Rare Aircraft – Baby Mil: The Mi-34 Training Helicopter

By me
All photos me too, copyrighted

It seems to be a rule of nature that every former Yugoslav airbase still in use today has a few hidden gems with which to tempt the photo finger – even among the locals who were used to seeing them on a regular basis. Croatia’s Zagreb (ZAG/LDZA) has its large MiG-21/Mi-24 graveyard; Serbia’s Batajnica (LYBT) has a bewildering mix of Soviet and indigenous combat and transport machinery that cannot be seen anywhere else in the world; while Macedonia’s Skopje (SKP/LWSK) can boast what are likely Europe’s last non-preserved Su-25s – and very definitely its only Israeli-modified Mi-24s. And Bosnia’s Sarajevo? Well, that has a Rajlovac Helicopter Base and one of the rarest series-produced helicopters on the planet – Mil’s diminutive Mi-34.

While at first glance it looks just as “60s Soviet” as nearly everything else in its family tree, the 34 is nevertheless a pretty special little whirlybird – not just for being the last all-new helicopter type launched in the USSR, but also for being Mil’s final clean sheer design until the Mi-38 of the early 2000s. All of this had naturally ticked the lot of my Achtung, Skyhawk! boxes, so I recently decided to give the Bosnian MoD a ring and see if I could pop down to the country’s capital and tour one of Russia’s more charismatic (and least lucky) rotary designs… 🙂

It’s not the most beautiful whirlybird out there, nor is it the most representative… but its rarity was well worth the five hour drive here!

My first Gazelle

As the early 80s dawned, the helicopter industry of the USSR was slowly – but surely – beginning to feel the adverse effects of the Soviet leadership’s single-minded preoccupation with heavy machinery. With 20/20 hindsight, it is not really hard to see why: the exploits of the Mi-24 during the First Afghan War had clearly shown the value of the helicopter gunship, while the stalwart Mi-8 was proving – day in, day out – its ability to reach even the more distant backwoods of the Union. Then there were the impressive Mi-6 and Mi-10 for when you needed to move stuff, and Kamov’s ungainly – but supremely capable – Ka-25 and 27 families to keep the fleets safe from Yankee subs. Everywhere you looked, there was a shiny and mighty medium/heavy helicopter doing its bit to keep the system going and its citizens safe & (somewhat) content.

At the same time, the people who would go on to fly these things were being trained on archaic machinery such as the 50s Mi-1, which – while solid and dependable – were relics of the early days of Soviet helicopter design, and could in no way prepare pilots for the rigors of operating out on the front lines. As was also the case in the fixed-wing sector, learning to fly a helicopter in those days was essentially like stepping out of a Mach 0.1 Po-2 biplane and straight into a Mach 2.0 MiG-21 – with depressingly predictable results.

Having realized at two minutes to midnight that this problem needed to be addressed ASAP, the powers that be eventually ordered Mil to get itself into gear and start developing an all-new multipurpose light helicopter that could be used equally well for training, competition, transport and liaison – as well as potentially exported internationally even outside the traditional Soviet customer base. The definition of this new machine was also influenced by the successes of the Aerospatiale Gazelle and MBB Bo.105, since one of the key requirements was a proper, no-nonsense aerobatic capability – and not just a willingness to be thrown about inherent to most other training helicopters. At the same time, it also had to have a benign and forgiving nature, informative and precise controls – and flight characteristics that would enable students to get the most out of the experience without scaring them half to death.

But, while the Mil works certainly did have the expertise and industrial capability to pull this off and pull it off cleanly, by the point they’d finally gotten round to it, time was no longer on their side. By the mid 80s – when detailed design got under way – the signs of the USSR’s impending collapse were becoming more and more apparent, and the financing pipelines from Moscow more and more constricted. Faced with a tightening purse, the government’s own procrastination and the Soviet aerospace sector’s general R&D inertia, Mil had suddenly found itself under mounting pressure to do the new helicopter as cheaply and cheerfully as possible while still satisfying what is even today a demanding set of specs – and then getting the thing into the air with a minimum of fuss.

The resulting machine – christened the Mi-34 by its makers and Hermit by NATO’s Air Standardization Coordinating Committee – ended up being a pretty conventional affair, from some angles hard to tell apart from the similarly sized MD500. Flying for the first time on 17 November 1986, the Mi-34 would be presented to the world just seven months later at the 1987 Paris Air Show – a rush that says a lot about Mil’s burning desire to grab export orders and bring in fresh cash to finance further development and production. This need was so pressing in fact that Mil would in 1988 actually send one of the two prototypes to the States in the hope of drumming up some interest there – right in Bell’s own back yard and even before the Cold War had fully thawed out. Indeed, some sources report that Mil officials had been hoping for a 1,000 unit production run to start already in 1990 – a number equal to roughly 60% of all Gazelle production and ambitious even by the standards of Western manufacturers. Unsurprisingly given the situation it was born into, the Mi-34 would eventually enter production three years late in 1993, with a “token run” that would peter out at just 2.2% of its initial target…

One turning, zero burning

As it stood at the dawn of the 90s, the basic four-seat Mi-34 did however have some things going for it. Despite being Mil’s smallest helicopter design since the Mi-1, the 34 did manage to punch some way above its weight, sporting an advanced glass-fiber-reinforced rotor system dominated by a very capable four-blade semi-articulated main rotor (actuated mechanically, without powered boost). This setup had allowed for outstanding agility with maneuvers such as loops and rolls, flight at +3/-0.5 G (impressive figures for a helicopter), a yaw rate of 120º per second (head-turning even today), as well as the ability to reach 140 km/h flying backwards – all of which were firsts for any helicopter ever made in the USSR. Aside from its outright dynamic capabilities, the 34 was still a proper Mil – so it was as tough as nails – and its projected price was low enough to offset (at least for a while) most of its aerodynamic or mechanical inefficiencies, as well as its rather crude finish and lack of refinement inside.

Though it looks like the result of a three-way between a Gazelle, MD-500 and JetRanger, the Mi-34 does have a certain (if brutish) elegance. Though the rear cabin doors seem small, the interior is pretty spacious – though it does suffer from a lack of glazing compared to most Western helicopters.

Though it doesn’t look quite right, the absence of blades at least shows well the construction details of the -34’s main rotor head. While not the most sophisticated or efficient rotor system around, the semi-articulated setup (also used on the Gazelle) combines low weight, simplicity of production and easy maintenance with light, crisp and fast control feel and response – exactly what you need when you don’t plan on doing much flying in a straight line.

The MD500-style rear end is pretty conventional as well, with the transmission for the tail rotor running atop the tail boom and enclosed within a protective fairing – a pretty common solution on most helicopters (interestingly, on the R-44 – the most similar machine out there – the transmission is fully enclosed in the boom itself). A detail that can hardly escape the eye is the prong sticking out of the fin, which actually houses the rear navigation light.

But, while all of the bits on the outside were where you’d expect to find them, under the skin things were a bit less straightforward. Alongside its antiquated avionics setup – the eternal Achilles’ heel of all Soviet designs – the 34 was immediately let down by the only engine it had readily available, the 330 HP Vedeneyev (VMP) M14V-12V nine cylinder radial. While a superlative powerplant known in song and story for its bulletproof reliability, the M14* was nevertheless a heavier, thirstier, more maintenance-intensive and far less efficient solution than even the flat six of the 34’s closest rival – the 1991 Robinson R-44 – let alone the mighty turbines of the Gazelle, Bo.105 and JetRanger (which, admittedly, cost up to for times as much as an entire Mi-34: USD 2 mil for the JetRanger’s Allison 250 vs 500,000 – in today’s money – for a complete Hermit). Coupled with a 600 hour Time Between Overhauls (TBO) that fell woefully short of the 1,500-2,000 hour figures seen westwards, these issues seemed set to limit the Mi-34 appeal long before it even flew.

* while very much a 1950s product – an old school, supercharged, carburetted, 10 liter mass of Russian metal – the M14 did have some plus points however… but only in a specific corner of the Mi-34’s envelope. Its lack of refinement and cruising efficiency was more than made up for by its capabilities during aerobatics, delivering high torque, world-renowned durability when being pushed hard, and a lightning-fast throttle response that no turbine before or since could match. Critically, its shape allowed it to be mounted upright in the fuselage, which in turn made it possible to set it right onto the 34’s CG sweet spot. This in particular did wonders for maneuverability, since it all but eliminated the adverse moments experienced when the engine has to be mounted away from the center of lift – as well as reduced stress on the airframe during high G flight by minimizing the engine’s moment arm.

