While there has always been an abundance of easily-accessible abandoned and disused aircraft to be found in Croatia, one place in particular has always been the local holy grail of “wreck photography” – the Zrakoplovno-tehnički centar (ZTC, Aeronautical-Technical Center) maintenance facility in the town of Velika Gorica, just a few kilometers south of Zagreb. Formerly a military depot with a long and illustrious history, it is now home to what remains of the Croatian Air Force’s earliest machinery, littered chocked full of rusting, disintegrating hulls that had in the war-torn early 90s formed the backbone of the country’s first aerial capabilities.
Even though each and every aircraft there has an interesting and often gripping story, the one I was always most interested in was 9A-ISC, a Dornier Do-28D Skyservant sitting alone and unloved at the edge of the apron. Unfortunately, the facility’s current status in the military hierarchy had always made “unannounced” photography perilous and complicated, making getting up close and personal an impossible task.
Thankfully, as part of the military’s ever-increasing drive for good PR, the ZTC had been selected as the prime venue for Air VG, Velika Gorica’s first aviation theme day scheduled to be held on 13 May 2017 – thus allowing for ample opportunity to sneak a (legal) peek at what’s really hiding behind that fence. However, since I had already reserved that date for snooping around hangars at small airfields in neighboring Bosnia, I’d decided to call on the help of Mr. Josip Miljenko Džoja, a fellow aviation photographer (Flickr gallery here) and keen Croatian military aviation buff who was sure attend no matter what 🙂 . Under our arrangement, he would be tasked with piecing together ISC’s life story and providing both current and past photo material – while I would weave everything together and add the inevitable nerdy bits about the Do-28 design 😀 . Despite not being able to peek inside and make a proper Achtung, Skyhawk! photo report, we both felt that an aircraft of its rarity needed its tale told however possible, so we pooled all of our resources together and got to work…
But first, a bit of trivia! Like the majority of surviving Do-28s, ISC is a Do-28D-2* model, at 172 examples produced the most common of all the Skyservants. Developed in 1972 specifically to the requirements of the German army following its experiences with the earlier D-1 (the default production model that had introduced a 50 cm wingspan increase and higher take-off mass over the basic D), the D-2 had included:
a reworked internal layout to give an additional 15 cm of usable cabin length
a further 200 kg increase in maximum take-off mass
a higher fuel capacity adding nearly 700 km to the range
redesigned flaps and ailerons for better low speed handling
removal of the D-1’s wing fences
fixed leading edge slots along the outer sections of the wing to improve STOL performance
and fuselage mounting points for sensors such as mapping cameras and side-scanning radar (as well as equipment for oil spill monitoring on aircraft operated by the German Navy under the designation Do-28D-2/OC).
* in 1980, the Do-28D-2 designation would be dropped in favor of Do-128-2.
ISC itself would turn out to be an early production model, completed in February 1974 with the serial number 4178. Soon after delivery on the 13th of the same month, it would be allocated to the German Air Force’s Government Flight – the easily pronounceable Flugbereitschaft desBundesministerium der Verteidigung, or FlgBMVg – based at Köln/Bonn Airport (EDDK), where it would receive the code 59+03.
According to the information available, its service life with the FlgBMVg would be fairly uneventful – mostly hauling officials in a semi-VIP passenger interior – right up until early September 1992 when it would be parked at Leipheim Airbase (EDSD) near Ulm as part of the type’s general withdrawal from service.
At this point however, its story starts to become interesting. At some time in 1993, the aircraft had been bought by the Croatian Government – at the time fighting in the first of the 90s Yugoslav Wars – reportedly through intermediaries in the (sizable) Croatian diaspora in Germany. Apparently serviced and made airworthy again in the mean time, it would eventually make its way to Finow Airbase (EDAV) in the former GDR – from where it would be flown to Split Airport (LDSP) in Croatia on the night of 11-12 March 1994. Interestingly, the flight would be made under the reg 9A-NDH, a fictitious identity that had never appeared on the Croatian register before or since. The choice would prove controversial later, since in its most commonly-used form NDH stands for Neovisna država Hrvatska (Independent State of Croatia), a Nazi puppet state that had existed in the western Balkans between 1941 and 1945.
Upon arrival at Split on the morning of 12 March, the reg had immediately been changed into the no less ominous – and equally fictitious – 9A-ISC, under which it would continue to fly until its ultimate withdrawal from use**. Its life in wartime service with the Samostalni zrakoplovni vod (Independent Aviation Corps) of the Air Force’s 4th Brigade is still clouded in confusion and a fair bit of secrecy – and knowing full well the complicated political and military situation that had existed in Croatia in the early 90s, both Josip and myself had quickly decided against digging into the matter any further 🙂 .
** this reg would be formally used for the first time only in 2013 – and on a restored Polikarpov Po-2. Of interest, even though it had always had a dedicated military registry, the Air Force kept some of its transport and utility aircraft – including the Do-28 – on the 9A civil register until the early 2000s, when all active machines were allocated bespoke military codes.
Following the end of hostilities in 1995, ISC would continue to serve in the Croatian Air Force in various (but only occasional) transport roles until a throttle cable failure and burnt cylinder valves on one engine – coupled with a lack of spares and expensive upkeep – grounded it for good in 1999 with around 4300 hours on the clock. As was the case with virtually all aircraft acquired and used during the early stages of the war, ISC was relegated to the corrosion corner at ZTC (then still a fully-military facility known as the Zrakoplovno-tehnički zavod “Zmaj” – the Aeronautical-Technical Institute “Dragon”), where it has remained ever since…***
*** another interesting tidbit was that the MoD had actually been offered the opportunity to restore the aircraft to airworthy state by a private contractor – and even convert it to turboprop power along the way. The engine proposed for the job was the Czech-built Walter M601 – most commonly seen on the Let L-410 Turbolet – which would have resulted in something similar to the factory-standard, PT6A-110-powered Do-28D-6 / Do-128-6 of 1978. However, the MoD had never taken up this offer.
While the very mention of its name often invokes fond nostalgia and strong apprehension in equal measure, there’s no denying that the pudgy little UTVA 75 remains one of the most famous, significant – and perhaps maligned – aircraft ever produced by the Yugoslav aviation industry. One of a number of piston props conceived, designed and built solely in-country, it had left a lasting mark on the local aeronautical landscape, having over the years seen off generation after generation of young pilots, service in a bewildering number of roles in every nook and cranny of the land – and the occasional appearance in the odd accident column…
But for all its past ubiquity, the type has become somewhat of a rare sight today, with most of the airworthy civilian examples nowadays confined to flying clubs in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia. Outside military dumps, finding one elsewhere requires a bit of luck – so much so that even the locals (many of which had flown them extensively in the 80s and 90s) raise an eyebrow when one happens to rumble by.
So imagine my surprise when – having so far only five examples under my camera’s belt – I became aware of a beautifully curious four-seat example parked just 70 km away at Novo Mesto Airfield (LJNM) in southeastern Slovenia. Having only seen such a “quad” in one 80s photo, I was through the roof even before I found out it was the only such example in existence – a fact that (as if any further persuasion was necessary!) had seen me grab my car keys and set off across the border to see what’s what… 🙂
Wings of the nation
But, before we cover this prime example of Achtung, Skyhawk! material, a bit of history to introduce this compact little type to readers who may have never seen one in the metal 🙂 . Flying for the first time on 19 May 1976, the UTVA 75 – known under the factory designation U-75 – was designed to be a simple, straightforward basic trainer* that could be efficiently used both in civilian and military roles. Even though the Yugoslav aviation industry had always put much stock in this segment, its offering of such aircraft was next to abysmal at the time, with the late 40s Ikarus Aero 2 and mid-50s Aero 3 being the only machines widely available for the role. Despite having given wings to post-WW2 Yugoslavia, they were both very much outdated designs, sporting wood & fabric structures, tandem cockpits, narrow-track tailwheel landing gear, basic instrument fits – and flight characteristics that often did not inspire much confidence in the student.
* interestingly, the project had originally envisaged a whole family of aircraft stemming from one basic design, including a four-cylinder two-seat utility machine dubbed the M-10, and – most interesting for us 🙂 – a six-cylinder touring four-seater called the M-11. Eventually though, financial difficulties (which had also seen the temporary inclusion of Polish aircraft manufacturers in the design between 1973 and 1975) had left the M-10 as the sole survivor, paving the way for its development into the U-75.
Designed around more modern principles, the U-75 had a lot going for it in the trainer role: it was robust, simple, easy to maintain and had just enough power to pull a few basic aerobatic maneuvers – but not enough to allow the student to correct every mistake with liberal application of the throttle. Additionally, it had a side-by-side seat configuration, a large instrument panel suitable for more advanced avionics (including blind-flying gear) – and, most importantly, was built entirely of metal (prolonging its service life in the aerobatic role) and used a wide-track tricycle gear with low pressure tires that made it safe and relaxing to operate even on poor airstrips. Other features had included a tailhook for towing gliders or banners, while the military could be content with a removable pylon under each wing, which could accommodate jettisonable fuel tanks, cargo drop containers (carrying 100 kg (220 lbs) each), light bombs of 50 kg (110 lbs) – and even unguided 12-tube 57 mm rocket packs and twin 7.62 mm machine gun pods.
Designed from Day 1 to meet the requirements of the FAA’s FAR Part 23 regulations concerning UTILITY category aircraft, the U-75 can also boast a +6/-3 load limit – and was found in actual operations to be rather crash-worthy, since its wing and wing box were strengthened to cope with the rigors of “external cargo” 🙂 . Despite hailing from “the East”, under the hood the U-75 sports quite a bit of Western hardware, including a four-cylinder, fuel-injected 180 HP Lycoming IO-360-B1F whirling a Hartzell HC-C2YK-1 BF/F 7666A two-blade constant speed propeller.
With a MTOM of 960 kg, this package is responsible for a maximum level-flight speed of 215 km/h (116 kts), a maximum ceiling of 4,000 m (13,100 ft) and – combined with a wing profile suitable for low speed maneuvering – take-off and landing runs of only 125 m (410 ft) and 100 m (328 ft) respectively. The efficiency of the constant speed prop also means that the U-75 can be relatively frugal in a stable cruise, registering a range of 800 km (432 NM) on 150 liters (40 USG) of internal fuel. When fitted with two 100 liter (26 USG) drop tanks however, the U-75 was supposed to be able to reach an impressive 2,000 km (1,080 NM) – though this was a theoretical calculation only, since the aircraft had never been test flown to this extreme (the tanks themselves were never used in actual training operations).
Equipment-wise, the standard 75 was provided with the usual VFR instrument setup, including everything from the Basic 6 with the addition of an ADF receiver (all of which were powered from a simple and unremarkable 14 V electrical system). The armed versions used by the Air Force would also be provided with a simple optical aiming sight on the left side, while all models could be additionally equipped for night VFR operations. Interestingly, the instruments used were an unusual East-West mix, with the artificial horizon, turn and bank indicator, ADF, manifold pressure/fuel flow gauge and the tachometer all sourced from the US, with the rest of the instrumentation either indigenous or acquired from other European states that had used the metric system.
In service, the U-75 was always much blighted by a popular reputation for violent spinning (sometimes fatally), which bred some distrust in the design. However, while it could indeed be thrown into a serious spin if the pilot was determined enough, most of the type’s spinning accidents were due to it being flown contrary to manufacturer recommendation. Even before it had entered series production in 1978, official flight tests had concluded that the U-75 had no abnormal tendencies to spin if flown by the book – a fact also testified to by numerous operators who had never had any such problems, despite regularly putting their machines through various aerobatic and near-aerobatic routines**.
** one of the main causes of the 75’s willingness to spin if pushed was the location of the (rather heavy) battery. Initially, it was to be located immediately behind the cabin; however, it was calculated that this would shift the CG too far forward, making the aircraft too stable and docile for its intended training role. To combat this issue, the battery was relocated to the extreme of the aircraft – the tail cone – thus moving the CG backwards and making the aircraft less stable and more maneuverable (but still well within accepted limits).
Interestingly, the U-75’s public perception parallels another love-hate civil aircraft, the sporty Mitsubishi MU-2 twin turboprop. From a purely statistical viewpoint one of the unsafest designs around, the MU-2 had gained its unenviable reputation mostly due its users’ inexperience with turboprop hot ships, coupled with poor and insufficient training (especially in the US). Once these issues are surmounted, owners swear on them to no end, with numerous examples having clocked up accident-free flight time that runs well beyond 15,000 hours.
By the time production had ended in 1985, the U-75 had become one of the most produced indigenous Yugoslav designs, with 138 examples made (including the prototypes) – though not coming close to the country’s other notable aviation product, the Soko G-2 Galeb jet trainer, of which 248 were made 🙂 . Being a wee little piston prop had also meant that the U-75 was very usable outside military and training circles, with a good number eventually making it into various civilian flying clubs and to various private owners following Yugoslavia’s collapse. Despite 20 years of attrition still a common sight in Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia and (very occasionally) Slovenia, the type is – as noted previously – sadly absent from Croatian skies, with the only examples operated after 1991 having flown with the Croatian Air Force. Used initially for limited combat operations during the war, the type would continue to soldier on in the basic training role until 2007, when it was withdrawn and replaced by the Zlin Z-242L…
The story of the four-seat U-75 would, however, begin not long after the first of the standard machines had started rolling off the production line. For all the variety produced by the Yugoslav aviation industry, no manufacturer of the time had a modern touring machine on offer, with most of their light aircraft output catering to utility and training needs – leaving various imported Cessnas and Pipers to fill the gap. Having been the newest indigenous design available when the industry had finally turned more of its attention to this segment – not to mention its connection to the stillborn M-11 – the U-75 had seemed to be a good place to start, its basic design offering a low-risk opportunity to quickly (and cheaply) produce a suitable aircraft for the role. From the very outset, the design goal had been to create something of a home-grown PA-28 that could be used both for personal flying and IFR training – as well as potentially exported abroad***.
*** even though the international public’s unfavorable perception of Yugoslavia’s engineering capability (in part well earned) might have put off people from buying its hardware, several of its aircraft were in fact highly regarded in Western aeronautical circles. Most notably, in a USAF fly-off competition in the 80s, the Soko G-4 Super Galeb jet trainer was judged superior in a number of respects to the visually similar BAe Hawk – however, the implications of a major Western power buying military hardware from a Socialist state (never mind its alliance) had sealed the aircraft’s international sales prospects well before it had even been flown.
However, since the whole project had had “cheap and cheerful” as its premise, the changes necessary to turn the standard 75 into a four-seater had to be kept minimal (in part to also reduce disruption on the production line). To this end, the design team had taken the type’s fourth prototype – registered YU-DRJ and sporting serial 53004 – and reconfigured its capacious cargo bay to give a bit more room, slotted in two additional seats – and then fitted a longer, extensively-glazed two-piece canopy to make entry into the back easier.
Dubbed the U-78, the new aircraft had in other respects remained identical to the stock 75**** (retaining even the towing hook under the tail). Even though it had also retained the original’s spartan mil-spec cockpit, production models were envisaged to sport a comprehensive IFR suite, sourced in full from Bendix-King and including the:
KI 525A HSI (slaved to a remote gyrocompass and with full ILS capability) + ADI
KI 229 RMI
KNS 81 RNAV system (a fascinating piece of kit used for early area navigation, covered in more detail here)
KN 62A DME
KT 79 transponder
and the system’s associated navigation and communication radios
**** there were indications in some sources that flush-headed rivets were used in lieu of the dome rivets of the standard model; available photo evidence however shows dome rivets on the fuselage, though it is not possible to discern their type on the wing. Informed opinion from a UTVA engineer is that it is highly unlikely (on a cost/benefit basis alone) that flush rivets were used anywhere on the aircraft.
However, back in the actual world, many of the finer details of both the design and DRJ’s service life remain a mystery; according to people in the know, the production documentation for the U-78 had always been scant at best, and what little was widely known was further lost during Yugoslavia’s violent dissolution in the early 90s. Furthermore, the aircraft had never been formally tested by the Vazduhoplovni opitni centar, or VOC – the state flight test center which was required to sign off each indigenous design – so no accurate or official performance numbers exists. Pretty much not even the people who had worked on the basic U-75 at the time have a complete and definitive picture of its capabilities…
What is known for certain is that DRJ – as the U-78 – had flown for the first time on 23 March 1979. Following standard factory testing, it would be transferred to the VOC at Batajnica Airbase (LYBT) just outside Belgrade, where it would continue to fly informally until 14 August 1981, when it had suffered an unspecified accident and was written off.
The loss of the only prototype – and the continued desire to press ahead with the project – had meant that the UTVA works would eventually need to produce a replacement. Interestingly, this would occur only in 1986, a year after production of the standard 75 had come to an end. This had meant that the new aircraft would not be manufactured outright in the classical sense, but rather assembled from the ground up using replacement parts (manufactured in advance to support the fleet in the future) and DRJ’s vertical stabilizer (which had survived the accident). Given serial 53263 – denoting it as the first of the post-production modifications – this new aircraft would officially be designated the U-75A-41 (though always shortened to just U-75A), and would initially carry the reg YU-XAC. Despite the different name though, XAC would not differ from DRJ (apart from dome rivets definitely being used throughout 🙂 ).
Flying for the first time on 14 May 1986, XAC would also initially pass to the VOC – again informally – before ending up with UTVA’s own flying club (AK UTVA Pančevo) as YU-BRJ. Sadly though, it would be completely destroyed on 24 March 1999 when the factory and its facilities were severely damaged in a NATO air strike.
I’m leaving on a container ship…
Even though XAC would – as proof of the design – go on to fly for a good number of years, forewarning of Yugoslavia’s 1991 implosion had quickly dashed many hopes of continuing development beyond the prototype stage. However, just before the country’s whole aviation industry would grind to a halt, the UTVA works had managed to cobble together one final aircraft, the lucky No. 3 that would lure me to Slovenia 🙂 .
