From Shoes to the Skies
Established in 1934 by Jan Antonín Bat’a (1898-1965) in the eastern Czech town of Otrokovice, the Zlín aircraft company began life as a division of the world famous shoe business founded by his half brother, Tomáš (1876-1932) in 1894.
One might well wonder what the logic of a well established shoe company expanding into aviation might be, especially in light of the fact that Jan Antonín inherited the company after Tomáš had died in a plane crash while on company business. In fact, it made sense to do so on a few levels:
Firstly, the Bat’a shoe company is noted as being one of the world’s first, perhaps the world’s first, business concern to regularly use aircraft to conduct business. As such, aircraft were part of the Bat’a business model even before Jan Antonín took over the running of the company.
Secondly, the First World War completely changed public perception of the aircraft and its practicality. Prior to the conflict, most people viewed airplanes as curious toys for wealthy eccentrics and dreamers; through the course of the war, aircraft had proven their worth in a variety of applications to the point that they were seen as a technology well worth developing. A number of competent aircraft companies were established in the former Czechoslovakia from shortly after the end of the war. The young country certainly had the talent pool early on to make aircraft that were competitive on the world stage.
Thirdly, Jan Antonín Bat’a had grand plans for the company his half brother had founded. Under Jan Antonin’s leadership, the company expanded at a rapid pace from a shoe company into a business empire with arms in a variety of other business sectors.
A consumate industrialist, Jan Antonín was noted as a very competitive and visionary person. He saw the value of aircraft and the bugeoning domestic aviation industry growing right in front of him; it made sense for him to try to compete in it.
Throught its history, the company has built it’s reputation primarlity on sport and training aircraft.
At that, let’s take a look at Zlín and their place in Czech history:
While the company was established in 1934, the seeds for what would become Zlín Aviation had already been sown in the mid 1920s with the creation of the Bat’a company’s own flying school and air park at Otrokovice. A strong proponent of aviation, Jan Antonin Bat’a used the flying school as the foundation for creating the aircraft company.
Initially, the company only produced gliders. However, this changed when Jaroslav Lonek (1904-1945) served as the company’s chief designer between 1935 and 1938. During Lonek’s tenure, the company would move from gliders to powered aircraft designs and see their first great success, the Z-XII sport and touring aircraft.
The Z-XII first flew in 1935 and was used by military and civilian operators in no fewer than 15 countries. This was a great moment not only for the company, but also for the country as the Z-XII was the first Czech designed and built aircraft to see significant export success. The aircraft was praised widely and a total of between 250 and 260 were built.
Another significant aircraft design produced during Lonek’s time at the company was the Z-XIII. While only one was ever made, it stands as testament to the level of patriotism Jan Antonín Bat’a possessed alongside his business accumen.
Bat’a had given much support to the creation of a strong national military through the interwar period. This included the purchase of aircraft and other equipment as well as the provision of training facilities for pilots and mechanics.
Bat’a, along with many others in Czechoslovakia, rightly saw Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in 1934 as reason to ensure that the nation had a military strong enough to defend itself. To this end, he gave Lonek the task of designing a high performance aircraft.
When the Z-XIII first flew in 1937, it was officially said to be intended as a high speed courier aircraft for company business. However, with the aircraft’s very smooth and refined finish, blistering speed of around 350 kilometres per hour and ease with which it could be switched from a two seat to single seat arrangement; it was not at all hard to see the fighter that Bat’a had envisioned it to become lurking just under the surface.
The company offered the aircraft to the Czechoslovak military as a potential fighter in 1938, but it was already too late. The Munich Agreement of 1938 allowed the country to be occupied by German forces soon after.
Bat’a and his family fled the country shortly before the start of the war and spent a brief time in America before settling in Brazil.
Jaroslav Lonek also fled the country prior to the war, but only briefly. He travelled to the Soviet Union and became a secret service operative before returning and setting up an anti-German espionage ring. He was discovered and arrested in 1941, sentenced to death in 1943 and executed in Dresden, Germany in early 1945.
For his work against the Germans, Lonek was posthumously awarded the Czechoslovak War Cross of 1939 medal for his heroism and sacrifice.
Weathering the Storm and Picking up the Pieces
With flight training and aircraft production facilities well established at the site, it was logical that the German occupational forces would use Otrokovice as a training base and the Zlín factory facilities to make the training aircraft.
While Zlín employees were busy being put to work building German trainer planes, some also busied themselves in efforts to protect the Z-XIII from German attention.
The Z-XIII had remained at Otrokovice and many attempts were made to hide it from German eyes. A plan was made to fly the aircraft out of the country to safety, but it was discovered before it could be put into action. The Z-XIII was then disguised as a derelict in the factory and German interest in it eventually subsided.
