By me All photos me also Driving me across the whole field Dean T.
Looking to profile all the interesting aircraft at Lučko, I keep passing over one that has almost become a permanent fixture of the field, pretty much part of the landscape. Despite being huge, we’re so accustomed to seeing it in the distance that we don’t pay it much (or any) attention anymore – which is a shame, since it’s a very interesting and nowadays rare piece of (formerly) flying machinery. The subject is, of course, our old white whale, RA-21132, a Mil Mi-6 heavy transport helicopter.
Once the largest helicopter to see mass production and regular service, the Mi-6 is an imposing and awe-inspiring aircraft from any angle, today beaten only by it’s more powerful and modern brother, the Mi-26. Powered by two Soloviev D-25V turboshaft engines delivering 5,500 HP each, the Mi-6 weighed in at an astounding 42,500 kg at maximum takeoff weight, equivalent to TWO Dash 8 Q400 70-seat turboprops (or one 90 seat DC-9-10). At its cruise speed of 250 km/h – a not at all shabby 135 kts – it could haul 90 passengers or 12 tons of cargo over a distance about 600 km. Normally this was put to good use, and the Mi-6 was over time produced in a number of versions, including electronic warfare, airborne command post, anti-submarine, firefighting, SAR and AWACS models among others. However, the Mi-6’s most famous use was during the ’86 Chernobyl nuclear powerplant disaster, when several aircraft were used to douse the still-burning reactor core immediately after the accident. Irradiated and now useless, they were dumped in the Chernobyl vehicle graveyard and can be easily seen using Google Earth.
Not at all bad for a machine first flown in 1957, just 17 years after Igor Sikorsky demonstrated the single-seat VS-300, the first helicopter that actually worked and flew like the helicopters of today. Even today it’s rotor and gearbox system components are considered advanced and have been put to great use in the subsequent Mi-26 (which is – unbelievably – an even more impressive aircraft).
Meanwhile, back in Croatia, RA-21132 is having far less success. A stock, early-model Mi-6 with the serial 2402, it is now sitting at the far end of the field on the furthermost military helicopter pad, alone and forgotten. The lettering on the fuselage suggests it had once been operated by Aeroflot – though this is questionable, given the Soviet Air Force’s habit of operating transport aircraft in civilian Aeroflot colors. As this appears to be a non-passenger version, we can safely assume that it has had a military background (at least at some point in its life).
How it got here and why is an even bigger question and there is not clear agreement on that front. The most plausible version is that it was bought during the Civil war of the ’90s (the RA- prefix would suggest a post-1991/92 acquisition) at the end of its service life, flown here and dumped when its resources ran out and the subsequent UN armament embargo on Croatia meant spares would be impossible to come by. Whatever the case, it has been sitting here for more than 15 years, stripped of everything useful that could be carried away without heavy machinery (the engines are still up there, which could rule out any systematic and organized cannibalization).
Because it’s at the other end of the field – and the only way to reach it would be via the military base or a long trek through the grass right across the field – we don’t visit it often, but vandals do not seem to mind the exercise, as the helicopter is in a ever-worsening state every time I visit. That not being often, I’ve put together a collection of photos taken in 2005, 2006 and a couple of days ago (and many thanks to Dean T. for the drive in the AK Zagreb van 🙂 ), of varying quality and taken with various cameras… but with the key points covered :).
Photo update time! And I’m very happy to be able to bring you this one, as this is something I had wanted to do ever since I snooped around what was left of Borongaj airfield back in March :). And thanks to a free 9A-DDD, some beautiful (pre-storm) weather and my trusty fellow pilot Šime Plepelić I now bring you – Borongaj from the air!