Like XAC, this new machine could only come about in an unusual manner. Despite not having produced any new aircraft since 1985, the factory was still busy repairing, overhauling and scrapping in-service 75s – activities that would continue right up until the start of hostilities. At one point in the very late 80s, the company had come into possession of YU-DJO – a stock 75 manufactured in 1983 with the serial 53230 – which had been written off following an accident. Seeing their last chance at keeping at least something of the four-seater dream alive, the factory had decided to take what remained of the aircraft and rebuild it into an XAC-like model using any available spares and parts of other demobbed 75s.
What happens next, however, requires a short digression. The consensus among online sources and forums dedicated to Yugoslav aviation is that the aircraft had never actually been completed prior to the war, and that only an empty shell had been produced. Much doubt is also cast on the extent to which it would have conformed to the U-78/75A standard, especially since it was a rebuild of an existing 75 (using its basic fuselage), rather than a bespoke four-seat model.
These sources also state that the aircraft had remained at the factory until 2003, when it was sold – along with a regular 75 – to a buyer in the US. However, the buyer was said to have been unable to register the four-seater due to issues with its paperwork, with specific reasons given including missing/discarded documents, the aircraft being a composite of several different serial numbers and “unassigned parts” – as well as available documentation pertaining only to the bits belonging to DJO. Having thus sat around for a while, it was said to have returned to Serbia in 2008, to be restored, re-certified and sold on to a buyer in Slovenia shortly afterwards.
But, having had the great opportunity to personally interview the buyer in question, the story I was made aware of was quite different. It transpires that the aircraft had actually been fully completed and outfitted by spring of 1991 – and that its paperwork was, in fact, clean and in good order. Possibly intended for export right from the outset*****, the machine would soon be dismantled, crated up and – in the company of the aforementioned two-seater – shipped by sea to Mr. John Wallace of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, who had recently become the official distributor for UTVA aircraft in the US.
***** whether this export was just a fluke or planned from day one is not known with certainty. Given the ad-hoc nature of the build – with Yugoslavia already disintegrating – the project documentation was not diligently kept, so even UTVA employees are in the dark on this issue.
Interestingly, Mr. Wallace had specifically requested both versions of the aircraft, since he was interested in marketing both its military and civilian potential (that is, having a single design fulfill the training, light attack and touring roles). However, to be able to actively offer them on the market, Mr. Wallace had first needed to make some changes to comply with FAA regulations, most notably swapping the existing Yugoslav instruments and avionics for a US-spec cockpit suite sporting imperial measurements (in another point of contention, there is some doubt that US instruments had already been fitted in Yugoslavia – though this is believed to be incorrect).
But, by the time the changes had been made and the aircraft were ready for re-assembly, open hostilities in now ex-Yugoslavia had already started, leading to the introduction of a wide-ranging UN embargo against all of its former states. For Mr. Wallace this had meant that he could no longer import any new aircraft from Serbia, making both of his current examples – worthless.
Faced now with a whole new set of financial problems, he had immediately decided to sell the engines of both aircraft in order to try and recoup at least some of the funds invested in setting up the dealership and shipping the machines across the Pond. This had made the already unwanted machines even more useless, with both examples eventually consigned to languish around in Mr. Wallace’s garage, still packed up in their original shipping crates. Having absolutely no use for two engine-less jigsaw puzzles whose market value had been steadily decreasing, he had in 2007 decided to put the aircraft up for sale, going so far as listing them on – eBay 🙂 .
As it is often stated online, “if it looks stupid and it works, it’s not stupid” – which fully applied here, since the aircraft were quickly spotted on that very site by Mr. Leon Pogelšek of Ljubljana, Slovenia. Having recently completed his PPL, he had expressed a desire for his first aircraft to be indigenous, with the four-seater seeming like the perfect ticket for the job. However, since both aircraft were being sold as a single item, there was no other option but to buy the lot and possibly use the two-seater for spares.
With the sale finalized, the aircraft – complete with all papers and US instruments, as provided by Mr. Wallace – were once again loaded up into a container and shipped to Slovenia’s main port in the city of Koper. However, once they had arrived, they would immediately be launched into a world of legal issues, which even today – nine years on – conspire to keep the four-seater grounded. Despite the U-75 having been as common as trees in ex-Yugoslavia, no certified mechanics or service centers had remained in Slovenia by 2007, making the aircraft impossible to assemble and fly within the country’s existing regulatory framework (being a one-of uncertified example didn’t help the four-seater either).
Pretty soon though, a workable solution was found, whereby the assembly and overhaul of the quad would be contracted out to a company based at Lisičji jarak Airfield (LYBJ) in Serbia – and headed by a former UTVA executive and engineer – with the two-seater used as payment for the work done (being a low-timer with prime potential for resale)******.
****** unfortunately, the identity of this aircraft is virtually impossible to determine today, since its documentation had been handed over during overhaul. However, it is known that it was one of reportedly six examples sent to Sudan around 2008/2009, where they had resurfaced under the designation SAFAT 03. Interestingly, that designation had initially been used for an upgraded, Sudan-built version of the U-75, which had failed to gain any meaningful orders and progress beyond the prototype stage…
In the event however, the work would drag on for four years – having even been handed over to a third party at one point – during which only the wings would be attached and a new engine and propeller from another U-75 fitted (both of which with only eight hours on the clock). Dissatisfied with the pace of the work so far, Mr. Pogelšek would in early 2013 ship the aircraft over to an official UTVA service center in Sremska Mitrovica – a road trip of 80 km that had, once again, seen the aircraft disassembled into its original state.
Here, the aircraft would be fully completed, outfitted with the type’s original instrumentation and test flown, making it finally suitable for delivery and operation. Wary of the legal requirements that had prevented it from being assembled in Slovenia, Mr. Pogelšek had originally wanted to register it in Serbia – but was informed by the Slovenian CAA that it was also possible to have it on the Slovenian register. Being a unique, uncertified example, it was initially allocated to the country’s experimental register, becoming S5-MZT the same year (M – experimental/homebuilt). However, it was soon decided that – given its commonality to the stock U-75 – the aircraft could even be added to the standard register (prefixed with D like in all former Yugoslav states), becoming S5-DZT in the process. Under this registration, it would be flown to Slovenia sometime in June 2013 (the exact date eluding Mr. Pogelšek’s recollection), making this the longest time it had been airborne in its entire life – for a grand total of just 7 hours and 13 minutes accumulated by the airframe.
The future is now
Unfortunately, soon after its arrival at Novo Mesto, the Slovenian CAA had withdrawn its approval for registration, effectively grounding the aircraft then and there (the exact reasons for this change of heart appear to fall into a domain I wish to steer clear of 🙂 ). Given that the issue was still not resolved at the time of writing, the aircraft had remained immobile for the next three years, though Mr. Pogelšek has made overtones to eventually register it in Hungary and potentially return it to airworthy state. Being employed in the art world, Mr. Podelšek plans on eventually turning the aircraft into a “mobile canvas” (more precisely, an “aero art” flying installation), and repainting it with stylized images of themes from Yugoslavia’s industry – thus paying homage to both the cultural and technical aspects for former Yugoslavia.
In the mean time, it remains the perfect “poster aircraft” for Achtung, Skyhawk! – and provides an almost unparalleled glimpse into a bit of left-field aeronautical thinking that I hope my readers will enjoy! 🙂
Customarily, I would once again like to extend my sincerest thanks for their time and assistance to:
It’s a pretty sure bet that all of us had, at one point or another, casually ignored an aircraft sitting right under our noses… you know, the sort of machine that may as well be rare and interesting – but one we’re so accustomed to seeing that it pretty much becomes part of the landscape. While the small size of Croatia’s aviation sector doesn’t provide much “opportunity” for the above, there nevertheless still are a couple of aircraft lying around that have become – for lack of a better word – invisible.
As it often so happens, I had chanced upon such a machine purely by accident, running into it while browsing through historic photos taken at Zagreb Airport (ZAG/LDZA). While the gallery in question had much eye candy with which to distract the viewer – Convairs, Caravelles, early MiG-21s and so on – hiding in the corner was a lonely little Let L-200 Morava, unceremoniously preserved at the far end of the airport. While I had seen it numerous times before in my adult life – not to mention having played on it as a kid in the late 80s 😀 – I had completely pushed it out of my mind, always looking further and further out for fresh material.
Having always had a thing for Czech light aircraft – especially “visually curious” types such as the L-40 Meta Sokol and the L-200 – I decided it was high time to have a look into this example, and see if it maybe has a story worthy of Achtung, Skyhawk!. Though its lack of identification markings had raised some doubts online about its true identity, I once again had the great fortune of being able to call upon the men and women who had worked on it in the past, allowing me yet another fascinating glimpse into the country’s aviation heritage…
While there is nothing on the outside to suggest it being anything other than a stock L-200, this machine does indeed have a bit of color in its history. Even though the Morava had had a short production run of just eight years, considerable interest in the design had still existed when Czechoslovak manufacture came to an end in 1964. One of the parties keen to continue building them was Yugoslavia, which had soon managed to secure rights for license manufacture, handing over the baton for the same to the LIBIS works of Ljubljana, Slovenia. Short for Letalski institut Branko Ivanus Slovenija (the Branko Ivanus Aviation Institute of Slovenia), this small factory had previously been responsible for a few notable GA designs, including the KB-6 Matajur two-seat trainer, KB-11 Branko four-seat tourer, and Libis 17 and 18 training gliders – all of which were produced in relatively small numbers, preciously few of which survive today.
The plan for the Morava, however, had called for just simple, small-scale assembly of aircraft from “knock-down kits” provided by Let (there is no indication that “proper” production was considered, though this cannot be ruled out). To this end, LIBIS was in 1964 supplied with a total of 14 kits, which, when completed, would produce aircraft known as the L-200 Libis. Named so purely for marketing purposes, these aircraft would be identical to the standard L-200D, which itself was an evolution of the early L-200A in response to Aeroflot requirements*.
* Aeroflot would, in the event, go on to operate the majority of the 360 Moravas produced, using them both in training and air taxi roles. To make the basic design suitable for this sort of work (as well as the conditions it was expected to operate in), Aeroflot had requested the addition of:
an engine-driven hydraulic pump for the landing gear, fitted to the No. 1 engine (replacing the A model’s manual hand pump)
dust filters on the engine intakes
a winterization kit to prevent engine over-cooling in low temperatures
a radio compass to aid in long-range navigation
and – most important of all – an increase in propeller ground clearance to prevent damage on rough strips. This was achieved by substituting the A’s two-blade 1.9 meter V410T/V410AT constant-speed propellers with three-blade 1.75 meter V506 units – making this the primary way to visually differentiate the two models (the original idea had actually been to move the whole engine nacelles higher up – but this would have drastically reduced visibility from the cockpit, so the idea was quickly dropped). A notable curiosity here were the propellers’ pitch control mechanisms: while the V506 had sported a “traditional” hydraulic actuator using engine oil, the old V410 was based on an electrical system, with propeller speed commanded by pushbuttons rather than the familiar blue levers
Of interest (since we’re already digressing 😀 ), two other versions had been considered while the Morava was still in series production. The first, dubbed the L-200B, would have been an evolutionary development of the A, while the L-200C was intended to be certified to UK airworthiness standards and sold as an export model. Both of these though had gone down to the tubes due to the sheer commitment required by Aeroflot and the model D.
In the event however, only five kits would be completed – with out example having been the first :). Rolled out in mid-1964, it would carry two distinct serials, Let’s own (and rarely used) 17-14-13, and LIBIS’ internal 300-20 (changed to 301-01 in September). Its first port of call following completion would be Pan Adria – a small Zagreb-based passenger and light freight airline – where it would become YU-BBE on 10 August.
Joined soon by three other LIBIS machines (BBF, BBG & BBH), it would initially be used for just the odd crew training flight, most of which were flown at night. However, the little fleet would quickly be put to use on nightly newspaper and airmail services as part of the carrier’s newly instituted Noćni avionski poštanski saobraćaj (Night-time Aircraft Postal Service, NAPS) program. Ran in cooperation with the Jugoslovenska pošta, telefon i telegraf (Yugoslav Post, Telephone and Telegraph, JPTT), this service would be the first mail-only aerial operation Yugoslavia since WW 2, and had served – among others – Belgrade (BEG/LYBE), Split (SPU/then LYSP) and Dubrovnik (DBV/then LYDU) direct from Zagreb (then LYZA).
The program’s increasing success, however, had soon meant that the Morava was becoming too small and too slow to cope with demand. Piggybacking on one of Yugoslavia’s first mass acquisitions of light aircraft from the West, Pan Adria had in early 1968 ditched the L-200 in favor of the much more suitable Aero Commander 500, a type that would go on to serve in this role right up until the carrier’s dissolution in 1977**.
** interestingly, an identical service would be started in early 1991 by another local operator – Zagreb Airlines (Zagal) – using a fleet of Cessna 310s and 402s. In concert with the carrier’s freight feeder work for DHL and UPS, this operation would provide the essential foundations for the formation of Croatia Airlines later the same year.
Having now been left without a job, the little fleet (sans BBH, lost in Macedonia in June 1966) would on 15 March pass into the hands of the Aeroklub Zagreb flying club, which had at the time been dabbling with the idea of starting an in-house air taxi service. However, despite the bulk of the club – which had always been one of Croatia’s most eminent aviation institutions – standing behind this venture, the L-200 had proved to be simply too thirsty and maintenance-intensive to make the proposal work, resulting in the operation’s continual uphill battle to break even.
Coming to terms with its predicament, AK Zagreb had decided to finally part with the type sometime in 1973. BBF would quickly find a new home in Slovenia, while BBE and BBG would end up in the court of the newly-formed Obrazovni centar zračnog saobraćaja (Air Traffic Education Center, OCZS) based at Zagreb, later to become one of Yugoslavia’s most respected aeronautical organizations. Having had the finances, equipment and know-how to efficiently operate an aircraft of the L-200’s caliber, OCZS had naturally wanted to put these machines to some use, allocating them to its in-house flight school, the Viša zrakoplova škola (Aviation Polytechnic, VZŠ).
No spares to spare
However, right at the very outset, the school ran into a few problems. BBG was reportedly in such a poor state that it was immediately consigned to the scrap heap, while BBE needed a thorough work-over before it could be used in regular service. But, even when this was completed, issues remained; though they still had some time left on the clock, BBE’s engines were very near the ends of their 800-hour service lives. Given that parts and replacement engines were becoming increasingly hard (and expensive) to come by – and the school could do without the bother – it was decided to fly the aircraft as sparingly as possible in order to conserve it for when it would really be needed.
To this end, BBE was earmarked solely for the final stages of Commercial Pilot License instrument training – and would even then be flown only by the school’s first two generations of students. From 1975 onward, it would operate just the occasional staff transport flight, logging only a couple of hours per year in the process. To maintain it in a working condition during this extended downtime, it would be fired up and ran two to three times a month; but even this would cease in early 1980, when the engines finally ticked over to 800 and the aircraft lost its Certificate of Airworthiness once and for all – having flown just 50-ish hours in VZŠ service…
Despite it now being ripe for the chopping block, the school nevertheless did not want the aircraft to go to waste (especially given all the effort so far invested in it). Following its removal from the register on 28 May, BBE would be towed from the apron to the school’s courtyard, where it would be set up as a gate guard and teaching aid.
But, to properly explain what (little) happens next, I though it best to first mention some of the inner peculiarities of the OCZS. Even though the VZŠ was always the most famous thing about it, the OCZS had also ran another institution called Srednja zrakoplovna škola (Aviation High School, SZŠ). While the VZŠ was a higher learning organization that dealt almost exclusively with flight training, the SZŠ – opened in 1976 – was tasked with teaching various aeronautical topics at a high school level. In 1981 though, the OCZS as such would cease to exist, with both VZŠ and SZŠ becoming “standalone” partner institutions sharing the same building***.
*** to further complicate matters, the VZŠ had the habit of occasionally changing its name, but without any alteration to the underlying “mechanics”. This is most evident in official documents, which state that on 1 April 1977, BBE was transferred to the “Centar za odgoj i usmjereno obrazovanje kadrova u zračnom prometu”, or The Center for Education and Specialist Training of Air Traffic Cadre – a seemingly significant change, but in reality it was business as usual. To make the whole issue all the more ironic, the school would revert to its original name within a couple of years.
Having always been attached to the VZŠ, BBE would remain on its books all the way into late 1989, when the school was disbanded in the political turmoil that had preceded the violent collapse of Yugoslavia two years later…
Despite the circumstances of VZŠ’s demise, the SZŠ – lacking high-value assets such as aircraft – had managed to remain below the radar throughout the ordeal, coming out of the late 80s relatively unscathed. Designated the nominal successor to VZŠ’s files and infrastructure, the school – nowadays named Zrakoplovna tehnička škola Rudolfa Perešina (The Rudolf Perešin Aviation Technical School, ZTS) – had also become the new owner of BBE, which would continue to serve in its role as a teaching aid all the way into the present.
While I strove throughout to dig up as much info on BBE as I could, many of the finer details (and dates) of its service between 1970 and 1980 are, sadly, lost to history – despite the very best intentions and efforts of the people who had helped me with my research. Virtually all of the aircraft’s known documentation has been confirmed as lost, some during the school’s organizational changes and collapse in the late 80s – but most through a simple lack of interest in BBE over the intervening 20 years.
Critically, even Serbia’s Directorate for civil aviation (the successor to Yugoslavia’s aircraft registry) lacks a clear picture of BBE’s movements in the mid 70s – so much so that even the exact year of its transfer to the OCZS is not known with certainty. Queries in the ZTS library and among current school staff had also failed to produce usable results – while the extensive, but ill-kept and disorganized AK Zagreb archive makes locating the right files harder than finding a needle in a haystack.
