History – Props are Turning: Croatia Airlines’ GA beginnings

By me

As could have been rightfully expected, 2013’s three-day visit of the An-225 to Zagreb had caused a stir of proportions unseen on the normally quiet and slow Croatian aviation scene. Spotters, photographers and enthusiasts from all over the country had flocked to town in their hundreds, while even the mainstream media – normally unimpressed by anything aviation – sat up and took notice, covering the entire visit with front-page news. Sensing a PR opportunity that it simply could not afford to miss, Zagreb Airport’s operating authority had gotten into the act as well, organizing a number of extended bus tours around the aircraft – and giving other visitors a virtual carte blanche to observe proceedings from the safe side of the airport fence. Inevitably, such freedom of movement had meant that enthusiasts with big cameras could roam the landside from end to end, snapping away at several normally inaccessible parts of the airport and the aircraft parked, stored and/or preserved there (though their relevance was, understandably, completely lost in the glory of the world’s biggest aircraft).

After the hubbub had died down a week or so later – once everybody had emptied their memory cards 😀 – photos of these other machines had slowly started surfacing on various social networks. Among them was a fine shot of a preserved Cessna 310R, painted in an early scheme used by national carrier Croatia Airlines and put up for display in front of the company’s (secluded) maintenance hangar. While some were already aware of its existence, for many it was nothing short of a revelation, with several even going on to question the authenticity of the paint job 🙂 . Pretty soon an interesting discussion had begun to unfold in the comments section, a discussion that would eventually reveal some fascinating – and hitherto little known – details of its time flying commercial services during Croatia Airlines’ formative years.

The little bird that had started all the trouble. The last and the best of all the 310s, the R model is nowadays somewhat of a rare sight, despite 1,332 examples having been produced.

Rather unsurprisingly, this had immediately set off a chain reaction here at Achtung, Skyhawk!, starting first of all with attempts to dig up as much history on the airframe as I could. My search was further spurred by the knowledge (previously… misplaced) that the company had actually started out in life with a handful of various Cessna piston twins, aircraft that had long been sold and nowadays completely forgotten by the general public. After a bit more digging – which had included extensive conversation with current and former Croatia Airlines staff – I was amazed to discover that the company had actually operated seven light aircraft, including even a lone Cessna Citation II. With this knowledge at my disposal, you can pretty much guess what happens next… 😀

I’m leaving on a jet plane

However, before we do get to the inevitable, I though it best to first run quickly through the company’s potted history. The country’s flag carrier ever since independence, Croatia Airlines – known to all by its ICAO code, CTN – can trace its roots back to 7 August 1989 and the formation of Zagreb Airlines (Zagal), a small cargo outfit created around a single Cessna 402. Flying feeder and nightly postal services on behalf of companies such as DHL and UPS, Zagal would in early 1990 undergo a program of rapid (and ambitious) expansion that would quickly see its fleet swell to include more than a dozen piston twins and singles – and even the odd business jet and turboprop.

This very ambition would soon extend to the creation of proper regional passenger services – using proper passenger aircraft – that would initially be known under the provisional name CROATIAirlines (at the time often stylized as CROATIAirlines). Re-branded into the now-familiar Croatia Airlines on 23 July 1990, this new unit would in May 1991 lease-in two McDonnell Douglas MD-82s (YU-ANC & YU-ANO) from Slovenia’s Adria Airways, kicking off operations with scheduled flights between Zagreb (LYZA at the time) and Split (LYSP). Further services would soon be established outwards to Europe, most of which would link Croatia with various cites in West Germany – and which would eventually account for the majority of the company’s traffic. In parallel, Zagal itself – having provided the necessary operational and regulatory foundations for the new airline – would be fully integrated into CTN by November, with its fleet (minus most of the piston singles) continuing to serve for awhile in its original roles.

YU-ANO basking in the sun at Split after its inaugural flight from Zagreb – the first ever scheduled passenger flight flown by Croatia Airlines.

However, as with everything else in those days, the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia in mid-1991 and the subsequent start of a four-year civil war would throw a huge spanner straight into CTN’s works. Following the Yugoslav Air Force’s 28 June attack on Ljubljana Airport (LYLJ) in Slovenia – one of the responses to Slovenia and Croatia’s simultaneous declarations of independence three days earlier – the two MDs would be immediately recalled back home, leaving Croatia Airlines with no machines with which to ply its trade. Things were equally bad for the lighties, whose duties had seen them scattered across the width and breadth of both countries. To protect them against anticipated hostile action, during September and November they were hurriedly (and occasionally in the face of small arms fire) ferried to safe ports in Austria, where they would stay until the following year.

To address the thorny issue of being an airline with no airliners to its name, CTN had in late 1991 and early 1992 made overtones with several manufacturers and various European airlines for the purchase of some of their used hardware. While a slew of types had been considered, the carrier’s new fleet would take on a pretty conventional look for the time, eventually coming to include:

  • five Boeing 737-230/ADVs (9A-CTA through CTE1), acquired from Lufthansa and delivered starting April 1992
  • two “quick change” ATR-42-300QCs (9A-CTS & CTT), fitted with around 400 kg worth of floor reinforcements to enable conversion to an all-cargo configuration, sourced new direct from ATR and delivered on 4 and 25 June 1993 respectively
  • and a lone ATR-42-320 (9A-CTU), sourced also from ATR, delivered on 31 May 1995

1 an interesting oddity that can still be found in period photos, three of the 737s (CTA, CTB & CTC) – as well as all of the lighties – had between April and July 1992 carried an unusual RC registration prefix. Decided and allocated by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), these prefixes are used for all radio communications – not just aeronautical – so changing them naturally involves a fair bit of bureaucracy. However, with Yugoslavia now well and truly gone, there was no legal basis for using the old YU prefix anymore – while Croatia’s very recent recognition by the international community (9 January) implied a noticeable while while the ITU convened and decided what to do. To get around this issue, it was suggested from within CTN – and temporarily accepted in the corridors of power – that RC (Republic of Croatia) could be used until a permanent solution was found. The latter would take the form of the current 9A, not a bad choice overall considering that R prefixes are generally used by Russia, CR was allocated to Portugal’s overseas provinces – and HR (“Hrvatska”, the country’s local name) was already taken up by Honduras.