The most distinctive visual feature of the Mi-34, the engine cowl gives hint at the type of engine hiding behind it. While placing such a large and heavy mass immediately behind the rear seats did wonders for the Hermit’s dynamic behavior, it had made life on board pretty grim, with reports of high noise and vibration levels that were on par with early generation helicopters.

A peek under the hood nicely shows the unusual positioning of the engine – sideways and at a slight angle, which must not have been very popular with maintenance staff. Apart from reducing unwanted moments to a minimum, this approach also allowed for better cooling of the engine – especially during aerobatics and hover – by exposing its entire frontal area to the sideways flow of air through the cowl. This was further assisted by a large cooling fan, one of whose blades can be seen between the oil cooler and No. 2 magneto (the two right-most silver cylinders).

The engineers at Mil were, naturally, well aware of this straight from the outset, so even before test flying of the prototypes had ended in the late 80s they began looking into other – if less easily obtainable – engine options. Their first choice (and the most cost-effective from a design standpoint) was the Lycoming TIO-540-J six cylinder boxer unit, whose turbocharger and fuel injection were good for 360 HP at takeoff. Dubbed the Mi-34L, this model would have brought the Hermit more on par with the later R-44 – but was, sadly, torpedoed before getting off the drawing board by the dissolution of the USSR. And while import of these engines would have been possible even then, the increased costs for the end user – as well as the lack of support infrastructure within the (ex) Union – represented a pretty strong set of nails in the L’s coffin.

Meanwhile, the loss of the first prototype during a test flight on 27 February 1989 – attributed to deficiencies in its rotor system – had forced Mil into a quick-and-dirty redesign, the result of which was the Mi-34S, the type’s first production-standard model. As well as the necessary improvements to the main rotor, the S would also receive a redesigned (and more extensively glazed) nose, as well as avionics and equipment upgrades that made it possible to certify it to Russia’s new AP-27 standard in May 1995. Broadly similar to the FAA’s FAR-27 governing Normal Category Rotorcraft, a fully satisfied AP-27 had soon opened the legal doors to further international certification, worldwide export and widespread commercial use – the stuff of dreams for Mil’s by-then-exasperated sales team.

Back on the engine front, it would take the company’s next attempt – made in 1993 – to show just how desperate the engineering team was to replace (or at least supplement) the big M14. Called the Mi-34VAZ (or Mi-234 in some sources), this model was to be powered by twin rotary/Wankel VAZ-430 engines running on standard automotive gasoline and developing 230 HP each along the way. A modification of the VAZ-4132 unit used in police versions of the Lada Riva and Samara, the 430s gave a significant payload (and noticeable performance) boost – but their low TBO, expensive maintenance and prodigious fuel and oil consumption quickly turned the -34VAZ into just another paper helicopter. A noteworthy tweak intended for this variant was also an all-new carbon fiber rotor head, which would have improved on the (already improved) fully composite setup of the standard S – but there are, however, no indications whether it was ever carried forward onto any future versions.

Their third crack at it – the more down-to-earth Mi-34A – would be made just two years later in 1995, and had, at the time, promised to finally unleash the full potential of the design by switching to turbine power. However, since there were no indigenous engines of sufficiently low a power and small enough a size available, the A would be based on the same 450 HP Allison 250-C20R as the JetRanger III, fed now from an enlarged 340 liter fuel tank (up from the standard 176) necessary to cater for the turbine’s higher thirst. Sporting an upmarket interior now aimed more at Russia’s growing upper class than traditional flight schools, the A would never make it beyond the mock-up stage, having ended up as another casualty of Russia’s very fragile post-Union financials (not to mention the increasing influx of more user-friendly helicopters from the West).

Interestingly, a second turbine attempt would be made more than a decade later in 2008 with the Mi-34S2 Sapsan (later marketed as the Mi-34AS), powered by the 515 HP Turbomeca Arrius 2F** used on Europe’s best-selling EC-135 and A.109 families – as well as Russia’s own Ka-226T (in the form of the Arrius 2G1). Unlike the old Mi-34A, the S2 had come into being during a much milder economic climate, so it had even made it to the flying prototype stage before nosediving into the dirt. While it had shown a lot of promise as a cheap high-performance utility machine (with 56% more power – and shedloads more torque – than the basic S), the Sapsan would be shot down by none other than Mil’s parent company Russian Helicopters, which had in the early 2010s partnered with AgustaWestland for work on a brand new – and much improved – design of the two-ton class.

** some sources state that Mil had also planned to offer the S2/AS with the option of the Ukrainian Ivchenko-Progress AI-450 unit developing 465 HP – a move that would have likely made the Mi-34 hugely appealing on the (very large) CIS market. However, recent… “political developments” down there mean that this idea is very firmly in toilet for the foreseeable future.

Of further interest, the AI-450 was developed during the mid 90s (’94 onwards to be exact) to power the original Ka-226 – and was in fact the first small, relatively modern gas turbine designed in the former USSR. The only other “baby turboprop” fielded anywhere in the ex-Eastern Bloc was Czechoslovakia’s Walter M601 of the mid 70s – which was never considered for the Mi-34, since even its lowest 710 HP output far exceeded all of the Hermit’s needs.

With the turbine 34 now down for the count, the only way to salvage the time and effort invested was to keep beavering away at the piston model. Mil’s first (stillborn) attempt at it was the Mi-34SM, a simple upgrade of the basic S that would have seen its M14V-12V replaced by the 380 HP M14V-26V, fitted now with fuel and oil systems for inverted flight and boasting a TBO increase to nearly 2,500 hours. The rising popularity of the R-44 in Russia – and the SM’s predicted inferiority in many respects – had however soon forced Mil to shelve this idea and concentrate instead on the much-improved Mi-34S1, powered by the far more potent 365 HP VMP M9FV***. The new powerplant also came packaged with a redesigned main rotor and an all-new gearbox, both of which had proved to be recurring problem areas on the standard S (despite their 1989 post-crash rework).

The S1 would also become the first Mi-34 to feature hydraulically operated flight controls (with the actuating systems supplied by Goodrich of the USA), since the non-boosted controls of the classic S had shown themselves to be pretty tiring during prolonged aerobatics or long-range flight. The list of new features would also include a revised internal structure to prolong service life, and would be topped off by an avionics upgrade that had even included some digital avionics – though it is not clear from available sources whether the setup would be indigenous or sourced from the West.

*** the first significant update of the M14 since its introduction, the M9F was designed by the Voronezh Mechanical Plant (VMP) – the people who actually built the M14 – and was intended to power the stillborn Su-49 primary trainer. A development of the bog-standard Su-29, the 49 would have used hydraulics for actuating the landing gear rather than the traditional Soviet pneumatic setup, the result of which was the addition of a hydraulic pump to the back of the engine case. Other smaller upgrades had included a redesign supercharger for a bit of extra power, three powerful magnetos for better ignition – and in fixed-wing uses (such as on the few Su-26M3s actually made) new propeller mounts to accommodate the German-made MTV-3 and -9 units instead of the standard V-530 shipped with the M14. Interestingly, the Su-49 design had stipulated a power requirement of around 450 HP, which was be achieved by switching to fuel injection, creating the M9FS. However, no Russian-made fuel injection system had been available then, forcing the idea to be scrapped – since the 49’s primary customer, the Russian Air Force, wanted to keep things in-country as much as possible.

Of further interest, the V suffix appended to both the M14 and M9 is short for “vertolet” – or helicopter in Russian – and indicates models adapted to rotary use in which there is no gearbox integral to the engine (as on the fixed-wing versions), but where power is sent to the main rotor gearbox directly using a transmission system.

Flying for the first time in prototype form on 4 August 2011, the Mi-34S1 had quickly shown the potential of being a reasonable R-44 alternative within Russia – but, sadly, still fell far short of being its rival everywhere else. The performance figures had once again highlighted the deficiencies of the radial engine, for despite commanding 120 HP more than the R-44 (365 vs 245 at maximum take-off power), the Mi-34 could cruise only 12 km/h faster (220 vs 202) and fly only a tiny bit higher (14,700 ft vs 14,000). At the same time, it was significantly fatter than the Raven (1,150 kg empty vs 683), carried 33% less payload (330 kg vs 450), hovered outside the ground effect at under half the altitude (3,500 ft vs 7,500) – and could fly 100 km less (450 km vs 550) despite being able to carry 60% more fuel (176 l vs 111). The fuel flow figures too were not that great, with figures of 18-19 GPH being reported in the cruise – noticeably higher than the 15-16 of the R-44.