The Z-XIII survived the war and was put in the collection of the National Technical Museum after the conflict.
At the end of the war, with a great deal of German material present in Czech factories and a skilled workforce at the ready, several Czech companies were nationalised and able to resume busines almost as soon as the war had ended. Zlín was no exception.
Initially, Zlín restarted business after the war by developing German designs they had built during the war. However, before the 1940s were out, they had introduced some new glider types and a aircraft of their own design that became the progenitor of a family of aircraft that would make the Zlín name legendary in top level international aerobatics competition for decades to come – the Z-26 Tréner.
For all the international acclaim the Tréner family would go on to receive, its beginings were really quite modest in that the original Z-26 began simply as the company’s response to an early post war tender for a new basic training aircraft for the Czechoslovak air force.
As the design was being developed further in the mid 1950s, its aerobatic abilities were discovered and subsequent versions focused on honing those aerobatic qualities.
The Moravan Era
The 1950s brought change for the company in that it was renamed Moravan, a name it would keep from 1953 to 2010. By the time the name change came around, the Zlín name was so well established that most people kept using the Zlín name when talking about the company’s aircraft.
The 1950s could be seen as the beginning of the company’s “Golden Age”. It was in that decade that they began to build their worldwide reputation for training and sport aircraft. Before the 1950s were out, the Z-226 version of the Tréner was already winning international aerobatics competitions. By 1959, the Z-326 version had debuted and the company was set to be a dominant force in competition through the 1960s to the mid 1980s.
When not developing the Tréner further, the company often was subcontracted to produce components for other companies or was involved in joint projects.
One such joint project was the Z-37 Čmelák (Bumblebee) agricultural aircraft which first flew in 1963. Teaming up with the Let aircraft company, based in nearby Kunovice, Zlín had a hand in creating the first purpose designed Czech agricultural plane.
Being in an area of the country with a great deal of farming activity, the two companies were well placed to gather information directly from end users of the aircraft about exactly what qualities it should have to be effective in the job. The resulting aircraft was a rugged and reliable performer that was exported to no fewer than a dozen countries. A total of around 700 Z-37s were made.
1965 saw the company awarded with a “Diplome D’Honneur” by the International Air Federation (FAI) in recognition of their contributions to the development of sport and training aircraft.
The company introduced the Z-526, the ultimate aerobatic version of the Tréner, in 1966. As with the Z-226 and Z-326 versions before it, the Z-526 came in two seat trainer versions and single seat competition optimised versions.
By the late 1960s, the company had begun work on a new and versatile family of training aircraft known as the Series 40. Prototypes for the Z-42 two seat version and four seat Z-43 version first flew in 1967 and 1968 respectively. Both types were in full production by the very early 1970s. The aircraft of this family, like the Tréner line before them, have been developed and advanced through the years and have earned international respect and export success for the company. Descendants of the Z-42 and Z-43 are still in production as of 2018.
During 1974 and 1975, the last Tréner aircraft were produced and its aerobatic successor flew for the first time.
After a production run of nearly 30 years with over 1,500 made, the Tréner had more than proven itself on the world stage and Zlín was hungry to keep their place of prominence in aerobatics. The Z-50 was designed to carry that legacy forward.
The Z-50 holds the distinction of being the world’s first purpose designed aerobatics machine. Computers figured prominently in the design process and the result was a very clean design that kept the Zlín name dominant in world class competition into the mid 1980s.
The company finished the 1970s with the debut of the Z-142 in 1979.
The Z-142 is a refined and improved variation on the Z-42. With around 360 built and used widely in both civil and military hands, the Z-142 is certainly the most popular of the Series 40 family and, arguably, Zlín’s most popular aircraft overall thus far in the company’s history.
The company spent the 1980s to the early 2000s further developing the Series 40, servicing their existing aircraft models and producing components for other companies’ aircraft.
The Moravan era of the company’s history came to an end in the 2009-2010 period when the company was shut down.
The end of Moravan was not the end of the Zlín name in aviation. The company was Re-established as Zlín Aircraft a.s. in 2009 at the historic facilities in Otrokovice.
In the present, the company continues the Zlín legacy in sport and training aircraft through the latest generation of the Series 40 as well as running maintenance facilities for the company’s more established aircraft types that still remain popular.
Further Reading and Learning More
This link will take you to the company history page at the Zlín Aviation website:
These links will take you pages I’ve written on my aviation blog about some of the Zlín aircraft types I’ve mentioned in this article if you wish to know more about them: