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

By me
All photos credited and copyrighted as noted

Even though, with all the fine flying weather we’ve been having, one would expect GA to be the talk of the town at Achtung, Skyhawk!, the end of July would see its crown briefly stolen (and in spectacular fashion) by the Croatian Air Force, which had suddenly – and seemingly out of the blue – gone on a PR offensive unseen in recent times 🙂 . While it often finds its way into the media one way or another, the AF had particular reason to be friendly this summer, first having finally completed its reformed MiG-21 force – and then having been given center stage in two major military parades scheduled for the beginning of August.

Wanting to make the best of all three occasions and improve the AF’s somewhat tarnished image, the Ministry of Defense had readily opened up its doors to journalists from all sides, allowing for yet another glimpse at its nowadays rare – but always fascinating – flying machinery… 🙂

Fleet In One

The first event off the blocks was the 22 July presentation of the reinvigorated MiG-21 fleet, fully overhauled and bolstered back to full strength by the acquisition of five second-hand examples from the Ukraine in 2013/2014. Now sporting 12 jets in total – four twin-stick UM models and eight single-seat bis variants – the fleet represents the largest concentration of combat aircraft seen here since the 90s civil war, and is slated to remain in service well into 2018 (when it is due to be replaced by a newer Western type). Brought up to partial NATO standard by the addition of a few bits of modern avionics – as well as equipment allowing them to safely operate in civilian airspace – all of the MiGs have been very active ever since cleared for duty, often flying multiple sorties a day, every day… a situation that had been nearly unimaginable during the fleet’s low period in the early 2010s 🙂 .

This renewed disposition – as well as a more relaxed attitude towards conserving the jets’ service lives – has allowed them to be utilized more aggressively and in more roles than before, with at least one flight per day pretty much the norm now. Apart from the obvious training (and photographic 😀 ) benefits, this had also increased the fleet’s reliability in its primary mission – the protection of Croatian airspace – which the MoD was keen to stress during that July morning at Pleso Air Base (ZAG/LDZA)…

NOTE: sadly though, I was prevented by flying commitments from attending myself, relegating my spot to Mr. Petar Mežnarek, a colleague of mine who had previously collaborated with me on another of my MiG-related posts.

Having limited offensive capabilities (a consequence of both age and cost), the fleet’s primary mission is defensive in nature, and centers around the tasks of “air policing”. Among other things, this involves the establishment of a Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) system, in which one or more armed jets (two in the CroAF’s case) are at readiness to take off on several minutes notice to intercept any unidentified or intruding aircraft within the country’s airspace. This capability was on this day demonstrated with a simulated mission, called a Tango (training) Scramble in military parlance. Note the ground start truck to the right, as well as replenishment air cylinders for the -21s pneumatic braking system.

133 and sister ship 132 (out of frame) rolling in after completion of the demonstration. In the standard QRA configuration, each jet sports two Monlya R-60 (AA-8 Alphid) short-range IR-homing missiles, and the distinctive BAK 800 liter (211 USG) droptank for increased operational range.

As good a place as any to catch some shade! Even though its bulbous circular fuselage gives an impression of size and bulk, the MiG-21 is actually a pretty small aircraft. While this limits the amount of fuel and armament that can be carried, it pays off in speed, climb ability and agility – though the latter may not be evident at “non-combat” speeds…

While it is a capable model in its own right, the twin-stick -21 certainly does look less threatening from this angle. The most obvious differences from the post-F-13 single-seat models are the smaller intake and intake centerbody (this version lacking a radar), only two pylons per wing, a less powerful R-13 engine with a different reheat system – and reduced fuel capacity due to the instructor’s cockpit taking up part of the space for the tank.

Even though it’s visually little more than a tube with wings, there’s something about the single-seat MiG-21 that never fails to excite the senses! Note also the matte black finish on top of the fuelage; a common feature on long-nosed aircraft, its purpose is to reduce glare from the paint job during operations in strong sunlight.

A sight that had – sadly – mostly gone from Europe’s skies. Among the last operational -21s on the continent, Croatian examples may eventually outlive all their contemporaries – though their respite from the chopping block is only short-lived…

And given that this is Achtung, Skyhawk! after all, where would we be without at least one light aircraft? Parked at the very end of the apron, this good looking Huron – sporting callsign “Duke 64” – had brought in Frank Gorenc, commander of the US Air Forces in Europe, for an inspection of the fleet.