While they were a bit “old hat” even by the standards of the 90s, the noisy and infinitely charismatic 737s had nevertheless done sterling work throughout the war years and can – in retrospect – be credited for putting Croatia Airlines onto the proverbial map. However, while they were easy and cheap to buy, the certainly were not cheap to run. By the end of the decade, the post-war economic situation in Croatia was still wobbly at best, while the very visible scars of war were not really doing the country’s traditional economic staple – tourism – any favors. In this business climate, having a fleet of aging airliners that drank fuel like a burning oil refinery made increasingly little economic sense, prompting CTN to head out shopping once more.

A similar turn of events – albeit with a very different outcome – had also taken place among the lighties several years earlier. While all of them did have their uses and were not just standing idly around collecting dust, they nevertheless were considered to be an operational and financial burden – one that CTN, now preoccupied with airliners and scheduled operations, had soon decided it could do without. In trying to find a solution to this problem, suggestions were floated in 1993 and 1994 of separating the remaining bits of Zagal back into a standalone company similar in purpose to its 1989 original. However, this plan would have required CTN to part with a noticeable amount of manpower, a resource that a fledging airline trying to operate in the middle of a war could not really spare. Thus it was soon decided to sell off all but one of the remaining aircraft – the Cessna 310R mentioned in the opening entry – and eventually altogether close that chapter of the company’s history…

At this point, the 737s still had half a decade left to run – but the writing on the wall would become all the clearer on 29 May 1997, when CTN took delivery of its first truly modern airliner, the Airbus A320-211 🙂 . Registered 9A-CTF – and from then on affectionately known as “Tango Fox” – this 1992 machine was not actually bought outright, but rather taken under long-term dry lease, an arrangement under which it would operate for the next 16 years. But, having done its bit in paving the way for the type’s smooth introduction into service, CTF would – sadly – enter the history books once again as the first CTN aircraft to meet its maker, having been sentenced to death by scrapping after it ran out of service life in December 2013…

Always a sad sight: Tango Fox being slowly dismembered at Bergen op Zoom in the Netherlands in February 2014... (photo from: Dubrovački dnevnik)

Always a sad sight: Tango Fox being slowly dismembered at Bergen op Zoom in the Netherlands in February 2014… (photo from: Dubrovački dnevnik)

While its demise did cause some tears to be shed on the local aviation scene, CTF was nevertheless still just the tip of an Airbus iceberg. Quickly gaining momentum, this iceberg would eventually come to include:

  • four A319-112s (CTG, delivered 21 January 1998 | CTH, delivered 4 June 1998 | CTI, delivered 15 June 1999 | CTL, delivered 23 June 2000)
  • and two A320-214s (CTJ & CTK), delivered 17 June 1999 and 9 June 2000 respectively

all of which were acquired mint-fresh straight from the Hamburg (A319) and Toulouse (A320) shop floors2.

2 however, even though the fleet would eventually grow to become ten strong – including four A319s, three A320s and three ATR-42s – the company would occasionally also lease-in additional machines to cater for seasonal traffic peaks. The first instance had involved BAe-146-200 G-FLTA, leased from British operator Flightline between April and June 2000; this would be followed by G-OZRH – also of Flightline – between April 2002 and September 2003; and finally, BAe-146-300 G-BPNT, which had taken over for G-OZRH during October of the same year. The choice of type would not be restricted to the Jumbolino however; the company would also take in Lufthansa’s own A319-114 D-AILH between April 2004 and 2005. A notable exception to this dynamic would become A320-211 9A-CTM, taken up in April 2005 after D-AILH’s departure and retained all the way till March 2010.

The second of the three Jumbolinos to serve with CTN. Like G-FLTA, G-OZRH would wear the company’s full livery for the duration of its employment (with only G-BPNT flying all-white due to the shortness of its lease)

As the first of these deliveries were taking place, the Boeings were already preparing to bid farewell to Croatia. With five Airbuses fully operational as mid-1999 dawned, all five of the 737s would depart the fleet in rapid succession between August and October, eventually making their way – some via roundabout routes – to operators in South Africa. As of December 2014, none are listed as being in flying condition anymore, with three permanently stored in SA, one stored (likely) in Pakistan, and one – ex. CTC – scrapped following its engine detaching at take-off from Cape Town in November 2007.

A similar fate – but (at first) without all the storage, scrapping and engines falling off – would eventually await the three ATRs as well, all of which would be gradually phased out between November 2007 and October 2008. Taking their place would be the larger and significantly faster Bombardier DHC-8-402 Dash 8 Q400, six of which (“classics” CQA through CQD, and Next Gens CQE and CQF) would join the fleet between May 2008 and April 2010. Like the Airbuses, these too would be new-build machines sourced direct from the factory – but would all be dry-leased for the long run (like CTF) rather than bought outright.

Like many early-gen ATR-42s, the Croatia Airlines Trio would eventually find new jobs in South America, criss-crossing Guatemalan and Honduran skies under the auspices of regional carrier Aviateca. In what is a delightful bit of irony, CTU would go on to fly under the flag on Honduras as HR-AUX, thus becoming the only (formerly) Croatian aircraft to wear the once-coveted HR registration prefix 😀 . CTU and sister ship CTT – now TG-TRG of Guatemala – would also come a full circle in 2015, returning back home to Zagreb for heavy maintenance. Unfortunately, various legal and economic issues within Aviateca had meant that they ended up standing here permanently, slowly deteriorating in the corner of the Croatia Airlines maintenance apron…

Relics of the past: Zagreb’s first control tower (long abandoned), Pan Adria’s mail-carrying Commander (mentioned later in the post) and CTU (sans a fair number of parts) – with CTT hiding away out of shot. The only 42 to escape the “737 curse” is CTS, now flying in Bangladesh as S2-AHI with Hello Airlines.