A detail I neglected to mention the last time is that the field lies practically along the standard panorama route – and I’ve been flying by it for the past seven years without noticing (the problem was that before I actually hit upon the idea of using Google Earth, I thought the field was in the center of the Borongaj district, round a tram terminus). Now its location was blindingly obvious, so on yesterday’s flight with the guys, I decided we could just as well do a small detour… 🙂
By Boran Pivčić All photos author, with assistance from Google Earth
In a slight departure from the usual General Aviation theme, I thought I’d try my hand at some aviation history for a change. Trying to avoid the usual bland history lessons, I chose instead to quickly profile the first “real” airport in Zagreb – Borongaj airfield – and spice it up with some pictures of what’s left of it today (which isn’t much). I had wanted to include some historical imagery, but that either doesn’t exist in the form that I need, or is copyrighted… so you’ll have to extrapolate from my contemporary photos :).
Though not the first airfield in town, Borongaj airfield – located in the Borongaj district to the (then) east of town – was the first purpose-built airport in Zagreb, that is, the first airport meant to serve passengers and what was then emerging to be “scheduled air services” (the first airfield, built in 1910. in Črnomerec on the opposite side of the city, was deemed inadequate and was – as far as I’ve been able to dig up – closed soon afterward).
Opened in 1926., little exact information remains about Borongaj’s specifics. But eyeballing from its heyday in the early 40s, the airport had a single grass runway of a maximum 800 meters in length, stretching on a heading of approximately 020-200 degrees – almost right into the bora, the prevailing wind in Zagreb (which leads to believe that RWY 02 was in use most of the time). Facilities were apparently rather minimal, but enough to open the first scheduled service to Belgrade, Serbia, later the same year using a Potez 25.
Apart from a visit by Charles Lindbergh after his transatlantic crossing in 1927., the airport remained unremarkable throughout the 30s. More services were added, including those to Dubrovnik and Split (Croatia), Ljubljana (Slovenia), Sarajevo (Bosnia), as well as international destinations such as Graz, Klagenfurt and Vienna in Austria, Prague in today’s Czech Republic, Budapest in Hungary and Milan and Trieste in Italy. Apart from the mentioned Potez 25, little information remains about the types operated out of the field.
As with many airfields in Europe, Borongaj’s history would shift into high gear during WW2. Following a spirited, but futile two week resistance, Yugoslavia fell to German and Hungarian forces in April 1941 – though not before making aviation headlines by being the only time in history that Messerschmitt Bf.109s faced Bf.109s in combat, when pilots of the Royal Yugoslav Airforce engaged the Luftwaffe with aircraft bought in 1937-8 (in exchange for strategic resources like metals). The occupation of Croatia – and its subsequent re-emergence as the Independent State of Croatia – effectively meant the end of Borongaj as a civil airfield, though it would prove to be a major influence on the birth of local aviation as we know it today.
Borongaj’s major role now became that of a military airbase, housing some of aircraft of the Ustaška Eskadrila, a squadron named after the nationalist Ustaše movement that controlled the country at the time. In addition to Borongaj, the Wermarcht and the Ustaše developed another airfield, an aerodrome we all know and love today: Lučko :). A larger airport developed just before the war in the late 30s (1937 I think, but don’t quote me on that), Lučko was intended to be able to support newer passenger aircraft up to a weight of 15 tons (meaning some pretty large stuff back then). During occupation, it gained a paved runway for all-weather military operations, the remains of which can still be seen at the field today – even though the actual runway had been shifted about 500 meters to the south decades ago.
In addition to these two existing fields, in 1943. the Wermarcht also built a completely new paved airfield to the south-east of town, what would eventually become – Pleso. Today the country’s main international gateway, Pleso has an interesting anecdote connected with it. Those familiar with the airport of today know of the problems its dense and long-lasting winter fogs – with visibilities not rising above 100 meters for weeks on end – cause to flight operations (indeed, the reason why Pleso was one of the first – if not the first – airport in this part of Europe to introduce a CAT IIIb ILS system for sub-50 meter visibilities). In a testament to German engineering, the WW2 airfield was built in this location specifically to hide it in the fog from Allied bombers… and 65 years on, it’s still regularly hidden :).