And then there was its family curse. Right at about that time, the Russian Air Force had decided to pass up the Su-49 in favor of the less complicated Yak-152, which would have retained the traditional M14 and pneumatic installation of its predecessor, the Yak-52. This had, at a stroke, made the M9F redundant, leading VMP to rehash its production plans and abandon the design in favor of further tweaking the M14. The Mi-34 had thus, once again, been left up the creek and without an engine.

As the Mil works scrambled once more towards the West in search of a replacement engine, the 34’s fortunes continued to turn for the worse, since its continual delays, the inability to enter any form of meaningful series production and a lack of international certification (despite the promise of the AP-27) began to wear quite thin with potential customers – both civilian and military. Though UTAir (one of Russia’s largest helicopter operators) and Omsk Aviation Training (one of its bigger helicopter schools) placed orders for 10 each in the early 2010s, the decisive blow would once again come from the Russian AF, which had – having grown tired with waiting for the “domestic solution” to be ready – awarded its highly coveted 100-strong training helicopter contract to Eurocopter and its turbine AS.350 single and AS.355 twin.

The results were inevitable: by 2012, the development of the S1 – and with it practically the whole Mi-34 line – would be suspended indefinitely after just two flying prototypes had been completed. The total tally for the entire Hermit family would thus come to a stop at just 25 – the three original prototypes and 22 production examples…

The Mils Down in Africa

The 34’s constant engine woes and resulting failure to break into the marketplace had inevitably forced Mil to keep tinkering with the design (whatever its powerplant) in the hope of one day finally striking some gold. To this end, a number of specialist versions had been pitched from Day 1****, the only one to enter service being the Mi-34P of 1994. A dedicated aerial surveillance and monitoring variant for the Moscow Police (reportedly only two or three of which were made), the P was developed from the original Mi-34, and was fitted with dual controls, spotlight, IR camera and a riot-control speaker system mounted under the rear fuselage; interestingly, some sources report that the latter was actually of little use, since the roar of the M14 tended to drown out most of what was being said…

Another version that had almost made it big was the Mi-34UT, a different, S-based dual control variant pitched to the Russian AF for its first 100-strong training helicopter tender in 2001. Like the unnamed S1-based model that had sealed the Hermit’s fate, the UT would also come up short compared to the competition – in this instance Kazan Helicopter’s Ansat turbine single, designed by the very factory that produced most of Mil’s transport helicopters.

**** some sources indicate that there may have been other versions under consideration, such as the Mi-44, powered by the OMKB TV-O-100 turboshaft originally developed for the first Ka-226 – and the Mi-34M, a twin-engine six-seat development similar to the AS.355. However, both of these are mentioned only in two places and nowhere else – so given the absence of concrete evidence of their existence, I have excluded them from further consideration.

To add insult to injury, the government’s cold shoulder (twice over) would turn out to be just the tip of an iceberg. Despite its undoubted qualities (especially in the aerobatic role), the 34 would in service suffer from chronic “sovietness”, with a low service life, questionable dispatch reliability and appalling after-sales support that quickly undid any good impressions it made. The largest single operator of the type – the Nigerian Air Force – would be left with a particularly sour taste in its mouth, with all of its nine S models (all delivered from Mil stocks in 2002) suffering rotor gearbox failures soon after passing the 300 hour mark – despite the manufacturer’s claimed 1,500 hour TBO. Being uneconomical to run – let alone repair – the fleet would be permanently grounded and stored after just a few years, their only movement being the 2013 sale of six examples to a private buyer from New Zealand (where five have been reported cannibalized in an attempt to return No. 6 to airworthy state).

From that point on, the bad luck just kept on piling. The aforementioned “lifeline” orders from UTAir and Omsk came to naught due to the downturn of the whole program, while the few other operators who flew them – mostly governmental – began retiring their small fleets soon after due to difficulties in obtaining spares and support. While various production lists are either incomplete or give inconsistent information about the 34’s current and past operators, all point to the fact that Mil’s long-hoped-for sales break westwards ran out of steam already on the Balkans, with three examples sold to Romania and one (featured here) to Bosnia – a total of just four machines shifted in non-Soviet Europe.

All of this had made for a pretty depressing production run: disregarding the three prototypes, just four examples would be completed in 1993, followed by none in 1994, one in 1995, two in 1996, seven in 1997, five in 1998, again none in 1999 and 2000, one in 2001 – and a final two in 2002 when all new production ground to a halt (though some sources state that five more examples were in various stages of assembly, but ultimately never completed). Unfortunately, despite their low numbers, the paucity of records means that it is nigh on impossible to ascertain their current states and how many examples are actually still airworthy…

The Balkan connection

Despite its dismal failure to break into the international market (even within the Soviet sphere of influence), the Mi-34 is actually not really a stranger to the Balkans. Its first contact with the region would come in 1996, when Mil pitched it to the Croatian Air Force – a long-time Mi-8 and 24 user through its origins in the Yugoslav Air Force – which was at the time looking for a training machine with which to equip its newly formed helicopter training squadron. To that end, one Mi-34S was actually sent to the ZTZ maintenance facility adjacent to Zagreb Airport to fly demo flights for the military; but, despite having left a solid impression, the type would stumble here as well, losing out to the more-well-rounded (and better supported) JetRanger III (still in use today).

It was in neighboring Bosnia that the Hermit scored its first – albeit negligible – local success. The sole example that had entered (very limited) service in the training role is, however, mired in some confusion and much mystery – and since I’ve been told that its history is a bit colorful (and not in a good, Achtung, Skyhawk! way), I will leave it be and concentrate instead on its objective nerdy bits 🙂 . Its full serial drags out to 97830001501004, a typical Soviet sausage that – when read properly – say all you need to know about that particular airframe. While there still are some uncertainties in its interpretation, the most plausible version reads as follows:

  • 978: the code for the Progress factory in the city of Arseneyev where all Mi-34s were built
  • 300: Mil’s internal product code for the Hermit
  • 01: produced in the first quarter of the year
  • 5: the year being 1995
  • 01: part of the first tranche (though it doesn’t elaborate on the scope of the tranche)
  • 004: fourth example of the tranche

If correct, this would make it an original (pre-S) model – and only the fifth 34 ever produced (not counting the prototypes). This interpretation appears to be backed up by info I’d received at Rajlovac, stating that this machine is part of the type’s “null series” – in local parlance the name of any post-prototype, pre-series production batch.

What is known for certain is that it had arrived to Bosnia in 1998, becoming VF-3601 soon after. Its history before and during that time remains unknown; indeed, the only Achtung, Skyhawk!-y info that’s fit to be printed is that it was retired with just around 100 hours on the clock – and that it’s M14 is retrofitted with magnetos from the newer M9F, indicating some work had been done on it prior to sale…

A small, but significant clue that -3601’s history is not really straightforward… chocked full of stuff (most of it its own), the whole helicopter has been officially sealed until its status in the military can be clarified…

Part of this status is reflected even in its military code, with VF standing for “Vojska Federacije” – or the Army of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of several military entities operating in the country following the 90s civil war. All of these entities would merge together in the early 2000s, leading to some… complicated and legally unusual situations, such as this one.

Bonus: having posted photos of VF-3601 in several places online, it did not take long for viewers from the region to start sending their materials… such as this video taken at Ćoralići Airfield near the Bosnian town of Cazin:

As always I would like to extend my very sincere thanks to the PR department of the Bosnian Ministry of Defense for its assistance in organizing this visit – and especially all the staff at Rajlovac Helicopter Base in Sarajevo for their hospitality!

Author’s note: the information presented above is the result of my own research into multiple sources (listed below), each of which had presented only part of the Mi-34 story – with possible inaccuracies and urban myths as a result. I have tried, to the best of my abilities, to filter and stitch them into a meaningful and representative whole – but given the type’s small production run and lack of much concrete info from primary sources (such as Mil themselves, who I had contacted without reply), I cannot vouch that this work is the whole truth and nothing but the truth… so if any of my readers have more info – or spot an error – I would be more than happy to hear from them!

