While I normally shy away from sombre themes, on this one occasion I’ve decided to make an appropriate exception. The unfortunate circumstance that had led to this change of tone is the fifth anniversary of the destruction of Cessna T303 9A-DLN, which had been lost with all on board in a ground impact accident on 5 February 2009.
On occasion flying out of Zagreb Intl, DLN’s mission that day was a multi-engine proficiency check, which had called for a cross-country VFR flight to Zadar’s Zemunik Airport (LDZD). The on-board complement had included:
- Miljenko Bartolić, Pilot-In-Command, a much-loved examiner and former agricultural and airline pilot who had given me my PPL wings back in 2002
- Gerd Govejšek, instructor (manning the co-pilot’s seat), also well known to many generations of student pilots at Lučko
- Aleksandar Walter, passenger, a highly experienced former Police helicopter pilot and CO
- Zvonko Kelek, passenger, a private pilot with aviation experience dating all the way back to the 80s and Yugoslavia’s national carrier JAT
According to the official accident report – available, in Croatian, here – the flight had proceeded normally until reaching the vicinity of the town of Gospić, located near the foothills of the Velebit mountain range and about 5/6s of the way in towards Zadar. At this point, DLN had entered an extensive area of cloud, moderate icing and mountain waves, eventually ending up in continuous Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC). However, the crew had elected to continue their flight to Zadar without a change of route, altitude or flight rules, likely relying on the aircraft’s comprehensive IFR instrument suite and wing and tailplane de-icing systems.
Approaching the Velebit range at 8,000 ft – a safe terrain clearance altitude even during moderate wind – the aircraft had entered an active military training zone (normally open to civilian traffic and only activated when the Air Force actually needs it), after which it was instructed to descend below the zone, whose lower boundary was at 6,500 ft. This new altitude had put DLN at between 800 and 1,300 ft above the approaching peaks.
Though there is still a degree of uncertainty acknowledged by the report, it states that the prolonged flight in cloud had led to extensive airframe icing, likely starting around the tail. Still flying at 6,500 ft, DLN had then entered an area of severe mountain waves, which had produced a strong and rapidly increasing rate of descent. Iced over and too heavy to counter it, the aircraft had quickly begun to plummet, impacting the mountainside at 4,734 ft, roughly 1,000 ft below Vaganski vrh (Vagan Peak). The final radar contact was recorded at 14:54 local time.
The report notes that the impact was so violent that the aircraft had virtually disintegrated. The search for the impact site – as well as the subsequent recovery of the wreckage and bodies – was hampered by bad weather for days, in addition to an avalanche that had buried most of the immediate surroundings.
Having lost four of its much loved members in an instant, the aviation community at large fell into a state of shock and bewilderment – a state that persists even today, five years on. The death of four experienced aviators – and the conditions into which they had flown – have left a lasting mark on all of us, now unable to look at the Velebit range the same way ever again…
In memory of Gerd, Miki, Walter & Zvonko