Dial C For Cessna

Interesting stories such as these though are not exclusive to just the airliner fleet – far from it in fact. Having operated at a time of great political and economic turmoil, the exploits and histories of the titular little birds often make for captivating reading, and more often than not provide unusual and unique insight into the early days of both Zagal and Croatia Airlines. Having served – in their own way – as stepping stones towards CTN as it is today, they have nowadays been mostly forgotten even by many ardent aviation enthusiasts, making it high time for their stories to be heard once again.

As had been noted in the opening entry, Croatia Airlines had operated seven light aircraft; however, that is there for brevity’s sake only, since the actual fleet composition since the creation of Zagal had varied all over the place, with each aircraft involved having a story that is impossible to untangle from that of the rest of the fleet. Therefore, to maintain clarity and coherence, I’ve decided to primarily focus on the said seven – but would, through the prism of their stories, also attempt to shed some light on the lives and times of the rest.

What follows then is as detailed an account of the fleet’s development as I could make it while relying solely on trustworthy sources. Given the troubled and politically-charged times in which both companies were created, it is a given that some information has been lost or corrupted, with scant records, missing details and the occasional withholding of information being just some of the issues I’ve ran into during research. Weaving this story together had thus required taking bits from multiple sources and stitching them together to form a continuous whole – a process that inherently carries the risk of omitting a detail or two. However, with the generous assistance of many of the people who were there – not to mention CTN itself – I’ve managed to put together what I believe to be an accurate, objective and aircraft-centered chronicle of the little fleet, which I hope will make for an interesting and stimulating read. So, without further ado, let me present the seven little aircraft that went on to make a big company… 🙂

  • Cessna 310R II, 9A-DFO:

Even though Zagal would come into being only in mid-1989, its genesis – and that of its fleet – can actually be traced back to 1987 and two (at the time unremarkable) Cessna 310R IIs registered YU-DFN and YU-DFO. Both manufactured not too far apart in 1978 and 1979 – sporting the serials 310R-1349 and 310R-1537 respectively – they would begin their service lives as N4018C and N5296C, temporary identities provided until their sale to an end customer. That customer would in the event become Yugoslavia, which had in the 70s and early 80s gone on a number of mass light aircraft acquisitions all throughout the West. Intended to support the country’s vibrant and rapidly-expanding aviation sector, these shopping sprees had involved the purchase of quantities of everything from the Cessna 150 to the Bell 212, the lot of which would subsequently be distributed to various state-owned flight schools, flying clubs, major companies – and even police air wings.

Our two C310s though would in 1980 be allocated to the Zagreb-based Obrazovni centar zračnog saobraćaja (Air Traffic Education Center, OCZS), from where they would in 1981 pass on to its successor, the Viša zrakoplovna škola (VZŠ) flight school – at the time one of Yugoslavia’s most famous and respected aviation institutions. Even though their primary role there had always been initial multi-engine training, from the mid-80s both would also be employed for various commercial operations under the auspices of the school, starting initially with on-demand passenger charters throughout the region (one of which would take DFO all the way to Alexandria, Egypt).

In June 1987, their operational portfolio would be further expanded with the addition of freight feeder and nightly airmail services, flown initially on behalf of DHL on the Zagreb – Vienna (VIE/LOWW) route. In January 1988, this service would be amended to also include an outbound-only stop at Graz (GRZ/LOWG), which would be discontinued in early 1989 for reasons I’ve not been able to determine (the whole run would eventually be cancelled a few months later). A further service would also be established to Budapest (BUD/LHBP), Hungary in December 1988, which would later go on to become the longest-running route of them all (having been operated right up until late 1991).

Unsurprisingly, the commitment needed by these contracts – coupled with existing training requirements – had put a ton of pressure onto both C310s, leading to the temporary addition of a rented Cessna 402C Businessliner (YU-BNF) in August 1988. With capacities now significantly increased, UPS would join the fray as well, establishing routes to Linz (LNZ/LOWL) and Belgrade (BEG/LYBE) in September 1989 – and, once DHL had vacated it, Vienna.

However, even before the implosion of Yugoslavia had begun, the whole operation had started encountering some turbulent air. Following VZŠ’s disbandment in late 1989, its entire fleet (at the time consisting of the two C310s, a lone Piper Cheyenne and 12 piston singles) would pass on to its major shareholder, Zagreb Airport. Included in this package were also the school’s cargo contracts, which the airport authority – seeing as they were running smoothly and in no need of further input – had decided to continue operating on its own. As before, DFN and DFO would bear all of the load – but could now, free of training requirements, be utilized to the full without interruptions in service. This arrangement would continue until December 1989, when Zagal would take up those flights on a permanent basis3.

3 at this point though, the fleet’s history becomes a bit confusing even to the attentive reader – so for clarity’s sake, I thought it best to first untangle that yarn before continuing on 🙂 . As mentioned, YU-BNF had joined the VZŠ fleet as a temporary measure only. Following the school’s closure, it would go back to its original owner, from where it would go on to play a pivotal role in the formation of Zagal (but more on that later).

In the mean time, Zagreb Airport would become one of Zagal’s founding members, eventually handing over control of the entire ex-VZŠ fleet to the new company. Formally, this transfer would occur only at the beginning of June 1990 (seven months after Zagal had started operations); however, it is unclear from the information I have whether the aircraft had been used “informally” prior to this date. Of the 15 aircraft inherited, the C310s would initially continue to fly alongside BNF in much the same manner as before, while the piston singles would be briefly used for training and then (bar two) sold on. This had only left the aforementioned Cheyenne – a PA-31T-500 registered YU-BKT – which had also presented the biggest problems of the lot. Manufactured in 1977 with the serial 31T-7720042 and temporary reg N82148, it too was one of the veterans of the 70s and 80s acquisitions, and was originally used by both OCZS and VZŠ to prepare students for the rigors of airline flying. However, it had spent the last four years sitting idle and unkempt in the corner of the apron due to the prohibitive costs of keeping it flying amid frequent mechanical issues. By the time it had ended up in Zagal’s court, it was in a pretty bad shape, requiring significant investment before it could fly again. While this option was considered, the major problem stalling it was one of practicality – due to its pressurized hull, the Cheyenne had ended up with only one service door, located at the rear of the fuselage. Once loaded up with cargo, the exit would be blocked, leaving the pilots with no means to vacate the aircraft (which would be an issue even during normal ops, let alone emergencies). Faced thus with both financial and operational hurdles to its use, Zagal had soon decided to part with BKT, selling it in late 1990 to Turkish operator Mono Air. Its service life there remains a mystery though; however, at some point it was returned to airworthy state and sold in June 1991 to French operator Pan Europeenne Air Service as F-GJPE. According to all available data, it was still operational at the time of writing, flying with operator Air Mont Blanc under the same reg.

