tupolev Tu-154B-2, HA-LCA. This aircraft was the first Tu-154 in Malev’s fleet and has been restored by the organization in commemoration of the type’s fiftieth birthday.

Throughout the whole drive, the guides were providing us with information about the airport, etc. Alas, only in Hungarian and so I did not understand much beyond “terminal 1” and “terminal 2.”

Flybondi 737-800.
Flybondi 737-800.
Ikarus 55 Bus
Ikarus 55 after dropping us off at the Li-2.
Malev Tupolev Tu-154B-2
Malev Tupolev Tu-154B-2 that was the first Tu-154 to join the airline’s fleet.
Malev Lisunov Li-2
The star of the day.

Onboard the Lisunov Li-2

Unlike the Li-2 that was displayed in the museum which featured retro, bus-like seats, HA-LIX was equipped with more modern-looking seats similar to the ones you might find in some of the newer aircraft types. It featured a total of 21 seats in seven “2-1” rows.

The thing that I found the most interesting about the aircraft – besides its large rectangular windows – was the angle at which it was resting when on the ground. It was so steep, in fact, that it made “climbing” up towards the front rows and the cockpit quite a challenge.

Lisunov Li-2 Cabin
The Li-2 rests at quite a steep angle – the horizon on this photo is level.

Since by the time I got onboard, many of the seats were already taken (it was free seating), I settled in one of the last rows, in a window seat on the left-hand side.

A Historic City from a Historic Vantage Point

Once all of the seventeen or so guests were onboard and settled in their seats, the pilots fired up the two radial engines one after another – what a sound! Then, at 12:02PM, we taxied out of the parking spot and headed towards runway 13R from which we took off at 12:07PM.

Immediately after take-off, we made a right turn and set the course towards Budapest’s city center.

Taxiing in a Lisunov Li-2
Taxiing by a FedEx Boeing 757.
Take-Off Onboard Lisunov Li-2
Making a right turn shortly after taking off.
Budapest Suburbs from the Li-2
Climbing over Budapest suburbs.
Lisunov Li-2 Malev Wing View
Flying towards the city center.

Just five minutes after take off, we reached the historic center of Budapest and great views of the Danube and its surroundings could be had from the port-side windows.

Flying Over Budapest City Center on a Li-2
The flight offered excellent views of the historic Budapest city center.

At this point, the sole flight attendant on the flight also allowed us to unfasten our seatbelts, roam around the cabin, as well as visit the cockpit one person at a time.

By the time I got into the cockpit, we were well into the process of making a 180-degree turn to head back to Budapest airport. And so, that meant that in no time, rather than having the Danube on our left, it was on our right.

While the cabin felt old-school, stepping into the cockpit and seeing the green instrument panel, analog instruments, and the old-car-steering-wheel-like yoke made it truly feel like stepping back in time.

Margaret Island
Making a U-turn. Margaret Island in the middle of the Danube can be seen in the photo.
Malev Lisunov Li-2 Cockpit
A quick visit to the cockpit.
Goldtimer Foundation Lisunov Li-2 Wingview
A view of the engine from a small window located just behind the cockpit.

A bit more than ten minutes after take off, it was already time to start descending back towards Budapest F. Liszt airport. As such, I headed back to my left-hand side seat in preparation for landing and snapped some last photos of the Budapest city center.

Budapest City Center
One last view of the city center and its many bridges.

Arriving Back in the Present

Unfortunately, after a couple of minutes of descending – and 17 minutes of flight time overall – it was time to land back in the present. I mean, to land back at Budapest airport… Our very smooth touchdown at 12:24PM was followed by a round of applause.

From there, it took four minutes of taxiing to reach our parking spot. We parked in the exact same place we left from at 12:28PM – less than half an hour after we left it.

Goldtimer Foundation Lisunov Li-2 Window
While Emirates put TVs shaped like aircraft windows in its new first class suites, the Li-2 features real windows shaped like TVs.
Descending Towards Budapest Airport
Less than a minute until touchdown.
HA-LIX Wingview
Slowing down on the runway.

I waited for most of the passengers to disembark to be able to spend as much time onboard the aircraft as possible, as well as to get as clean of a shot of the cabin as possible before walking down the “hill” that the Li-2 (when standing still) is and stepping down onto the apron.

Malev Lisunov Li-2 Cabin
A view of the cabin after most of the people got off the plane.

Outside, it looked like a scene from decades ago.

The few passengers were admiring the Li-2, walking around it and enjoying it from every angle. The Tu-154 was still sitting in the background looking like it was ready for take off. And, of course, the Ikarus 55 bus was there, waiting to take us back to the terminal (to be precise, to the aviation museum).

Malev Lisunov Li-2, Ikarus 55 and Tupolev Tu-154
What year is it?!

The experience slowly came to an end about five minutes after disembarking when we got on the bus and made our way back to the aviation museum. Not before stopping along the way to switch the buses and let the next group of Li-2 passengers board the Ikarus 55 bus for the “last mile” of their ride to the aircraft, though.

Ikarus 55
One last view of the great-looking Ikarus 55 bus.
Goldtimer Foundation Lisunov Li-2
The Lisunov Li-2 being prepared for its next flight.
Malev Lisunov Li-2 and Tupolev Tu-154B-2
One last look at the two stars of the day before the bus drove away.

Summary

While there are quite a few airworthy airframes of the Douglas DC-3, there only seems to be a single airworthy Lisunov Li-2. As such, it was a great privilege to be able to take a flight on it. It was an excellent experience overall, and I can only recommend you to join a sightseeing flight on the aircraft if you have a chance to do so in the future.

If you are interested, make sure to follow Goldtimer Foundation’s website and Facebook page where they seem to publish their flight schedules.

To finish off this article, I would like to thank both the Goldtimer Foundation as well as The Aviation Cultural Centre (the organization that runs the Aeropark aviation museum and airport tours at Budapest airport) for doing such a great job with preserving aviation history and promoting the beauty of aviation to the general public!


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