Photo File – Flying In The Time Of Corona: Foreign GA Snapshots

By me
All photos me too, copyrighted

While going through my photo database in search of material for my previous Flying In The Time Of Corona photo file, I discovered that there’s plenty of stuff in there for a follow-up post as well – but this time focusing solely on foreign visitors to Croatia’s many coastal airports (+ Lučko of course). Like our own birds, these too could not be scared off that easily, arriving into the country in quantity and quality rarely seen even in years past. And since it would be rude of me to keep them all for myself, another summer time Photo File is obviously in order! (to build on the two bonus Cessna 172RGs already featured in their own post)

Before they can learn how to fly, young gliders must first learn how to taxi. To make that big step easier, their owners often fit them with training wheels and take them for short strolls around the apron. With time, they will progress to longer walks all the way to the runway – and eventually, when they feel more comfortable at the airport, they will finally be able to spread their wings and start flying all on their own…

A 210 on a hill… in the middle of an airport… next to a fire trainer… by a fuel farm… in the shade of an olive grove… well, that’s this week taken care of! What may eventually become the new static exhibit at Split Airport (SPU/LDSP), OK-TKN had arrived into town unexpectedly following an in-flight engine failure, and is now caught up in the financial and logistical nightmare of getting it going again…

Another skydive PC-6 – and another drive to see it right after the night shift. What makes this 2006 example a little bit more special is that it sports the 680 HP PT6A-34 engine instead of the stock 550 HP 27 series – and is seen carrying the type’s somewhat uncommon external fuel tanks. Carrying another 200 liters each, they give the PC-6 an impressive seven hour endurance – itself quite a neat trick on workdays when F-HBSF is used as an aerial imaging platform (for skydive ops they’re empty, but to simplify handling they’re usually left on the wing, since their performance penalty is quite small all things considered)

One of only 30 or so ever made (and the second one to end up in front of my camera), this beautiful Ruschmeyer R90 is one of those fantastic “what could have been” machines that make GA so special. Designed by Horst Ruschmeyer of Hannover in Germany, the R90 was an attempt to bring together all the cutting edge tech of the late 80s and combine it into a high-performance four-seat touring aircraft made squarely to European – rather than American – measure. Built entirely out of fiberglass (which was tested to destruction) and sporting a speedy laminar flow wing, it could touch 300 km/h in the cruise on just 230 HP – making it faster than pretty much every other aircraft of its power class. Its real party piece, however, was its noise signature: at full chat, it could do just 66 dB – roughly equivalent to the noise level of a typical office, and some 8 dB below the strictest level required by law. To do this, it was fitted with specially-designed exhaust stacks and a bespoke short-span four-blade composite prop – while the engine itself, a Lycoming IO-540, was actually derated down to 230 HP from its default 260 to cut down on all the yelling. Beautifully finished and with handling characteristics that were described as “a real treat”, the 230RG was supposed to launch an entire family of aircraft, including everything from a 190 HP fixed-gear “budget” model to a 470 HP Rolls-Royce 250 powered speed machine. Unfortunately, the design took until 1990 to sufficiently mature, by which time the market had slumped so hard that even Cessna had to throw in the towel. The results were depressingly predictable: after just five years of production and a single variant, the Ruschmeyer works filed for bankruptcy – and, despite attempts by other companies to revive the design, that was that for the sleek little R90…

So similar, yet so different: two “budget speedsters” that show just what can be done with some clever engineering and a bit of compromise. An aircraft that had set new standards for efficiency in its class, the Mooney M-20J (on top) was rebranded as the “201” when it became the first four-seat touring aircraft to reach 201 miles per hour (175 kts; 320 km/h) on just 200 HP. Though it had paid the price in payload and interior space – and required an extensive aerodynamic cleanup by the legendary Roy LoPresti – the J had set the stage for today’s M-20V, which needs only 280 HP and a turbocharger to cruise at 242 kts (450 km/h)… two thirds of the Q400’s maximum speed // But the more interesting machine is the Duruble RD.03 Edelweiss, an aircraft that needs only 180 HP and a fixed-pitch prop to do 147 kts (270 km/h) while sipping just 8.7 gallons an hour – roughly what a Cessna 172 would drink, using exactly the same engine and prop, to do 110 kts (204 km/h). What’s even more fascinating is that the RD.03 is actually a homebuilt, and was designed in the 70s by Roland Duruble, a marine engineer by trade. Other interesting bits include hydraulically operated landing gear and flaps, the latter extending automatically to the desired setting in response to airspeed – stuff unheard of even on turboprop twins. Another neat trick is that the horizontal stabilizer has a slight dihedral – it is mounted at an upward angle – so that it remains clear of the turbulence coming off the flaps (an effect that is quite pronounced on the Q400 at Flaps 35, and results in noticeable airframe vibration). This particular machine had been completed in 2003, and aside from the uprated 180 HP engine (the type standard is 160), it also sports a Lancair-style air intake that gives an additional performance and efficiency boost. In fact, the build is so sweet that it had featured in several GA magazines – often with the tagline “France’s homebuilt Mooney”