The only thing that had remained available to me were the memories and recollections of the men and women who had worked on or with the aircraft in the past – most of which were incorporated into the final article. Whether this story will get any “official closure” in the future remains to be seen…
As always, I would like to extend my sincere thanks to the people who devoted their time to answer my multitude of questions, including:
Capt. (retired) Antun Gabela, former VZŠ flight instructor and professor
Mr. Srđan Kisin, former BBE tech
Ms. Tihana Strmo, ZTS’ head librarian
and of course my father, who had been a dispatcher during Pan Adria’s final days, and mother, who had worked at VZŠ throughout the 80s!
Zrakoplovna tehnička škola Rudolfa Perešina (ZTS) library
Civil Aviation Directorate of Serbia (DGCA) aircraft register
Air Britain Yugoslav Civil Register (printed edition)
As I had already noted in a previous post, the world of social media – while often tenuous – can on occasion also be a fantastic (and nearly inexhaustible) source of inspiration and information on pretty much any topic conceivable. Having already been responsible for two of my historic articles to date, Facebook (for one) must take the plaudits for #3 as well, having led me (by a roundabout way) to probably one of the most interesting aeronautical projects in the region 🙂 .
While browsing a local aviation group one day, I chanced to stumble upon an unusual photo of a partially-disassembled North American F-86 Sabre wearing the tell-tale colors of the Yugoslav Air Force. Instantly intrigued, I’d started digging a bit deeper, eventually discovering that it is actually an in-progress restoration job going on next door in neighboring Slovenia. Naturally enough, it did not take me long to find and bother the people responsible, eventually managing to set my sights/viewfinder) for the towns of Kranj and Pivka in the hilly west of the country…
Boran in Wonderland
While it cannot match the scale (nor financial backing) of similar endeavors further out west, this project is nevertheless a sight for sore eyes, and represents one of the most detailed aviation preservation works undertaken since the fall of Yugoslavia. Headed in the hands-on department by Mr. Alojz Potočnik, the Sabre’s restoration is actually part of a much larger museum drive jointly led by several notable Slovene institutions, including:
the Pivka Park of Military History (Park vojaške zgodovine Pivka), which has been given long-term use of the aircraft and will display it in its own collection
the Slovenian Army Military Museum (Vojaški muzej Slovenske vojske), which is formally the owner of the aircraft and whose custodian – Mr. Matjaž Ravbar – is responsible for the historical and technical accuracy of the restoration
the Slovenian Army (Slovenska vojska), which has provided some of the workforce for the restoration work
and the Pivka Municipality, which has – in this instance – fronted part of the restoration costs, with the rest having been made up from various EU funds
Though the Sabre was the one item that had initially caught my eye, the project also includes the preservation and display of several other aircraft that had previously flown with the Yugoslav Air Force – or had played their part in the defense of Slovenia during Yugoslavia’s violent dissolution in 1991. Numbering at four machines so far – two already displayed and two (the Sabre included) still in the works – this project is well on its way to becoming one of the highest-quality aeronautical collections in the region, and is already beginning to draw in an ever increasing number of visitors – some even from well outside the former borders of Yugoslavia. One of these, however, had decided to askew the normal tour program, electing instead to start straight at the source: the workshop of Mr. Potočnik 😀 .
The place where a number of the Park’s non-winged exhibits also came from, it was on this day home to two aircraft which, on the face of it, should not really rate all that high on the rarity list: the West’s most produced jet fighter – the Sabre – and the world’s most produced fighter, the MiG-21 🙂 . Standing at 9,680 and 10,645 examples produced respectively (excluding Chinese-built versions for the latter), both are still present in significant numbers on the airshow circuit, with the -21 still clinging on in front-line service even with several forces in the European Union*.
* Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania to name them. While the type is also in use in Serbia, it has been relegated to secondary roles and exists today in small numbers only.
However, the actual machines present here were of a different class altogether, representing first the exceedingly rare IF-86D – a Yugoslav home-brewed reconnaissance version of the “big Sabre” – and then the MiG-21F-13, the type’s first ever operational variant. In various stages of restoration (with the MiG significantly closer to completion), they had both promised to provide fantastic insight into the restoration process – as well as allow me to sneak a peek at some of their inner workings… 🙂
1. North American IF-86D-41-NA Sabre, 14325
Even though it shares the name, designation and general stature of one of the West’s most prominent fighters, the first machine to be featured here is actually somewhat of a black sheep within the extended Sabre family tree. Longer, wider, heavier and faster than all of the originals, the D model – often called the Sabre Dog – is in reality a separate type altogether, owing only its basic configuration (and various other bits of DNA) to the stock F-86…
Originally intended to be called the F-95, the D model can trace its roots back to the end of the 40s and attempts to turn the day-only Sabre into an advanced, all-weather fighter that could cope with the masses of Soviet bombers anticipated to eventually head for US borders. Faced with the need to carry both advanced weaponry and a bulky early-gen radar – AND then get both up to intercept altitude in a reasonable period of time – the new aircraft had immediately warranted a significantly more powerful engine, as well as a modified fuselage to accommodate the lot. Dispensing with the 23 kN General Electric J47-GE-13 of the later A models, the D would solve the first problem by being fitted with a reheated version of the same engine – the 33 kN J47-GE-17, later replaced by the 34 kN -33 – whose long reheat system and exhaust pipe had necessitated a one-meter fuselage stretch.
Its intended task as a bomber hunter had also brought about a rethink of its armament solutions. Rather than rely on old-fashioned guns – which were considered to be ineffective against dense, clumped masses of heavy aircraft – the Sabre Dog was to be armed with 24 70-mm “Mighty Mouse” Folding Fin Aerial Rockets (FFARs), housed in an unique retractable tray located on the underside of the fuselage. Wide by necessity – in order to accommodate the largest number of rockets possible without being too tall – the tray too had come to define some of the dimensions of the fuselage, being responsible for a small (but nevertheless noticeable) increase in the D model’s girth 🙂 .
In order to be able to find the bombers it would fire its mice at, the Sabre Dog was also fitted with an AN/APG-36 search radar, housed in a distinctive radome on the upper lip of the intake. With an effective range of some 55 km (30 NM), the radar was slaved to an (at the time) advanced fire-control system, allowing the aircraft to zoom in behind an enemy formation, discharge its rockets in a pattern calculated to inflict the maximum amount of damage – and then zoom out while still remaining (more or less) outside the presumed range of the formation’s defensive guns.
But, while all of this may sound solid in theory, in practice the aircraft had suffered from a number of serious shortcomings – all of which were a consequence of its transformation into something the original Sabre was never designed to be. The Mighty Mouse system, for example, was shown during tests to be inaccurate and ineffective; the aircraft’s sheer bulk had required a high landing speed and, by association, a long runway; the J47’s add-on reheat system was prone to malfunction – and the aircraft was generally too complex to handle by the average single pilot. All of this had, in fact, earned it the unflattering nickname Sabre Dog – alluding more to it being an under-performing “dog” than a separate model of the F-86 🙂 .
Nevertheless, between 1957 and 1961, the F-86D would be one of the mainstays of the US’ aerial defenses, until being supplanted and eventually replaced both by new aircraft types and upgraded versions of itself (most notably the much-improved F-86L). Its withdrawal from service had immediately led to a strong export drive, intended partly to recuperate as many of the funds invested into its acquisition as possible – but mostly to help shore up Europe’s WW2-battered defenses against the threat of the USSR**.
** following the formation of NATO as a functioning force, the US had instantly sought to strengthen the edges of Western Europe – and create a protective buffer for itself along the way – should the Union’s sabre rattling suddenly become less benign. Still not having caught their industrial breath following the ravages of WW2, countries such as Italy and West Germany were thought to be particularly vulnerable, leading to the decision to sell them – often for next to nothing – both surplus hardware from the war, and newer metal that could achieve a measure of parity with whatever the USSR could throw at them. Known as the Mutual Defense Assistance Program – MDAP – this project would eventually be responsible for most of the US machinery operated by West European forces throughout the 60s and early 70s.
Even though it was somewhat on the wrong side of world politics, one of the type’s customers was also Yugoslavia, at the time looking to modernize its leftover WW2 fighter and ground attack forces (then made up of an eclectic mix of local, US, British, German, Italian and Russian machinery). Even though the 1961 sale of 130 examples (comprising 36, 41, 45 and 50 series jets) to a communist country had caused a bit of an uproar at home, the US government was nevertheless quite forthcoming, especially since Yugoslavia had already operated the Lockheed T-33, Republic F-84 and Canadair-built “straight” Sabres – all important bits in trying to lure the country (which has always been non-aligned) to its side of the Iron Curtain.
While all of these jets would go on to lead variously interesting lives – some having already been earmarked for cannibalization on arrival – the ones of special interest to us were the 32 examples intended for conversion into home-grown photo reconnaissance platforms 🙂 . Done by the Jastreb (goshawk) works of Zemun, Serbia, this modification had quickly become known as the IF-86D (I – izviđač, scout), and had entailed the replacement of the Mighty Mouse system and its launch tray with a custom fit of three Kodak K-24 downward-facing cameras***, as well as the addition of underwing mounting points for target illuminating flash bombs. Apart from this, the jets would remain the same in all other aspects in order to keep maintenance costs down to a minimum.
*** interestingly, the Sabre Dogs would not be the only machines to receive this treatment. Another notable type to be modified so was the TV-2/T-33B, designated the ITV-2 and IT-33
However, how and where 14325 fits among them is still subject to some confusion, since the machine’s true identity and lineage have not yet been conclusively established. Upon their arrival into the YuAF inventory, all 130 jets had been allocated codes in the 14001 to 14130 range; however, one modified into the IF-86 standard, the 32 jets selected were re-coded as 14301 through 14332. While the serials for all 130 are available through public channels, they are referenced only to the original codes, and are not correlated with the IF “re-branding” – making even the Park and Museum unaware of 14325’s full and complete history. The level of uncertainty is such that in some channels the aircraft was rumored to actually be 14307 – though this had been disproved by the Museum.
Whatever its case, a helpful fact is that all of the recce Sabres had stuck together their entire lives, flying first with the 184th Reconnaissance Aviation Regiment from 1963, and then with the 352nd Reconnaissance Aviation Squadron when the former disbanded in February 1966 – both of which had been based at my home airport, Zagreb (ZAG/LDZA) 🙂 . Interestingly, the IF would have relatively short service lives, having been withdrawn from use already in 1967, formally struck of the active inventory list in 1968 – and then replaced by MiG-21Rs when the squadron moved to Željava Airbase on the border of Bosnia and Croatia****. As was the case with other types being pulled completely from service, several IF-86s had soon ended up as gate-guards across former Yugoslavia, with 14325 being posted at Ljubljana’s Brnik Airport (LJU/LJLJ). Interestingly, once displayed, it would be given the code 14146, a fictitious out-of-sequence identity never used in actual service.
**** an interesting side-story is that the squadron, its aircraft and new base would later go on to play an important part in modern Croatian history. On 25 October 1991, (then) captain 1st class Rudolf Perešin would fly the squadron’s MiG-21R 26112 to Klagenfurt, Austria during a reconnaissance sweep of Slovenia, becoming the first Croatian pilot to defect from the YuAF during the 90s civil war.
It would then stay at Brnik for the better part of 40 years, being forced to endure the fate of nearly all non-museum aircraft in the region – a slow death by atmospheric wear and sheer neglect. By the time it had been taken under Mr. Potočnik’s wing in 2014, 14325 had suffered extensive corrosion to parts of its structure, a tear in the lower aft fuselage – and the attentions of local scavengers and scrap-metal dealers. Thankfully though, all of the damage was deemed repairable (albeit with a lot of work!), making the aircraft an ideal candidate for restoration and display at the Park…
2. Aero S-106, 22542
The second aircraft present in the shop though was perhaps even the more attractive one – if anything for the visceral appeal of the MiG-21 shape to a person used to seeing it his entire life 🙂 . Looking like it had just rolled off the production line, its sleek curves accentuated by the bare-metal finish, 22542 will eventually become one of only two F-13s displayed in the lands of former Yugoslavia – and one of the preciously few first-gen models of any sort to be found in this part of Europe…
However, while it may look, smell and feel like a genuine YuAF example, 22542 is in reality a former Czechoslovak machine – which actually makes it an S-106, a MiG-21F-13 produced under license by the Aero Vodochody works near Prague (makers of the superb L-39 Albatros trainer) 🙂 . Having never had anything to do with Yugoslavia throughout its service life, now-22542 was manufactured in 1965 with the serial 560313, becoming 0313 when delivered to the Czechoslovak AF on 6 December of the same year.
Destined to spend its entire flying career on training duties, 0313 was first allocated to the Air Force Training Center at Přerov Airbase (PRV/LKPO), from which it would be transferred to the 1st Training Regiment (based at the same base) upon the latter’s formation in September 1973. Second in longevity only to Albania’s Chengdu-manufactured F-7s, 0313 and its squadron mates would eventually go on to become some of the oldest F-13s still flying in Europe, with 0313 itself struck off the military registry only on 19 June 1990 – and with just shy of 1,393 hours on the clock. Shortly afterwards – on 17 July to be precise – it would be transferred to the military aviation museum at Prague’s Kbely Airport (LKKB), where it would remain until acquired by the Military Museum in 2011 and picked up by Mr. Potočnik in 2014.
While the original intent had always been to restore an authentic Yugoslav machine, the inability to acquire one had forced the restoration team to think laterally and look elsewhere for a replacement. However, while they now had an aircraft to paint, its lack of a “Yugoslav pedigree” had meant that giving it an actual YuAF code would have been stretching history and accuracy to their limits – leading to the decision to simply give it a fictitious identity.
The task of choosing this new ID was – interestingly – pretty straightforward. Known in service as the L-12 (L – lovac, hunter), the YuAF had operated a total of 41 F-13s, all delivered between 1962 and 1966 – and designated 22501 through 22541. Slotting itself nicely into the sequence without causing too much historical disruption, the new addition was simply christened 22542 🙂 . Near completion at the time of writing, the aircraft will soon join the Park’s collection, and be displayed alongside the Sabre and two other machines in a new, purpose-built museum hall.
A Walk in The Park
But, to fully appreciate just where these two restorations are going – and how much effort will yet be put into their work – one also needs to see and admire some of the “finished products” :). As mentioned in the opening entry, two completed machines – restored during an earlier phase and financed by the Army – are already displayed at the Pivka, and kept under the watchful eye of the Park’s expert associate, Mr. Boštjan Kurent. Continually maintained and meticulously cared for, both aircraft go quite some distance beyond normal museum specs and retain pretty much all of their operational fittings – including the engines and complete cockpit setups…
3. Republic F-84G-31-RE Thunderjet, 10642
The first of the pair to be featured, 10642’s story in many respects closely parallels that of the IF-86. However, while it too was produced in significant numbers – with 7,254 examples completed – the Thunderjet is nevertheless a much rarer sight today, with virtually all of the few surviving examples confined to a couple of (distant) museums in the West. Even more astounding is the realization that of the 231 (!) F-84s delivered to the YuAF, only 10642 and 10525 (of the Aeronautical Museum in Belgrade) still stand as display-grade examples, with most of the rest having either been sold or scrapped ages ago…
Looking quite fresh for its age (which says a lot about the quality of the restoration work!), 10642 had rolled off the production line in 1953 as part of the type’s third production series. Sporting the factory serial 3050-1829B and provisional USAF identity of 52-2910, it would be delivered the same year to the Italian Air Force, becoming MM52-2910 of the 5 Aerobrigata.
Following the end of Italian F-84 operations in May 1957, 10642 would be transferred to the Yugoslav Air Force as part of the continuation of MDAP, where it would take up its current identity as part of either the 82nd or 172nd Aviation Regiment of the 21st Division (the details are a bit hazy) based at Zemunik Airbase (ZAD/LDZD) on the Adriatic coast. Like virtually all newly-acquired aircraft at the time, 10642 would for awhile sport the original colors of its previous operator – bare metal in the case of the Italian AF – before being repainted into YuAF’s standard camouflage pattern some years down the line (as more funds became available).
At some point during its lifetime, 10642 would be transferred to the 82nd Air Brigade stationed at Cerklje ob Krki Airbase, Slovenia (LJCE), where it would continue to serve until its retirement in 1971. As was the standard modus operandi at the time, a couple of the type were picked up and placed as gate-guards at various locations of note, with 10642 having been allocated to Brnik alongside Sabre 14325 – gaining, like the latter, a non-existing identity (10914) in the process. Here it would remain unkempt for the next thirty or so years, before finally being rescued by Mr. Potočnik and the Museum in 2008.
Having been exposed to the elements – including high winds and snows – for more than three decades, the aircraft was, unsurprisingly, in a pretty poor state, requiring an extensive ground-up restoration that would continue well into 2013. Emerging from it looking like it had just rolled off the production line, 10642 was then placed in the open in the Park – from where it will move to the aforementioned permanent indoor location in September of 2015.
4. Soko HO-42 Gazelle, TO-001
Conversely, the last machine on the list doesn’t really have much in the way of rarity on its side; however, what it lacks in that department it certainly makes up for in historical significance 🙂 . The Park’s only rotary-winged exhibit, TO-001 is often hailed as one of the most important aircraft in newer Slovene history – and is still ranked as one of Mr. Potočnik’s (and his team’s) best restorations…
Locally still considered to be one of the very few aircraft of any sort to fully live up to its name, the superlative Gazelle has always had a special connection to Yugoslavia, having been the mainstay of its light helicopter forces ever since its introduction into the YuAF in 1973. Still flying on the front lines in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina today, the SA-341 is pretty much part of the aeronautical landscape, a reputation no doubt due to both its stellar flight performance – and its long-lasting license production***** by the Soko works in Mostar, Bosnia.