Version list:

  • Mi-34 (1986): pre-production version
  • Mi-34S (∼ 1989): basic series-production version, M14V-12V engine
  • Mi-34L (∼ 1991): Mi-34S re-engined with the Lycoming TIO-520-J, not built
  • Mi-34VAZ / Mi-234 (1993): Mi-34S with twin VAZ430 rotary engines, not built
  • Mi-34P (1994): patrol version for the Moscow Police Department, two or three built
  • Mi-34A (1995): reworked Mi-34S with an Allison 250-C20R turboshaft, mockup only
  • Mi-34UT (2001): dual-control military training version, not built
  • Mi-34S2 / Mi-34AS (2008): upgraded basic Mi-34 with the Turbomeca Arrius 2F or Ivchenko AI-450, not built
  • Mi-34SM (∼ 2008): Mi-34S with an uprated M14V-26V engine
  • Mi-34S1 (2008): upgraded basic Mi-34 with the M9FV engine

Sources:

Photo File – Spring Is Coming…

By me
All photos me too, copyrighted

As is usual for this time of year, the ever-improving weather conditions (with the inevitable hiccup or two) have slowly started waking the local GA scene from its winter stupor. While operations are still very much in the 7 AM pre-coffee stage, life is nevertheless returning to airfields across the land, with planes, gliders and helicopters being dusted off for the coming spring. Naturally enough, I had once again decided to snoop around and check on proceedings, hoping to capitalize on the calm before the storm… 🙂

One happy little bear roaring away during a late-afternoon engine test. Even though Lučko had still been closed at this point (its grass runways soaked), AK Zagreb had decided to use the time well and send DBS through a post-overhaul shakedown…

Clean and tidy following deep servicing, GPA waits for its turn to be parked in the hangar after its first flight of the year. Even though it carries the Pilatus name and sports the designation PC-11, this type had actually originated in Germany in the mid-60s as a product of a small group of up-and-coming engineers. Initially called the B4 after Gert Basten – the owner of the factory that had manufactured the prototypes – the design had not entered series production until the mid-70s, when it was acquired by Pilatus. Praised for its simplicity, robustness and quality of manufacture, the AF version can boast respectable aerobatic capabilities, a role in which it is still used worldwide. GPA itself had been manufactured in 1977, and is today one of seven examples listed on the 9A register.

Hands down one of the most unusual aircraft that can be seen in Croatia, OE-9129 is seen firing up for an entire afternoon of glider towing. Essentially a motor glider itself, the HB-21 was conceived in Austria during the 60s, and is in this form powered by a 100 HP VW engine mounted behind the cabin – and driving a unique pusher prop arrangement integrated into the aircraft’s backbone.

When the sun sets and the temperature drops, normal pilots go home… but then, with the rising fog, come those who wander around with big cameras. Having a bit of fun with Piper PA-28RT-201 Arrow IV 9A-DCB and Cessna 172N 9A-DMG, on a December day – albeit not unlike many found in spring.

Instantly recognizable among Čakovec Airfield’s (LDVC) fleet of gliders, YU-CPE is seen providing a suitable metaphor for Yugoslav aviation as it waits out an uncertain fate by collecting bird droppings in the corner of the hangar. An aircraft much of 60s and 70s Yugoslavia had learned to fly on, the indigenous Aero 3 had over the years garnered a reputation as an unforgiving and sometimes difficult to handle trainer, which had over the years claimed a number of lives. Despite this, the design – made almost entirely of wood and powered by a 190 HP Lycoming O-435 – is viewed with today increasing nostalgia, resulting to several attempts at preservation and restoration. Sadly, given the lack of spares (only 100-ish having been built) and the financial requirements of such work, only one machine had been returned to airworthy state, with the rest left in limbo… (including its brother, Lučko’s own YU-CPC/9A-XPC)

Even though it was pretty much the only aircraft on the apron at Split Airport (SPU/LDSP), N828PA nevertheless proves that quality is still better than quantity! Still a rare type in Europe, the Eclipse 500 was the forerunner of the Very Light Jet (VLJ) category, “pocket” bizjets that were both simple and cheap enough for owners to fly themselves – while still providing better performance than traditional business turboprops. N828PA itself was completed in 2008, and is one of the last examples manufactured before the company filed for bankruptcy. It would eventually be restarted in 2009 under new ownership, rolling out an improved model – the Eclipse 550 – in 2013.

And finally, something that doesn’t really fit all that well into the GA category – but is nevertheless worthy of note! Soaking up the noon sun, 6M-BH of the Austrian Air Force had popped into Zagreb (ZAG/LDZA) to take on fuel before continuing northwards to Varaždin (LDVA), where it would provide transport for an Austrian presidential delegation attending a regional summit. An interesting detail here is its designation; even though the name “Black Hawk” is almost universally associated with “UH-60”, export models are often labelled as S-70, which is the manufacturer’s official designation for this type.

Photo File – From Europe With Love: Croatian Police’s First AW139

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All photos me too, copyrighted

Even though the Croatian Police’s drive to re-equip its air wing is pretty much old news here – with the first two additions, EC-135s 9A-HBA and HBB, having been flying their Fenestrons off for two years now – announcements of the impending arrival of a third machine had once again considerably piqued interest here at Achtung, Skyhawk!. The excitement was all the greater since the whirlybird in question was of a somewhat higher caliber than all the others, taking the form of the imposing (and loud!) AgustaWestland AW139 – in short, the largest and most powerful Western-built helicopter ever operated by a Croatian law enforcement agency.

Predictably enough, the magnitude of its arrival was not lost on me – so it was a given that I would be there to greet it when it alighted at Zagreb Airport (ZAG/LDZA) on 20 January for its formal handover ceremony… 🙂

Looking impressive and powerful in front of the Croatian Gov’t hangar following the formal end of the ceremony. Though this was I-EASM’s first visit to Zagreb, it was not its first time in country, having spent the previous night at Pula Airport (PUY/LDPL) halfway into its delivery flight from Varese in Italy.

Completed in December 2015 with the serial 31715, I-EASM will eventually carry the identity 9A-HRP, thus becoming the sixth distinct helicopter type operated by the Police since Croatia’s independence in 1991 (and the seventh overall since the formation of the air wing in the 60s). Unlike the aforementioned EC-135s, the AW139’s raison d’être is solely border surveillance, being part of an extensive assistance package from the EU to help reduce the porosity of what is now the Union’s second largest land border with non-EU lands (at 1198 km/745 miles, just 115 km/71 miles short of Finland’s border with Russia). Interestingly, current plans also call for a second example, which is intended to join the fleet likely in July 2016… 🙂

Rolling in slowly for the benefit of the press while the morning haze does its best to spoil the lighting. Despite being intended primarily for patrolling the country’s long land border, I-EASM is also equipped with a powerful winch on the right side of the fuselage, enabling it to provide a secondary sea rescue capability (which also falls under the header of border security).

While the AW139 may not have the most elegant fuselage cross-section around, its boxy shape makes it a good practical hauler, with lots of space, easy entry and egress and the ability to haul bulky cargo – or, in HEMS/SAR ops, a lot of vital equipment.

In addition to a nose-mounted EO/IR (Electro Optical/Infra Red) turret cam – a must-have item for any serious patrol duty – I-EASM is also fitted with a Trakka A800 IR spotlight, which greatly increases the precision and quality of both IR cameras and night vision systems (and can even “illuminate” underwater areas up to a depth of 5 meters).

Up front, business is as usual for a machine of this size and sophistication, with advanced digital avionics and automation prevalent throughout. Despite this, the machine’s controls are still a handful, with the collective (out of shot) particularly notable for its number of switches and pushbuttons.

A peek inside the voluminous cabin, rivaling – or even exceeding – that of the AB.212 9A-HBM which had so far held the title of the Police’s largest whirlybird. Of particular interest is the surveillance system operator’s station, which controls and integrates the turret cam, IR spotlight – and a very powerful surface search radar housed in the nose that boasts an effective range in excess of 200 NM. Despite its small size, it has been described as a very powerful system – which is pretty much the heart of the AW139 in this configuration.

Whatever the mission, entry and egress are made quite easy by large sliding doors that remain flush with the fuselage – and bear a resemblance to those of the legendary Huey. Another detail – though impossible to see here – is a integral flotation system for over-water operation, charged by two (very large!) nitrogen bottles located right behind the doors.

Brothers in… rotors. With the ceremony long over, I-EASM prepares to be pushed into the gov’t hangar, while HBB – preceded a few seconds earlier by HBA – hovertaxis out for its return to Lučko. The participation of both new Police helicopter types may have been somewhat of a “marketing gimmick” – but it nevertheless made for a smashing photo op!

Current Police fleet strength:

  • Agusta AW139: AW139 (9A-HRP)
  • Bell 206 JetRanger: 206B-3 (9A-HDB, 9A-HBZ) & AB.206B (9A-HBC)
  • Bell 212: AB.212 (9A-HBM)
  • Eurocopter EC-135: EC-135P-2+ (9A-HBA, 9A-HBB)

Update – 25 March:

As of mid-March, 9A-HRP has officially entered active duty, operating out of both Zagreb and the standard Police squadron base at Lučko Airfield (LDZL). Even though it had spent most of the subsequent days flying up and down the country on familiarization and training flights, some persistent camping at the field had nevertheless provided me with the opportunity to snap it in the act… 🙂

Approaching its helipad on a crisp spring afternoon following a two-hour flight from Dubrovnik (DBV/LDDU) in the extreme south of the country.

