Photos as credited
It’s a pretty sure bet that all of us had, at one point or another, casually ignored an aircraft sitting right under our noses… you know, the sort of machine that may as well be rare and interesting – but one we’re so accustomed to seeing that it pretty much becomes part of the landscape. While the small size of Croatia’s aviation sector doesn’t provide much “opportunity” for the above, there nevertheless still are a couple of aircraft lying around that have become – for lack of a better word – invisible.
As it often so happens, I had chanced upon such a machine purely by accident, running into it while browsing through historic photos taken at Zagreb Airport (ZAG/LDZA). While the gallery in question had much eye candy with which to distract the viewer – Convairs, Caravelles, early MiG-21s and so on – hiding in the corner was a lonely little Let L-200 Morava, unceremoniously preserved at the far end of the airport. While I had seen it numerous times before in my adult life – not to mention having played on it as a kid in the late 80s 😀 – I had completely pushed it out of my mind, always looking further and further out for fresh material.
Having always had a thing for Czech light aircraft – especially “visually curious” types such as the L-40 Meta Sokol and the L-200 – I decided it was high time to have a look into this example, and see if it maybe has a story worthy of Achtung, Skyhawk!. Though its lack of identification markings had raised some doubts online about its true identity, I once again had the great fortune of being able to call upon the men and women who had worked on it in the past, allowing me yet another fascinating glimpse into the country’s aviation heritage…
While there is nothing on the outside to suggest it being anything other than a stock L-200, this machine does indeed have a bit of color in its history. Even though the Morava had had a short production run of just eight years, considerable interest in the design had still existed when Czechoslovak manufacture came to an end in 1964. One of the parties keen to continue building them was Yugoslavia, which had soon managed to secure rights for license manufacture, handing over the baton for the same to the LIBIS works of Ljubljana, Slovenia. Short for Letalski institut Branko Ivanus Slovenija (the Branko Ivanus Aviation Institute of Slovenia), this small factory had previously been responsible for a few notable GA designs, including the KB-6 Matajur two-seat trainer, KB-11 Branko four-seat tourer, and Libis 17 and 18 training gliders – all of which were produced in relatively small numbers, preciously few of which survive today.
The plan for the Morava, however, had called for just simple, small-scale assembly of aircraft from “knock-down kits” provided by Let (there is no indication that “proper” production was considered, though this cannot be ruled out). To this end, LIBIS was in 1964 supplied with a total of 14 kits, which, when completed, would produce aircraft known as the L-200 Libis. Named so purely for marketing purposes, these aircraft would be identical to the standard L-200D, which itself was an evolution of the early L-200A in response to Aeroflot requirements*.
* Aeroflot would, in the event, go on to operate the majority of the 360 Moravas produced, using them both in training and air taxi roles. To make the basic design suitable for this sort of work (as well as the conditions it was expected to operate in), Aeroflot had requested the addition of:
- an engine-driven hydraulic pump for the landing gear, fitted to the No. 1 engine (replacing the A model’s manual hand pump)
- dust filters on the engine intakes
- a winterization kit to prevent engine over-cooling in low temperatures
- a radio compass to aid in long-range navigation
- and – most important of all – an increase in propeller ground clearance to prevent damage on rough strips. This was achieved by substituting the A’s two-blade 1.9 meter V410T/V410AT constant-speed propellers with three-blade 1.75 meter V506 units – making this the primary way to visually differentiate the two models (the original idea had actually been to move the whole engine nacelles higher up – but this would have drastically reduced visibility from the cockpit, so the idea was quickly dropped). A notable curiosity here were the propellers’ pitch control mechanisms: while the V506 had sported a “traditional” hydraulic actuator using engine oil, the old V410 was based on an electrical system, with propeller speed commanded by pushbuttons rather than the familiar blue levers
Of interest (since we’re already digressing 😀 ), two other versions had been considered while the Morava was still in series production. The first, dubbed the L-200B, would have been an evolutionary development of the A, while the L-200C was intended to be certified to UK airworthiness standards and sold as an export model. Both of these though had gone down to the tubes due to the sheer commitment required by Aeroflot and the model D.