I may be small – but at least I’m weird. An aircraft whose elegance immediately belies its Italian origins, the Partenavia P.68 boasts quite an unusual cocktail of characteristics for a “serious six-seat touring aircraft”: a high cantilever wing, a pair of “small” IO-360 engines and – most interesting of all – fixed landing gear. But, while this may raise eyebrows, there’s quite a lot of method to its madness: from the outset, the P.68 was designed to be an efficient, affordable and user-friendly alternative to conventional twins of the 1970s, using sleek lines and clever aerodynamics to cruise at 300 km/h on just 2x 200 HP – and calculating that the drag penalty of the gear is a lesser evil than the weight, cost and complexity of retractable units (an approach later also taken by Cirrus). And it worked: in continuous production since 1971, more than 430 have been sold so far – including 20 of its glass-nosed patrol & observation models, the P.68 Observer & Observer 2 –  making it one of Italy’s most successful GA designs. And if it reminds you somewhat of Tecnam’s new P.2012 Traveler, rest assured that the resemblance is NOT coincidental: the P.68 was in fact penned by the brothers Luigi and Giovanni Pascale, who would in 1986 go on to found the same “Costruzioni Aeronautiche Tecnam”…

Another speedy Italian Job – but with an unusual address (in Latvia no less). One of the many LSA designs to come out of Italy during the late 80s homebuilt boom, the Century 04 is a fixed-gear derivative of the earlier Century RG, featuring a 100 HP Rotax 912 w/ a constant speed prop – both of which are good for a solid 200 km/h in the cruise while sipping just 10-15 liters per hour. With space for a proper 2+2 config – but sporting only two seats to give more baggage space – YL-ARV will likely become a Lučko native soon…

Photo File – The Swing-Leg Skyhawk: Cessna 172RG Cutlass RG

By me
All photos me too, copyrighted

To properly kick off my return here after an unintentional pause of nine months (!), I’ve decided to revisit an aircraft type I had mentioned in passing some time ago – seeing that, by a stroke of sheer dumb luck, I managed to snap TWO in the space of just one week (which is twice as many as I’d managed over the past 18 years). The machine in question – as the post title infers – is the Retractable Gear (RG) version of the common Cessna 172, an aircraft whose rarity and cool factor is matched only by its apparent uselessness and absurdity…

A mint 172RG, in a modern paint scheme, under clear skies on a beautiful summer morning… I could do worse for a pre-dawn spotting session I must admit!

Swinging 80s

To immediately get an idea of why the 172RG stands out like a sore thumb within the traditionally conservative Skyhawk family, it seems best to start off with its main party pieces, as compared to the stock 172P of the same period (1980):

  • fully retractable gear
  • a longer snout to house the nose gear when retracted
  • cowl flaps
  • 180 HP Lycoming O-360-F1A6 w/ constant speed prop (vs the standard 160 HP O-320 and fixed pitch unit)
  • 66 USG fuel capacity (up from the standard 42)
  • and a 1,202 kg MTOM (vs the 1,088 of the P)

Performance-wise, the extra grunt (particularly the increased efficiency of the constant speed prop) and cleaner lines meant the RG could pull up to a 20 knot lead over the stock P, with High Speed Cruise pegged at 140 knots. The new prop also made for slightly better after take-off climb performance (800 fpm vs 700), while the increased fuel tankage gave a pretty chunky range boost, from 440 up to as much as 770 NM.