Photo File – Traveler’s Tales

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All photos me too, copyrighted

Having recently gotten into a position where I do a fair bit of air travel (to put it mildly!), I had suddenly (and somewhat unexpectedly) found myself being served with ever-increasing opportunities to snap – up close – various flying machinery operating out of Europe’s major airports. While these naturally tend to be of the airliner variety (and therefore not the default topic here), every once in awhile I do come across a true gem, something so fascinating, rare and unusual that it immediately warrants a feature at Achtung, Skyhawk! 🙂 .

Even though snaps of these machines are still few in number – with my definition of “fascinating” mostly to blame 😀 – I feel they are nevertheless numerous enough for me to cobble together a short, but hopefully interesting, post for my viewers’ pleasure. For a bit of added “weight”, I have also decided to add a couple of shots taken “en route”, showing that the journey to the destination airport can indeed be half the (photographic) fun!

As a tool for doing business, a 737-200 bizjet may not really be the best of choices; but as a statement of style, very, very few machines come close! An absolutely stunning 1981 classic, VP-CAQ had – interestingly – never seen a day of passenger operations, having been delivered with an executive interior straight from the factory. Often seen flying all over Europe (despite the EU’s stringent noise regulations), at the time this photo was taken CAQ had already been parked at Dubrovnik Airport (LDDU) for several days, likely waiting on a client…

A photo that perfectly encapsulates a popular Croatian saying: “to have more luck than brains”! It’s not often one gets a spontaneous chance to photograph a VIP military transport on the apron of a major European aerodrome – without someone trying to chase you away! Enjoying the early morning sun on one of Vienna Airport’s (LOWW) remote aprons while waiting for Mr. John Kerry (who was in town to attend some nuclear talks).

An interesting visitor from the north easily standing out among the Citation and Falcon crowd at Zadar’s Zemunik Airport (LDZD). Operated by Germany’s Central Command for Maritime Emergencies, 57+05 is normally based by the North Sea and is used (as can be inferred from the titles on the fuselage) for detection and monitoring of sea pollution. Interestingly, this machine is not a classic Dornier-built example, but the NG model, produced in India by Hindustan Aeronautics and assembled in Germany by RUAG (the owner of the Do-228 type certificate).

Nature showing off what it can do as we maneuver around a growing towering cumulus near Zurich (LSZH), Switzerland. Easily visible are little pouch formations hanging beneath the cloud called “mammatus clouds”, which are an early indication that this cloud could eventually produce a heavy storm.

Enjoying the charming (and unbeatable) atmosphere of the cockpit at night as we cruise southwards across the Alps, roughly halfway between Munich (EDDM) in Germany and Klagenfurt (LOWK) in Austria…

Saluting the setting sun on another beautiful, calm and crisp summer evening. Traversing southbound above the Northern Adriatic Sea – just off the Istrian Peninsula and Pula Airport (LDPL) – we were treated to this fantastic view by a large high pressure area that had been parked over the region for several days…

Photo File – Reheat On: The Croatian AF Back On Strength

By me
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 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 fuelage; a common feature on long-nosed aircraft, its purpose is to reduce glare from the paint job 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.

Parade Lap

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… 🙂

Base Lučko:

  • 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 keeping 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 some whirlybirds I hadn’t been able to photograph in good light, the Air Force’s JetRanger IIIs).

Base Pleso:

  • 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 – who were two of the four Croatian pilots who had defected from the Yugoslav AF 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!

Photo Report – Spring at Pleso

By me
All photos me too, copyrighted

Even though this year’s flying season has already started to pick up at Lučko – albeit slowly – there’s still not all that much going on to provide for a steady stream of quality photo material. Having been invigorated by several days of straight sunshine and 20-odd Centigrade temperatures, I was, however, desperately itching to photograph something with wings, be it big, small,  fast or slow. Not unexpectedly, this desire had in the end taken me to Pleso (LDZA), which – while a bit weak on the GA front – nevertheless has a number of other gems at its disposal… 🙂

One of several MiG-21 flights of the day, “Knight 96” is seen recovering into RWY 23 after a training flight. The morning had also seen sorties by the Croatian AF’s AT-802 and Mi-171Š, making for a thoroughly impressive spectacle!

A little visitor from Germany that will eventually become the newest resident of the Croatian register. A type that’s not all that common in around here – its population standing at just two examples – the Arrow is one of Piper’s most popular newer-generation singles, and combines retractable gear, a constant speed prop and (in the Turbo version) a turbocharger into one relatively cheap package. D-EPAP seems to be one of the better examples, having been manufactured in 1982 and equipped with a full IFR suite, Garmin GNS430 moving map GPS, stormscope and digital CHT/EGT gauges.

Another very interesting visitor caught taxiing towards RWY 05 for departure to Munich under callsign “RAFAIR 7160”. While not the first Chinook to visit Zagreb, ZA704 is definitely one of the more interesting ones, being in fact a “composite” airframe sporting the rear rotor boom of CH-47D ZH257. The latter is a nugget as well, having originally flown with the Argentinian military as AE-520 – and captured by the British on the Falklands in 1982. Going on to serve as an instructional airframe, it would donate its behind to ZA704 following the latter’s tail rotor strike in Oman in 1999.

A far more dynamic scene than in real life as ZA704 accelerates after lift off from RWY 05. Like all other RAF Chinooks, it is based at RAF Odiham in central England, a straight-line distance of 1,400 km from Zagreb… meaning ZA704 has quite a bit more to fly yet!

Pick your turboprop! From the big and fast to the small and slow, we have it all! Representing 75% of the companies engaged in commercial passenger transport in Croatia, this lineup consists of Dash 8 Q400 9A-CQB (flown by Croatia Airlines), ATR-42-300 OY-CHT (owned by Fly Denim, but operated on behalf of Air Croatia) and Embraer EMB-120 HA-FAL (flown for local carrier Trade Air).

While not really a rare aircraft in itself, Air Croatia’s sole ATR-42 nevertheless deserves some mention – if anything because of the operational mash-up behind its existence. While it does say “Croatia” on the tin, Air Croatia is actually a Swedish-owned company – and is in fact not an airline, but a tour operator just selling tickets. The flights themselves are operated by Fly Denim of the Netherlands (with its own Air Operator Certificate), using an aircraft registered in Denmark and flown by a cockpit crew provided by Spanish company Aeronova…

Photo Report – Presidential Flight: Diplomatic Jets @ LDZA

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All photos me too, copyrighted

Pretty much one of the hottest topics in the country of late, the recent presidential elections – which had seen the ascension of Croatia’s first ever female president – is not really the type of material I care for here at Achtung, Skyhawk!. However, being an international political event of some significance, the subsequent formal inauguration was certain to draw some interesting machinery to Zagreb Airport, machinery that would inevitably include some of my favorite photographic fare – bizjets :). Even though the final guest list had left something to be desired from a purely diplomatic standpoint – having stopped at just a tad over 10 delegations – the initial reports of the aircraft types expected had suggested an eclectic mix of both Western and Eastern designs, itself more than enough to pique my interest!

Thankfully, having managed to organize ourselves well ahead of time, several colleagues and myself had been able to secure access to the airport’s observation terrace (nowadays, sadly, permanently closed to visitors), allowing us to observe proceedings from the best available seats in the house. Unfortunately, Zagreb’s winter haze – and the (understandable) requirements of airport security with regards to parking positions – had interfered somewhat with our work, the results of which may not be up to my usual HQ standard…

The first arrival of the day - touching down before the morning mist has had time to fully clear - YU-BNA of Serbia really is a sight for sore eyes. One of the timeless classics of the already elegant Falcon family, the 50s was the world's first proper business "tri-holer", and would become Dassault's passport into the high end of the segment. Even though these originals are nowadays few and far in between, the design lives on as the more modern 900 - two of which would also visit Zagreb within the hour.
The first arrival of the day – touching down before the morning mist has had time to fully clear – YU-BNA of Serbia really is a sight for sore eyes. One of the timeless classics of the already elegant Falcon family, the 50s was the world’s first proper business “tri-holer”, and would become Dassault’s passport into the high end of the segment. Even though these originals are nowadays few and far in between, the design lives on as the more modern 900 – two of which would also visit Zagreb within the hour.

