History – Cold Case: The Last Flight of Dakota YU-ABC

By me

While I’ve frequently dabbled with Yugoslav Air Force Dakotas on this site – the hunt for which had led me across multiple countries and left me with a sizable stack of fuel bills 😀 – I’ve never really delved deeper into the lives of their civilian counterparts, flying passengers and mail for the national airline JAT (Jugoslovenski aerotransport, Yugoslav Air Transport). Birds of a feather, the Daks of both services had seen their fair share of action during the later stages of WW2 – some even having participated in the Normandy landings and operations at Arnhem – and were later given the task of restarting and re-energizing Yugoslavia’s war-torn logistic and passenger air services.

One of the very few color shots of the typical late-service JAT Dak (their paint schemes had constantly varied throughout their lifetimes). In use all the way up to the late 70s – well into the jet age – these machines were all WW2 veterans, some having even been passed down from the YuAF once the latter were done with them (photo from: http://www.dc3history.org)

But while the YuAF fleet had an auspicious debut here on Achtung, Skyhawk!, the introduction of the “Dakotaliners” starts, sadly, on a far more sombre note. Today completely forgotten and long buried by the sands of time (not to mention the period’s restricted freedom of the press), this opening story concerns Dak YU-ABC and its last ever flight into out very own Lučko airfield…

Its full name reading out as C-47A-25-DK, ABC had started out in life as 42-93352 of the USAAF, initially ordered in the 1942 fiscal year, but delivered – due to the immense backlog of orders – only in 1944, wearing the serial 13254. The finer details of its operational history are quite sketchy even on normally fastidious C-47 tribute sites, but it is known it had spent the entire war serving with the 3rd Combat Cargo Group initially stationed in India. A rag-tag formation cobbled together in a hurry during the spring of 1944, this unit was part of the so-called “Bond Project” (also known as “Project 90752”), and was intended to supply and relieve the British garrison in the mountain town of Imphal, at the time besieged by superior Japanese forces. Under this project, semi-trained and untested crews would be sent straight into the fray, where it was hoped they’d be brought up to standard as they went along by a cadre of experienced professional officers. Following their tour, the crews – now working together as tight teams – would be given additional advanced training and sent off into the more demanding and rigorous European hotspots.

Assigned to the unit’s 11th Combat Cargo Squadron, 42-93352 was commanded by (then) 2nd LT Duane B. Crites – who would later go on to fly F-86 Sabres, F-102 Delta Daggers and F-106 Delta Darts – and had quickly added its bit to the mass haulage of food, fuel and ammunition into Imphal. Abandoning the original plan of rotating the unit back to the States, the 3rd CCG would continue to operate in theater once the town had been secured, going so far as to even adding flights across the infamous “Hump” to its repertoire 🙂 . Following a spirited Allied advance near war’s end, the unit would eventually relocate into Burma in June 1945, becoming the 513th Troop Carrier Group along the way. However, 42-93352’s history beyond this point is unknown as far as the Internet is concerned; but, given that the unit was disbanded in April 1946 – and the JAT Dakota fleet formed in early 1947 – it is safe to say that it was part of the first batch of Daks acquired by Yugoslavia in the immediate aftermath of the war 🙂 .

A rare shot of Duane Crites - far right -

A rare in-theater shot of 2nd LT Duane Crites (far right) kindly provided by his son, John. The magnitude of the task thrust upon aircrews in Burma – and especially those of the Bond Project – can best be illustrated by the final report issued by (then) Brigadier General William H. Tunner, commanding airlift operations in the theater: 509 aircraft lost, 1314 crew and passengers killed, 81 aircraft unaccounted for with 345 on board MIA, over a total of 1.5 million hours flown…

http://www.cbi-history.com/part_vi_eac.html

A line of CCG Dakotas wait for their next mission at Myitkyina in Burma as an unidentified P-47 beings its takeoff roll. Even though they did not have the supercharger upgrade of the C-47B – intended outright for operations at high altitude – the A models had nevertheless acquitted themselves well, operating successfully in the often dangerous and treacherous conditions predominant in the foothills of the Himalayas (photo from: http://www.cbi-history.com)

Having eventually been re-fitted with a passenger interior – and re-christened YU-ABC – the aircraft was quickly pressed into passenger service, flying scheduled flights across the width and breadth of former Yugoslavia. It would continue to do so until 21 September 1950, when it was lost with all passengers and most of its crew in one of Zagreb’s worst ever aviation incidents…

Despite the fact that it remains one of only two fatal, large-scale airline disasters to occur in the Zagreb area since the war, this event is – as near as makes no difference – completely forgotten today, limited only to the odd footnote in the occasional list of Yugoslav passenger aircraft (indeed, I myself had found out about it completely by accident while reading up on an unrelated topic). With searches on the net unexpectedly drawing mostly blanks, I’d decided to dig into the city archives and attempt to shed some light on the matter. Unfortunately though, the only thing I did manage to find were two short articles in the daily newspaper, which – while containing valuable information – were essentially just brief snippets. More interestingly, the results of the official inquiry – results stating a definite cause – were published already on 23 September, which strongly suggests that the whole issue was quickly swept under the carpet and that no in-depth report was ever made publicly available. A follow-on article from a few days later praising JAT and the development of the nation’s air transport system further cements the impression that the findings – which had surely been made in great detail – were kept classified and hidden from view since day one. Somewhat unsurprisingly, books on Yugoslav aviation incidents were similarly vague – while even correspondence with the Archives of the Republic of Serbia, Archives of SFR Yugoslavia, Air Serbia (the legal successor to JAT), Belgrade’s Aviation Museum and the Serbian Civil Aviation Directorate had failed to yield much in the way of usable results…