***** of interest, during the 70s and early 80s, Yugoslavia had gone on a number of mass hopping sprees all throughout the West, purchasing significant batches of everything from the Cessna 150, via the Bell 212, to the HS.125 bizjet. Numbering well into the treble digits of machines, the intent of these acquisitions was to prop up the country’s aviation sector by equipping flying clubs, schools, government agencies, larger companies – and even police air units – with modern, capable Western hardware.
Interestingly, all throughout the deal, the country’s purchasing committees had always shown a clear preference for aircraft designed in the US, but if at all possible manufactured somewhere in Europe – or even at home, if the production capabilities so allowed. Thus most of the smaller Cessnas bought were actually Reims machines – and most Bell helicopters were in fact Agustas (the only exceptions were aircraft not produced anywhere but in the States). Eventually, the only type to be built whole in Yugoslavia was the Gazelle (starting in 1978 from knock-down kits) – though license manufacture of various components (such as the Bristol-Siddeley/Rolls-Royce Viper turbojet) had been relatively widespread.
To differentiate them from original French-built examples (only 21 of which had ever been delivered to Yugoslavia), Mostar-produced examples came in a variety of designations******, including:
HO-42: a basic version equivalent to the military-export SA-341H (HO – helikopter opšti, general-purpose helicopter)
HI-41 Hera: a reconnaissance and artillery-fire correction model based on the HO-42 and equipped with the Hera gyro-stabilized laser range-finding system (HI – helikopter izviđački, scout helicopter)
HS-42: a MEDEVAC version based on the HO-42 (HS – helikopter sanitetski, sanitary helicopter)
NH-42M GAMA: an armed SA-341 sporting the 9M14M Malyutka wire-guided anti-tank missile and the Strela-2M air-to-air missile (NH – naoružani helikopter, armed helicopter; GAMA – GAzela MAljutka)
HO-45: another basic version, but based on the more powerful SA-342L
NH-45M GAMA: the same as the NH-42M, but based on the HO-45
****** another interesting tidbit is that the Yugoslav military designation system had often contained numerical references to WW2. The 41 in HI-41 thus refers to the start of the war in Yugoslavia (initiated by the Axis invasion on 6 April), while the 42 in HO-42 refers to the year Partisan forced had first really made themselves felt in their fight against the German Army. And the 45 is rather obvious 😀 .
One of 157 examples made in total, TO-001 can trace its roots back to the second production batch of HO-42s, leaving the factory floor in 1979 with the serial 028 and YuAF code 12660. There follows a two-year gap in activity that I could not account for, but in 1981 it would be allocated to the 894th Helicopter Squadron for Reconnaissance and Signals based at Brnik. Its subsequent history would be relatively uneventful (apart from a minor landing incident in 1984) all the way until 25 June 1991, when all helicopters based at Ljubljana were transferred to the Šentvid Barracks north of town – just days before one of the opening shots of the 90s war, the 28 June aerial attack on Brnik.
Two days later on 27 June – the day Slovenia had declared its independence from Yugoslavia – the unit was deployed east to monitor the Slovenian-Croatian border, with 12660 additionally tasked with airlifting an injured soldier to hospital in the town of Maribor, located in the north-eastern corner of the country. The next day – 28 June – when piloted by captain 1st class Jože Kalan and aviation technician sergeant-major 1st class Bogo Šuštar, 12660 had defected to the Slovenian Territorial Defense forces, flying west out of Maribor at high speed along the Slovenian-Austrian border, and onwards to the Golte forest where it landed at a winter sports facility and surrendered.
Having subsequently been moved several times to confuse enemy intelligence – even hiding on farms on occasion – the helicopter would, in the event, play no further part in the war. Nevertheless, it would soon be rechristened TO-001 (TO – teritorijalna obrana, territorial defense) and named Velenje, a homage to the Slovene town of the same name whose TO ground units were tasked with its protection while on the run. In 1992 though, it would be transferred to the civil register as SL-HAA (SL being Slovenia’s first post-independence prefix, before being allocated the current S5) and repainted into an aquamarine scheme reminiscent of 70s Bell JetRanger factory colors. It would then continue to fly with the 15th Brigade of the nascent Slovenian Air Force, serving mostly in various training and light transport roles.
All of this would come to an end however on 21 June 1994, when (now) S5-HAA had suffered a landing accident at Kočevski rog in the south-east of the country. Deemed to be beyond economical repair (as the only one of its type in-country), it was instead restored to display status and in 1996 installed as a gate guard in front of the 15th Brigade’s HQ at Brnik. But, like Thunderjet 10642 and Sabre 14325, it had suffered greatly from its exposure to the weather (even though it was outside for a “mere” decade only), leading to a drive to restore and preserve it once again as an important part of the country’s recent history.
Taking place from August 2008 to its unveiling at Pivka on 27June 2012, the restoration effort is still hailed as one of the biggest aeronautical history projects in Slovene history, and had involved a sizable team of 26 people – including numerous active military personnel and the crew that had flown it over on 28 June 1991 🙂 . As is the case with the Thunderjet, the work had gone far beyond the usual museum standards, going on to include the entire cockpit, all ancillary equipment – and the complete Astazou IIIA engine…
I would also like to extend my sincerest thanks to: Messrs Potočnik and Kurent for their time, friendliness and forthcoming assistance; Mr. Svetozar Jokanović of the “YU vazuhoplovna istorija” group for information about the YuAF recce Sabres and their service lives; and Mr. Tomaž Perme for information on the project’s organization and various corrections of the machines’ individual histories!
When I had published my first derelict MD-80 story back in February of 2014 – featuring Maribor-based MD-82 S5-ACC – I had pretty much believed that to be that as far as this whole topic was concerned. And while there were several other abandoned Mad Dogs scattered throughout the region (two of which were in Croatia), all of them were pretty much inaccessible, shoved away into some remote corner of a commercial aerodrome and left to the elements. Sometimes of uncertain legal status and often with a fair bit of notoriety to their names, I had half expected them to either be broken up and scrapped – or disintegrate on their own – before I ever got the chance to snap them up close…
As it happens, I was somewhat wrong on that account, since one machine did indeed survive to be used again – sort of 🙂 . The aircraft in question is universally known to the locals as 9A-CBG, and had once flown with one of Croatia’s first post-independence private carriers, Air Adriatic (once also the parent of S5-ACC, known then as 9A-CBD). Unlike the latter though, CBG had changed considerably over the years, transforming from a sad, rotting hulk – and into a smoky, and quite interesting, firefighting trainer 🙂 .
Fire in the hole… hold!
Unlike most members of the MD-80 family, CBG had led a positively dull life, only ever flying with two operators – quite the anomaly in the Mad Dog world 😀 . Wearing the serial 49430 and line number 1334, CBG would first take to the skies on 11 November 1985, sporting an unknown (but likely subsequently reused) test registration. Interestingly, it would be more than a year before it appears in any online fleet list, joining the ranks of Italy’s flag carrier Alitalia in the very last days of December 1986. Taking on the identity of I-DAVI, it would remain in Italian service for nearly 20 years*, before finally being transferred (via leasing provider Azzure Holdings Ltd) to a rapidly expanding Air Adriatic in January 2005 🙂 .
* I-DAVI would not be the only Alitalia example to head east. The Air Adriatic fleet had also included ex I-DAVH (9A-CBF, 49221/1330) and I-DAVG (9A-CBH, 49220/1319).
Like its sister ships, CBG (now named “No guts, no glory”) would be put to use in the carrier’s various charter operations, where it would remain until September 2005. It would then return briefly to Italy, having been wet-leased to operator MyAir (along with the aforementioned 9A-CBD/S5-ACC) until November of the same year.
However, the difficult operating economics – among other unfavorable realities – of airline flying in Croatia at the time head meant that pretty soon the carrier had found itself in an increasingly unenviable financial position. With its back being pressed ever more firmly against the wall, Air Adriatic had started shedding its (by now) eight-strong MD-82/83 fleet already in late 2005, entering 2006 with just five machines on its record. The company’s downward spiral had continued all throughout the year, until – with just three MDs to its name – it had lost its Air Operator Certificate (AOC) in March of 2007…
The final nail in the carrier’s coffin, the revocation of its AOC had firmly grounded the remaining jets where they stood. In the case of CBG, this was Rijeka Airport (RJK/LDRI), a small regional gateway located on the island of Krk and serving the coastal town of Rijeka – once home to Air Adriatic’s HQ. Unfortunately though, even though it was stuck on the company’s doorstep, there would be no reprieve for CBG, since the company’s financial collapse – and its subsequent inability to honor lease and operating payments – had meant that the aircraft would certainly end up embroiled in long and complicated legal proceedings. And so it came to be: caught in no man’s land, CBG would be left to rot and disintegrate in the corner of the apron…
Though it had not had the good fortune of its former sister ship CBD/S5-ACC, CBF would nevertheless eventually manage to find a new meaning in life :). Scrapped in November 2012 according to some sources, the aircraft was actually modified into an unusual low-budget firefighting trainer for the Rijeka Airport firefighting brigade. Now called the Dim-12 (“Smoke-12”), CBD’s conversion had primarily entailed a drastic shortening of the fuselage, a clean strip of all interior fittings – and its mounting on a trolley so it can be towed to whichever part of the airport it is needed at. Thankfully for me, at the time of my visit to the airport it was not engulfed in smoke, allowing me and my camera a closer inspection… 🙂
I would also like to extend my sincere thanks to both the Rijeka Airport ground team and firefighting service for the opportunity to snoop around!
Even though the world of modern social media may leave a lot to be desired, it nevertheless does occasionally have its bright and interesting moments :). While the definition of the latter could produce enough material for a whole book (not to mention the odd philosophical brawl), for me they mostly concern the occasional serious aeronautical discussions, all of which rarely fail to intrigue even the most basic aviation enthusiast. Having brought together in one place everyone from aspiring young aviators to experienced airline captains, these threads are always a gold mine of fantastic information and material – and had even served as an inspiration for my most detailed article to date, the extensive review of Croatia Airlines’ light aircraft, published a month or so ago 🙂 .
Rather unsurprisingly given the results, it would only be a matter of time before some new post or photo on Facebook would pique my interest once again. In the event, I did not have to wait long; already at the beginning of March, a member had put up a series of fantastic (and fantastically rare) photos taken from the Zagreb Airport (LDZA/ZAG) tower back in the 80s, covering everything from JAT’s DC-10s to the odd PanAm 737-200. Naturally enough, I was through the roof, and had immediately started digging through my own aviation collection for any other interesting bits from the period. However, having been born only in 1985, I could not produce any of my own material – so I had instead decided to dig up my dad’s old Jeppesen manuals, dust-covered reminders of his days as a dispatcher with Pan Adria in the early 80s 🙂 .
With five full binders now at my disposal – covering most of Europe, North Africa and the western edges of the USSR – I was at a quandary of where to begin… the East German corridors towards Berlin, Munich’s old Riem Airport, Athens’ half-buried Hellenikon, or the 80s versions of Schipol, Heathrow and Charles de Gaulle… however, in the end I’d decided to stick close to home and take a 30 year trip back in time to the second airport I call home… 🙂
As could have been rightfully expected, 2013’s three-day visit of the An-225 to Zagreb had caused a stir of proportions unseen on the normally quiet and slow Croatian aviation scene. Spotters, photographers and enthusiasts from all over the country had flocked to town in their hundreds, while even the mainstream media – normally unimpressed by anything aviation – sat up and took notice, covering the entire visit with front-page news. Sensing a PR opportunity that it simply could not afford to miss, Zagreb Airport’s operating authority had gotten into the act as well, organizing a number of extended bus tours around the aircraft – and giving other visitors a virtual carte blanche to observe proceedings from the safe side of the airport fence. Inevitably, such freedom of movement had meant that enthusiasts with big cameras could roam the landside from end to end, snapping away at several normally inaccessible parts of the airport and the aircraft parked, stored and/or preserved there (though their relevance was, understandably, completely lost in the glory of the world’s biggest aircraft).
After the hubbub had died down a week or so later – once everybody had emptied their memory cards 😀 – photos of these other machines had slowly started surfacing on various social networks. Among them was a fine shot of a preserved Cessna 310R, painted in an early scheme used by national carrier Croatia Airlines and put up for display in front of the company’s (secluded) maintenance hangar. While some were already aware of its existence, for many it was nothing short of a revelation, with several even going on to question the authenticity of the paint job 🙂 . Pretty soon an interesting discussion had begun to unfold in the comments section, a discussion that would eventually reveal some fascinating – and hitherto little known – details of its time flying commercial services during Croatia Airlines’ formative years.
Rather unsurprisingly, this had immediately set off a chain reaction here at Achtung, Skyhawk!, starting first of all with attempts to dig up as much history on the airframe as I could. My search was further spurred by the knowledge (previously… misplaced) that the company had actually started out in life with a handful of various Cessna piston twins, aircraft that had long been sold and nowadays completely forgotten by the general public. After a bit more digging – which had included extensive conversation with current and former Croatia Airlines staff – I was amazed to discover that the company had actually operated seven light aircraft, including even a lone Cessna Citation II. With this knowledge at my disposal, you can pretty much guess what happens next… 😀
I’m leaving on a jet plane
However, before we do get to the inevitable, I though it best to first run quickly through the company’s potted history. The country’s flag carrier ever since independence, Croatia Airlines – known to all by its ICAO code, CTN – can trace its roots back to 7 August 1989 and the formation of Zagreb Airlines (Zagal), a small cargo outfit created around a single Cessna 402. Flying feeder and nightly postal services on behalf of companies such as DHL and UPS, Zagal would in early 1990 undergo a program of rapid (and ambitious) expansion that would quickly see its fleet swell to include more than a dozen piston twins and singles – and even the odd business jet and turboprop.
This very ambition would soon extend to the creation of proper regional passenger services – using proper passenger aircraft – that would initially be known under the provisional name CROATIAirlines (at the time often stylized as CROATIAirlines). Re-branded into the now-familiar Croatia Airlines on 23 July 1990, this new unit would in May 1991 lease-in two McDonnell Douglas MD-82s (YU-ANC & YU-ANO) from Slovenia’s Adria Airways, kicking off operations with scheduled flights between Zagreb (LYZA at the time) and Split (LYSP). Further services would soon be established outwards to Europe, most of which would link Croatia with various cites in West Germany – and which would eventually account for the majority of the company’s traffic. In parallel, Zagal itself – having provided the necessary operational and regulatory foundations for the new airline – would be fully integrated into CTN by November, with its fleet (minus most of the piston singles) continuing to serve for awhile in its original roles.
However, as with everything else in those days, the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia in mid-1991 and the subsequent start of a four-year civil war would throw a huge spanner straight into CTN’s works. Following the Yugoslav Air Force’s 28 June attack on Ljubljana Airport (LYLJ) in Slovenia – one of the responses to Slovenia and Croatia’s simultaneous declarations of independence three days earlier – the two MDs would be immediately recalled back home, leaving Croatia Airlines with no machines with which to ply its trade. Things were equally bad for the lighties, whose duties had seen them scattered across the width and breadth of both countries. To protect them against anticipated hostile action, during September and November they were hurriedly (and occasionally in the face of small arms fire) ferried to safe ports in Austria, where they would stay until the following year.
To address the thorny issue of being an airline with no airliners to its name, CTN had in late 1991 and early 1992 made overtones with several manufacturers and various European airlines for the purchase of some of their used hardware. While a slew of types had been considered, the carrier’s new fleet would take on a pretty conventional look for the time, eventually coming to include:
five Boeing 737-230/ADVs (9A-CTA through CTE1), acquired from Lufthansa and delivered starting April 1992
two “quick change” ATR-42-300QCs (9A-CTS & CTT), fitted with around 400 kg worth of floor reinforcements to enable conversion to an all-cargo configuration, sourced new direct from ATR and delivered on 4 and 25 June 1993 respectively
and a lone ATR-42-320 (9A-CTU), sourced also from ATR, delivered on 31 May 1995
1 an interesting oddity that can still be found in period photos, three of the 737s (CTA, CTB & CTC) – as well as all of the lighties – had between April and July 1992 carried an unusual RC registration prefix. Decided and allocated by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), these prefixes are used for all radio communications – not just aeronautical – so changing them naturally involves a fair bit of bureaucracy. However, with Yugoslavia now well and truly gone, there was no legal basis for using the old YU prefix anymore – while Croatia’s very recent recognition by the international community (9 January) implied a noticeable while while the ITU convened and decided what to do. To get around this issue, it was suggested from within CTN – and temporarily accepted in the corridors of power – that RC (Republic of Croatia) could be used until a permanent solution was found. The latter would take the form of the current 9A, not a bad choice overall considering that R prefixes are generally used by Russia, CR was allocated to Portugal’s overseas provinces – and HR (“Hrvatska”, the country’s local name) was already taken up by Honduras.
While they were a bit “old hat” even by the standards of the 90s, the noisy and infinitely charismatic 737s had nevertheless done sterling work throughout the war years and can – in retrospect – be credited for putting Croatia Airlines onto the proverbial map. However, while they were easy and cheap to buy, the certainly were not cheap to run. By the end of the decade, the post-war economic situation in Croatia was still wobbly at best, while the very visible scars of war were not really doing the country’s traditional economic staple – tourism – any favors. In this business climate, having a fleet of aging airliners that drank fuel like a burning oil refinery made increasingly little economic sense, prompting CTN to head out shopping once more.