First a Falcon 50 and then a Learjet 60 - not a bad way to start the day! Crisp, clean and elegant, Z3-MKD was the second visitor to arrive, hailing from Macedonia (the country, not the Greek province).
First a Falcon 50 and then a Learjet 60 – not a bad way to start the day! Crisp, clean and elegant, Z3-MKD was the second visitor to arrive, hailing from Macedonia (the country, not the Greek province).

The good news had continued with visitor #3, which had taken the form of a Challenger 601-3A from the Czech Republic. Another classic, the 601 model was an important step up from the original 600 and 600S (the first ever Challengers), and had laid down the power plant, range and weight bases for today's popular models 604 and 605.
The good news had continued with visitor #3, which had taken the form of a Challenger 601-3A from the Czech Republic. Another classic, the 601 model was an important step up from the original 600 and 600S (the first ever Challengers), and had laid down the power plant, range and weight bases for today’s popular models 604 and 605.

The biggest visitor though would fly in from Poland - with this not even being its first time at Zagreb. Together with its sister ship SP-LIH, LIG is actually owned by Polish flag carrier LOT - but is operated on behalf of the country's government.
The biggest visitor though would fly in from Poland – with this not even being its first time at Zagreb. Together with its sister ship SP-LIH, LIG is actually owned by Polish flag carrier LOT – but is operated on behalf of the country’s government.

Completely devoid of any registration markings on either side, the French Gov't Falcon 900 strikes a nearly identical pose as YU-BNA (for a handy comparison). With the imminent arrival of Italy's own example, we would soon have a whole Falcon Meet!
Completely devoid of any registration markings on either side, the French Gov’t Falcon 900 strikes a nearly identical pose as YU-BNA (for a handy comparison). With the imminent arrival of Italy’s own example, we would soon have a whole Falcon Meet!

The aforementioned Italian Falcon taxiing towards the GA apron. Given that Zagreb's apron is not all that commodious - and space was needed for all the scheduled flights - the inauguration visitors were scattered all over the place, with some on the GA apron, some on the cargo/widebody positions - and one even on the Croatian government apron...
The aforementioned Italian Falcon taxiing towards the GA apron. Given that Zagreb’s apron is not all that commodious – and space was needed for all the scheduled flights – the inauguration visitors were scattered all over the place, with some on the GA apron, some on the cargo/widebody positions – and one even on the Croatian government apron…

Unfortunately, this had meant that the two most interesting machines of the day had ended up on the far side of the apron... hailing from Slovakia and Hungary respectively, OM-BYL and 407 were by far the loudest aircraft of the day, with the Yak-40 excelling during reverse - and the An-26 everywhere else...
Unfortunately, this had meant that the two most interesting machines of the day had ended up on the far side of the apron… hailing from Slovakia and Hungary respectively, OM-BYL and 407 were by far the loudest aircraft of the day, with the Yak-40 excelling during reverse – and the An-26 everywhere else…

And finally, the last visitor of the day - and by far the most unexpected. Operated by the German Air Force, 14+02 is one of a significant number of military/VVIP/communications Globals in service worldwide - one of the few roles where it was able to outsell its fierce competitors, the Gulfstream IV/V and Embraer Legacy 600/650.
And finally, the last visitor of the day – and by far the most unexpected. Operated by the German Air Force, 14+02 is one of a significant number of military/VVIP/communications Globals in service worldwide – one of the few roles where it was able to outsell its fierce competitors, the Gulfstream IV/V and Embraer Legacy 600/650.

Antonov, Bombardier (x2) and Yakovlev - not a bad day out I must say!
Antonov, Bombardier (x2) and Yakovlev – not a bad day out I must say!

Photo Report – News From The Realm

By me
All photos me too, copyrighted

Faced with a consistent lack of anything of note to write about – except the weather, which has been so poor lately that catching a good flying day is on par with winning the national lottery 😀 – I’ve decided to fill the void by cobbling together something of a “mix post”, combining the few recent photos from Lučko, Pleso and neighboring Slovenia into one convenient little package. It’s not really much to be honest, but hopefully it’ll provide for a bit of amusement until the arrival of an extensive, work-in-progress historical article… 🙂

The only (operational) Blanik at Lučko poses with its best friend while they wait on RWY 28R for their pilots to assemble. In the event, the first flight of the day would be with a future gliding student, who was given a short demo flight above the western end of town…

While it sounds deceptively simple, a proper aerotow take-off often requires a helping hand on the ground. Due to the absence of a conventional landing gear arrangement, most gliders – especially those boasting larger wingspans – require someone to hold the wingtip at the start of the take-off run. Intended to prevent it from scraping along the ground and possibly slewing the glider off course, this is only necessary during the first few seconds of the run, until the speed builds up sufficiently for the aerodynamic forces on the ailerons to take over.

One of the most beautiful kit planes in Croatia is seen rolling towards RWY 10R after a short fuel stop. Part of the famous Van’s family of nippy two-seaters, DVM is the company’s only design registered here, and spends most of its time staying clear of the more frequented airfields (to the continuing disappointment of the author).

The simple and uncluttered cockpit contains everything one really needs for a good time aloft. Interestingly, even though it is powered by a four-cylinder engine developing 200 HP, DVM uses a fixed pitch propeller – something not generally seen on speedy homebuilt kits of this power range.

The “Grey aircraft only seem to fly in on grey days” photo series continues with the legendary Stratotanker, which had on this occasion hauled itself into Zagreb all the way from Minneapolis. A modernized version of the aircraft that many still consider to be THE tanker, the R model differs primarily by its powerplant, dispensing with the old J-57s in favor of the modern, economical – and significantly quieter – CFM56. An interesting detail is the frost on the wing underside, a common feature on original 717s* during humid days.

* and that isn’t a misprint. While the “717” is today associated exclusively with the re-branded McDonnell Douglas MD-95, the designator had actually been in use ever since the late 50s. Following the introduction of the Boeing 367-80 jet airliner prototype – the famous “Dash 80” – a number of interested civil operators had requested that the design’s slim fuselage be widened to accommodate a six-abreast seating configuration. Boeing had readily agreed, thus giving birth to the 707 as we know it today. However, the US military – also one of the interested parties – was satisfied with the Dash 80 as-was, lobbying that it too be put into production. Knowing that the American military establishment has always been a loyal – and well-paying 🙂 – customer, Boeing agreed to these terms as well, christening the new-old model the 717.

But, since the US military has always used its own original aircraft designators, the new aircraft was quickly labelled the C-135. As the years went on – and the design started making a name for itself in its military guise – the 717 brand had slowly begun to fade from people’s minds… so when Boeing bought MDD in 1997 and inherited the in-development MD-95, they simply recycled the old designator and pinned it to the venerable Maddog (more precisely, the -95 became known as the 717-200 to differentiate it from the original, which had been known within Boeing as the 717-100 since its inception) 🙂 .

To complicate matters even further, the US military has actually operated – and still operates – BOTH the 707 and the 717-100. The former (in its 707-300 version) had served as the basis for the E-3 Sentry, E-6 Mercury and E-8 JSTARS, while the latter covers everything with a -135 designator (including the KC-135, RC-135, OC-135, VC-135 and so on)…

Another of the year’s Globemasters to have visited Pleso, “Reach 574” is just about to put to an end its long flight from Mazar-i-Sharif in Afganistan. Transporting home soldiers of several NATO nations, it would eventually depart again towards Kogalniceanu Airport, serving the Romanian coastal city of Constanta.

A machine that gives no impression that it is actually 33 years old, DJM is one of the last Skylane RG models to have been manufactured by the renowned Reims works, located in the town of the same name up in northeastern France. Sporting retractable landing gear, full IFR equipment and the capability to carry four people with nearly full fuel tanks, the 182RG is probably one of the best cheap – but still capable – light touring aircraft nowadays available…

A bit of that Alpine feel as we climb along the MODRO 1W departure procedure following takeoff from RWY 30 at Ljubljana (LJLJ), Slovenia. While we were expecting (and hoping for) a bit of fog to test our instrument skills, by the time we’d gotten airborne it had already transformed into broken mid-altitude clouds, leaving us with an almost ideal late summer’s day (despite the frosty 12 C out on the apron!).