Parade Lap

Even though the MiGs would be the stars there as well, the second and third events mentioned above would be of a different scope altogether, being based around the 20th anniversary of Operation Storm, a significant military action undertaken in August 1995 during the closing stages of the war. While yearly celebrations of this event are traditionally held on 5 August in the mountain town of Knin – the retaking of which was one of the main goals of the operation – the anniversary had this year also included a mass parade down one of Zagreb’s main streets (held a day earlier on 4 August), for which the Air Force (and even the Police) had been tasked with providing the aerial component.

And while both the original operation and the parade itself remain somewhat controversial in political terms, the latter had nevertheless promised to be quite a spectacle for the photographer, with the AF planning on bringing three examples of each of its aircraft types to the table (with the Police contributing three more machines). However, due to their sheer numbers – with seven types in the AF inventory and three with the Police – the logistics of accommodating them at a single air base had proven to be troublesome, leading to the decision to split them between Pleso (ZAG/LDZA), Lučko (LDZL) and Zemunik (ZAD/LDZD)*, depending on the infrastructure required by each type.

* these seven types also include the AF’s firefighting forces, consisting of the Air Tractor AT-802 and Canadair CL-415. However, due to extensive construction works (and the subsequent lack of space) at Pleso – and the inadequate runway at Lučko – neither could be accommodated at any airport in the Zagreb area, forcing them to operate from their home base at Zemunik, 190 km/103 NM away by the coastal town of Zadar.

Eschewing the parade grounds themselves for some up-close action – and not wanting to let either side down – I’d once again called on Petar Mežnarek for help, with him taking station at Pleso, and me (generally) camping out at my little grass airfield on the edge of town… 🙂

Base Lučko:

  • Agusta AB.212
  • Bell 206B-3 JetRanger III
  • Eurocopter EC-135P-2+
  • Mil Mi-8MTV-1 & Mil Mi-171Š
  • Zlin Z-242L

Three very welcome visitors – and the only airplanes to be based at Lučko – being checked out by ground staff prior to their participation in the general rehearsal on 2 August. Likely visiting the airfield for the first time, 402, 403 and 405 are normally based at Zemunik, and are – along with two other Z-242s – used for initial pilot training.

Firing up for their run in the parade itself. This had also marked the end of their visit to the airfield, with all three aircraft having proceeded direct to home to Zadar once their flypast had been completed…

You know your formation is good when even Mother Nature approves (despite the appalling weather during the rehearsal)! Though Storm itself was a strictly military affair, the parade had also included the presence of the firefighters and police, the latter represented by a three ship group composed of every type operated by the force. Of particular note for the occasion was the AB.212, itself a war veteran and participant to numerous medevac and SAR missions during the entire conflict (a significant few of which under fire).

The old and the new on approach to the Police helipad after their participation in the parade. Despite having been in country for two years now, the EC-135s are still a novel sight, and are often participants to every aerial event the Police is invited to. Despite their modern, gleaming looks, they are still often outshone by the old Bells, all of which had previously served with the the prewar Yugoslav Police – and in many cases, in front line service during the war.

Not that much different from an ordinary day around here! Even without the fleet returning from the parade, this is a perfect juxtaposition of Lučko: civilians, police & military in (almost) perfect harmony. However, 2 and 4 August had likely broken a few records, with the airfield witnessing five Mi-171s, five Bell JetRangers, three Z-242Ls and one each of the Agusta AB.212 and EC-135 – all starting up at once…

Sometimes keeping away from the epicenter of events can be a good thing. Saluting Lučko along the way, 131 and 132 are seen swinging back towards Pleso as the second of three pairs participating in the final flypast…

And, as a bonus, a badly-executed ad-hoc video clip from the 2 August general rehearsal, showing pretty much how would Apocalypse Now look like in a Croatian edition 😀 (and which features some whirlybirds I hadn’t been able to photograph in good light, the Air Force’s JetRanger IIIs).

Base Pleso:

  • Pilatus PC-9M
  • Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21bis & UM

A scene that had draw in visitors from Italy, Germany – and even the UK. Flying the first afternoon practice sortie on 1 August, 165 had left by far the best impression of the three MiGs out at that time, treating both spotters on the fence and in the tower to two memorable low passes. Interestingly, on all occasions, 165 would be piloted by Ivan Selak, with Ivica Ivandić riding in the back seat – who were two of the four Croatian pilots who had defected from the Yugoslav AF at the outset of the war.