A similar turn of events – albeit with a very different outcome – had also taken place among the lighties several years earlier. While all of them did have their uses and were not just standing idly around collecting dust, they nevertheless were considered to be an operational and financial burden – one that CTN, now preoccupied with airliners and scheduled operations, had soon decided it could do without. In trying to find a solution to this problem, suggestions were floated in 1993 and 1994 of separating the remaining bits of Zagal back into a standalone company similar in purpose to its 1989 original. However, this plan would have required CTN to part with a noticeable amount of manpower, a resource that a fledging airline trying to operate in the middle of a war could not really spare. Thus it was soon decided to sell off all but one of the remaining aircraft – the Cessna 310R mentioned in the opening entry – and eventually altogether close that chapter of the company’s history…
At this point, the 737s still had half a decade left to run – but the writing on the wall would become all the clearer on 29 May 1997, when CTN took delivery of its first truly modern airliner, the Airbus A320-211 🙂 . Registered 9A-CTF – and from then on affectionately known as “Tango Fox” – this 1992 machine was not actually bought outright, but rather taken under long-term dry lease, an arrangement under which it would operate for the next 16 years. But, having done its bit in paving the way for the type’s smooth introduction into service, CTF would – sadly – enter the history books once again as the first CTN aircraft to meet its maker, having been sentenced to death by scrapping after it ran out of service life in December 2013…
While its demise did cause some tears to be shed on the local aviation scene, CTF was nevertheless still just the tip of an Airbus iceberg. Quickly gaining momentum, this iceberg would eventually come to include:
four A319-112s (CTG, delivered 21 January 1998 | CTH, delivered 4 June 1998 | CTI, delivered 15 June 1999 | CTL, delivered 23 June 2000)
and two A320-214s (CTJ & CTK), delivered 17 June 1999 and 9 June 2000 respectively
all of which were acquired mint-fresh straight from the Hamburg (A319) and Toulouse (A320) shop floors2.
2 however, even though the fleet would eventually grow to become ten strong – including four A319s, three A320s and three ATR-42s – the company would occasionally also lease-in additional machines to cater for seasonal traffic peaks. The first instance had involved BAe-146-200 G-FLTA, leased from British operator Flightline between April and June 2000; this would be followed by G-OZRH – also of Flightline – between April 2002 and September 2003; and finally, BAe-146-300 G-BPNT, which had taken over for G-OZRH during October of the same year. The choice of type would not be restricted to the Jumbolino however; the company would also take in Lufthansa’s own A319-114 D-AILH between April 2004 and 2005. A notable exception to this dynamic would become A320-211 9A-CTM, taken up in April 2005 after D-AILH’s departure and retained all the way till March 2010.
As the first of these deliveries were taking place, the Boeings were already preparing to bid farewell to Croatia. With five Airbuses fully operational as mid-1999 dawned, all five of the 737s would depart the fleet in rapid succession between August and October, eventually making their way – some via roundabout routes – to operators in South Africa. As of December 2014, none are listed as being in flying condition anymore, with three permanently stored in SA, one stored (likely) in Pakistan, and one – ex. CTC – scrapped following its engine detaching at take-off from Cape Town in November 2007.
A similar fate – but (at first) without all the storage, scrapping and engines falling off – would eventually await the three ATRs as well, all of which would be gradually phased out between November 2007 and October 2008. Taking their place would be the larger and significantly faster Bombardier DHC-8-402 Dash 8 Q400, six of which (“classics” CQA through CQD, and Next Gens CQE and CQF) would join the fleet between May 2008 and April 2010. Like the Airbuses, these too would be new-build machines sourced direct from the factory – but would all be dry-leased for the long run (like CTF) rather than bought outright.
Like many early-gen ATR-42s, the Croatia Airlines Trio would eventually find new jobs in South America, criss-crossing Guatemalan and Honduran skies under the auspices of regional carrier Aviateca. In what is a delightful bit of irony, CTU would go on to fly under the flag on Honduras as HR-AUX, thus becoming the only (formerly) Croatian aircraft to wear the once-coveted HR registration prefix 😀 . CTU and sister ship CTT – now TG-TRG of Guatemala – would also come a full circle in 2015, returning back home to Zagreb for heavy maintenance. Unfortunately, various legal and economic issues within Aviateca had meant that they ended up standing here permanently, slowly deteriorating in the corner of the Croatia Airlines maintenance apron…
Dial C For Cessna
Interesting stories such as these though are not exclusive to just the airliner fleet – far from it in fact. Having operated at a time of great political and economic turmoil, the exploits and histories of the titular little birds often make for captivating reading, and more often than not provide unusual and unique insight into the early days of both Zagal and Croatia Airlines. Having served – in their own way – as stepping stones towards CTN as it is today, they have nowadays been mostly forgotten even by many ardent aviation enthusiasts, making it high time for their stories to be heard once again.
As had been noted in the opening entry, Croatia Airlines had operated seven light aircraft; however, that is there for brevity’s sake only, since the actual fleet composition since the creation of Zagal had varied all over the place, with each aircraft involved having a story that is impossible to untangle from that of the rest of the fleet. Therefore, to maintain clarity and coherence, I’ve decided to primarily focus on the said seven – but would, through the prism of their stories, also attempt to shed some light on the lives and times of the rest.
What follows then is as detailed an account of the fleet’s development as I could make it while relying solely on trustworthy sources. Given the troubled and politically-charged times in which both companies were created, it is a given that some information has been lost or corrupted, with scant records, missing details and the occasional withholding of information being just some of the issues I’ve ran into during research. Weaving this story together had thus required taking bits from multiple sources and stitching them together to form a continuous whole – a process that inherently carries the risk of omitting a detail or two. However, with the generous assistance of many of the people who were there – not to mention CTN itself – I’ve managed to put together what I believe to be an accurate, objective and aircraft-centered chronicle of the little fleet, which I hope will make for an interesting and stimulating read. So, without further ado, let me present the seven little aircraft that went on to make a big company… 🙂
Cessna 310R II, 9A-DFO:
Even though Zagal would come into being only in mid-1989, its genesis – and that of its fleet – can actually be traced back to 1987 and two (at the time unremarkable) Cessna 310R IIs registered YU-DFN and YU-DFO. Both manufactured not too far apart in 1978 and 1979 – sporting the serials 310R-1349 and 310R-1537 respectively – they would begin their service lives as N4018C and N5296C, temporary identities provided until their sale to an end customer. That customer would in the event become Yugoslavia, which had in the 70s and early 80s gone on a number of mass light aircraft acquisitions all throughout the West. Intended to support the country’s vibrant and rapidly-expanding aviation sector, these shopping sprees had involved the purchase of quantities of everything from the Cessna 150 to the Bell 212, the lot of which would subsequently be distributed to various state-owned flight schools, flying clubs, major companies – and even police air wings.
Our two C310s though would in 1980 be allocated to the Zagreb-based Obrazovni centar zračnog saobraćaja (Air Traffic Education Center, OCZS), from where they would in 1981 pass on to its successor, the Viša zrakoplovna škola (VZŠ) flight school – at the time one of Yugoslavia’s most famous and respected aviation institutions. Even though their primary role there had always been initial multi-engine training, from the mid-80s both would also be employed for various commercial operations under the auspices of the school, starting initially with on-demand passenger charters throughout the region (one of which would take DFO all the way to Alexandria, Egypt).
In June 1987, their operational portfolio would be further expanded with the addition of freight feeder and nightly airmail services, flown initially on behalf of DHL on the Zagreb – Vienna (VIE/LOWW) route. In January 1988, this service would be amended to also include an outbound-only stop at Graz (GRZ/LOWG), which would be discontinued in early 1989 for reasons I’ve not been able to determine (the whole run would eventually be cancelled a few months later). A further service would also be established to Budapest (BUD/LHBP), Hungary in December 1988, which would later go on to become the longest-running route of them all (having been operated right up until late 1991).
Unsurprisingly, the commitment needed by these contracts – coupled with existing training requirements – had put a ton of pressure onto both C310s, leading to the temporary addition of a rented Cessna 402C Businessliner (YU-BNF) in August 1988. With capacities now significantly increased, UPS would join the fray as well, establishing routes to Linz (LNZ/LOWL) and Belgrade (BEG/LYBE) in September 1989 – and, once DHL had vacated it, Vienna.
However, even before the implosion of Yugoslavia had begun, the whole operation had started encountering some turbulent air. Following VZŠ’s disbandment in late 1989, its entire fleet (at the time consisting of the two C310s, a lone Piper Cheyenne and 12 piston singles) would pass on to its major shareholder, Zagreb Airport. Included in this package were also the school’s cargo contracts, which the airport authority – seeing as they were running smoothly and in no need of further input – had decided to continue operating on its own. As before, DFN and DFO would bear all of the load – but could now, free of training requirements, be utilized to the full without interruptions in service. This arrangement would continue until December 1989, when Zagal would take up those flights on a permanent basis3.
3 at this point though, the fleet’s history becomes a bit confusing even to the attentive reader – so for clarity’s sake, I thought it best to first untangle that yarn before continuing on 🙂 . As mentioned, YU-BNF had joined the VZŠ fleet as a temporary measure only. Following the school’s closure, it would go back to its original owner, from where it would go on to play a pivotal role in the formation of Zagal (but more on that later).
In the mean time, Zagreb Airport would become one of Zagal’s founding members, eventually handing over control of the entire ex-VZŠ fleet to the new company. Formally, this transfer would occur only at the beginning of June 1990 (seven months after Zagal had started operations); however, it is unclear from the information I have whether the aircraft had been used “informally” prior to this date. Of the 15 aircraft inherited, the C310s would initially continue to fly alongside BNF in much the same manner as before, while the piston singles would be briefly used for training and then (bar two) sold on. This had only left the aforementioned Cheyenne – a PA-31T-500 registered YU-BKT – which had also presented the biggest problems of the lot. Manufactured in 1977 with the serial 31T-7720042 and temporary reg N82148, it too was one of the veterans of the 70s and 80s acquisitions, and was originally used by both OCZS and VZŠ to prepare students for the rigors of airline flying. However, it had spent the last four years sitting idle and unkempt in the corner of the apron due to the prohibitive costs of keeping it flying amid frequent mechanical issues. By the time it had ended up in Zagal’s court, it was in a pretty bad shape, requiring significant investment before it could fly again. While this option was considered, the major problem stalling it was one of practicality – due to its pressurized hull, the Cheyenne had ended up with only one service door, located at the rear of the fuselage. Once loaded up with cargo, the exit would be blocked, leaving the pilots with no means to vacate the aircraft (which would be an issue even during normal ops, let alone emergencies). Faced thus with both financial and operational hurdles to its use, Zagal had soon decided to part with BKT, selling it in late 1990 to Turkish operator Mono Air. Its service life there remains a mystery though; however, at some point it was returned to airworthy state and sold in June 1991 to French operator Pan Europeenne Air Service as F-GJPE. According to all available data, it was still operational at the time of writing, flying with operator Air Mont Blanc under the same reg.
A far more gloomy fate though would soon await DFN. While it did initially continue to fly with DFO and BNF as mentioned, in mid-March 1991 (on the 15th according to some sources) it would suffer a nose gear collapse at Ljubljana, following which it would be shipped back home to Zagreb and sold on to a private customer. Unfortunately, from this point on it would never fly again, spending the entire war (and many more years besides) rotting away at a remote location near one of Zagreb’s military hangars. It would finally be parted out and disposed of at some undetermined time in the mid-2000s…
However, the demise of Yugoslavia and the subsequent start of hostilities would, as expected, bring all of the company’s commercial operations to an abrupt halt. UPS would be the first to cancel in July 1991 (citing increased risk to aircraft, crews and cargo), while DHL would follow suit at the end of August. Very soon though, this already elevated risk would increase tenfold, forcing the twin-engine fleet – by now five strong – to flee to the safety of the nearest neutral aerodrome. Located at the time in Zagreb, DFO would – in the company of two C402s – be flown first to Maribor (MBX/LYMB), Slovenia on 14 September, from where it would be ferried further north to Graz on 11 November (before this, however, it would get a quick taste of the war, flying into a blacked-out Zadar (ZAD/LYZD) during combat action in order to help the company’s unserviceable Citation to get out before any harm came to it).
Even though it was now in exile, DFO would not remain idle however, having occasionally been used for various state flights on behalf of the Croatian government, as well as the odd training session intended to keep the crews in shape. It was also at Graz that it would undergo the first of its identity changes, becoming RC-DFO when the temporary Croatian registration prefix went into effect at the beginning of April 1992.
The early months of the year would also see the situation in Northern Croatia improve somewhat, allowing the company to consider bringing the fleet back home to Zagreb (even though the war was still in motion elsewhere in the country). It was on the second return flight that DFO would be thrust into the spotlight, ending up playing what is definitely the most unusual role of its entire career. The fastest of the piston twins, it was tasked on 3 April with, simply, being the first aircraft of the day to fly from Graz to Zagreb. What would in any other situation have been an entirely forgettable 40 minutes was quite a different proposition at the time, since DFO’s main purpose was to see whether its flight would provoke a response from the Yugoslav Air Force (its nearest airbase being only 100 km / 55 NM away from Zagreb – a blink of an eye for the MiG-21). Even though the precedent – a successful, trouble-free landing – had already been set by BNF a few days earlier, DFO’s flight had the additional task of testing the air for the imminent arrival of CTN’s first own airliner, the 737 🙂 . Having landed without incident, DFO would then be followed by BNF (which had ferried crews to Graz earlier in the day) – and finally 737-200 RC-CTA…
However, this very event would also signal the beginning of the end of the little twin fleet. With the DHL and UPS contracts in shambles – and CTN pushing all-out towards the resumption of passenger operations – DFO would be left standing on the sidelines, eventually falling back to its original training duties and on-demand passenger and cargo charters. As these were always in short supply, the aircraft – known as 9A-DFO from August, even though the 9A prefix was introduced a month earlier – would occasionally complement the C402s on scheduled passenger services to Pula (PUY/LDPL), as well as the Split (SPU/LDSP) & Dubrovnik (DBV/LDDU) mail and newspaper run. From time to time, it would also find itself operating in support of the rest of the fleet, ferrying spares and mechanics where needed (mostly to under-equipped airports in the surroundings).
Most of these – minus the mail & newspaper services – would continue all the way until late 1998, when DFO would be withdrawn from service for good, following the development of complications (a financial nature) during a major landing gear inspection. Having managed to outlive the rest of the little fleet – and by a wide margin at that – it would end up being the only one not sold on, instead ending up parked at a remote corner of the apron (likely right next to DFN). Thankfully though, it would be spared the latter’s fate, having eventually been restored, repainted and set up as a gate guard on the grounds of the company’s maintenance base…
Cessna 402C Businessliner, 9A-BNF:
Having been intertwined with the two C310s ever since the start of commercial operations at VZŠ, BNF would go on to lead an equally interesting life, part of which would (as noted) include playing a critical role in the formation of Zagal – one it had, however, been given not because of its qualities as an airplane, but simply because it was the only one available at the time. Its full story though would begin back in 1981, when it had rolled off the production line as a posh VIP-configured model with the serial 402C-0516. Originally allocated the provisional sales registration N68801, it too would eventually be picked up by Yugoslavia, where it would become YU-BNF with well-known Croatian construction company Montmontaža. Intended to be used for both corporate flights within the country and various sales and procurement trips abroad, BNF had never actually found much use there, leading to the decision to rent it out to VZŠ in exchange for the school taking up its complete maintenance work. Stripped of its frills, it would soon be converted into a dedicated cargo version and sent off to haul freight, even though it would retain a basic capability for carrying passengers – albeit without much of the luxuries and amenities of its original form.
As mid-1989 came about – and VZŠ had all but finished slipping off the radar – Montmontaža would become one of the founders of Zagal, doing its bit to set the company rolling by contributing BNF as its very first aircraft. However, its return to commercial service was frustrated by a number of issues with Yugoslavia’s aviation administration, which had delayed the issuance of Zagal’s Air Operator Certificate (AOC) until the very end of November.
Once all of the papers were in order, the company was able to take over the feeder work from Zagreb Airport, a move that would go into effect already on 1 December. At the time, the route map had included four runs in total – Budapest for DHL, and Linz, Vienna and Belgrade for UPS – and would soon be expanded with the addition of a short hop to Ljubljana (LJU/LYLJ), also on behalf of UPS. All of these flights would be shared between BNF, DFN and DFO (with BNF generally taking Vienna and the C310s the rest, as dictated by required capacities on each route) until the fleet was bolstered by the arrival of two more C402s in November 1990 and June 1991 respectively.
The same November of 1990 would also see an expansion in DHL operations, starting with the introduction of the Zagreb – Ljubljana – Vienna run and the expansion of the Budapest route to also include a stop in Slovenia’s capital. Interestingly, there were a number of other services considered at around this time, including:
Zagreb – Thessaloniki (SKG/LGTS) – Athens (ATH/LGAT; the old Hellenikon airport),
Zagreb – Cologne/Bonn (CGN/EDDK),
Zagreb – Zadar – Split – Zagreb,
Zagreb – Osijek (OSI/LYOS) and
Zagreb – Ljubljana – Portorož (POW/LYPZ) – Zagreb
all of which would have been operated for UPS… and none of which would ever leave the drawing board.
In addition to the feeder contracts, the company – by now known as Croatia Airlines – had in early 1991 also instated a new airmail service based on an old postal system called NAPS (noćni avionski poštanski saobraćaj, Nightly Aircraft Postal Service in Serbian), ran by local carrier Pan Adria back in the 70s and 80s. Under the terms of this service, the company would fly mail and daily newspapers from Zagreb to Split and then onwards to Dubrovnik in the early hours of the morning, a task normally allocated to the higher-capacity C402s – but, as noted earlier, also occasionally ran by DFO (DFN having already been sold by this point).
This very service would also cause BNF to briefly become caught up in the war, having been on the ground at Dubrovnik when the airport was closed by Yugoslav police units on 31 July. After a 22-day stay, BNF would finally manage to make it out of town on 21 August, flying a daring night-time escape straight through the heart of Serbia4. However, while Zagreb was its intended destination, it would be forced to divert to Budapest halfway through due to intensifying combat operations in and above Eastern Croatia. Following a two-day stay there, it would then head direct for Graz, where it would be joined by the rest of the fleet about two months later.
