All photos credited and copyrighted as noted
Even though, with all the fine flying weather we’ve been having, one would expect GA to be the talk of the town at Achtung, Skyhawk!, the end of July would see its crown briefly stolen (and in spectacular fashion) by the Croatian Air Force, which had suddenly – and seemingly out of the blue – gone on a PR offensive unseen in recent times :). While it often finds its way into the media one way or another, the AF had particular reason to be friendly this summer, first having finally completed its reformed MiG-21 force – and then having been given center stage in two major military parades scheduled for the beginning of August.
Wanting to make the best of all three occasions and improve the AF’s somewhat tarnished image, the Ministry of Defense had readily opened up its doors to journalists from all sides, allowing for yet another glimpse at its nowadays rare – but always fascinating – flying machinery… 🙂
Fleet In One
The first event off the blocks was the 22 July presentation of the reinvigorated MiG-21 fleet, fully overhauled and bolstered back to full strength by the acquisition of five second-hand examples from the Ukraine in 2013/2014. Now sporting 12 jets in total – four twin-stick UM models and eight single-seat bis variants – the fleet represents the largest concentration of combat aircraft seen here since the 90s civil war, and is slated to remain in service well into 2018 (when it is due to be replaced by a newer Western type). Brought up to partial NATO standard by the addition of a few bits of modern avionics – as well as equipment allowing them to safely operate in civilian airspace – all of the MiGs have been very active ever since cleared for duty, often flying multiple sorties a day, every day… a situation that had been nearly unimaginable during the fleet’s low period in the early 2010s :).
This renewed disposition – as well as a more relaxed attitude towards conserving the jets’ service lives – has allowed them to be utilized more aggressively and in more roles than before, with at least one flight per day pretty much the norm now. Apart from the obvious training (and photographic 😀 ) benefits, this had also increased the fleet’s reliability in its primary mission – the protection of Croatian airspace – which the MoD was keen to stress during that July morning at Pleso Air Base (ZAG/LDZA)…
NOTE: sadly though, I was prevented by flying commitments from attending myself, relegating my spot to Mr. Petar Mežnarek, a colleague of mine who had previously collaborated with me on another of my MiG-related posts.
Having limited offensive capabilities (a consequence of both age and cost), the fleet’s primary mission is defensive in nature, and centers around the tasks of “air policing”. Among other things, this involves the establishment of a Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) system, in which one or more armed jets (two in the CroAF’s case) are at readiness to take off on several minutes notice to intercept any unidentified or intruding aircraft within the country’s airspace. This capability was on this day demonstrated with a simulated mission, called a Tango (training) Scramble in military parlance. Note the Ural 4320-based ground start truck to the right, as well as replenishment air cylinders for the -21s pneumatic braking system.
133 and sister ship 132 (out of frame) rolling in after completion of the demonstration. In the standard QRA configuration, each jet sports two Monlya R-60 (AA-8 Alphid) short-range IR-homing missiles, and the distinctive BAK 800 liter (211 USG) droptank for increased operational range.
As good a place as any to catch some shade! Even though its bulbous circular fuselage gives an impression of size and bulk, the MiG-21 is actually a pretty small aircraft. While this limits the amount of fuel and armament that can be carried, it pays off in speed, climb ability and agility – though the latter may not be evident at “non-combat” speeds…
While it is a capable model in its own right, the twin-stick -21 certainly does look less threatening from this angle. The most obvious differences from the post-F-13 single-seat models are the smaller intake and intake centerbody (this version lacking a radar), only two pylons per wing, a less powerful R-13 engine with a different reheat system – and reduced fuel capacity due to the instructor’s cockpit taking up part of the space for the tank.
Even though it’s visually little more than a tube with wings, there’s something about the single-seat MiG-21 that never fails to excite the senses! Note also the matte black finish on top of the intake; a common feature on long-nosed aircraft, its purpose is to reduce glare in the cockpit during operations in strong sunlight.
A sight that had – sadly – mostly gone from Europe’s skies. Among the last operational -21s on the continent, Croatian examples may eventually outlive all their contemporaries – though their respite from the chopping block is only short-lived…
And given that this is Achtung, Skyhawk! after all, where would we be without at least one light aircraft? Parked at the very end of the apron, this good looking Huron – sporting callsign “Duke 64” – had brought in Frank Gorenc, commander of the US Air Forces in Europe, for an inspection of the fleet.
Even though the MiGs would be the stars there as well, the second and third events mentioned above would be of a different scope altogether, being based around the 20th anniversary of Operation Storm, a significant military action undertaken in August 1995 during the closing stages of the war. While yearly celebrations of this event are traditionally held on 5 August in the mountain town of Knin – the retaking of which was one of the main goals of the operation – the anniversary had this year also included a mass parade down one of Zagreb’s main streets (held a day earlier on 4 August), for which the Air Force (and even the Police) had been tasked with providing the aerial component.