In the event however, only five kits would be completed – with out example having been the first :). Rolled out in mid-1964, it would carry two distinct serials, Let’s own (and rarely used) 17-14-13, and LIBIS’ internal 300-20 (changed to 301-01 in September). Its first port of call following completion would be Pan Adria – a small Zagreb-based passenger and light freight airline – where it would become YU-BBE on 10 August.
Joined soon by three other LIBIS machines (BBF, BBG & BBH), it would initially be used for just the odd crew training flight, most of which were flown at night. However, the little fleet would quickly be put to use on nightly newspaper and airmail services as part of the carrier’s newly instituted Noćni avionski poštanski saobraćaj (Night-time Aircraft Postal Service, NAPS) program. Ran in cooperation with the Jugoslovenska pošta, telefon i telegraf (Yugoslav Post, Telephone and Telegraph, JPTT), this service would be the first mail-only aerial operation Yugoslavia since WW 2, and had served – among others – Belgrade (BEG/LYBE), Split (SPU/then LYSP) and Dubrovnik (DBV/then LYDU) direct from Zagreb (then LYZA).
The program’s increasing success, however, had soon meant that the Morava was becoming too small and too slow to cope with demand. Piggybacking on one of Yugoslavia’s first mass acquisitions of light aircraft from the West, Pan Adria had in early 1968 ditched the L-200 in favor of the much more suitable Aero Commander 500, a type that would go on to serve in this role right up until the carrier’s dissolution in 1977**.
** interestingly, an identical service would be started in early 1991 by another local operator – Zagreb Airlines (Zagal) – using a fleet of Cessna 310s and 402s. In concert with the carrier’s freight feeder work for DHL and UPS, this operation would provide the essential foundations for the formation of Croatia Airlines later the same year.
Having now been left without a job, the little fleet (sans BBH, lost in Macedonia in June 1966) would on 15 March pass into the hands of the Aeroklub Zagreb flying club, which had at the time been dabbling with the idea of starting an in-house air taxi service. However, despite the bulk of the club – which had always been one of Croatia’s most eminent aviation institutions – standing behind this venture, the L-200 had proved to be simply too thirsty and maintenance-intensive to make the proposal work, resulting in the operation’s continual uphill battle to break even.
Coming to terms with its predicament, AK Zagreb had decided to finally part with the type sometime in 1973. BBF would quickly find a new home in Slovenia, while BBE and BBG would end up in the court of the newly-formed Obrazovni centar zračnog saobraćaja (Air Traffic Education Center, OCZS) based at Zagreb, later to become one of Yugoslavia’s most respected aeronautical organizations. Having had the finances, equipment and know-how to efficiently operate an aircraft of the L-200’s caliber, OCZS had naturally wanted to put these machines to some use, allocating them to its in-house flight school, the Viša zrakoplova škola (Aviation Polytechnic, VZŠ).
No spares to spare
However, right at the very outset, the school ran into a few problems. BBG was reportedly in such a poor state that it was immediately consigned to the scrap heap, while BBE needed a thorough work-over before it could be used in regular service. But, even when this was completed, issues remained; though they still had some time left on the clock, BBE’s engines were very near the ends of their 800-hour service lives. Given that parts and replacement engines were becoming increasingly hard (and expensive) to come by – and the school could do without the bother – it was decided to fly the aircraft as sparingly as possible in order to conserve it for when it would really be needed.
To this end, BBE was earmarked solely for the final stages of Commercial Pilot License instrument training – and would even then be flown only by the school’s first two generations of students. From 1975 onward, it would operate just the occasional staff transport flight, logging only a couple of hours per year in the process. To maintain it in a working condition during this extended downtime, it would be fired up and ran two to three times a month; but even this would cease in early 1980, when the engines finally ticked over to 800 and the aircraft lost its Certificate of Airworthiness once and for all – having flown just 50-ish hours in VZŠ service…
Despite it now being ripe for the chopping block, the school nevertheless did not want the aircraft to go to waste (especially given all the effort so far invested in it). Following its removal from the register on 28 May, BBE would be towed from the apron to the school’s courtyard, where it would be set up as a gate guard and teaching aid.