A far more gloomy fate though would soon await DFN. While it did initially continue to fly with DFO and BNF as mentioned, in mid-March 1991 (on the 15th according to some sources) it would suffer a nose gear collapse at Ljubljana, following which it would be shipped back home to Zagreb and sold on to a private customer. Unfortunately, from this point on it would never fly again, spending the entire war (and many more years besides) rotting away at a remote location near one of Zagreb’s military hangars. It would finally be parted out and disposed of at some undetermined time in the mid-2000s…

DFO in its original Zagal guise. Of note is the Zagal logo, whose colors bear a lot of similarity to the proposed CROATIAirlines titles created at about the same time.

However, the demise of Yugoslavia and the subsequent start of hostilities would, as expected, bring all of the company’s commercial operations to an abrupt halt. UPS would be the first to cancel in July 1991 (citing increased risk to aircraft, crews and cargo), while DHL would follow suit at the end of August. Very soon though, this already elevated risk would increase tenfold, forcing the twin-engine fleet – by now five strong – to flee to the safety of the nearest neutral aerodrome. Located at the time in Zagreb, DFO would – in the company of two C402s – be flown first to Maribor (MBX/LYMB), Slovenia on 14 September, from where it would be ferried further north to Graz on 11 November (before this, however, it would get a quick taste of the war, flying into a blacked-out Zadar (ZAD/LYZD) during combat action in order to help the company’s unserviceable Citation to get out before any harm came to it).

Even though it was now in exile, DFO would not remain idle however, having occasionally been used for various state flights on behalf of the Croatian government, as well as the odd training session intended to keep the crews in shape. It was also at Graz that it would undergo the first of its identity changes, becoming RC-DFO when the temporary Croatian registration prefix went into effect at the beginning of April 1992.

The early months of the year would also see the situation in Northern Croatia improve somewhat, allowing the company to consider bringing the fleet back home to Zagreb (even though the war was still in motion elsewhere in the country). It was on the second return flight that DFO would be thrust into the spotlight, ending up playing what is definitely the most unusual role of its entire career. The fastest of the piston twins, it was tasked on 3 April with, simply, being the first aircraft of the day to fly from Graz to Zagreb. What would in any other situation have been an entirely forgettable 40 minutes was quite a different proposition at the time, since DFO’s main purpose was to see whether its flight would provoke a response from the Yugoslav Air Force (its nearest airbase being only 100 km / 55 NM away from Zagreb – a blink of an eye for the MiG-21). Even though the precedent – a successful, trouble-free landing – had already been set by BNF a few days earlier, DFO’s flight had the additional task of testing the air for the imminent arrival of CTN’s first own airliner, the 737 🙂 . Having landed without incident, DFO would then be followed by BNF (which had ferried crews to Graz earlier in the day) – and finally 737-200 RC-CTA…

However, this very event would also signal the beginning of the end of the little twin fleet. With the DHL and UPS contracts in shambles – and CTN pushing all-out towards the resumption of passenger operations – DFO would be left standing on the sidelines, eventually falling back to its original training duties and on-demand passenger and cargo charters. As these were always in short supply, the aircraft – known as 9A-DFO from August, even though the 9A prefix was introduced a month earlier – would occasionally complement the C402s on scheduled passenger services to Pula (PUY/LDPL), as well as the Split (SPU/LDSP) & Dubrovnik (DBV/LDDU) mail and newspaper run. From time to time, it would also find itself operating in support of the rest of the fleet, ferrying spares and mechanics where needed (mostly to under-equipped airports in the surroundings).

Most of these – minus the mail & newspaper services – would continue all the way until late 1998, when DFO would be withdrawn from service for good, following the development of complications (a financial nature) during a major landing gear inspection. Having managed to outlive the rest of the little fleet – and by a wide margin at that – it would end up being the only one not sold on, instead ending up parked at a remote corner of the apron (likely right next to DFN). Thankfully though, it would be spared the latter’s fate, having eventually been restored, repainted and set up as a gate guard on the grounds of the company’s maintenance base…

The only monument to the company’s early days, DFO was put up as a display piece sometime in 2008 or 2009. Unfortunately for visitors, it is located inside the maintenance base’s sterile area, where access and photography are subject to company (and security) permission.

  • Cessna 402C Businessliner, 9A-BNF:

Having been intertwined with the two C310s ever since the start of commercial operations at VZŠ, BNF would go on to lead an equally interesting life, part of which would (as noted) include playing a critical role in the formation of Zagal – one it had, however, been given not because of its qualities as an airplane, but simply because it was the only one available at the time. Its full story though would begin back in 1981, when it had rolled off the production line as a posh VIP-configured model with the serial 402C-0516. Originally allocated the provisional sales registration N68801, it too would eventually be picked up by Yugoslavia, where it would become YU-BNF with well-known Croatian construction company Montmontaža. Intended to be used for both corporate flights within the country and various sales and procurement trips abroad, BNF had never actually found much use there, leading to the decision to rent it out to VZŠ in exchange for the school taking up its complete maintenance work. Stripped of its frills, it would soon be converted into a dedicated cargo version and sent off to haul freight, even though it would retain a basic capability for carrying passengers – albeit without much of the luxuries and amenities of its original form.

One of the very few shots of BNF in its original guise. In the background is Hawker-Siddeley HS.125 YU-BME, which would also play a part in CTN’s story.

As mid-1989 came about – and VZŠ had all but finished slipping off the radar – Montmontaža would become one of the founders of Zagal, doing its bit to set the company rolling by contributing BNF as its very first aircraft. However, its return to commercial service was frustrated by a number of issues with Yugoslavia’s aviation administration, which had delayed the issuance of Zagal’s Air Operator Certificate (AOC) until the very end of November.

