All photos me too, copyrighted
As many of my readers might have already deduced from posts past, when operating out of Zagreb Intl (LDZA), chances are you’ll pretty quickly stumble upon one of the Croatian Air Force’s charismatic fuel-to-noise converters :). The aircraft in question are – of course – the MiG-21s, 70s manned missiles that are holding on as one of the last of their type still in front line service in Europe. And while we may have grown to taking them for granted through sheer exposure, they nevertheless still have a special – and resolutely unshakable – status on the local aviation scene. As I’ve already noted in a previous post, despite all their drawbacks, they’re still the rock stars of the skies, and have garnered a cult following that extends even outside the immediate aviation community (quite the achievement in a normally disinterested Croatia) :).
So too feel increasing numbers of photographers and enthusiasts from other lands, with the remaining few operational jets achieving close to “tourist trap” status :D. Given that they’ve been thrust back into the spotlight of late – primarily due to delays to their refurbishment in the Ukraine – I thought I might further their promotion a bit by cobbling together a collection of recent and already-featured (but hopefully still interesting) shots of the fleet going about its business. With one notable exception, I’ve decided to completely shy away from photos taken at various events and open days, preferring to stick to snapping them in their “natural operational habitat”… 🙂
Up, up and away! Latterly the hardest working of all the jets in the fleet, 116 and 121 are seen rocketing out of RWY 23 in an unusually tight and attractive formation. Flying unarmed – and without the centerline fuel tank – would suggest they’re heading out on a simple training mission, rather than the more common Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) practice scramble.
116 rocketing out on its own for another short training sortie. Essentially a piloted missile, the MiG-21 is (like the F-104 Starfighter) a pure-blooded interceptor, designed for acceleration, climb, and hit-and-run tactics in large numbers rather than the payload capability, versatility and persistence of an air superiority fighter like the Su-27 or F-15.
A rarely seen member of the fleet, 117 taxis out towards RWY 05 for a test flight. Alongside Bulgarian and Romanian examples, CroAF machines are the last of the front-line MiG-21s flying in Europe – with the type also serving in limited secondary roles in Serbia. Interestingly, all of these operators fly slightly different versions of the jet, with Romania having its own MiG-21MF-based Lancers, Croatia it’s home-grown “bis D” upgrade – and Bulgaria sticking to the most capable examples of the stock bis family.
121 performing a 200 knot wheelie as it returns back to base after a practice QRA scramble with sister ship 122. In the default CroAF intercept configuration, it is equipped with two R-60 (AA-8 Alphid) short-range heat-seeking missiles and the distinctive 800 liter / 211 USG BAK drop tank (giving it a usable endurance of slightly over an hour – which is not all that bad given the type’s notoriously short legs).
Weathered and tired – but still infinitely charismatic – 121 is seen quietly sitting around in the background of the CroAF’s 22nd anniversary ceremony. Sadly, this is one of the last times we’ll be able to enjoy the distinctive camo scheme, with the fleet being progressively repainted into a customized NATO air superiority grey pattern…
The workhorse of the fleet of late, 121 is seen rolling out for a one-ship practice scramble. Despite being part of the QRA pair, it is flying unarmed (but with the R-60 pylons still in place), retaining only the centerline fuel tank. The reasons for this are unclear, but likely have something to do with releasing the aircraft for a training mission with the minimum of fuss and operational complication.
Seconds from touchdown on RWY 05 after another one-hour sortie. Buoyed by the recent arrival of the first of the “new” MiG-21s – five low-time examples bought from the Ukraine – the Air Force had started intensively flying armed pairs again, giving their pilots some much-needed air time – all while safe in the knowledge that they can use the jets’ little remaining lifetime to the fullest without fear of compromising the fleet’s operational availability.
A rare venture outside by a twin-stick UMD (upgraded to the same local standard as the bis D). An endangered species, the UMDs had up until recently numbered just three operational examples, which were whittled down over the course of the summer to just 166. However, the remaining two currently being overhauled in the Ukraine, including 165, famous in song and story for its chessboard Croatian coat of arms paint scheme.