4 interestingly, the commander of that flight had told me he believes the plan worked primarily due to CTN’s remaining affiliation with DHL – or rather, the opposing side’s fear of making any threatening moves against an unarmed civil aircraft declared (with a flight plan no less!) to be flying on behalf of a US company (even though there was no actual cargo aboard). The fear of the same scenario – and the political and economic backlash that would follow in its wake – would also extend to DHL, with this flight having in fact been the trigger for the cancellation of its contract less than a week later.
As was the case with DFO, the C402s would not spend their time in Austria standing idly around, with all three having been used for various government purposes (including running several cargo flights to Bern (BRN/LSMB) in Switzerland). The fleet would occasionally also undertake some charter work, most notably ferrying members of the Mladost water polo team to various matches across Middle Europe.
As April 1992 dawned, BNF would become known as RC-BNF, the registration under which it would – for reasons undetermined – make its way back to Zagreb at the very beginning of the month, becoming the first CTN machine to successfully return home. As mentioned previously, it would then be used to ferry crews to Graz on the morning of 3 April, following which it would once again make the trip to Zagreb, being the second aircraft to test the would-be intentions of the Yugoslav Air Force prior to the arrival of the company’s first 737.
Once back home for good, it would end up facing pretty much the same problems as faced by DFO. With all of the prewar contracts nullified, the three C402s would end up being employed on scheduled passenger services to Pula (starting in May 1992) and on the old mail & newspaper runs to Split and Dubrovnik (once they’d been restarted in June). Essentially providing one of the very few reliable links to both cities, these flights would be mostly flown with the lights off and in radio silence, with the works turned on only in the final moments of approach to avoid attracting the attention of hostile forces located near both airports. However, since all of these flights were not enough to cover the fleet’s expenses, all three machines would also be employed on occasional medical flights and the few odd charters that could be scraped up in the middle of a war. It was also at this time that BNF would take on the new official Croatian registration prefix, becoming 9A-BNF in August.
Unfortunately, even this was not enough to keep the fleet afloat, forcing CTN – now with five 737s and three ATRs on its plate – to pull the plug on the entire operation in late 1994. However, having only been 13 years old at this point and with comparatively little time on the clock (despite most of it not being gentle), BNF was an attractive item on the used marked, being quickly picked up by US aviation broker Satellite Aero in December of the same year.
Re-registered N401SA for this purpose, it would be sold on to Canada in April 1996, becoming C-GOGP of the Ontario Provincial Government. Flying various law enforcement duties as part of the province’s Solicitor General’s office, it would in 1999 make its final operator change, passing on to charter outfit Lockhart Air Services (also of Ontario). However, its current status is up for debate, with some sources stating it is still active – while others that it had been withdrawn from use in 2012 and struck off the register…
Cessna 402C Businessliner, 9A-BPV:
Since the simultaneous operation of five (soon to become seven) feeder routes with just three aircraft could very well end in tears, in November 1990 it was decided that another machine should be acquired as soon as possible. In order to keep maintenance and crewing costs down (as well as not delay entry into service), the only realistic option was to go with another C402 – one of which, registered F-GFZZ, was soon offered for sale in northwestern France.
Operated and originally bought new by French charter company Valair, F-GFZZ was also a 1981 machine, carrying the serial 402C-0447. Following its successful acquisition and delivery to Zagreb, it would quickly be rechristened into YU-BPV, with its career path from then on pretty much mimicking that of BNF. Like the latter, it too would be forced into exile in 1991, having been one of the machines flown from Zagreb to Maribor on 14 September, and then further on to neutral Graz on 11 November.
Having stayed there with the rest of the fleet until April 1992, it too would quickly go through several changes of identity, becoming first RC-BPV the same month and then 9A-BPV in August. Again like the other C402s, it would spend the next two years flying passenger, mail and charter flights until being put up for sale in late 1994.
As with BNF, it would then be acquired by a US aviation broker – Capital Business Jets – in December, becoming N401SX in the process. Already in July of next year, it would find work with Primac Courier, a small cargo unit not unlike Zagal operating out of Ontario, Canada (where it would retain the US reg). A stint with Twin Cities Air Service – a small passenger charter operating throughout the northeastern US – would follow in December 2000, before it would pass on to famous C402 operator Cape Air in July 2013. Having joined the company’s world-renowned scheduled commuter services up and down the Eastern Seaboard, it would still be happily flying passengers in front-(air)line service at the time of writing.
Cessna 402C Businessliner, 9A-BPX:
The third and final C402 would join the fleet some seven months after BPV – and in pretty much the same general fashion. However, while the latter’s introduction was motivated by the requirements of the DHL and UPS contracts, the addition of this new aircraft was driven primarily by the needs of the NAPS-lookalike mail/newspaper service. As was the case with BPV, the choice of aircraft type was restricted to the C402 to keep costs and complexity down, factors especially relevant now that war was looming on the horizon. This time though, a suitable candidate was found all the way on the other side of The Pond in the form of N85PB, at the time (April 1991) owned by the Maine Aviation Corporation. Sporting the serial 402C-0606 and manufactured in 1981 like the other two, this aircraft had previously served only with Provincetown-Boston Airlines, a small (but long-lived) commuter airline that had in 1988 become one of the key components of today’s Continental Express.
However, by the time the aircraft was paid for and ready for delivery as YU-BPX (late June), the situation in Croatia had deteriorated noticeably, with hostile action already underway. Due to the closure of Zagreb Airport, the aircraft’s final destination was changed to Vienna just before its departure from the States, from where it would be flown to Austria in one go, with just the occasional technical stop for fuel and rest. It would not stay there for long though, since the CTN delegation sent to meet it had managed to persuade the captain to continue on to Zagreb at night, flying into the blacked-out airport in full radio silence and with all the lights off…
The escalation of war would, however, soon force it back to the safety of Austria, departing Zagreb with DFO and BPV on 14 September. Once at Graz, it would share in the government duties of the rest of the fleet, also being one of the aircraft involved in the aforementioned charter flights on behalf of the Mladost water polo team (in fact, the only photo of it I could find – hosted at Airliners.net – shows it at Prague (PRG/LKPR) in January 1992 during one such flight). Like the rest of the little fleet, it would then carry the familiar succession of identities, becoming first RC-BPX and then 9A-BPX. Following CTN’s return to Croatia in April, it would once again go on to participate in the commercial operations of the C402 fleet, until it too was listed in the classifieds in late 1994.
Sharing much of its subsequent life path with BPV, it would also be bought by Central Business Jets in December, becoming N402SX. In October 1995, the two machines would briefly part ways, with BPX being passed onto BNF’s original customer, Satellite Aero. They would come together once again a year later, when BPX was bought by Twin Cities Air Services, before also being passed on to Cape Air in July 2013 (where it would become N256CA in May of 2014).
Cessna 550 Citation II, 9A-BPU:
The penultimate entry on this list, CTN’s lone bizjet may not have been as influential or memorable as the rest of the fleet – but it nevertheless is by far the most intriguing. Like that of Zagal, its story would begin with a completely different actor from an earlier time, a beautiful Hawker-Siddeley HS.125-600B registered YU-BME. Manufactured in 1974 under the serial 256048, this machine was another veteran of Yugoslavia’s aeronautical shopping trips – but was one of the few aircraft not to have been acquired brand new. First serving as HB-VDS with Vaduz, Lichtenstein-based Fayair, in 1979 it would return back home to the UK as G-BHIE of Dismore Business Aircraft, before finally making it to Yugoslavia in April 1980. Becoming BME, it would then end up with INA Industrija nafte (Croatia’s only oil company), where it was intended to be used much in the same way as Montmontaža’s own BNF. However, like the latter, its utilization in this role was quite low, allowing it to be passed on to Zagal in early 1990 once INA became one of the company’s participating members.
But, while having such a jet in the fleet could be seen as quite a boon, BME’s potential use in service did present a number of operational and financial difficulties. On the one hand, in those early days Zagal was still first and foremost a cargo airline – and even though VIP charters were considered at the time, nothing would come out of it in the short term. This had meant that the aircraft would have to be reconfigured for the cargo role to be truly useful, a mission for which it wasn’t particularly suitable (being high off the ground and lacking a proper cargo door). On the other hand, the financial issues were mostly tempered by the two fuel-to-noise converters on the jet’s backside. Being a direct descendant of the original 60s Series 1 HS.125, BME was powered by a pair of Rolls-Royce Viper turbojets (the 601-22 model to be precise), the same powerplant used on many indigenous Yugoslav military designs. While it was a tough, sturdy and reliable no-nonsense engine, it was quite loud and had a tendency to drink like there’s no tomorrow. Coupled with the 125’s size and bulk – 11,300 kg / 24,900 lbs at MTOW – they made the aircraft extremely expensive to operate in the climate of the time, making it even more unsuitable for the freighter role.
However, the advantages of jet power were nevertheless very obvious, especially since UPS was willing to offer the company the chance to run a lucrative service straight to its main European distribution center at Brussels (BRU/EBBR) – a straight-line hop of 1,030 km / 557 NM that would be quite a daunting task (not to mention a huge wastage of time) on a C402. Since there was no easy or economic way to reconcile this requirement with what was available in the fleet, it was decided to trade BME in for a smaller and more fuel-efficient aircraft, which could also be modified outright for the transport of light cargo.
A suitable candidate for this role was found already in October 1990 in the form of Citation II5N220LA. Manufactured in 1980 under the serial 550-0128, this machine had up until this point served with a number of operators across the States, starting out as N536M of the Marathon Oil Company. Leaving its fleet in 1985, it would then go on to fly with operator Aircraft Trading Center, “trading up” to Larizza Industries in 1987 (where it would become N220LA a year later). Retaining the same reg, it would pass on to operator LA Air in September 1989, before finally ending up with O’Gara Aviation Company of Atlanta in June 1990.
5 interestingly, despite having (so far) been flown solely as a standard multi-crew model, N220LA had always had all the fittings necessary to operate as a single-pilot 551 Citation II/SP. The reason for this is not entirely clear, but I’m given to understand that the special crew certification requirements and associated airplane paperwork – plus restrictions on the type of operations that could be conducted – had made single-pilot ops too impractical and expensive for many small operators of the time.
Given that funds for an outright buy of this machine were in short supply at Zagal (now already in the process of becoming Croatia Airlines), O’Gara had eventually settled on a straight trade, swapping N220LA for BME. Despite its unsuitability for Zagal’s needs, BME still had a lot of life left in it at this point, remaining with O’Gara for the next two years as N6567G. A short stint with Ganntt Aviation would follow in July of 1992, before it would make its way back to European lands as TC-COS of Turkey’s Uray Technik. There it would stay until 2001, when it would hop to the States once more, becoming N852GA of General Aviation Services. Here it would be converted to the HS.125-600A standard in November 2002, before being sold to the Rivers Corporation in March 2003. Its final operator change would come in December of 2005, when it would pass into possession of Arnoni Aviation, a move that would eventually seal its fate. Stripped of useful parts in September 2009, it would be struck off the FAA registry in August of 2013, with its carcass interred to this day at the scrapyard of the famous Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Phoenix, Arizona (still carrying some of the Croatian-language placards from its Yugoslav service days)…
N220LA, however, would still spend some time on US shores before making its way to Croatia. As mentioned, the original premise for is acquisition was the ability to haul cargo at speed and over moderate distances; as CTN was beginning to take shape though, this would be expanded to include the retention of its passenger-carrying capability for use when needed (primarily in the VIP role as desired by Zagal on its formation). To satisfy both needs, the aircraft was dispatched into the workshop immediately after sale to be modified into an unusual “quick change” model, in which the interior could be swapped between the passenger and cargo configurations with a minimum of fuss and in very little time (some sources also hint that this mod had allowed the aircraft to be operated in a “combi” configuration, that is part passenger, part freight all at once).
Once this was complete, the aircraft would make the jump across the Atlantic, becoming YU-BPU upon its arrival into the fleet in December. Interestingly, this would also make it the first ever aircraft registered to CTN, with the rest of the lighties still nominally operated by Zagal (even though the two companies were all but merged at this point). In the few short months remaining until the start of hostilities, it would be employed on a few VIP passenger flights, with the Brussels idea having gone down the drain for reasons I’ve not been able to ascertain with certainty.
The start of the shooting in mid-1991 would, however, quickly see BPU thrust into a vital logistical role, having been the only large(r) aircraft capable of operating into the surrounded and besieged city of Zadar (its small size, high maneuverability and impressive rate of climb providing the most protection against hostile anti-aircraft gunfire from batteries located around the city). But, the dangers of these operations – plus the increasing threat of aerial interception – would soon grow to become too great, forcing BPU to withdraw first to Ljubljana on 12 September and then to Graz the next day.
Like the piston twins, it would be kept busy with various state flights while there, often complementing the Croatian government’s own jet, Rockwell NA-265-70 Sabreliner 75 YU-BLY. Interestingly, when renamed into RC-BPU in April 1992, it would become the first ever aircraft to wear the RC prefix, thus also becoming the first aircraft formally registered in independent Croatia 🙂 . However, it would not hold on to this title for a second time when it became 9A-BPU in August.
Having returned back home with the rest of the fleet in mid-1992, BPU would change roles once again, taking to flying the Zagreb – Pula route alongside the piston twins, as well as the newly (re)established Zagreb – Split passenger run. However, as was the case with the C402s, all of these commercial duties did not translate into any sort of sustainable profit, with the jet racking up loss after loss. By early 1993, it was decided that there was no more hope for its case, leaving the company with no other option but to somehow unload it off its hands6.
6 before its departure from the fleet, BPU would also play a minor film role in the 1993 action move Detonator (known sometimes as Death Train), serving as the aircraft of the main protagonist under the guise of “N-BPU”. A very brief glimpse of it can seen in the first few seconds of this YouTube clip.
But, in what is a pleasing bit of circularity, BPU would not actually be sold outright, but rather traded in, providing part of the down payment for the company’s first ATR-42, 9A-CTS 🙂 . Having left the fleet in exactly the same manner as its precesessor YU-BME, BPU would in April pass to Air Group Finance – the leasing company financing CTS – where it would become F-WLEF. By November, it would find a new home in Dublin as EI-CIR (apparently still owned by AGF), from where it would, in March of 1994, be sent to Fastar of the USA for a thorough overhaul (becoming N60AR for its duration). The work would also entail the “legal activation” of its single-pilot capability, the consequence of which was a type and serial number change to 551 Citation II/SP and 550-0174 respectively. As such, it was returned to the Irish register under its previous identity in April of the same year, going on to fly with operator Air Liberte from then on. In October 2010, it would be sold to operator Brisson 3 of France, becoming F-GJOB – the identity until it continues to fly to this day 🙂 .
Lone propellers & war stories
And finally, all that remains are the little piston singles. The most numerous class of aircraft to be featured here (12 confirmed examples so far), they would also prove to be the most difficult and elusive to track down, creating more questions than answers all throughout my research. Pretty much temporary features wherever they appeared, they were likely considered to be a nuisance rather than a tool, having been completely unfit for the types of operations that had mattered most at both Zagal and CTN. The upsets of war and Croatia Airlines’ struggle for survival had pushed them still further out onto the sidelines – so far in fact that very few of the crews I’d talked to could even vaguely remember them.
This turn of events had eventually led me to dispatch inquiries to the Croatian CAA, Serbia’s Directorate for Civil Aviation (the legal heir of Yugoslavia’s aircraft registry) and Zagreb Airport – all of which would require diving deep into old paper records buried in various archives. Since this process would naturally take a long time (especially considering the disorder of the period) and this article has already been two months in the making, I’ve decided to skip the little singles this time around and leave them for a future follow-up story 🙂 .
This move also leaves the door open to another interesting opportunity. Conceived purely as an objective chronicle of both companies’ light machinery, this article actually tells only half the fleet’s story. Having operated in interesting times and under the constant threat of hostile action, all of the little aircraft – as well as their pilots – naturally have some unusual stories to tell, a number of which had already been hinted at over the course of this article. Since it is already very nearly as long as my diploma thesis, I though it best to also leave those stories for the same follow-up, where they can be properly and richly told as they deserve… 🙂
Twin & jet timelines and current status
Current status & reg
Piper PA-31T-500 Cheyenne I
operational | F-GJPE
stored | N852GA
Cessna 402C Businessliner
operational (?) | C-GOGP
Cessna 402C Businessliner
operational | N401SX
Cessna 402C Businessliner
operational | N256CA
Cessna 550 Citation II
operational | F-GJOB
Cessna 310R II
scrapped | YU-DFN
Cessna 310R II
preserved | 9A-DFO
I would also like to extend my utmost and sincere thanks for their time and patience to:
Mr. Roman Gebauer, former Technical Director at Zagal and Senior Vice President of Maintance and Engineering at Croatia Airlines
Cpts. (retired) Antun Gabela, Slobodan Pukanić, Miroslav Meco & Borislav Radić, former Zagal and Croatia Airlines flightcrew
Cpt. Darko Klarić, former Zagal flightcrew
Ms. AnamarijaJurinjak, Head of the Promotions Department at Croatia Airlines
Mr. Davor Janušić, Croatia Airlines Spokeperson
Mr. Davor Bujan, Head of Engineering and Technical Support at Croatia Airlines
Ms. Tea Galić, Head of the Aviation Legislation and International Affairs department of the Croatian CAA
27 April 2016 – updated information on YU/RC/9A-BPU
12 October 2017 – updated info about ATR-42-300QCs
3 December 2017 – updated current state of ATR-42s; updated Q400 info; fixed typos
15 September 2021 – reformatted for the new site look; corrected 9A-CTU sub version
Mr. Gebauer’s photo collection & unpublished Zagal history booklet
Croatia Airlines’ PR department and various PR material
While I’ve frequently dabbled with Yugoslav Air Force Dakotas on this site – the hunt for which had led me across multiple countries and left me with a sizable stack of fuel bills 😀 – I’ve never really delved deeper into the lives of their civilian counterparts, flying passengers and mail for the national airline JAT (Jugoslovenski aerotransport, Yugoslav Air Transport). Birds of a feather, the Daks of both services had seen their fair share of action during the later stages of WW2 – some even having participated in the Normandy landings and operations at Arnhem – and were later given the task of restarting and re-energizing Yugoslavia’s war-torn logistic and passenger air services.