BNF in its Zagal freighter guise, parked near the old LDZA tower (nowadays part of Croatia Airlines’ maintenance base).

Once all of the papers were in order, the company was able to take over the feeder work from Zagreb Airport, a move that would go into effect already on 1 December. At the time, the route map had included four runs in total – Budapest for DHL, and Linz, Vienna and Belgrade for UPS – and would soon be expanded with the addition of a short hop to Ljubljana (LJU/LYLJ), also on behalf of UPS. All of these flights would be shared between BNF, DFN and DFO (with BNF generally taking Vienna and the C310s the rest, as dictated by required capacities on each route) until the fleet was bolstered by the arrival of two more C402s in November 1990 and June 1991 respectively.

The same November of 1990 would also see an expansion in DHL operations, starting with the introduction of the Zagreb – Ljubljana – Vienna run and the expansion of the Budapest route to also include a stop in Slovenia’s capital. Interestingly, there were a number of other services considered at around this time, including:

  1. Zagreb – Thessaloniki (SKG/LGTS) – Athens (ATH/LGAT; the old Hellenikon airport),
  2. Zagreb – Cologne/Bonn (CGN/EDDK),
  3. Zagreb – Zadar – Split – Zagreb,
  4. Zagreb – Osijek (OSI/LYOS) and
  5. Zagreb – Ljubljana – Portorož (POW/LYPZ) – Zagreb

all of which would have been operated for UPS… and none of which would ever leave the drawing board.

In addition to the feeder contracts, the company – by now known as Croatia Airlines – had in early 1991 also instated a new airmail service based on an old postal system called NAPS (noćni avionski poštanski saobraćaj, Nightly Aircraft Postal Service in Serbian), ran by local carrier Pan Adria back in the 70s and 80s. Under the terms of this service, the company would fly mail and daily newspapers from Zagreb to Split and then onwards to Dubrovnik in the early hours of the morning, a task normally allocated to the higher-capacity C402s – but, as noted earlier, also occasionally ran by DFO (DFN having already been sold by this point).

Undergoing maintenance at the company’s service center and now wearing its final Croatian paint scheme. Note also the additional Croatian flag forward of the main door – a sign of things to come.

This very service would also cause BNF to briefly become caught up in the war, having been on the ground at Dubrovnik when the airport was closed by Yugoslav police units on 31 July. After a 22-day stay, BNF would finally manage to make it out of town on 21 August, flying a daring night-time escape straight through the heart of Serbia4. However, while Zagreb was its intended destination, it would be forced to divert to Budapest halfway through due to intensifying combat operations in and above Eastern Croatia. Following a two-day stay there, it would then head direct for Graz, where it would be joined by the rest of the fleet about two months later.

4 interestingly, the commander of that flight had told me he believes the plan worked primarily due to CTN’s remaining affiliation with DHL – or rather, the opposing side’s fear of making any threatening moves against an unarmed civil aircraft declared (with a flight plan no less!) to be flying on behalf of a US company (even though there was no actual cargo aboard). The fear of the same scenario – and the political and economic backlash that would follow in its wake – would also extend to DHL, with this flight having in fact been the trigger for the cancellation of its contract less than a week later.

As was the case with DFO, the C402s would not spend their time in Austria standing idly around, with all three having been used for various government purposes (including running several cargo flights to Bern (BRN/LSMB) in Switzerland). The fleet would occasionally also undertake some charter work, most notably ferrying members of the Mladost water polo team to various matches across Middle Europe.

As April 1992 dawned, BNF would become known as RC-BNF, the registration under which it would – for reasons undetermined – make its way back to Zagreb at the very beginning of the month, becoming the first CTN machine to successfully return home. As mentioned previously, it would then be used to ferry crews to Graz on the morning of 3 April, following which it would once again make the trip to Zagreb, being the second aircraft to test the would-be intentions of the Yugoslav Air Force prior to the arrival of the company’s first 737.

Once back home for good, it would end up facing pretty much the same problems as faced by DFO. With all of the prewar contracts nullified, the three C402s would end up being employed on scheduled passenger services to Pula (starting in May 1992) and on the old mail & newspaper runs to Split and Dubrovnik (once they’d been restarted in June). Essentially providing one of the very few reliable links to both cities, these flights would be mostly flown with the lights off and in radio silence, with the works turned on only in the final moments of approach to avoid attracting the attention of hostile forces located near both airports. However, since all of these flights were not enough to cover the fleet’s expenses, all three machines would also be employed on occasional medical flights and the few odd charters that could be scraped up in the middle of a war. It was also at this time that BNF would take on the new official Croatian registration prefix, becoming 9A-BNF in August.

Revving up at Zagreb in full commercial paint for what appears to be an engine test. By this time, CTN had introduced its new logo, combining a stylized representation of a wing with the Croatian “chessboard” coat of arms. Along with the blue bellies – representing the Adriatic Sea – introduced on the 737, this would quickly become the company’s most recognizable design feature.

Unfortunately, even this was not enough to keep the fleet afloat, forcing CTN – now with five 737s and three ATRs on its plate – to pull the plug on the entire operation in late 1994. However, having only been 13 years old at this point and with comparatively little time on the clock (despite most of it not being gentle), BNF was an attractive item on the used marked, being quickly picked up by US aviation broker Satellite Aero in December of the same year.

Re-registered N401SA for this purpose, it would be sold on to Canada in April 1996, becoming C-GOGP of the Ontario Provincial Government. Flying various law enforcement duties as part of the province’s Solicitor General’s office, it would in 1999 make its final operator change, passing on to charter outfit Lockhart Air Services (also of Ontario). However, its current status is up for debate, with some sources stating it is still active – while others that it had been withdrawn from use in 2012 and struck off the register…

Taking on fuel at Zagreb for its last ever flight from Croatian soil. With its new identity simply taped on, BNF would receive a new lick of paint (and a new interior) once safely across the Atlantic.