EDIT: after a lengthy struggle with an uncooperative piece of editing software, I’m also happy to bring you a short video clip to accompany the previous photo 🙂 . Mind you, it’s not really my best work to be honest, but I was handed a GoPro camera and told to have fun with it, so I tried to make the best of the situation (especially considering I did not get a suction mount to securely stick it to the window)…

Photo Report – I have nothing to offer…

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All photos me too, copyrighted

… but sweat, dehydration, sunburn and flight hours 😀 . Okay, Churchill may not have had the spring/summer flying season at Lučko in mind when he uttered his famous phrase back in 1940, but in this custom form it does go a long way to describing events at the field these past few weeks 🙂 . With out traditional summer anticyclone parked very firmly over the entire region, we’ve been graced with fantastic flying weather for days on end, allowing out entire fleet to go out and stretch its wings. And while the temperatures did let the side down – with 40 Centigrade on the apron not even being newsworthy – we’ve nevertheless persevered, allowing me to bring you another photo series of life in Croatian GA (and beyond)… 🙂

The Carryall in its element: on grass under sunny skies on a beautiful spring day. An aircraft with a rich history in the country, BKS was produced back in 1977, entering service with local operator Pan Adria the same year. Used for tailwheel conversion training and crop dusting, it would pass to the Viša zrakoplova škola flight school a few years later, where it would serve as an IFR trainer. Following the school’s collapse in the late 80s, BKS would end up in the fleet of Aeroklub Zagreb, where it was stripped, lightened and turned into a skydive aircraft – a role it fulfills even today. An interesting personal detail is that this aircraft seems to follow my family around, starting with my dad who used to work in Pan Adria, mom who used to work at Viša zrakoplovna škola – and me currently flying it on behalf of AK Zagreb.

Another look at our charismatic fuel-to-noise converter. Powered by an 8.5 liter/520 cu in engine developing 300 HP and whirling a 208 cm/82 in diameter prop – which is well into the transsonic region on take off – BKS is not the most conspicuous machine around, and can – during favorable winds – be heard all the way to the center of Zagreb, some 10 km/5 NM away…

Definitely one of the more interesting aircraft I’ve come across over the years! Sporting an unusual configuration for what is essentially a motorglider, the HB-21 is quite the performer despite its frail looks, easily rivaling the Piper Super Cub in the climb. Indeed, OE-9129 was bought specifically to replace PA-18 9A-DBU in the glider tow role, with trials revealing it’s more than a match even when hauling a heavy glider such as the Let L-13 Blanik…

A scene straight out of WW I as one of Lučko’s most famous residents flies leisurely overhead. Lovingly crafted over a period of several years – mostly out of materials found in hardware stores – XCA is a modern replica of the first proper aircraft built in Croatia: the P-3 of 1910 (designed by inventor Slavoljub Penkala). Not exactly a one-for-one replica, the CA-10 includes a few aerodynamic improvements to make it easier to fly, as well as an 80 HP Rotax 912ULS in place of the extinct Laurin & Klement inline.

The (mostly) fine weather had also lured out the air force, allowing us to play a bit of spot the differences! Even though they are essentially the same aircraft underneath, the legacy Mi-8MTV-1 and the modern Mi-171 do diverge in a number of details – the most obvious being the 171’s flat rear ramp. Other more subtle changes include the additional forward fuselage door – which had necessitated the relocation of the aircon unit to the top of the fuselage – and the Doppler Navigator antenna array moved further back down the tail boom. Intended to also provide at least some of the capability of the country’s long decommissioned Mi-24 fleet, the 171s also sport some additional combat equipment, including bolt-on armor plating around the cockpit, flare dispensers (above the CroAF roundel on the rear fuselage), IR jammers (at the back of the gearbox assembly) and provisions for carrying up to four B8V unguided rocket packs.

Reasons for getting up at 4 AM to go flying: here’s #1… beautifully smooth air, absolute quiet on the frequency, an agreeable 26 Centigrade aloft – and a fantastic view of sleepy Zagorje as I ferry DMG to Varaždin for servicing at 5:30 AM.

Even though it is relatively busy even at the worst of times, on this morning Varaždin appeared to be host to a mini Cessna convention, with seven 172s, one 182 and one 210 lining the main taxiway and apron. The culprits for this threefold increase in Cessna numbers were the seven 172s from Bulgaria and Serbia, in country on a fox immunization contract and for the time being operating out of Varaždin…

Easily mistaken for a brand new Skyhawk SP, this mint 1978 172N is seen rolling gently towards the main hangar for some minor maintenance. Part of the aforementioned Bulgarian-Serbian fleet, AIA is equipped with a bare bones interior and a special pellet dispenser in place of the regular baggage door. In immunization operations, the aircraft is manned by a crew of two, with the second member manually feeding the dispenser with pellets from chilled boxes (kept overnight in a refrigerated truck trailer).

Photo Report – The Comings And Goings of The CroAF MiG-21

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All photos me too, copyrighted

With the Croatian Air Force’s newly-arrived MiG-21s quickly becoming all the rage on the local aviation scene, it really was just a matter of time before their daily rituals became the dominant photo material on Achtung, Skyhawk! 😀 . Not wanting to let both my readers and myself down, I’ve naturally spent quite some time on and around Zagreb Airport these past few days, trying to get that one perfect shot that I’d be proud and happy to hang up on my wall for all to see…

And while this does sound a bit OCD, it goes a long way to showing just how engrained the MiG-21 is in the Croatian collective aviation consciousness 🙂 . Pretty much part of the local aeronautical identity, the CroAF fleet has always been considered the elite of the flying world, spawning a cult following not unlike that of the rock stars of the 70s and 80s. Making up in charisma everything they lack in actual capability, the MiGs are instant show-stoppers wherever they appear, with the five “new” jets bought in the Ukraine quickly becoming the most anticipated and talked-about aircraft of the year.

Thanks to colleagues in the know, I’ve once again found myself near the cutting edge of developments, the upshot of which is an ever-increasing collection of shots of all forms and colors 🙂 . So, to introduce some law & order to proceedings, I’ve decided to open a single topic that will cover the fleet’s test flights and early operations, adding photos as I snap them. With two day’s worth of material already processed and ready, I’m delighted to present (eventually) Messrs 131, 132, 133, 134 & 135!

Monday, 5 May

Looking quite good seconds from landing on RWY 05. While the switch to Air Superiority Grey was unavoidable due to NATO standards, the AF had at least tried to make the new scheme a bit more lively, primarily through addition of the Croatian coat of arms to the fin and both upper and lower leading edges of the wing. Another very welcome touch is the return of the knight’s helmet nose emblem, made locally famous during the 90s civil war.

Wednesday, 7 May

Returning back home to RWY 23 after its first high-altitude supersonic flight. Flown at 64,000 ft (19,500 m), this mission had required some special equipment, most important of which was a high-altitude pressure suit and helmet (which, as can be seen in the shot, offers a very restricted field of view).

The morning’s sunny skies had also lured out 135, seen here ending its second post-assembly flight. Pretty stock except for a few bits of modern Western navigation equipment shoehorned in among ancient Soviet systems, both jets are nevertheless said to be a significant improvement of the existing fleet (though the latter will – the situation in the Ukraine permitting – soon undergo a thorough rejuvenation program).

Friday, 6 June

A bit of that familiar Tumansky whine to start the morning as “Knight 03” taxis towards RWY 05 for the first of the day’s training sorties. Nearly fully tested and released to service, 135 has spent most of the past week on training duties, giving the squadron pilots some welcome air time…

Letting the locals know – in no uncertain terms – that they live near an airbase, “Knight 03” is seen rocketing out for its 40 minute flight. In what is perhaps a fitting tribute to the breed, this decade marks 50 years of continuous MiG-21 operations at Zagreb, dating all the way back to the mid 60s and the Yugoslav Air Force’s original MiG-21F-13s. Now bolstered with these fresh examples, the current fleet is likely to push this up to 60, with plans to keep it in service for up to 10 more years…

Friday, 18 July

A welcome splash of color as an understated, conspicuous 165 grumbles in for landing after its second test flight. Pretty much the most recognizable of all the CroAF MiGs, “Kockica” – Croatian for “little square” – was part of the seven-strong batch of jets sent to the Ukraine for overhaul. So far, it is the only one to actually fly – and is currently the only operational twin-stick model in the fleet.

Monday, 4 August

Striking quite the photogenic pose, 165 recovers into RWY 23 after a training sortie. The lead ship of a three-jet formation – consisting also of 133 and 135 – Kockica had been on a practice flypast above the town of Knin in preparation for the Victory Day parade on 5 August.

Today’s outing had also allowed me to snap a good shot of the elusive 133. The first of the three to land, 133 was the newest single-seater to reach operational status.

Thursday, 18 December

Even though the horror stories of Zagreb’s fogs are known far and wide, sometimes they nevertheless have a silver lining. After the southern wind had blown the morning’s 200 meter visibility away, we’d ended up with an absolutely beautiful winter’s day, just perfect for flying. The CroAF was of the same opinion, sending out aircraft after aircraft all through the afternoon, including 166, Kockica, another single-seater and even a CL-415…

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

One of several CroAF flights of the day – which had eventually included two more MiGs, an AT-802 and Mi-171 – “Knight 96” is seen recovering home after another training flight. Interestingly, even though the fleet has been up to strength for some time now, this was one of 167’s few outings since refurbishment – indeed, this is the first shot of it have since its camo color days!

