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-. 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.
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.
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.
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 TV and other display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarines, massive aircraft carriers, medieval castles, airplane graveyards and more.