Cutlass #2 undergoing a wheels-up restoration after a (heh) wheels-up landing in Germany. You can definitely tell it apart in a normal Skyhawk crowd!

However, the ~80 kg added by the gear retraction mechanism also upped the empty weight, now standing at 740 kg vs the P’s 660. Normally, this was not much of a payload issue if you took on only your required fuel – but if you went all out and brimmed the tanks, you’d be left with barely 260 kg of headroom… roughly two 2020 adult males, some luggage and all the stuff normally carried around when away from home (additional oil, tow bar, cockpit/wing covers, emergency equipment, survival kits, …).

The higher MTOM also made for longer take-off and landing runs, both up by roughly 70 meters even on concrete; and while some owners have been known to fly them out of rough fields (and even back country strips), it generally goes without saying that the new legs did not take too kindly to prolonged use on the types of runways normal 172s take for granted.

While the main gear legs are no thinner than those on the standard 172 (where they’re set inside streamlined fairings), Cessna’s electro-hydraulic RG systems are quite complicated things and can go bananas even when mollycoddled. As on the 177RG, 182RG and 210, the main legs of first swing downwards and the fold back into recesses in the fuselage (barely visible here). Early 210s – which were the first to use the system – also had main wheel well doors, but they proved problematic and were deleted well before the 172RG appeared

The Cessna Retractable Dance. Go to 0:30 for retraction and 1:30 for extension. You’ll note that the pilot leaves the gear down for quite some time after take-off; the standard wisdom on RG Cessnas is to leave it hanging until clearing obstacles, since the retraction sequence causes so much drag it can noticeably impair climb performance at a critical stage (this is also SOP on airliners during windshear escape maneuvers). Indeed, the main legs drop by a whopping 60 centimetres during retraction!

Maintenance-wise, private owners, commercial operators and various incident reports all tend to agree that the upsides of its commonality with the stock 172 are frequently balanced out by the many gremlins of the RG system – though user experiences vary considerably, particularly when comparing leisure and training ops.

Persistent weak spots and items that require frequent inspection are the main electric-driven hydraulic pump, down-stop pads that (if damaged) may prevent the main gear legs from locking down, and the main gear pivots that are worn out by the legs’ aerobatics during retraction and extension. There’s also the need to periodically cycle the gear on the ground during checks – which requires jacks and additional man-hours – as well as the costs of servicing the propeller governor (though that’s a pretty standard job).

And while none of these are deal-breakers in themselves – the 182RG and 210 say Hiii! – the cost-benefit math of doing all that on a lowly 172 did not make the RG everyone’s cup of tea…

Mission-ready

So, when all was said and done, the 172RG was a cheap & simple aircraft made expensive & complicated for just a few marginal gains – so much that even the fixed gear 210 HP Reims FR172 Rocket could keep up with it in a pinch (and for noticeably less money). What’s more, if you really wanted the “Full RG Experience”, five numbers up was the (slightly) more powerful, (much) more efficient, (oodles) more comfortable and (far) more elegant 177RG Cardinal – an aircraft conceived outright for the touring role, offering 182 series frills without many of its financial chills.

The 172RG thus appears to be – in technical terms – a complete crock. However, outright performance and mass market appeal are not what this airplane is about; its forte was to corner a very specific niche of the training market by offering a suitable and affordable “quick fix” for a problem few manufacturers seemed interested in tackling.

The niche in question was for what’s termed a complex aircraft, a surprising demanding specification that calls for a simple, easy-to-fly, robust and cost-effective airplane that can also boast toys such as flaps, retractable gear and constant speed props – all the complicated and fiddly stuff that future airline drivers are supposed to deal with (did mine on an old, student-weary PA-44, so the full set of traumas is there!)*.