  • Cessna 402C Businessliner, 9A-BPV:

Since the simultaneous operation of five (soon to become seven) feeder routes with just three aircraft could very well end in tears, in November 1990 it was decided that another machine should be acquired as soon as possible. In order to keep maintenance and crewing costs down (as well as not delay entry into service), the only realistic option was to go with another C402 – one of which, registered F-GFZZ, was soon offered for sale in northwestern France.

Being inspected by a CTN delegation at Avranches Airfield on 14 November. Keeping out of sight in the background is one of the company’s 310s (unknown which, but likely YU-DFO), still wearing its old Zagal livery.

Operated and originally bought new by French charter company Valair, F-GFZZ was also a 1981 machine, carrying the serial 402C-0447. Following its successful acquisition and delivery to Zagreb, it would quickly be rechristened into YU-BPV, with its career path from then on pretty much mimicking that of BNF. Like the latter, it too would be forced into exile in 1991, having been one of the machines flown from Zagreb to Maribor on 14 September, and then further on to neutral Graz on 11 November.

In full Croatia Airlines colors, likely snapped just days or weeks before the start of hostilities…

Having stayed there with the rest of the fleet until April 1992, it too would quickly go through several changes of identity, becoming first RC-BPV the same month and then 9A-BPV in August. Again like the other C402s, it would spend the next two years flying passenger, mail and charter flights until being put up for sale in late 1994.

The moment of transformation from YU to 9A… interestingly, as far as I’ve been able to find out, even though the RC prefix was used in radio communications, it was never actually displayed on the aircraft (bar the 737s)

As with BNF, it would then be acquired by a US aviation broker – Capital Business Jets – in December, becoming N401SX in the process. Already in July of next year, it would find work with Primac Courier, a small cargo unit not unlike Zagal operating out of Ontario, Canada (where it would retain the US reg). A stint with Twin Cities Air Service – a small passenger charter operating throughout the northeastern US – would follow in December 2000, before it would pass on to famous C402 operator Cape Air in July 2013. Having joined the company’s world-renowned scheduled commuter services up and down the Eastern Seaboard, it would still be happily flying passengers in front-(air)line service at the time of writing.

  • Cessna 402C Businessliner, 9A-BPX:

The third and final C402 would join the fleet some seven months after BPV – and in pretty much the same general fashion. However, while the latter’s introduction was motivated by the requirements of the DHL and UPS contracts, the addition of this new aircraft was driven primarily by the needs of the NAPS-lookalike mail/newspaper service. As was the case with BPV, the choice of aircraft type was restricted to the C402 to keep costs and complexity down, factors especially relevant now that war was looming on the horizon. This time though, a suitable candidate was found all the way on the other side of The Pond in the form of N85PB, at the time (April 1991) owned by the Maine Aviation Corporation. Sporting the serial 402C-0606 and manufactured in 1981 like the other two, this aircraft had previously served only with Provincetown-Boston Airlines, a small (but long-lived) commuter airline that had in 1988 become one of the key components of today’s Continental Express.

However, by the time the aircraft was paid for and ready for delivery as YU-BPX (late June), the situation in Croatia had deteriorated noticeably, with hostile action already underway. Due to the closure of Zagreb Airport, the aircraft’s final destination was changed to Vienna just before its departure from the States, from where it would be flown to Austria in one go, with just the occasional technical stop for fuel and rest. It would not stay there for long though, since the CTN delegation sent to meet it had managed to persuade the captain to continue on to Zagreb at night, flying into the blacked-out airport in full radio silence and with all the lights off…

The escalation of war would, however, soon force it back to the safety of Austria, departing Zagreb with DFO and BPV on 14 September. Once at Graz, it would share in the government duties of the rest of the fleet, also being one of the aircraft involved in the aforementioned charter flights on behalf of the Mladost water polo team (in fact, the only photo of it I could find – hosted at Airliners.net – shows it at Prague (PRG/LKPR) in January 1992 during one such flight). Like the rest of the little fleet, it would then carry the familiar succession of identities, becoming first RC-BPX and then 9A-BPX. Following CTN’s return to Croatia in April, it would once again go on to participate in the commercial operations of the C402 fleet, until it too was listed in the classifieds in late 1994.

Sharing much of its subsequent life path with BPV, it would also be bought by Central Business Jets in December, becoming N402SX. In October 1995, the two machines would briefly part ways, with BPX being passed onto BNF’s original customer, Satellite Aero. They would come together once again a year later, when BPX was bought by Twin Cities Air Services, before also being passed on to Cape Air in July 2013 (where it would become N256CA in May of 2014).

  • Cessna 550 Citation II, 9A-BPU:

The penultimate entry on this list, CTN’s lone bizjet may not have been as influential or memorable as the rest of the fleet – but it nevertheless is by far the most intriguing. Like that of Zagal, its story would begin with a completely different actor from an earlier time, a beautiful Hawker-Siddeley HS.125-600B registered YU-BME. Manufactured in 1974 under the serial 256048, this machine was another veteran of Yugoslavia’s aeronautical shopping trips – but was one of the few aircraft not to have been acquired brand new. First serving as HB-VDS with Vaduz, Lichtenstein-based Fayair, in 1979 it would return back home to the UK as G-BHIE of Dismore Business Aircraft, before finally making it to Yugoslavia in April 1980. Becoming BME, it would then end up with INA Industrija nafte (Croatia’s only oil company), where it was intended to be used much in the same way as Montmontaža’s own BNF. However, like the latter, its utilization in this role was quite low, allowing it to be passed on to Zagal in early 1990 once INA became one of the company’s participating members.

Waiting for its next flight on the Zagal apron, while one of JAT’s DC-10s rolls down RWY 23.

But, while having such a jet in the fleet could be seen as quite a boon, BME’s potential use in service did present a number of operational and financial difficulties. On the one hand, in those early days Zagal was still first and foremost a cargo airline – and even though VIP charters were considered at the time, nothing would come out of it in the short term. This had meant that the aircraft would have to be reconfigured for the cargo role to be truly useful, a mission for which it wasn’t particularly suitable (being high off the ground and lacking a proper cargo door). On the other hand, the financial issues were mostly tempered by the two fuel-to-noise converters on the jet’s backside. Being a direct descendant of the original 60s Series 1 HS.125, BME was powered by a pair of Rolls-Royce Viper turbojets (the 601-22 model to be precise), the same powerplant used on many indigenous Yugoslav military designs. While it was a tough, sturdy and reliable no-nonsense engine, it was quite loud and had a tendency to drink like there’s no tomorrow. Coupled with the 125’s size and bulk – 11,300 kg / 24,900 lbs at MTOW – they made the aircraft extremely expensive to operate in the climate of the time, making it even more unsuitable for the freighter role.