But while the YuAF fleet had an auspicious debut here on Achtung, Skyhawk!, the introduction of the “Dakotaliners” starts, sadly, on a far more sombre note. Today completely forgotten and long buried by the sands of time (not to mention the period’s restricted freedom of the press), this opening story concerns Dak YU-ABC and its last ever flight into out very own Lučko airfield…
Its full name reading out as C-47A-25-DK, ABC had started out in life as 42-93352 of the USAAF, initially ordered in the 1942 fiscal year, but delivered – due to the immense backlog of orders – only in 1944, wearing the serial 13254. The finer details of its operational history are quite sketchy even on normally fastidious C-47 tribute sites, but it is known it had spent the entire war serving with the 3rd Combat Cargo Group initially stationed in India. A rag-tag formation cobbled together in a hurry during the spring of 1944, this unit was part of the so-called “Bond Project” (also known as “Project 90752”), and was intended to supply and relieve the British garrison in the mountain town of Imphal, at the time besieged by superior Japanese forces. Under this project, semi-trained and untested crews would be sent straight into the fray, where it was hoped they’d be brought up to standard as they went along by a cadre of experienced professional officers. Following their tour, the crews – now working together as tight teams – would be given additional advanced training and sent off into the more demanding and rigorous European hotspots.
Assigned to the unit’s 11th Combat Cargo Squadron, 42-93352 was commanded by (then) 2nd LT Duane B. Crites – who would later go on to fly F-86 Sabres, F-102 Delta Daggers and F-106 Delta Darts – and had quickly added its bit to the mass haulage of food, fuel and ammunition into Imphal. Abandoning the original plan of rotating the unit back to the States, the 3rd CCG would continue to operate in theater once the town had been secured, going so far as to even adding flights across the infamous “Hump” to its repertoire 🙂 . Following a spirited Allied advance near war’s end, the unit would eventually relocate into Burma in June 1945, becoming the 513th Troop Carrier Group along the way. However, 42-93352’s history beyond this point is unknown as far as the Internet is concerned; but, given that the unit was disbanded in April 1946 – and the JAT Dakota fleet formed in early 1947 – it is safe to say that it was part of the first batch of Daks acquired by Yugoslavia in the immediate aftermath of the war 🙂 .
Having eventually been re-fitted with a passenger interior – and re-christened YU-ABC – the aircraft was quickly pressed into passenger service, flying scheduled flights across the width and breadth of former Yugoslavia. It would continue to do so until 21 September 1950, when it was lost with all passengers and most of its crew in one of Zagreb’s worst ever aviation incidents…
Despite the fact that it remains one of only two fatal, large-scale airline disasters to occur in the Zagreb area since the war, this event is – as near as makes no difference – completely forgotten today, limited only to the odd footnote in the occasional list of Yugoslav passenger aircraft (indeed, I myself had found out about it completely by accident while reading up on an unrelated topic). With searches on the net unexpectedly drawing mostly blanks, I’d decided to dig into the city archives and attempt to shed some light on the matter. Unfortunately though, the only thing I did manage to find were two short articles in the daily newspaper, which – while containing valuable information – were essentially just brief snippets. More interestingly, the results of the official inquiry – results stating a definite cause – were published already on 23 September, which strongly suggests that the whole issue was quickly swept under the carpet and that no in-depth report was ever made publicly available. A follow-on article from a few days later praising JAT and the development of the nation’s air transport system further cements the impression that the findings – which had surely been made in great detail – were kept classified and hidden from view since day one. Somewhat unsurprisingly, books on Yugoslav aviation incidents were similarly vague – while even correspondence with the Archives of the Republic of Serbia, Archives of SFR Yugoslavia, Air Serbia (the legal successor to JAT), Belgrade’s Aviation Museum and the Serbian Civil Aviation Directorate had failed to yield much in the way of usable results…
Nevertheless, after collating together all the information available from reliable sources, a clearer picture of ABC’s last flight began to emerge. On that fateful day, the aircraft was operating a scheduled flight from Belgrade, Serbia (LYBE) to Pula, Croatia (LYPL) with a stopover at Lučko (LYZL and at the time still the city’s primary passenger airport). The flight was operated by a crew of four, including:
captain Borivoje Marković (a former military pilot)
co-pilot Stevan Tot
flight mechanic Milorad Jovanović
radio operator Nikola Jovanović (no confirmed family link to the flight mechanic)
The loads for the flight were light – just seven passengers – including:
and Pavle Mihajlović
Approaching Zagreb on a westerly heading on the leg from Belgrade, ABC had either “descended into fog” (according to the initial article) or was “caught in a sudden change of weather” (as per the 23 September report)*. In the process, it had apparently deviated from its course, bypassed Lučko by several kilometers and impacted into the slope of the Medvednica mountain some 200 meters/656 ft below its 1,035 meter/3,395 ft peak of Sljeme**.
* knowing Zagreb’s often unusual autumn weather, both situations are possible – though the former scenario appears more likely. While late September is generally known for its unstable and fast-changing conditions, it is also frequently marked by thick and long-lasting morning and evening fog. Given the length of the entire Belgrade-Pula route – 570 km/307 NM one way as the crow flies, or about 2 hours 30 minutes at Dakota speeds – it is possible that the flight had arrived overhead Zagreb during the late morning or early noon, which would have left it plenty of time to load at Lučko, fly to Pula and then return the same way – with the same stop-over – before dark. This would have meant that it might have arrived well before the morning fog had time to fully clear. An additional factor is Zagreb’s extensive underground water table, which often causes unusual fog formation; one end of town can thus enjoy clear skies and excellent weather, while the other – not 10 km/5 NM away – can be mired in deep fog, with visibilities down in the double digits of meters.
** this would have given it a height above the city’s mean ground level of around 680 meters, or about 2,200 ft – above the usual fog depth. However, assuming that the crew did not spot the mountain at the last moment and pull up in an attempt to clear it, this opens the door to a third possibility – that they’d descended not into fog, but a low stratus layer formed with the fog lifts. These are usually between 500 and 1,000 ft deep and can sit for days at anything between 1,000 and 2,500 ft above ground.
Of the 11 people on board, the only survivor was the radio operator Nikola Jovanović – 23 at the time – who’d suffered non life-threatening injuries. Indeed, in what is the only silver lining of the incident, he would remain with JAT after his recovery and eventually return to flying status, serving on the Ilyushin Il-14, Convair CV-440, Caravelle – and finally as the Flight Engineer on the Boeing 707 🙂 . Interestingly, he would be involved in another accident on 13 August 1972, when his 707-321 (YU-AGA) overran the runway at JFK during an aborted take-off*.
* on the take-off run, the copilot’s side window had opened with a loud bang, prompting the captain – who had assumed it could be an on-board bomb – to perform a rejected take-off even though the aircraft had passed V1 (decision speed) three seconds earlier. In the following overrun, the aircraft had struck a blast fence, with the left wing and engines #1 and #2 suffering damage by fire. Thankfully there were no fatalities among the 175 passengers and 11 crew, with only 15 light injuries reported during evacuation. The accident was also put down to an undetermined fault in the anti-skid system, which had disabled two of the 707’s eight wheel brakes, rendering it unable to stop in time. The aircraft was later repaired and returned to service 🙂 .
Unfortunately, it is unlikely that more detailed information about YU-ABC might appear any time soon. As I’ve been told openly in more than one archive, many such documents from the period were either not diligently kept, were instantly classified – or outright lost and destroyed during the chaos of Yugoslavia’s dissolution in the early 90s (indeed, neither the Civil Aviation Directorate nor its accident investigation unit had anything on file about the incident). Lacking the high profile and international reach of the region’s other major air incident – the mid-air collision above ZAG VOR at Vrbovec in 1976 – means that digging up any subsequent report on ABC’s last flight could very well make “looking for a needle in a haystack” seem like child’s play…
I would also like to extend my sincere thanks to Mr. John Crites, son of the late Duane Crites, for information regarding his father’s service record!
While I have stated on more than one occasion that I’m not much of an airliner person, I’m nevertheless always on the lookout for rare and interesting examples of the breed – especially if they have a fair bit of history (and the odd plot twist) behind them 🙂 . Unfortunately though, the region’s traditionally fickle airline fortunes mean that “rare and interesting” is often synonymous with “abandoned and failed”, with a number of local airports home to disused aircraft in various states of (dis)repair that had been left behind when their parent companies went under. The very nature of these airlines – small, private start-ups fighting uphill for their place under the sun – had meant that these machines would inevitably be cheap members of the MD-80 family, with three such frames located within a 200 km radius from Zagreb.
One of these (and by far the best preserved) is the titular MD-82, nowadays displayed at Maribor Airport (LJMB) and briefly featured in one of my previous posts – where I’d pledged to give it a proper “work over” at some later date 🙂 . So, for another of my periodic returns to the world of commercial aviation, I’ve decided to make good on that pledge and – catching a break in our depressing winter weather – drove up there to see what’s what…
Mad Dog One
Following the universal path of the MD-80, ACC had led quite a varied and geographically diverse life, latterly changing operators more often than most people do socks 😀 . Sporting the serial 48095 and line number 1055, its story begins with first flight on 20 January 1982, soon after which – 23 April to be precise – it would join the fleet of Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) as N940PS. Interestingly – though I’ve been told this was not unusual among early Mad Dogs – N940PS had actually started out in life as an MD-81, to be reworked into its current MD-82 standard sometimes in the mid 80s. While both versions are visually identical inside and out, the 82 is fitted with more powerful Pratt & Whitney JT8D-217A engines – which produce 89 kN of thrust, versus the 82 kN of the -209 series fitted to the 81 – allowing for greatly improved performance in hot and high* conditions. The extra grunt had also led to a Maximum Take Off Mass (MTOM) increase of around three tons, even though fuel, passenger and cargo capacities had remained the same.
* a term that has pretty much entered everyday aviation conversation, “hot and high” refers to a specific set of atmospheric conditions created by a combination of high temperature and altitude. As the air warms up, its density begins to decrease, leading (among other things) to a reduction in engine efficiency and power. The same effect also occurs as altitude increases and is essentially one of the major factors that define an aircraft’s performance ceiling. Individually, either of these effects can be handled and overcome without undue problems by the majority of “regular” aircraft; however, when they combine, their total impact can be such that operations are only possible at very low weights – weights that imply a small payload and questionable operating economics. To overcome these conditions (found in many lucrative coastal areas around the world), several aircraft have been designed with higher than usual power-to-weight ratios and aerodynamics tailored to get as much out of thin air as possible. By far the most famous of these is the superlative 757, which, on a cold day at low altitude, can leave any other airliner for dead in the take off and climb 🙂 .
N940PS itself would continue to fly with PSA all the way into the beginning of April 1988, when the company merged with rival USAir (precursor to today’s US Airways). Retained in the new combined fleet, the aircraft would become N815US on 9 April, and would continue to serve staunchly until it left the fleet for good on 27 February 1997.
From there on end though, things start to get interesting 😀 . As far as the Internet is concerned, the aircraft had disappeared off the face of the planet for several years – in all probability spending some time in a desert somewhere – until it resurfaced back again in May 2003 as 9A-CBD 🙂 . Operated by Air Adriatic – one of the very few private airlines to have ever been formed in Croatia – it would fly various charter flights across the Balkans and Europe until August 2005, when it was wet-leased to Italian operator MyAir (keeping its Croatian registration as per the usual leasing rules). Sadly though, the realities of airline operations in Croatia – not to mention the complexities of their operating economics – had quickly caught up with Air Adriatic, which began shedding its eight-strong MD-82/83 fleet already by 2006 (the airline would eventually go under just a year later). Among the first to go, CBD was quickly acquired by Albanian low cost start-up Belle Air (which had commenced operations in 2005), where it became ZA-ARB on 1 February 2006.
But, even though the carrier was financially far sounder than Air Adriatic – and would, in fact, continue to operate for a further seven years before closing its doors in November 2013 – ARB still hadn’t experienced much in the way of smooth sailing. Having done its bit in giving Belle Air the initial kick it needed to get going, it would be pulled from the fleet just two years later, making way for the far more economical – and comfortable – A320.
Migrating back north once again, in early 2008 the jet would take on its current identity, serving now with Aurora Airlines, a Slovenian start-up operating out of Maribor 🙂 . Having spent much of the first half of the year on crew training duties, ACC would enter the commercial arena in September, flying on behalf of Air Kosova, a plane-less airline formed in the wake of Kosovo’s 17 February independence. Re-based at Priština Airport (BKPS) for this purpose, it would be used to connect Kosovo with several larger German cities, a traditionally sound choice given their wide variety of connection – as well as the presence of significant expat populations, in common with virtually every other Balkan nation.
However, given the new country’s economic climate and the population’s near-complete lack of purchasing power – Kosovo always having been one of the poorest regions of the Western Balkans – it was only a matter of time before Air Kosova too went under. And so it had happened near the end of the year, when the whole operation disappeared off the radar as quickly as it had appeared…
What was – with 20/20 hindsight – the final nail in ACC’s coffin, this development had left Aurora without any form of stable, sustainable work. Several charter contracts came and went – the last of which was for Hajj flights into Mecca – but pretty soon Aurora began to feel the same strain felt by Air Adriatic several years back; operating a cheap-to-buy but nowhere near cheap-to-run type on a shoestring budget, the company was pretty soon forced back against the wall. With bankruptcy staring it into the eyes, the company had no choice but to sell off its infrastructure while it could still be salvaged. Its second Mad Dog – MD-83 S5-ACE – was eventually sold, but ACC found no new home to go to. And so, on 14 January 2009, it had rolled up to a remote part of the Maribor apron and shut down its engines for good*…
* interestingly, this last flight – repositioning without passengers – was flown by two of my future CPL flight instructors, who’d once told me that despite its age and colorful working history, ACC was one of the finer Mad Dogs they’d flown…
A Trip to the Other Side
With those very engines now removed and sold, ACC was pretty much left to the elements. However, standing there for the better part of the year, it had caught the attention of the management of Letalski center Maribor (Maribor Flight Center), located on the opposite side of the runway. Deciding that it was not likely to go anywhere ever again – and that it could make for a nice addition to the center’s grounds – LCM had made a bid for the aircraft, eventually buying it outright in 2010 🙂 .
In what is perhaps the best tribute to both ACC, Aurora – and the MD-80 family as a whole – upon taking possession LCM had not gone down the path of turning the jet into a kitsch fairground attraction. Instead, they’d simply trucked it over to their side of the airport and preserved it (as much as possible) in its original shape and form 🙂 . Still in remarkably good nick, the aircraft is today open to visits by various school groups and enthusiasts – one of which had rocked up on 14 February with a huge camera and a mean-looking tripod… 😀
I would also like to extend my sincere thanks to Mr. Danilo Kovač of Letalski center Maribor for his time – as well as for opening ACC for me and sharing interesting snippets from its recent history!
As could have been expected by my regular readers, all that recent Police Eurocopter business had quickly sent me roving through my photo database in search of more (somewhat) related material to post 😀 . The train of thought that had derailed me this time was the sudden realization that 9A-HBB represents only the fifth Eurocopter ever to be registered in Croatia – quite the anomaly given the country’s proximity to the European heartlands and traditionally strong ties with one of Eurocopter’s biggest (and most forceful) players, Germany.
The primary reason for this discrepancy – a small, but nevertheless painful thorn in the side of the EU’s aviation industry – was the country’s long-standing “marriage” with Bell Helicopters, a relationship Croatia has entertained in one way or another ever since the earliest days of rotary aviation in Yugoslavia. While its strong socialist orientation would have immediately suggested that any flying machinery would, by default, be sourced from the Eastern Block, Yugoslavia’s geographic position – not to mention Tito’s near-violent split with Stalin and the subsequent drift into the non-aligned sphere – had made it a prime target for some economic wooing by the West 🙂 . Aviation was always pretty high on the bargaining list, which had translated into unprecedented liberty in buying Western hardware. The national airline JAT, for example, had throughout its lifetime operated an all-Western fleet (707, 727, 737, DC-9, DC-10, Caravelle, Convair 340/440, ATR-42/72), while the country’s flying clubs were awash with Cessnas bought in huge batches from the company’s dealership in Belgium (many of these are still flying today, with myself having logged time on at least half a dozen of them). The Yugoslav Air Force had too started out* with Spitfires, P-47s, Dakotas, T-33s, Sabres and Thunderjets, as well as a number of indigenous designs built using Western components produced locally under license (most notably the Armstrong Siddeley/Rolls-Royce Viper turbojet) 🙂 .
* while its beginnings were indeed rooted deep in Western hardware (with a few Eastern types inherited from the Partisans), the YuAF would eventually switch to mostly Soviet machinery when relations between the USSR and Yugoslavia thawed in the years following Stalin’s death. While the home-grown G-2 Galeb and G-4 Super Galeb (seagull), J-1 Jastreb (goshawk) and J-22 Orao (eagle) would continue to legally use the Viper engine and select Western components, the bulk of the Air Force would switch to types such as the MiG-21, MiG-29, An-26 and Mi-8.
Interestingly though, throughout all of this, Yugoslavia’s procurement delegations had always shown a clear preference for aircraft designed in the US but – if at all possible – actually produced somewhere in Europe. Consequently, Reims-built 150s, 172s and 182s had become de rigeur, with “original” Cessnas generally chosen only if the sought-after model (or its quantity) was not available in France 🙂 .