And while both the original operation and the parade itself remain somewhat controversial in political terms, the latter had nevertheless promised to be quite a spectacle for the photographer, with the AF planning on bringing three examples of each of its aircraft types to the table (with the Police contributing three more machines). However, due to their sheer numbers – with seven types in the AF inventory and three with the Police – the logistics of accommodating them at a single air base had proven to be troublesome, leading to the decision to split them between Pleso (ZAG/LDZA), Lučko (LDZL) and Zemunik (ZAD/LDZD)*, depending on the infrastructure required by each type.
* these seven types also include the AF’s firefighting forces, consisting of the Air Tractor AT-802 and Canadair CL-415. However, due to extensive construction works (and the subsequent lack of space) at Pleso – and the inadequate runway at Lučko – neither could be accommodated at any airport in the Zagreb area, forcing them to operate from their home base at Zemunik, 190 km/103 NM away by the coastal town of Zadar.
Eschewing the parade grounds themselves for some up-close action – and not wanting to let either side down – I’d once again called on Petar Mežnarek for help, with him taking station at Pleso, and me (generally) camping out at my little grass airfield on the edge of town… 🙂
- Agusta AB.212
- Bell 206B-3 JetRanger III
- Eurocopter EC-135P-2+
- Mil Mi-8MTV-1 & Mil Mi-171Š
- Zlin Z-242L
Three very welcome visitors – and the only airplanes to be based at Lučko – being checked out by ground staff prior to their participation in the general rehearsal on 2 August. Likely visiting the airfield for the first time, 402, 403 and 405 are normally based at Zemunik, and are – along with two other Z-242s – used for initial pilot training.
Firing up for their run in the parade itself. This had also marked the end of their visit to the airfield, with all three aircraft having proceeded direct to home to Zadar once their flypast had been completed…
You know your formation is good when even Mother Nature approves (despite the appalling weather during the rehearsal)! Though Storm itself was a strictly military affair, the parade had also included the presence of the firefighters and police, the latter represented by a three ship group composed of every type operated by the force. Of particular note for the occasion was the AB.212, itself a war veteran and participant to numerous medevac and SAR missions during the entire conflict (a significant few of which under fire).
The old and the new on approach to the Police helipad after their participation in the parade. Despite having been in country for two years now, the EC-135s are still a novel sight, and are often participants to every aerial event the Police is invited to. Despite their modern, gleaming looks, they are still often outshone by the old Bells, all of which had previously served with the the prewar Yugoslav Police – and in many cases, in front line service during the war.
Not that much different from an ordinary day around here! Even without the fleet returning from the parade, this is a perfect juxtaposition of Lučko: civilians, police & military in (almost) perfect harmony. However, 2 and 4 August had likely broken a few records, with the airfield witnessing five Mi-171s, five Bell JetRangers, three Z-242Ls and one each of the Agusta AB.212 and EC-135 – all starting up at once…
Sometimes staying away from the epicenter of events can be a good thing. Saluting Lučko along the way, 131 and 132 are seen swinging back towards Pleso as the second of three pairs participating in the final flypast…
And, as a bonus, a badly-executed ad-hoc video clip from the 2 August general rehearsal, showing pretty much how would Apocalypse Now look like in a Croatian edition 😀 (and which features the one aircraft I hadn’t been able to photograph in good light, the Air Force’s JetRanger IIIs).
- Pilatus PC-9M
- Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21bis & UM
A scene that had draw in visitors from Italy, Germany – and even the UK. Flying the first afternoon practice sortie on 1 August, 165 had left by far the best impression of the three MiGs out at that time, treating both spotters on the fence and in the tower to two memorable low passes. Interestingly, on all occasions, 165 would be piloted by Ivan Selak, with Ivica Ivandić riding in the back seat – both of which were among the four Croatian pilots who had defected from the Yugoslav Air Force at the outset of the war.
The 1 August practice run had also included an appearance by the PC-9, transferred – like the Zlins – from Zadar to Zagreb for the duration of the parade. Nicknamed “Zubonja” (or “toothy” in loose translation, a generic name for CroAF combat aircraft sporting shark mouths), this particular machine was quite a treat, sporting celebratory markings for the type’s first 50,000 hours of operations in Croatia.
The traditional centerpiece of any larger aeronautical event in Croatia is the Krila Oluje (Wings of Storm) aerobatic team, which actually owes its name to the operation being celebrated. Even though there have been some upsets with the team of late – with a number of pilots leaving for better paid flying positions abroad – the replacement crews have gotten into their stride quite quickly, enabling the team to continue the team’s packed display schedule without major disruption.
Rocketing out of RWY 05 as the second of three pairs participating in the parade’s opening flypast. Due to the complexities of MiG operations – and their notoriously small fuel tank capacity – the whole airport had been closed to all non-military traffic for the duration of the event (roughly two hours).
The last of the six MiGs participating in the final flypast is seen touching down onto RWY 05 during the last minutes of the golden hour. Even though the estimates for the number of jets to be airborne had varied between three and eight, the final six had nevertheless not left anyone indifferent!