Nevertheless, after collating together all the information available from reliable sources, a clearer picture of ABC’s last flight began to emerge. On that fateful day, the aircraft was operating a scheduled flight from Belgrade, Serbia (LYBE) to Pula, Croatia (LYPL) with a stopover at Lučko (LYZL and at the time still the city’s primary passenger airport). The flight was operated by a crew of four, including:

  • captain Borivoje Marković (a former military pilot)
  • co-pilot Stevan Tot
  • flight mechanic Milorad Jovanović
  • radio operator Nikola Jovanović (no confirmed family link to the flight mechanic)

The loads for the flight were light – just seven passengers – including:

  • Bedžih Srega
  • Borivoj Stanić
  • Sava Ribić
  • Svetozar Ljubenović
  • Raka Ruben
  • Đuro Matijević
  • and Pavle Mihajlović

Approaching Zagreb on a westerly heading on the leg from Belgrade, ABC had either “descended into fog” (according to the initial article) or was “caught in a sudden change of weather” (as per the 23 September report)*. In the process, it had apparently deviated from its course, bypassed Lučko by several kilometers and impacted into the slope of the Medvednica mountain some 200 meters/656 ft below its 1,035 meter/3,395 ft peak of Sljeme**.

* knowing Zagreb’s often unusual autumn weather, both situations are possible – though the former scenario appears more likely. While late September is generally known for its unstable and fast-changing conditions, it is also frequently marked by thick and long-lasting morning and evening fog. Given the length of the entire Belgrade-Pula route – 570 km/307 NM one way as the crow flies, or about 2 hours 30 minutes at Dakota speeds – it is possible that the flight had arrived overhead Zagreb during the late morning or early noon, which would have left it plenty of time to load at Lučko, fly to Pula and then return the same way – with the same stop-over – before dark. This would have meant that it might have arrived well before the morning fog had time to fully clear. An additional factor is Zagreb’s extensive underground water table, which often causes unusual fog formation; one end of town can thus enjoy clear skies and excellent weather, while the other – not 10 km/5 NM away – can be mired in deep fog, with visibilities down in the double digits of meters.

** this would have given it a height above the city’s mean ground level of around 680 meters, or about 2,200 ft – above the usual fog depth. However, assuming that the crew did not spot the mountain at the last moment and pull up in an attempt to clear it, this opens the door to a third possibility – that they’d descended not into fog, but a low stratus layer formed with the fog lifts. These are usually between 500 and 1,000 ft deep and can sit for days at anything between 1,000 and 2,500 ft above ground.

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A topographical representation of the distance between Lučko and YU-ABC’s impact site. This assumes that the aircraft had impacted on the south-eastern face of the mountain; it is possible – but highly unlikely – that it had actually hit on the opposite side, though this would have involved a lengthy detour around the town that would have added at least 15 minutes to the length of its flight and given very little operational benefit.

A 3D perspective from the approximate altitude of impact (800 m/2,600 ft above sea level). This view more-or-less also coincides with the likely direction of ABC’s approach to the city

A 3D perspective from the approximate altitude of impact (800 m/2,600 ft above sea level). This view more-or-less also coincides with the likely direction of ABC’s approach to the city.

Of the 11 people on board, the only survivor was the radio operator Nikola Jovanović – 23 at the time – who’d suffered non life-threatening injuries. Indeed, in what is the only silver lining of the incident, he would remain with JAT after his recovery and eventually return to flying status, serving on the Ilyushin Il-14, Convair CV-440, Caravelle – and finally as the Flight Engineer on the Boeing 707 🙂 . Interestingly, he would be involved in another accident on 13 August 1972, when his 707-321 (YU-AGA) overran the runway at JFK during an aborted take-off*.

* on the take-off run, the copilot’s side window had opened with a loud bang, prompting the captain – who had assumed it could be an on-board bomb – to perform a rejected take-off even though the aircraft had passed V1 (decision speed) three seconds earlier. In the following overrun, the aircraft had struck a blast fence, with the left wing and engines #1 and #2 suffering damage by fire. Thankfully there were no fatalities among the 175 passengers and 11 crew, with only 15 light injuries reported during evacuation. The accident was also put down to an undetermined fault in the anti-skid system, which had disabled two of the 707’s eight wheel brakes, rendering it unable to stop in time. The aircraft was later repaired and returned to service 🙂 .

YU-AGA in its original guise in 1971, without the engine hush kits that would be fitted after its accident (photo from: Flickr, user Mike Didsbury)

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that more detailed information about YU-ABC might appear any time soon. As I’ve been told openly in more than one archive, many such documents from the period were either not diligently kept, were instantly classified – or outright lost and destroyed during the chaos of Yugoslavia’s dissolution in the early 90s (indeed, neither the Civil Aviation Directorate nor its accident investigation unit had anything on file about the incident). Lacking the high profile and international reach of the region’s other major air incident – the mid-air collision above ZAG VOR at Vrbovec in 1976 – means that digging up any subsequent report on ABC’s last flight could very well make “looking for a needle in a haystack” seem like child’s play…

I would also like to extend my sincere thanks to Mr. John Crites, son of the late Duane Crites, for information regarding his father’s service record!

Sources:

  • paluba.infoYugoslav passenger aircraft registration database
  • comcar.org3rd CCG service & crews
  • Croatian National Archives – Vjesnik newspaper, issues 22 and 23 September 1950
  • Croatian National University Library – Politika newspaper, issues 22 and 23 September 1950
  • airdisaster.comJAT Boeing 707 RTO incident report

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