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Ghosts of Soviet aviation at the Riga Aviation Museum

From MiG and Sukhoi supersonic jets to massive Mil helicopters, there's lots of Cold War aviation history to see at this Latvian museum.

Geoffrey Morrison Contributor
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Geoffrey Morrison
4 min read
Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

I'm standing outside a locked gate and a barbed-wire fence. This is definitely the right place. Through the fence I can see some Soviet-era helicopters. The closest even says "CCCP" (the Russian abbreviation for the former Soviet Union) in big letters on the side. A dilapidated gatehouse and overgrown shrubbery are more indications that the Riga Aviation Museum isn't a traditional tourist site.

There's a button next to a sign that says "Call and wait!" in English, and what I assume is the same message in both Latvian and Russian. It's then I notice the gate is slightly ajar, so I step in, feeling like I'm doing something illegal. An older gentleman approaches and says "Seven euros." I pay, not realizing this is the founder of the museum. He nods and walks away. I'm free to explore on my own. I walk down a dirt path, past the red Mil Mi-4 I saw from the gate, and enter a world of MiGs, Sukhois, Antonovs and more. It's one of the biggest collections of Soviet aircraft outside of Russia. This will be a fun afternoon.

Note that I visited this fascinating museum pre-pandemic. Hopefully, we'll all be able to travel again and you can visit it yourself. What follows is what it was like to explore this unique location.

Soviet aviation history on display at the Riga Aviation Museum

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Baltic beauties

Latvia, on the Baltic Sea between Lithuania and Estonia, was part of the Soviet Union from World War II to 1991. The locals often prefer to describe this period as "occupied by" Russia. There aren't many signs of this era, however. A few scattered buildings show hints of that blocky Soviet brutalist design, but that's it. Riga is the largest city in the three Baltic countries, but it's still small by European capital city standards. The Old Town is a delightful mix of new, medieval and Art Nouveau buildings.

It's weird to take a bus to an airport … then walk away from the terminal instead of boarding a flight. But that's how you get to the Riga Aviation Museum. As you walk along an access road, you can see airliners over some trees and bushes, so you know you're heading in the right direction.

Inside the museum there are lots of aircraft that are rare in the West. The collection is almost entirely Eastern Bloc aircraft, with multiple supersonic Cold War-era fighter jets, passenger aircraft, military helicopters, and more. Ever seen a Czechoslovakian jet trainer? They made thousands and there are several at the museum.

The massive Mil Mi-6 is the real draw here. You could fit every other helicopter in the museum under the span of the -6s rotors. It was the largest military helicopter, and the fastest, until it was replaced by the even larger Mi-26. It's said the gearbox is heavier than the engines. There's an early Mi-24 Hind attack/transport helicopter, as well. These are rare in museums in the West and this an even rarer early variant with the boxy cockpit glass instead of the more recognizable bubbles.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Though the museum does have a Tupolev Tu-22 bomber and a Tu-134 passenger jet, due to space constraints those aircraft are on the other side of the runway, not only inaccessible, but also not visible. Oh well.

Latvian labor of love

The Riga Aviation Museum exists almost entirely because of one man, Victor Talpa, the gentleman I unknowingly met as I entered the museum. He's the founder, the curator and the manager, making it pretty much a one man show. That makes the museum all the more impressive. The Baltic winters have certainly taken their toll on some of the aircraft, almost transitioning the museum to more of a boneyard, but not quite. That doesn't make it any less interesting. Really, it's like another world weaving your way through aging Soviet aircraft.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

There really isn't another museum like this one anywhere. You can get somewhat of a similar vibe walking through the boneyard of Yanks Air Museum, or the far larger AMARG in the Arizona desert. But with such a focus on Soviet and Eastern Bloc aircraft, Riga is an entirely different experience. My only wish, as always, would be access to the interiors of the some of the aircraft, especially the Mi-6. That's pretty rare at any air museum though.

When we're all able to travel again, it's very easy to get to the Riga Aviation Museum, since it's just a few minutes walk from the airport. For now though, check out the gallery and video above.

As well as covering audio and display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers, medieval castles, epic 10,000-mile road trips and more.

Also check out Budget Travel for Dummies, his travel book, and his bestselling sci-fi novel about city-size submarines. You can follow him on Instagram and YouTube