And with the Skyhawk’s 25 years of active service to its name, the type’s well-known middle-of-the-road handling, off-the-shelf components (even the landing gear, nicked off the Cardinal), a reliable and frugal powerplant and a developed global support network, the 172RG had hit all the nails it needed to hit. Even though it would be born on the eve of Cessna’s decade-long single engine production pause, 1,191 would be made between 1980 and 1984… not bad for a niche design!**

* the original specification for complex aircraft had not set a specific minimum power limit; in 1997 however, the FAA set the bar at a minimum 200 HP, thus disqualifying the 172RG. However, the type still remains in widespread use as an introductory platform for more complex touring machinery – as well as a charismatic “left field” personal airplane

** though there are frequent parallels with the Beech 24 Sierra and the Piper Arrow, the 172RG is actually not a direct competitor to either. Both designs boast thirstier 200 HP fuel-injected engines (the Arrow with the option of turbocharging), better performance, more amenities – and are generally set up more for the posh end of the touring market; their closest Cessna analogue would be the aforementioned 177 Cardinal. The only aircraft on equal footing with the 172RG was the very first version of the Arrow – the 180 HP PA-28R-180 – which debuted in 1967 and remained in production for only a couple of years before being superseded by the first of the 200 HP models

What’s in a name?

While all of the above ticks quite a few Achtung, Skyhawk! boxes, one more thing remains that is very worthy of mention: it’s name.

While it does say “Cessna 172” on the tin, the 172RG is techno-legally not a purebred Skyhawk – but rather an offshoot of the nearly forgotten 175 Skylark. Billed as the next step towards the larger 182 (a role that would later be filled by the 177), the 175 was in essence an up-market high-trim version of the 1956 172A, fitted with a geared 175 HP Continental GO-300 instead of the standard direct-drive 145 HP O-300. Unfortunately, reduction gearboxes were at the time an unheard of feature on such a small civilian engine, meaning that very few pilots had ever encountered one before. The specific way in which such an engine had to be handled – flown at around the 3000 RPM mark – was so alien and absurd to private pilots that many drove them at the more usual 2000-2200 RPM, leading to a ton of breakdowns, failures and bad PR. By 1962, things had gotten so bad that Cessna was forced to pull the plug on the entire design, and retire both the 175 designation and the Skylark name…

A stunning late model 1962 Skylark with the original GO-300. Note the hump on top of the cowling; the propeller axis had to be raised up in order to accommodate the reduction gearbox without relocating the engine mounts

To salvage at least some of the effort invested in the design, the company decided to keep the 175’s Type Certificate (and some mechanical bits) and use them as the legal basis for all future high-performance variants of the 172:

  • the 195 HP R172 Hawk XP
  • the 210 HP Reims FR172 Rocket
  • the military T-41 Mescalero
  • and the 172RG

Traces of the Skylark’s original DNA can still be seen in the R172, FR172 and T-41, since they all sport the tall narrow-track landing gear of the 172A, which would be replaced by the squatter wider-track variant we all know and love on the subsequent 172B.

However, this would not be the end of Cessna’s marketing shenanigans; in 1983, the company would launch the 172Q Cutlass (sans RG), an attempt to “schlepp” on the RG image by fitting the 172P with a 180 HP Lycoming O-360-A4N driving a fixed pitch prop. Quite a rare model today – which did not offer much meaningful superiority over the P – only a handful would ever be built before the Skyhawk family as a whole went into its prolonged 80s coma…

Fixer Upper

While at this point in any normal Achtung, Skyhawk! post I’d go off with a ton of (more or less) descriptive external photos, in this instance I decided to “stay inside”, since the opportunity to snoop around a full-blown rebuild (currently at ~60%) was an opportunity too good to miss! The photos are not my best work – it’s hard to maneuver my 1.91 m frame w/ camera and tripod inside a 172 – but hopefully they’ll be interesting enough for the common avgeek!

I don’t know… it feels something is missing… free from all its kit, the Skyhawk panel looks far more commodious than it actually is! Note the (now very visible) sections for the flight and navigation instruments and the radio stack. Before its wheels-up landing and rebuild, D-EGGF also sported an autopilot (fitted above the glove compartment), and will – when completed – also carry a full set of digital engine instruments. Note also the rudder trim wheel next to the elevator trim; a very useful convenience/borderline necessity with a constant speed prop

A peek “behind the scenes” shows just how many wires, cables, ducts – and even chain drives – there are in a light aircraft. The complexity, weight and maintenance headaches of the average analogue panel have been one of the key drivers behind modern glass cockpit systems built around digital buses and remote sensing systems