ADDENDUM: given that the new MiGs are still hot news here in Croatia (and abroad as well if this post’s view count is anything to go by!), I’ve decided to expand my little gallery with a short set of photos by Petar Mežnarek. A friend of mine and spotting colleague who works at (and lives near) Zagreb Intl., he has naturally had many more opportunities to observe the fleet in action – and given that he also sports a quality camera and lens setup is the perfect person to give this thread more substance 🙂 .

A sight that will likely never be seen again as 121 and 133 blast out of RWY 23 in a mismatched – but very attractive – formation. The final stage of 133’s acceptance tests, this mission would involve a radar system test on an actual aerial target, a role fulfilled by tired old 121…

The first instance of what will eventually become a common scene in Croatian skies – a grey-on-grey formation taking off for another local test flight (likely to tune the radar again).

Fresh out of the post-assembly test program, 135 leads 122 and 121 on a flypast down Lake Jarun during the 2014 Armed Forces Day. Then (1 June) still the acting QRA pair, 122 and 121 can be seen carrying the weapons pylons for their AA-8 heat-seeking missiles, as well as the MiG-21’s distinctive 800 liter centerline droptank.

And finally, one last goodbye for both the famous camo scheme and good old 122. Having borne the brunt of CroAF operations pending the arrival of 131 through 135, 122 was finally withdrawn from service about a month ago. Sadly though, 121 – trailing behind and the last “legacy” MiG-21 in service in July – will soon follow suit…

Fully kitted out to operational QRA specification, 131 and 135 blast out on one of their first practice scrambles. A sight we’ve been waiting to see for ages!

Even in rain, the -21 doesn’t fail to impress! 164 looking stunning as it returns home from a test flight during a brief shower…


Very few sounds at Pleso are as evocative as a MiG-21 at full chat. Even though the R-13 engine of the twin-stick UM is significantly less powerful than the meaty R-25 of the bis single-seater, it can still put up a show!

While flying past the smoke of a burning garbage heap may not be the most heroic of settings, it does however bring out some of the visceral appeal of the MiG-21. And despite its significant operational shortcomings (not to mention its general lack of sophistication in today’s terms), in the right hands the design can on occasion still put up a fight.

Post Update – The New Kid On The Block: MiG-21bis D 131

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All photos me too, copyrighted

In a dazzling display of impeccable timing, my recent post about the Croatian Air Force’s few remaining MiG-21s had appeared here barely a week before the fleet was boosted by an eagerly-awaited new member :). The jet in question is MiG-21bis D 131, the first of five low-time examples bought from the Ukraine for the express purpose of keeping the fighter force operational until funds can be scraped together for a proper new machine :). Thoroughly overhauled in the port town of Odessa, these five would eventually be trucked piecemeal across Hungary to Zagreb, where they’ll be progressively tested out one by one and added to regular service (releasing hard-working 121 and 122 for servicing). The first of the lot to be completed, 131 was scrambled out today on its first ever flight from Croatian soil, an event eagerly anticipated by several men with very large cameras… 😀

Far from my best work, but an event that had to be captured at all costs - 131's first ever take off from Croatian soil. Preceded by 121 and 122 in full QRA config, 131 would eventually stay aloft for 35 minutes, flexing its wings in the Lekenik Flight Test zone.
Far from my best work, but an event that had to be captured at all costs – 131’s first ever take off from Croatian soil. Preceded by 121 and 122 in full QRA config, 131 would eventually stay aloft for 35 minutes, flexing its wings in the Lekenik Flight Test zone.

Quite an unusual sight after two decades of colorful camo schemes as 131 returns back home to RWY 05. While fresh from the outside, the jets have had some work on the interior as well, the biggest of which was the addition of a Garmin GNS430 GPS and a Sandel SN3500 EHSI.
Quite an unusual sight after two decades of colorful camo schemes as 131 returns back home to RWY 05. While fresh from the outside, the jets have had some work on the interior as well, the biggest of which was the addition of a Garmin GNS430 GPS and a Sandel SN3500 EHSI.

Photo Report – Gotta Catch ‘Em All: A Croatian MiG-21 Collection

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All photos me too, copyrighted

As many of my readers might have already deduced from posts past, when operating out of Zagreb Intl (LDZA), chances are you’ll pretty quickly stumble upon one of the Croatian Air Force’s charismatic fuel-to-noise converters :). The aircraft in question are – of course – the MiG-21s, 70s manned missiles that are holding on as one of the last of their type still in front line service in Europe. And while we may have grown to taking them for granted through sheer exposure, they nevertheless still have a special – and resolutely unshakable – status on the local aviation scene. As I’ve already noted in a previous post, despite all their drawbacks, they’re still the rock stars of the skies, and have garnered a cult following that extends even outside the immediate aviation community (quite the achievement in a normally disinterested Croatia) :).

So too feel increasing numbers of photographers and enthusiasts from other lands, with the remaining few operational jets achieving close to “tourist trap” status :D. Given that they’ve been thrust back into the spotlight of late – primarily due to delays to their refurbishment in the Ukraine – I thought I might further their promotion a bit by cobbling together a collection of recent and already-featured (but hopefully still interesting) shots of the fleet going about its business. With one notable exception, I’ve decided to completely shy away from photos taken at various events and open days, preferring to stick to snapping them in their “natural operational habitat”… 🙂

Up, up and away! Latterly the hardest working of all the jets in the fleet, 116 and 121 are seen rocketing out of RWY 23 in an unusually tight and attractive formation.
Up, up and away! Latterly the hardest working of all the jets in the fleet, 116 and 121 are seen rocketing out of RWY 23 in an unusually tight and attractive formation. Flying unarmed – and without the centerline fuel tank – would suggest they’re heading out on a simple training mission, rather than the more common Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) practice scramble.

Rocketing out alone for another short training flight.
116 rocketing out on its own for another short training sortie. Essentially a piloted missile, the MiG-21 is (like the F-104 Starfighter) a pure-blooded interceptor, designed for acceleration, climb, and hit-and-run tactics in large numbers rather than the payload capability, versatility and persistence of an air superiority fighter like the Su-27 or F-15.

A r
A rarely seen member of the fleet, 117 taxis out towards RWY 05 for a test flight. Alongside Bulgarian and Romanian examples, CroAF machines are the last of the front-line MiG-21s flying in Europe – with the type also serving in limited secondary roles in Serbia. Interestingly, all of these operators fly slightly different versions of the jet, with Romania having its own MiG-21MF-based Lancers, Croatia it’s home-grown “bis D” upgrade – and Bulgaria sticking to the most capable examples of the stock bis family.

Pe
121 performing a 200 knot wheelie as it returns back to base after a practice QRA scramble with sister ship 122. In the default CroAF intercept configuration, it is equipped with two R-60 (AA-8 Alphid) short-range heat-seeking missiles and the distinctive 800 liter / 211 USG BAK drop tank (giving it a usable endurance of slightly over an hour – which is not all that bad given the type’s notoriously short legs).

d
Weathered and tired – but still infinitely charismatic – 121 is seen quietly sitting around in the background of the CroAF’s 22nd anniversary ceremony. Sadly, this is one of the last times we’ll be able to enjoy the distinctive camo scheme, with the fleet being progressively repainted into a customized NATO air superiority grey pattern…

R
The workhorse of the fleet of late, 121 is seen rolling out for a one-ship practice scramble. Despite being part of the QRA pair, it is flying unarmed (but with the R-60 pylons still in place), retaining only the centerline fuel tank. The reasons for this are unclear, but likely have something to do with releasing the aircraft for a training mission with the minimum of fuss and operational complication.

S
Seconds from touchdown on RWY 05 after another one-hour sortie. Buoyed by the recent arrival of the first of the “new” MiG-21s – five low-time examples bought from the Ukraine – the Air Force had started intensively flying armed pairs again, giving their pilots some much-needed air time – all while safe in the knowledge that they can use the jets’ little remaining lifetime to the fullest without fear of compromising the fleet’s operational availability.

A rare appearance by a twin-stick UMD.
A rare venture outside by a twin-stick UMD (upgraded to the same local standard as the bis D). An endangered species, the UMDs had up until recently numbered just three operational examples, which were whittled down over the course of the summer to just 166. However, the remaining two currently being overhauled in the Ukraine, including 165, famous in song and story for its chessboard Croatian coat of arms paint scheme.