Equipped with a wild mix of Axis types, the main offensive fleet of the Ustaška Eskadrila consisted of Fiat G.50s, Messerschmitt Bf.109Fs and Dornier Do-17 light bombers, supplemented by various liason, communication and transport aircraft of all makes and models – French, Italian, Hungarian, Polish, German, you name it. They were split between the three bases, with – as far as I’ve been able to piece together – Bf.109s and Do-17s based at Lučko and G.50s, with the odd 109, based at Borongaj.
By 1944. and the Allied advance through Italy, these airfields were slowly coming into range of Allied bombers, including fighter-bombers of the Yugoslav Partisans (who, starting as a guerrilla force in 1941., grew into a regular army by the end of the war). Needless to say Borongaj – and a rail yard at its northern end – were extensively bombed, evidence of which can still be seen at the field today (even more so, WW2 bombs are dug up every now and then in that area, now mostly residential).
In the immediate aftermath of the war, Borongaj increasingly lost its importance as an airbase. The more modern, better equipped and larger Lučko and Pleso were sufficient for both military and – soon to be restarted – civil needs, leaving Borongaj redundant. Soon afterward, the airbase was closed, the runway left to overgrow and what was left of the facilities was converted to an army base and barracks. Interestingly enough, despite the barracks growing into one of the largest in the area – where many young men, including my dad, served their military service – and expanding into a large and elaborate compound, the area around the former runway, as well as the taxiways and aprons, remained mostly untouched.
4. Borongaj today:
About 2-3 years ago, the military decided to leave the Borongaj complex for a better and more suitable location – and given that the rate of Zagreb’s expansion meant that they were now in the middle of a residential district, I can hardly blame them. Rather than level and rezone the massively expensive and vast complex, it was given to the city to turn into an über-campus, able to accomodate all of Zagreb’s scattered universities and dormitories (the total number of which is about 20). Several buildings were being renovated even as the military was moving out, so it wasn’t uncommon to drive to classes past tanks, anti-aircraft artillery and howitzers :).
The success of the project aside (only two universities have so far moved in, including mine), this opened up the possibility of finally exploring what was left of the airfield in peace, without the military police breathing down my neck. The area available is large, since the four-five university buildings occupy around a mere 10% of the entire complex away from the actual field. So, on an oddly suitable gloomy and rainy day, I set out to see what’s what…
As you can see from the photo, the runway was to the left of the complex. Long overgrown, it is now a miniature forest, making it nigh impossible to actually find any traces of where it began and ended. There are a number of buildings still standing, though some of the more contemporary ones – built during the 60s and later – are being torn down.
As you can see, the field is not in the best of shapes, but it had been neglected for several decades. Upon closer inspection, most, if not all, of the buildings here were meant for vehicles – garages with mechanic pits and signs like “Vehicle Depot #2” being the most obvious signs – which indicates that the field was periodically used right up until the military moved out. The state of the pavement was probably considered a non-issue to tough military vehicles, so was left to fall into disrepair.
Given that it was a rather cold and rainy day (and I was without a jacket in March), I didn’t spend much time outdoors, instead choosing to look around some of the open buildings (mostly empty. I won’t post any photos since there’s not much to see and they wouldn’t be aviation-related anyway). Unfortunately, I only found out several days later that the northern hangars were indeed WW2 vintage and that I had wrongly dismissed them as something more modern – so I didn’t go and photograph them (an additional issue was that there were some MP cars packed nearby, so I didn’t want to push my luck 🙂 ).
Future plans for the airfield are unknown, but given the university’s current rate of expansion, it’ll be safe for a good 10 years :). Hopefully, somebody at some point will place it on a protected monument list, as it is a large open area of prime real estate – very tempting for the increasingly crowded city (witness Tempelhof in Berlin). One can only fantasize of it being turned into an active airfield, where you can park your generic Skyhawk on the same spot once occupied by a Messerschmitt :)…