Lots of wires… and lots of levers too. With carburetor heat, throttle, prop, mixture and cowl flaps controls, the 172RG could be handful for inexperienced pilots used to the trouble-free operation of the classic Skyhawk (but ideal for the well-meaning masochism of flight training!). Indeed, this was Cessna’s most complicated throttle quadrant short of the 182 (even the 177RG had one level less, being fuel injected)

The most out-of-place level in a Skyhawk: the landing gear handle. One of the more unconventional operational features of Cessna’s RG system is that the “gear up and locked” lamp is – red… which on everything up to and including airliners means either “NOT locked” or “in transit”. Somewhat annoyingly, the light remains continually illuminated as long as the gear is retracted… which is mildly disconcerting from a Q400 driver’s perspective!

Like all RG airplanes, the 172 has a backup gear extension system, whose lever is located under a cover between the front seats. The trick here is that it is just a hand pump, to be used in case the electric one fails (~35 strokes are necessary, according to the POH); it still requires the hydraulic system to be fully operational, and there is no gravity drop or a standalone reserve hydro system. This “unusual feature” is the 172RG’s main Achilles’ heel: the gear is actually held up by hydraulic pressure, and to keep it from dropping, the hydraulic pump occasionally operates in flight to keep the pressure within limits (between 1000 and 1500 PSI). However, if there’s a leak in the system – which seems to happen with some frequency – the pump’s operation will simply dump the hydraulic fluid overboard, eventually emptying the entire system and rendering the gear completely inoperable

The more normal end of the Cessna RG system. The nose wheel doors are mechanically connected to the nose leg so they open and close with gear motion; their biggest operational problem is that they’re quite large and hang low, so it’s easy to damage them if you’re a bit too enthusiastic with the tow bar

Who would have thought that all of this cabling lies hidden behind the teeny panel of the Skyhawk? Another detail unique to the 172RG is the raised floor (best visible below the CDI), necessary to accommodate the main gear legs when retracted. The main wheels however stow behind the normal luggage compartment, so the loss of space there is minimal

Boxes boxes everywhere, not a place to sit… thankfully, the lack of space for maneuvering about with a tripod is taken up by some pretty cool kit: Garmin G5 x2, GMA350, GNC225… should be quite a looker when finished, very much looking forward to trying it out!

As ever, I would like to extend my sincere thanks to Dorian Delić of Medulin Airfield (LDPM) in Istria, for allowing me to snoop through his family’s hangar and drool a bit over D-EGGF!

Aircraft pictured:

  • D-EGGF: c/n 172RG-0301 • mfd 1980 • ex. N107JB
  • D-EPAW: c/n 172RG-0757 • mfd 1980 • ex. N6532V, I-ALEU

Sources:

Photo File – My Kingdom For Some Horsepower: The Caravan Blackhawk XP42

By me
All photos me too, copyrighted

It is perhaps a sign of the state of general aviation on the Balkans that the arrival of a single Cessna Caravan can stir up so much interest that even people from neighboring countries head over to see it. While a perfectly common “garden variety” airplane everywhere else, the 208 is still a pretty exotic beast in these parts, with myself having come across only four examples in the 16 years I’ve spent hanging around light aircraft. Therefore I could be excused for packing up my photo gear and driving 120 km one way to Šentvid Airfield in Slovenia in order to catch it 😀 .

The machine in my sights, however, had a bit more going for it than just being a big Cessna with a turbine. On the one hand, it is a comparatively rare short-body Caravan I – and on the other it sports the impressive Blackhawk XP42 engine conversion that is not that common even in the more affluent bits of Europe. So as it spent its three days there hauling skydivers to altitude, I could take my sweet time and get to know it Achtung, Skyhawk! style 🙂 .

A handful of horses in the back – and 850 charging straight at me. Looking imposing in the soft afternoon light, D-FOXY returns from yet another series of skydive runs. Manufactured in 1999 with the serial 208-00303, Foxy spent its early years in the US, flying as a seaplane under the name N984J. In 2006 it would move to Italy as I-SEAA, before heading north into Germany in 2013, where it would eventually lose its floats, get buff and become a no-nonsense jump platform

Blackhawk Up

Though much can be said about the qualities and exploits of the rugged Caravan, what interested me most in this case was in fact Foxy’s nose job. One of the many products to come out of the Blackhawk Engineering works – the people who put third-party turboprop upgrades on the map – the XP42 mod involves replacing the 208’s standard engine (in this instance a “small series” 675 HP PT6A-114A*) with a much more potent “medium series” 850 HP PT6A-42A. In addition to the improved power, the 42’s larger core also noticeably adds to the torque, with take-off figures now up from 2,535 to 3,045 Nm. To soak all this up, the original three-blade 2.69 m McCauley prop gives way to a variety of four- and five-blade aluminum and composite units, with Foxy in particular sporting a conventional 2.54 m Hartzell for a bit of extra ground clearance.