This trend was perhaps even more evident in the sizable police and military helicopter fleets. One of the types that will forever be associated with the latter (even though it’s an original European design) is the superlative Sud Gazelle, originally sourced direct from France, but later produced in large numbers at the Soko plant in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina (where it became known as the Soko SA-341/342 Partizan) 🙂 . Soko production would eventually reach such heights that their Gazelles can still be found across the width and breadth of ex-Yugoslavia (and, interestingly, Hungary), with a few having even made it overseas into the UK! Similarly, the military had also briefly flown a handful of Sikorsky piston designs, procured – as expected – from Westland.
The civil government though had gone completely Italian-American, turning to Agusta and its license-built Bells (and whistles) for virtually all its rotary needs. Having been the world’s dominant helicopter maker at the time of Yugoslavia’s rotary expansion in the late 60s – back when Eurocopter’s parents hadn’t even met yet 😀 – Bell was the natural choice, and would continue to furnish the police force all the way into the late 80s. Throughout this period, it would shift a total of 64 helicopters this way – nothing to sneeze at in a country with a peak population of just 23 million! – including 32 JetRangers and a remaining mix of LongRangers, 47s, 212s, 412s and the odd 222. Spread across bases throughout the country, many of these machines would greet the dissolution of Yugoslavia on station, eventually becoming absorbed into the nascent police forces of whichever successor state they were in at the moment. In Croatia’s case, this fleet would include a lone 212 (9A-HBM) and four JetRangers (HBC, HBZ, HCG, HDM) – all of which are still happily flying today, save for HCG which was written off in an accident in the early 2000s.
Having thus accumulated almost 20 years of operational experience with 206s and 212s as the late 90s dawned, Croatia was now well and truly deep in Bell territory – so when the Air Force expressed a desire for a light training helicopter, Bell already had its foot very firmly in the door 🙂 *.
* the military helicopter forces had however followed a different “career path” to that of the government fleet. At the time of Yugoslavia’s disintegration, the bulk of the YuAF was composed of the aforementioned Gazelles – filling the light attack and training roles – and heavier Mil Mi-8s performing the day-to-day haulage. With war imminent, the YuAF had withdrawn the lot of its assets back to Serbia, leaving what would become the Croatian AF without any machinery (save for an ex-Police Bell 47 that was plucked from Zagreb’s Technical Museum, restored and sent to the front on MEDEVAC and CASEVAC duties). However, while the helicopters themselves were gone, the people and experience had remained, so it was decided to acquire a fresh batch of Mi-8s, since they were cheap and could be pressed into service the quickest (the first example was, in fact, captured). With the haulers sorted – and the war over – the AF now needed a helicopter to mimic the Gazelle, a role that was eventually fulfilled by – surprise, surprise – a fleet of 10 JetRanger IIIs 🙂 (the CroAF had also operated a small fleet of Mi-24V gunships during the war, but these were retired in the early 2000s due to the prohibitive costs of maintaining them operational).
With the state’s needs and desires now finally sorted out, the newbie Eurocopter – first appearing as a functioning unit only a few years prior in 1992 – was left with no room in which to flex its new-found corporate muscle. Even though it commanded the impressive might of Aerospatiale (itself the successor of Sud) and Daimler-Benz Aerospace (which had absorbed Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm – MBB for short – in 1989), the harsh reality of post-war economics had also denied it any hope of breaching the nascent civilian market, leaving it out in the cold for the remainder of the 20th century 🙂 .
Eurocopters to the rescue?
The brand’s first breakthrough into the Croatian market would come only in 2005 – and then just as a meager two-ship “assault” that faltered and failed barely four years in (though through no fault of Eurocopter itself). At the time, civilian HEMS duties were still being performed exclusively by the CroAF’s increasingly rickety Mi-8 fleet, a fleet composed primarily of machines that had seen their fair share of action during the war. After a few safety scares, it was decided in the corridors of power – with the helpful assistance of the JAA 😀 – that HEMS operations should in future be handed over to a dedicated (and private) civilian operator, flying proper, modern equipment intended outright for the job.
However, while this was all fine and well on paper, in the real world things were somewhat more complicated. While the government’s intention to the above was duly published through official channels – and consequently widely reported in the press – it had still remained just an intent and not a concrete call to action. That needed to take the form of a standard public tender, at which various private operators could submit their bids for the role and then proceed to beat each other senseless with various cost-benefit analyses 🙂 .
The catch, however, was that at the time there was only ONE private helicopter operator in the country, flying a lone 1963 Sud Alouette II (9A-HAT) on leisure and pleasure flights up and down the Adriatic coast – and rumored to not even be interested in the whole HEMS issue. Sensing a very lucrative niche just waiting to be fulfilled – a niche perilously open to well-heeled and established operators from beyond the border – a group of local businessmen soon founded the company Helikopterska kompanija in anticipation of the actual tender (a company that would quickly become known under the cute and easily-pronounced acronym HIKO – despite, or perhaps because of, “hik” being a Croatian onomatopoeic word for an alcohol-induced hiccup 😀 ).
To be able to actually perform the duties the tender was expected to require, the company had immediately acquired two helicopters, later to become famous in song and story as the first Eurocopters on the Croatian register 🙂 . Unsurprisingly, the company went for versions of the tried-and-tested BK-117/EC-145 – still Europe’s default standard in HEMS operations – including a stock EC-145 (registered 9A-HKA) and a BK-117C-1 (registered 9A-HKB)*.
* however, while it does say “Eurocopter” on the tin, the BK-117 is not the consortium’s original design. Tracing its roots back to the late 70s, the 117 had actually come about through cooperation between MBB and Kawasaki of Japan – a cooperation that predated the creation of Eurocopter by almost 15 years. A huge commercial success (especially in offshore and medical circles), the BK-117 was still rolling off the production lines when Eurocopter was born, eventually being absorbed into its product offering. Progressively updated, the design reached its apex with the C-1 version, which would soon – with a few technological, structural and visual tweaks – morph into the EC-145 🙂 (sometimes also dubbed BK-117C-2). So, even though its base design predates Eurocopter, HKB itself does not, warranting its inclusion into this list.
At this point through, the story turned overall Croatian 🙂 (for lack of a suitably descriptive word). Having never experienced smooth sailing in all their time here, both of these machines would spend the subsequent four years leaping from one scandal into another, starting with HIKO’s PR deception about their true ages and histories. Always billed to the public as a 2004 machine, HKB was eventually disclosed to be a 1999 model and – more worryingly – to have been involved in a flying accident in Italy in 2000 that had required it to be virtually rebuilt from the skids up. HKA was not spared either, for it was argued that it too was not the 2005 version it was posing to be, but an earlier 2004 model that had initially served as a FADEC testbed before reverting to the regular EC-145 standard (FADEC would eventually be implemented on the EC-145T-2). While the allegations against HKB would eventually prove to be correct, HKA’s past was never fully and conclusively resolved – especially since the state’s official register had it listed as manufactured in 2005 with no previous registrations to its name (unlike HKB).
The second kick into HIKO’s shin came all the way from Russia (and without any love whatsoever 🙂 ). Faced with the accelerating decay of its Mi-8 fleet – decay that had led directly to the HEMS tender – the Croatian AF had spent the better part of the mid 2000s looking (increasingly frantically) for a replacement type. However, while the intent was there, the funds were not, no matter how hard the government tried to scrape something together (likely much to Eurocopter’s continuing disappointment).
Salvation though was quickly at hand once Russia agreed (quite readily it must be said) to shift some brand new helicopters our way as repayment of its long-standing debt to Croatia. A concept that still tends to amuse the locals – a lion (admittedly with few teeth left) owing money to a mouse 😀 – this debt stems all the way to the heyday of commodity exchange between the USSR and Yugoslavia back in the 70s and 80s. Despite both countries having disappeared almost simultaneously in the early 90s, the debt had remained on the books, to be later passed onto Russia at one end and Yugoslavia’s successor states on the other.
Sixteen and a bit years later, the CroAF was gleefully rubbing its hands together as the first two of the ten brand new Mi-171s ordered touched down at Pleso Airbase… 🙂
While this would have been quite the occasion under any other circumstances, this acquisition had there and then resolutely sounded the death knoll for HIKO’s HEMS ambitions. Reinvigorated and back on strength – sporting the newest aircraft in the country – the CroAF was now poised and set to resume its former place as the country’s default HEMS provider. Convinced by this show of force, its operating economics – and not least of all by the lack of bidders save for the lackluster HIKO – the government quickly cancelled and shelved the civilian HEMS contract, leaving HIKO up the paddle and without a creek.
With the final nail in the company’s coffin firmly in place, HKA and HKB would spend the next few years flying various odd jobs, struggling to survive until inevitability finally caught up with them. HKA was eventually struck off the register in 2009, becoming D-HDPP of the HSD Luftrettung, while HKB joined Flymed as D-HAOE in 2010…
The meat of the discussion
Even though HIKO’s demise would severely dent its already weak presence on the Croatian market, all was still not black for the Eurocopter brand as the end of the 2000s dawned 🙂 . With the economy beavering away better than ever, the country started to see a sharp increase in the ownership of private aircraft, spanning everything from the humble Skyhawk to the odd Citation. With plains to the east, mountains to the west, islands to the south – and airfields few and far in between wherever you look 🙂 – a significant proportion of these were always going to be light helicopters, a class particularly popular among the country’s few well-off agricultural industrialists, owning large swaths of farmland in often difficult to reach places.
Among them was also the heir of a locally-famous meat delicatessen empire – producing some of the country’s best-known salami and sausages – who in 2009 acquired a mint EC-130B-4 straight from the factory, later to become 9A-HEG. Representing only the second non-US turbine single in the country – 9A-HAT rears its rotorhead again 🙂 – HEG was a frequent visitor at various local air shows, on occasion always being piloted by a former Mi-8 commander who was never shy to put it through its paces.
However, while they are operationally conductive to conditions in Croatia, privately-used helicopters almost invariably fail the acid, corrosive test of outright economic efficiency. While they do allow for unprecedented and easy access to the various out-of-the-way places scattered across the land (of which there are a lot!), their sheer thirst, high maintenance costs and legal hassles associated with off-field operations all conspire to turn financing them into an absolute nightmare. With one notable exception – another industrialist who has successfully been sustaining his own helicopter (initially a Bell 407, nowadays a 427) for years – almost all examples acquired solely for private use became notoriously short-lived. Such was the case with HEG as well, which in 2012 bade farewell to Croatia to become OO-EVL out of Belgium.
I, EU, he, she…
Somewhat unsurprisingly, Eurocopter’s fortunes began to pick up once again with Croatia’s ascension into the EU back in July 2013. Now the proud owners of the EU’s second-longest single border with non-EU lands – standing at 1198 km/745 miles, just 115 km/71 miles short of Finland’s border with Russia – Croatia has by default been given the task of reducing the porosity of this expanse as much as possible in preparation for the eventual implementation of the Schengen Agreement. While still operational and holding its own, the existing Bell fleet was – quite correctly – deemed unfit to cope with the task (through lack of numbers alone), leading to the EU-brokered acquisition of our famous pair of EC-135s 🙂 (but, as if to underscore Croatia’s long relationship with Bell one last time, the 429 GlobalRanger had also made it into the running). The only ones actually ordered at the time, these machines are said to be part of a batch of seven examples that will be progressively introduced into service by 2015 (the earliest date Croatia would be eligible for joining the Schengen Area).
Well, as an old Croatian saying goes, “he who is patient will be saved”… 😀
Even though sleepy rural airfields – the sort with just an odd Skyhawk or Super Cub about – do not really sound like exciting places to be (especially at -10 degrees Centigrade 😀 ), some careful exploration reveals that this is not always the case. Guided by this thought on one of my previous visits to Serbia, I’d decided to pop down to the Lisičji jarak (LYBJ) airfield just north of Belgrade and see if I could dig up something of interest. And sure enough, just 10 minutes into my self-guided tour, I turned a corner behind an isolated, out-of-the-way building and stumbled upon one of the rarest – and oddest – production piston singles built: the Aermacchi-Lockheed AL-60 :).
No country for new planes
Lockheed’s only foray into the light general aviation market, the AL-60 – originally known as the L-402 – was designed in the late 50s by the legendary Al Mooney, and intended to serve as a cheap and cheerful – but still tough and durable – backwater utility aircraft. Interestingly – and possibly uniquely at the time – it was fully tailored to the specifics and requirements of the growing South American market, and was never intended to be produced in the US (save for the prototype and eventual development aircraft).
Mass production was instead shifted south of the border (irony anyone? 🙂 ) to a brand new plant in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, operated by Lockheed’s subsidiary Lockheed-Azcarate SA, a company created specifically for the purpose. The move had also implied a change of name of the aircraft itself, which quickly became known as the LASA-60, derived from the initials of the subsidiary and the year in which the design was fully certified.
However, despite its robustness and quality of design, the aircraft had fared rather poorly when faced with designs from established GA manufacturers such as Cessna. Their proven 182 – and the incoming 185 and 206 – had all offered roughly similar performance, size and capability, but with a pedigree and support network that the one-of LASA-60 simply could not match. This disparity soon reached such proportions that after only a dozen or so examples built, Lockheed started looking for a way to offload the LASA-60 and salvage as much of the funds invested as possible.
In a fortunate turn of events – for both Lockheed and the design itself – Aermacchi of Italy was at that time looking around for a utility machine to add to its successful line of light tourers and trainers. Believing they’d found what they were looking for in the LASA-60, the company bought the type’s production license and tooling – which had churned out only 18 aircraft in total – and transferred them to Varese in Italy. Once set up there, the design became the AL-60 Santa Maria, named in honor of the town of Santa Maria in California that was home to Lockheed’s – and still is home to Lockheed Martin’s – headquarters :).
Never staying put for long, the design’s final – albeit only partial – move was to South Africa in 1974, by which time the production rights had probably covered more miles than the actual aircraft :D. Produced by Atlas – known for the Cheetah, a modification of the Dassault Mirage III, and the Impala, a license-built Aermacchi MB-326 – the aircraft became known as the C4M Kudu (named after a local antelope-like animal), and was the last version to roll of the assembly lines, Italian production having stopped in 1972.
While this constant changing of hands would have implied the existence of a host of different versions – as each new owner adapted the design to his markets’ requirements – the AL-60 had in reality borne only three major series: the original LASA-60 and the AL-60B and C families, the latter of which also includes South Africa’s Kudus.
Structurally mostly identical across all versions – the major difference being the C series’ taildragger configuration – the AL-60 could provide seating for 4-6 passengers, an equal number of skydivers, or space enough for two stretchers in an ambulance configuration. A versatile, well-thought-out Mooney design, the aircraft’s simple interior and its regular rectangular shape allowed for numerous other variations – including an aerial photography setup – which could be switched at will with the minimum amount of effort and time.
Like any good bush plane, the AL-60 could also be equipped with skis or floats (but no amphibian versions were offered), though it is highly questionable whether any aircraft were actually delivered in these configurations – or otherwise retained them to this day.
What did vary significantly between versions were the engines. The original LASA-60s and the first of the Santa Marias – the four-strong AL-60B-1 series – were powered by the naturally aspirated Continental IO-470 flat six, developing 250 HP. While the same engine was also used to great effect on early versions of the Cessna 185, its power output on the AL-60 was described as inadequate by a number of pilots, who used to joke (and still do) that the only reason the AL-60 ever got airborne was due to the curvature of the Earth (latterly often applied to certain versions of the Airbus A340) :).
To try and address this issue, the first major production version, the AL-60B-2 – which ended up being the most common of all AL-60s, numbering 81 built – was refitted with a turbocharged version of the same engine, the TSIO-470, now developing 260 HP. While its performance at altitude – and especially during takeoff from low density hot-and-high conditions – improved significantly, the pitiful 10 HP of additional power still made little difference in normal, everyday operations.
A significant increase in power first came with the taildragging C series, originally designed to meet an Italian Army requirement for a liaison aircraft with transport capability (a requirement that eventually fell through). The resulting AL-60C-4 was whisked along by a Lycoming GSO-480 supercharged and geared (for that little extra something :D) flat six, developing a more potent 340 HP. Produced mostly by Piaggio, this version later matured into the AL-60C-4M – also known as the AL-60C-5 Conestoga, and, erroneously, the Trojan – which would in 1974 become South Africa’s C4M Kudu (hence the designation).
Apparently, in some quarters it was felt that even this was too little power, so the design was further developed into the “standalone” AL-60F-5 Trojan (the real one this time). Offered in both tricycle and tailwheel configurations, the Trojan was powered by the brutishly impressive Lycoming IO-720 flat eight, essentially two IO-360 stuck together at the drive shaft and producing a hefty 400 HP (this engine would later rise to fame as the powerplant of the Piper PA-24-400 Cherokee 400 four seat tourer and the PA-36 Pawnee Brave cropduster). And while it lacked charging, it’s raw power – and more importantly, torque – had made the Trojan an excellent climber and hauler, which had lent it to good use in the humid, hot-and-high environment of Central and Southern Africa.
Back in the dry, low-and-cold environment of Central Serbia however, YU-BCZ was doing less well. Completely devoid of any markings and data plaques, its identity was only confirmed after an Internet search, which had also revealed that it belongs to the original B-2 series – which would put its birthday sometimes in the mid 60s. Other information floating around also suggests that it was one of four registered in former Yugoslavia, and had – prior to the country’s dissolution – been based at Čepin Airfield (now LDOC) in Eastern Croatia :).
As noted previously – and evident in the photos – in the present the aircraft has been almost completely stripped of all external components, some of which were crammed into the cabin. Between them, glimpses of the panel had also indicated that it had been cleaned out, but otherwise seemed in good shape. Word on the apron is that the aircraft is being slowly restored to flying status by a team of experts after spending a lengthy 22 years on the ground – and the precision, thoroughness and purposefulness of its dismantling (as well as the carefully stripped paint) would certainly seem to confirm this.
With its status as one of the very few remaining examples in Europe – and likely the only Yugoslav survivor – we can only hope to see it back in the skies soon… 🙂