However, the advantages of jet power were nevertheless very obvious, especially since UPS was willing to offer the company the chance to run a lucrative service straight to its main European distribution center at Brussels (BRU/EBBR) – a straight-line hop of 1,030 km / 557 NM that would be quite a daunting task (not to mention a huge wastage of time) on a C402. Since there was no easy or economic way to reconcile this requirement with what was available in the fleet, it was decided to trade BME in for a smaller and more fuel-efficient aircraft, which could also be modified outright for the transport of light cargo.

A suitable candidate for this role was found already in October 1990 in the form of Citation II5 N220LA. Manufactured in 1980 under the serial 550-0128, this machine had up until this point served with a number of operators across the States, starting out as N536M of the Marathon Oil Company. Leaving its fleet in 1985, it would then go on to fly with operator Aircraft Trading Center, “trading up” to Larizza Industries in 1987 (where it would become N220LA a year later). Retaining the same reg, it would pass on to operator LA Air in September 1989, before finally ending up with O’Gara Aviation Company of Atlanta in June 1990.

5 interestingly, despite having (so far) been flown solely as a standard multi-crew model, N220LA had always had all the fittings necessary to operate as a single-pilot 551 Citation II/SP. The reason for this is not entirely clear, but I’m given to understand that the special crew certification requirements and associated airplane paperwork – plus restrictions on the type of operations that could be conducted – had made single-pilot ops too impractical and expensive for many small operators of the time.

Given that funds for an outright buy of this machine were in short supply at Zagal (now already in the process of becoming Croatia Airlines), O’Gara had eventually settled on a straight trade, swapping N220LA for BME. Despite its unsuitability for Zagal’s needs, BME still had a lot of life left in it at this point, remaining with O’Gara for the next two years as N6567G. A short stint with Ganntt Aviation would follow in July of 1992, before it would make its way back to European lands as TC-COS of Turkey’s Uray Technik. There it would stay until 2001, when it would hop to the States once more, becoming N852GA of General Aviation Services. Here it would be converted to the HS.125-600A standard in November 2002, before being sold to the Rivers Corporation in March 2003. Its final operator change would come in December of 2005, when it would pass into possession of Arnoni Aviation, a move that would eventually seal its fate. Stripped of useful parts in September 2009, it would be struck off the FAA registry in August of 2013, with its carcass interred to this day at the scrapyard of the famous Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Phoenix, Arizona (still carrying some of the Croatian-language placards from its Yugoslav service days)…

Out with the old, in with the new-ish… a CTN inspection delegation posing with N220LA shortly before its acquisition.

N220LA, however, would still spend some time on US shores before making its way to Croatia. As mentioned, the original premise for is acquisition was the ability to haul cargo at speed and over moderate distances; as CTN was beginning to take shape though, this would be expanded to include the retention of its passenger-carrying capability for use when needed (primarily in the VIP role as desired by Zagal on its formation). To satisfy both needs, the aircraft was dispatched into the workshop immediately after sale to be modified into an unusual “quick change” model, in which the interior could be swapped between the passenger and cargo configurations with a minimum of fuss and in very little time (some sources also hint that this mod had allowed the aircraft to be operated in a “combi” configuration, that is part passenger, part freight all at once).

An example of the all-cargo configuration originally intended to be fitted to N220LA.

Once this was complete, the aircraft would make the jump across the Atlantic, becoming YU-BPU upon its arrival into the fleet in December. Interestingly, this would also make it the first ever aircraft registered to CTN, with the rest of the lighties still nominally operated by Zagal (even though the two companies were all but merged at this point). In the few short months remaining until the start of hostilities, it would be employed on a few VIP passenger flights, with the Brussels idea having gone down the drain for reasons I’ve not been able to ascertain with certainty.

All three types in the fleet posing at some unspecified time either in late 1990 or early 1991. This is also the only shot I could find which includes both YU-DFN and DFO – though I can’t really tell which is which.

One of the most telling photos of Croatian aviation of the period: BPU proudly posing at Zagreb in a dual Croatian/Yugoslav identity, with CTN’s two leased MD-82s (YU-ANC & ANO) and a JAT 737-300 (reg unknown) waiting for passengers in the background…

The start of the shooting in mid-1991 would, however, quickly see BPU thrust into a vital logistical role, having been the only large(r) aircraft capable of operating into the surrounded and besieged city of Zadar (its small size, high maneuverability and impressive rate of climb providing the most protection against hostile anti-aircraft gunfire from batteries located around the city). But, the dangers of these operations – plus the increasing threat of aerial interception – would soon grow to become too great, forcing BPU to withdraw first to Ljubljana on 12 September and then to Graz the next day.

Like the piston twins, it would be kept busy with various state flights while there, often complementing the Croatian government’s own jet, Rockwell NA-265-70 Sabreliner 75 YU-BLY. Interestingly, when renamed into RC-BPU in April 1992, it would become the first ever aircraft to wear the RC prefix, thus also becoming the first aircraft formally registered in independent Croatia 🙂 . However, it would not hold on to this title for a second time when it became 9A-BPU in August.

Having returned back home with the rest of the fleet in mid-1992, BPU would change roles once again, taking to flying the Zagreb – Pula route alongside the piston twins, as well as the newly (re)established Zagreb – Split passenger run. However, as was the case with the C402s, all of these commercial duties did not translate into any sort of sustainable profit, with the jet racking up loss after loss. By early 1993, it was decided that there was no more hope for its case, leaving the company with no other option but to somehow unload it off its hands6.

6 before its departure from the fleet, BPU would also play a minor film role in the 1993 action move Detonator (known sometimes as Death Train), serving as the aircraft of the main protagonist under the guise of “N-BPU”. A very brief glimpse of it can seen in the first few seconds of this YouTube clip.