* up until serial number 208-00276, most short-body Caravans were powered by the 600 HP PT6A-114 unit. From aircraft 277 onward, they switched to the same 114A as used by the bigger Grand Caravan. Also of note is PW&C’s engine class system: “small series” engines develop between 500 and 900 HP, “medium series” cover the 850-1,050 range – while “large series” go from 750 all the way to 1,900.

But, the XP42 upgrade is as much about added grunt as it is about the nature of its delivery. Unlike a simple engine swap, this conversion is what’s called a “firewall forward solution”, which includes – where necessary – extensive modification to the engine compartment itself in order to get the most out of the new powerplant. Since the majority of XP42s will be used for rough-and-tough hauling in arduous conditions, the folks at Blackhawk had gone to some length to make the upgrade more than just a course of steroids. To this end, the most obvious alteration is to the cowl, now widened at the front to accommodate a 40% larger oil cooler in order to keep things in the green even during operations in hot-and-high conditions or repeated back-to-back flight cycles. The new twin exhaust stacks (a consequence of the 42’s slightly different architecture) can be profiled to either eek more thrust out of the exhaust gasses (5 knots worth in fact) – or increase mass flow at the expense of cruising efficiency to lower turbine temperatures during the type of prolonged high-power climb common to skydive ops.

For comparison, a stock Caravan I, here in its military U-27 guise. Note the single large exhaust duct and narrow cowl

Other stuff? Well, the engine is now mounted at four points instead of three, there’s an improved air intake system with a modified inertial separator to further reduce the likelihood of foreign object ingestion at rough strips, the battery is now a Li-ion affair instead of lead/acid to save roughly 13 kg in weight – and there’s an optional 325 A starter generator instead of the stock 200 A unit to reduce wear and tear on the engine by shortening spool up and light up times. The package is also rounded up by custom Hawkeye engine gauges, generally similar to the Caravan’s originals – but now with an additional digital readout for most parameters.

Dear passengers, your flight is now ready for boarding. Though all of you will leave half way, we would like to thank you for flying with us! Though the prop is now noticeably shorter in span, it still spins at very similar speeds as the original, meaning the XP42 is still a pretty quiet machine, even at full chat

A peek under Foxy’s skirt. Though the 42A sports a larger core than the 114A, it is only 27 kg heavier dry, 190 vs 163 kg. Interestingly, it is also 34,7 cm longer than the 114A (1.68 vs 1.34 m) – but at the same time 13.2 cm narrower, sporting a 46.4 cm diameter vs the “smaller engine’s” 59.6. Also note the fuel/oil heat exchanger at the extreme right, which helps cool the oil by transferring some of its heat to the fuel on its way to the combustion chamber

And the conversion’s other party piece, the new oil cooler. A pretty good illustration why the XP42’s nose now looks like it had been rammed into a wall!

In addition to Blackhawk’s efforts to keep oil temperatures manageable even during repeated short cycles (as well as the day’s very agreeable 17 degrees Centigrade on the ground), Foxy came equipped with a custom cooling adapter, essentially three fans running off a 12 volt external battery that circulate air through the oil cooler to prevent the formation of local hot spots when the engine is not operating

With a load of between 10 and 15 skydivers every 15-20 minutes, Foxy’s modification sure had their work cut out for them (even more so since start-ups are more critical to turbine engine wear than running hours)!

What a truly wonderful way of spending an afternoon: sitting on the ground behind a revving 850 HP short-body Caravan to the background of rolling hills and lush forest…

As always, I would like to thank the very friendly staff at Šentvid Airfield – as well as Foxy’s pilot for allowing me to snoop around the aircraft inside & out!