But, to properly explain what (little) happens next, I though it best to first mention some of the inner peculiarities of the OCZS. Even though the VZŠ was always the most famous thing about it, the OCZS had also ran another institution called Srednja zrakoplovna škola (Aviation High School, SZŠ). While the VZŠ was a higher learning organization that dealt almost exclusively with flight training, the SZŠ – opened in 1976 – was tasked with teaching various aeronautical topics at a high school level. In 1981 though, the OCZS as such would cease to exist, with both VZŠ and SZŠ becoming “standalone” partner institutions sharing the same building***.
*** to further complicate matters, the VZŠ had the habit of occasionally changing its name, but without any alteration to the underlying “mechanics”. This is most evident in official documents, which state that on 1 April 1977, BBE was transferred to the “Centar za odgoj i usmjereno obrazovanje kadrova u zračnom prometu”, or The Center for Education and Specialist Training of Air Traffic Cadre – a seemingly significant change, but in reality it was business as usual. To make the whole issue all the more ironic, the school would revert to its original name within a couple of years.
Having always been attached to the VZŠ, BBE would remain on its books all the way into late 1989, when the school was disbanded in the political turmoil that had preceded the violent collapse of Yugoslavia two years later…
Despite the circumstances of VZŠ’s demise, the SZŠ – lacking high-value assets such as aircraft – had managed to remain below the radar throughout the ordeal, coming out of the late 80s relatively unscathed. Designated the nominal successor to VZŠ’s files and infrastructure, the school – nowadays named Zrakoplovna tehnička škola Rudolfa Perešina (The Rudolf Perešin Aviation Technical School, ZTS) – had also become the new owner of BBE, which would continue to serve in its role as a teaching aid all the way into the present.
While I strove throughout to dig up as much info on BBE as I could, many of the finer details (and dates) of its service between 1970 and 1980 are, sadly, lost to history – despite the very best intentions and efforts of the people who had helped me with my research. Virtually all of the aircraft’s known documentation has been confirmed as lost, some during the school’s organizational changes and collapse in the late 80s – but most through a simple lack of interest in BBE over the intervening 20 years.
Critically, even Serbia’s Directorate for civil aviation (the successor to Yugoslavia’s aircraft registry) lacks a clear picture of BBE’s movements in the mid 70s – so much so that even the exact year of its transfer to the OCZS is not known with certainty. Queries in the ZTS library and among current school staff had also failed to produce usable results – while the extensive, but ill-kept and disorganized AK Zagreb archive makes locating the right files harder than finding a needle in a haystack.
The only thing that had remained available to me were the memories and recollections of the men and women who had worked on or with the aircraft in the past – most of which were incorporated into the final article. Whether this story will get any “official closure” in the future remains to be seen…
As always, I would like to extend my sincere thanks to the people who devoted their time to answer my multitude of questions, including:
- Capt. (retired) Antun Gabela, former VZŠ flight instructor and professor
- Mr. Srđan Kisin, former BBE tech
- Ms. Tihana Strmo, ZTS’ head librarian
- and of course my father, who had been a dispatcher during Pan Adria’s final days, and mother, who had worked at VZŠ throughout the 80s!
- Zrakoplovna tehnička škola Rudolfa Perešina (ZTS) library
- Civil Aviation Directorate of Serbia (DGCA) aircraft register
- Air Britain Yugoslav Civil Register (printed edition)
- Oldwings.nl – L-200 production list
- Airwar.ru – L-200 history (in Russian)
- EASA – Type Certificate Data Sheet for the L-200 family (PDF)
- Google Books – Flying Magazine L-200A review
- and various “human sources” who had worked on YU-BBE at Pan Adria, AKZ and VZŠ