But, in what is a pleasing bit of circularity, BPU would not actually be sold outright, but rather traded in, providing part of the down payment for the company’s first ATR-42, 9A-CTS 🙂 . Having left the fleet in exactly the same manner as its precesessor YU-BME, BPU would in April pass to Air Group Finance – the leasing company financing CTS – where it would become F-WLEF. By November, it would find a new home in Dublin as EI-CIR (apparently still owned by AGF), from where it would, in March of 1994, be sent to Fastar of the USA for a thorough overhaul (becoming N60AR for its duration). The work would also entail the “legal activation” of its single-pilot capability, the consequence of which was a type and serial number change to 551 Citation II/SP and 550-0174 respectively. As such, it was returned to the Irish register under its previous identity in April of the same year, going on to fly with operator Air Liberte from then on. In October 2010, it would be sold to operator Brisson 3 of France, becoming F-GJOB – the identity until it continues to fly to this day 🙂 .

Lone propellers & war stories

And finally, all that remains are the little piston singles. The most numerous class of aircraft to be featured here (12 confirmed examples so far), they would also prove to be the most difficult and elusive to track down, creating more questions than answers all throughout my research. Pretty much temporary features wherever they appeared, they were likely considered to be a nuisance rather than a tool, having been completely unfit for the types of operations that had mattered most at both Zagal and CTN. The upsets of war and Croatia Airlines’ struggle for survival had pushed them still further out onto the sidelines – so far in fact that very few of the crews I’d talked to could even vaguely remember them.

This turn of events had eventually led me to dispatch inquiries to the Croatian CAA, Serbia’s Directorate for Civil Aviation (the legal heir of Yugoslavia’s aircraft registry) and Zagreb Airport – all of which would require diving deep into old paper records buried in various archives. Since this process would naturally take a long time (especially considering the disorder of the period) and this article has already been two months in the making, I’ve decided to skip the little singles this time around and leave them for a future follow-up story 🙂 .

This move also leaves the door open to another interesting opportunity. Conceived purely as an objective chronicle of both companies’ light machinery, this article actually tells only half the fleet’s story. Having operated in interesting times and under the constant threat of hostile action, all of the little aircraft – as well as their pilots – naturally have some unusual stories to tell, a number of which had already been hinted at over the course of this article. Since it is already very nearly as long as my diploma thesis, I though it best to also leave those stories for the same follow-up, where they can be properly and richly told as they deserve… 🙂

Twin & jet timelines and current status



Entered service

Left service

Current status & reg


Piper PA-31T-500 Cheyenne I

JUN 1990

late 1991

operational | F-GJPE


Hawker-Siddeley HS.125-600B


NOV 1990

stored | N852GA


Cessna 402C Businessliner

AUG 1989

DEC 1994

operational (?) | C-GOGP


Cessna 402C Businessliner

NOV 1990

DEC 1994

operational | N401SX


Cessna 402C Businessliner

JUN 1991

DEC 1994

operational | N256CA


Cessna 550 Citation II

DEC 1990

APR 1993

operational | F-GJOB


Cessna 310R II

JUN 1990

MAR 1991

scrapped | YU-DFN


Cessna 310R II

JUN 1990

late 1998

preserved | 9A-DFO


I would also like to extend my utmost and sincere thanks for their time and patience to:

  • Mr. Roman Gebauer, former Technical Director at Zagal and Senior Vice President of Maintance and Engineering at Croatia Airlines
  • Cpts. (retired) Antun Gabela, Slobodan Pukanić, Miroslav Meco & Borislav Radić, former Zagal and Croatia Airlines flightcrew
  • Cpt. Darko Klarić, former Zagal flightcrew
  • Ms. Anamarija Jurinjak, Head of the Promotions Department at Croatia Airlines
  • Mr. Davor Janušić, Croatia Airlines Spokeperson
  • Mr. Davor Bujan, Head of Engineering and Technical Support at Croatia Airlines
  • Ms. Tea Galić, Head of the Aviation Legislation and International Affairs department of the Croatian CAA

Change log

  • 27 April 2016 – updated information on YU/RC/9A-BPU
  • 12 October 2017 – updated info about ATR-42-300QCs
  • 3 December 2017 – updated current state of ATR-42s; updated Q400 info; fixed typos
  • 15 September 2021 – reformatted for the new site look; corrected 9A-CTU sub version


  • Mr. Gebauer’s photo collection & unpublished Zagal history booklet
  • Croatia Airlines’ PR department and various PR material
  • Croatian Civil Aviation Agency (CCAA) aircraft register
  • Civil Aviation Directorate of Serbia (DGCA) aircraft register
  • Directorate General for Civil Aviation (France) – register lookup
  • FAA Aircraft Registry – register lookup
  • Scramble.nl – civil aircraft database
  • Airfleets.net – aircraft database
  • Airlinerslist.com – aircraft database
  • Aviation-Safety.net – accident reports
  • Flying Magazine – Single Pilot Jets article
  • and, the most important source of all, conversation with (and checking the logbooks of) many of the people directly involved

8 thoughts on “History – Props are Turning: Croatia Airlines’ GA beginnings

  1. Detaljno sročena povijest zrakoplova…fali nešto detalja o ljudima iza tih zrakoplova, no to bi vjerojatno otvorilo pre široku diskusiju…otvorilo tome bi se dalo napisati knjigu…

    1. Plan za naredni članak (svojevrsni Part 2) zapravo i je napisati neke od priča sa tih aviona iz 90-ih, u kojima bi se ujedno odala i počast ljudima koji su ih letjeli; no, za Part 1 sam se odlučio ne spominjati imena i zbog same duljine (skoro 9000 riječi!), te jer bi prvo želio stupiti u kontakt sa svima uključenima da mi daju svoje odobrenje za objave tih priča i njihovih imena.

      1. Bok iz Praga gdje sám već 25 godina í letím za Travel Service na B739…
        Ako ima koja moja i zajednička slika s preleta iz Amerike … moj mail :
        Hvala i javite se…puno pozdrava.
        Darko Klarić

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