Sources:

Photo File – One Engine For Short Haul

By me
All photos me too

While the met office tended to respond with much doom and gloom every time the summer of 2016 came up, out in the (air)field we had mostly been treated to beautiful flying weather all throughout the season, with gorgeous conditions from dawn all the way until the last dusk. This had particularly been true for the week preceding this article, with a large high pressure area over Europe responsible for skies clear as far as the eye could see (even from the flight levels).

Unsurprisingly, this turn of events had lured out many light aircraft all throughout the region, with plains, seas and hills alive with the sounds of pistons. By sheer good luck, this fine spell had seen me travel all over the place, allowing my camera to see what our little piston singles – and gliders – were up to… 🙂

One of only three aircraft on the Pula Airport (PUY/LDPL) apron greets a calm – and slightly foggy – morning. If you had a feeling that this is a bit too elegant to be a Cessna, you’d be entirely right… for despite the name, this is actually a Lancair LC-42-550RG Columbia, a speedy carbon fiber design that Cessna bought some years ago and started selling under its own brand. Like all Lancairs, the LC-42 is notable for its sleek aerodynamics, as well as an enviable power-to-weight ratio, with 310 HP hauling only 1500 kg of all-up mass. Coupled with a modern propeller, this ratio gives the Corvalis cruise speeds in the 340 km/h range – which puts this little “toy” in the same league with some turboprops…

A very welcome visitor to Lučko warming up prior to its afternoon hop to Vrsar Airfield (LDPV). Even though DYG looks at first like a stock late-model 172, details such as the three-bladed constant-speed prop, large exhaust and an air intake on the right side of the cowl reveal that it actually sports Thielert diesel muscle under the hood. A thorough rework of the 2 liter CDI unit out of the Mercedes A Class, the Centurion 2.0 can boast a maximum output of between 135 and 155 HP, and a consumption of only 20 liters per hour – significantly less than the 35+ of the standard avgas model. An additional benefit are the digital engine controls (FADEC), which replace the traditional levers fverniers for power, propeller RPM and mixture with only one jet-style lever…

Proof that even airline pilots are not immune to the call of light aircraft! Briefly swapping gas turbines for cylinders, the crew of OM-M902 prepares for a one hour joyride on and around Lučko. Still pretty rare in Europe, the Jabiru family ranks among the most successful Australian light aircraft programs in recent years, and already pretty much has a cult following in its home state. An interesting detail is that the majority of Jabiru models use the company’s own engine – in this case a 2.2 liter petrol four-cylinder engine developing 80 HP for takeoff.

A mint Reims-built C172P of the Motorfluggruppe Zürich potters calmly along taxiway Alpha at Zürich Airport (ZRH/LSZH) following an afternoon arrival into RWY 28. Despite the airport handling hundreds heavier aircraft every day – ranging from regional turboprops to intercontinental widebodies – it still manages to seamlessly integrate its resident GA population into the traffic flow. In what is almost a case study of Swiss efficiency, the airport manages this through IFR-style regulation of VFR traffic, including strict departure routes and procedures (intended to keep light traffic separated from the big boys and on known tracks) – and even VFR slots, specific periods during the day when commercial traffic is slow enough to permit unhampered operations on both sides.

The newest resident of Lučko just starting to roll towards RWY 28 for another skydive flight. The permanent replacement for C210 9A-DZP – which had been written off in a landing incident – G-MILN is also one of the most well-kept classic Cessnas in Croatia, and had accumulated only around 1300 flight hours since its completion in 1977 – and with only one owner at that. Equipped with a pretty modern avionics setup – including a Garmin GTN 650 touchscreen GPS – this machine will in future also receive a specialized skydive door and other ancillary equipment for such ops.

Easily concealing the fact that it already has more than three decades of service behind it, GOD prepares to wait out an incoming storm in the field’s main hangar. One of former Yugoslavia’s most popular gliders, the Vuk-T was conceived in the late 70s as an intermediate training type – most closely fitting the Standard Class – sporting an all-fiberglass body and a 15 meter supercritical airfoil wing. To make it suitable for its intended role, it had sacrificed ultimate performance for ease of handling and structural integrity – and even today has a reputation for toughness, durability, crashworthiness and simplicity of maintenance (some examples even pushing 6000 flight hours). Despite this, it still boasts a 1/38 glide ratio, and is cleared for maneuvers such as loops, wingovers and spins. Interestingly, the type was also one of the first Yugoslav aircraft designed using CAD tools – and the country’s first glider to be comprehensively tested in a wind tunnel. Another tidbit is its name: translated as “wolf-T”, it comes from a peculiar subdued howl it makes in high speed flight.

Incident/Accident – Remembering 9A-DLN

By me

While I normally shy away from sombre themes, on this one occasion I’ve decided to make an appropriate exception. The unfortunate circumstance that had led to this change of tone is the fifth anniversary of the destruction of Cessna T303 9A-DLN, which had been lost with all on board in a ground impact accident on 5 February 2009.

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9A-DLN back in better times. One of two Crusaders to have been on the Croatian register – both of which were lost in fatal accidents – DLN was frequently used for multi-engine and instrument proficiency checks by experienced instructors and captains.

On occasion flying out of Zagreb Intl, DLN’s mission that day was a multi-engine proficiency check, which had called for a cross-country VFR flight to Zadar’s Zemunik Airport (LDZD). The on-board complement had included:

  • Miljenko Bartolić, Pilot-In-Command, a much-loved examiner and former agricultural and airline pilot who had given me my PPL wings back in 2002
  • Gerd Govejšek, instructor (manning the co-pilot’s seat), also well known to many generations of student pilots at Lučko
  • Aleksandar Walter, passenger, a highly experienced former Police helicopter pilot and CO
  • Zvonko Kelek, passenger, a private pilot with aviation experience dating all the way back to the 80s and Yugoslavia’s national carrier JAT

According to the official accident report – available, in Croatian, here – the flight had proceeded normally until reaching the vicinity of the town of Gospić, located near the foothills of the Velebit mountain range and about 5/6s of the way in towards Zadar. At this point, DLN had entered an extensive area of cloud, moderate icing and mountain waves, eventually ending up in continuous Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC). However, the crew had elected to continue their flight to Zadar without a change of route, altitude or flight rules, likely relying on the aircraft’s comprehensive IFR instrument suite and wing and tailplane de-icing systems.

One of the better-equipped twins in Croatia, DLN had sported a complete IFR navigation set, including a Garmin GNS 430 IFR GPS unit.
One of the better-equipped twins in Croatia, DLN had sported a complete IFR navigation set, including a Garmin GNS 430 IFR GPS unit.

Approaching the Velebit range at 8,000 ft – a safe terrain clearance altitude even during moderate wind – the aircraft had entered an active military training zone (normally open to civilian traffic and only activated when the Air Force actually needs it), after which it was instructed to descend below the zone, whose lower boundary was at 6,500 ft. This new altitude had put DLN at between 800 and 1,300 ft above the approaching peaks.

Though there is still a degree of uncertainty acknowledged by the report, it states that the prolonged flight in cloud had led to extensive airframe icing, likely starting around the tail. Still flying at 6,500 ft, DLN had then entered an area of severe mountain waves, which had produced a strong and rapidly increasing rate of descent. Iced over and too heavy to counter it, the aircraft had quickly begun to plummet, impacting the mountainside at 4,734 ft, roughly 1,000 ft below Vaganski vrh (Vagan Peak). The final radar contact was recorded at 14:54 local time.

9A-DLN's actual (green) and planned remainder (yellow) of the route.
9A-DLN’s actual (green) and planned remainder (yellow) of the route.

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The southern end of the Velebit range (where the blue line in the map above ends), with Vaganski vrh visible just below and in front of the wingtip. The range’s steep slopes on both sides give a good indication of the kind of weather phenomena it is capable of producing when the wind picks up…

The report notes that the impact was so violent that the aircraft had virtually disintegrated. The search for the impact site – as well as the subsequent recovery of the wreckage and bodies – was hampered by bad weather for days, in addition to an avalanche that had buried most of the immediate surroundings.

Having lost four of its much loved members in an instant, the aviation community at large fell into a state of shock and bewilderment – a state that persists even today, five years on. The death of four experienced aviators – and the conditions into which they had flown – have left a lasting mark on all of us, now unable to look at the Velebit range the same way ever again…

In memory of Gerd, Miki, Walter & Zvonko