The 1 August practice run had also included an appearance by the PC-9, transferred – like the Zlins – from Zadar to Zagreb for the duration of the parade. Nicknamed “Zubonja” (or “toothy” in loose translation, a generic name for CroAF combat aircraft sporting shark mouths), this particular machine was quite a treat, sporting celebratory markings for the type’s first 50,000 hours of operations in Croatia.

The traditional centerpiece of any larger aeronautical event in Croatia is the Krila Oluje (Wings of Storm) aerobatic team, which actually owes its name to the operation being celebrated. Even though there have been some upsets with the team of late – with a number of pilots leaving for better paid flying positions abroad – the replacement crews have gotten into their stride quite quickly, enabling the team to continue the team’s packed display schedule without major disruption.

Rocketing out of RWY 05 as the second of three pairs participating in the parade’s opening flypast. Due to the complexities of MiG operations – and their notoriously small fuel tank capacity – the whole airport had been closed to all non-military traffic for the duration of the event (roughly two hours).

The last of the six MiGs participating in the final flypast is seen touching down onto RWY 05 during the last minutes of the golden hour. Even though the estimates for the number of jets to be airborne had varied between three and eight, the final six had nevertheless not left anyone indifferent!

Photo Report – Spring at Pleso

By me
All photos me too, copyrighted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Report – Life at Lučko, June 2014

By me
All photos me too, copyrighted

With summer plowing onwards in good stead – and without any major meteorological disruptions so far – life at Lučko Airfield has pretty much continued unabated since my last post on the subject some two weeks ago :). Granted, the volume of traffic is outright appalling compared to the “golden years” of the last decade – but on the whole, things are still moving in vaguely the right direction :). And while we haven’t had much in the way of brand new or foreign visitors, I nevertheless did not end up short for a few interesting photo opportunities…

Another interesting resident of the Croatian civil register . Cessna's sole purpose-built agricultural aircraft, the model 188 together with the Piper Pawnee and Air Tractor makes up legendary trio of the cropdusting world, and had proven itself most of all in the backwoods of Australia and New Zealand. BKP itself has had a more sedate life, and had arrived into Croatia in the late 70s as part of a larger tranche of various Cessnas (including also A185F 9A-BKS, which had too spent its early years out in the fields) .
Another interesting resident of the Croatian civil register on a repeat visit to the field. Cessna’s sole purpose-built agricultural aircraft, the model 188 together with the Piper Pawnee and the Air Tractor constitutes the Big Three of the crop dusting world, and had proven itself most of all in the backwoods of Australia and New Zealand. BKP itself has however led a more sedate life, spending its entire existence hopping about eastern Croatia. Manufactured in 1977, it was part of a large batch of various Cessna models bought by the Yugoslav government in the late 70s, and has up until this point flown under only two other regs: N731GB during delivery, and YU-BKP until the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991…

An (internationally common) transport solution that has surely raised a few eyebrows on Croatian roads. More commonly of the closed box type, a trailer such as this is used to transport gliders to and from gliding sites - and was on this occasion used to move this fine Pirat from its home base at Buševec Airfield (LDZB, now closed indefinitely) to Lučko for an extended period of time.
An (internationally common) transport solution that has surely raised a few eyebrows on Croatian roads. More commonly of the closed box type, a trailer such as this is used to transport gliders to and from gliding sites – and was on this occasion used to move this fine Pirat from its home base at Buševec Airfield (LDZB, now closed indefinitely) to Lučko for an extended period of time.

Profiles that only Mother Mil could love - but which nevertheless clearly slow the family connection of these two renowned designs . Another visitor from Divulje AB, 204 had flown only a few circuits today... but the bambi bucket located near the helicopter start gates suggests firefighting training...
Profiles that only Mother Mil could love – but which nevertheless clearly show the family connection shared by these two renowned designs. Another visitor from Divulje AB, 204 had flown only a few circuits today – but the “bambi bucket” located by one the helicopter start gates suggests that some firefighting training was also on the menu at some point…

A
A big rotor, two powerful engines and freshly mowed grass is all you need to show just how turbulent (and interesting) the flow of air and exhaust around a helicopter is…

The mighty heart of Cessna's most sophisticated and capable single-engine model. It's full name dragging out to "Continental TSIO-540-AF", this engine is equipped with a turbocharger (TS - turbosupercharged) and direct injection (I - injection), while its six cylinders are arranged in a boxer pattern (O - opposed) and together give a cubic capacity of 540 cubic inches (8.8 liters). In this sub-version (AF) it produces 310 HP, while the design itself is capable of putting out anything between 260 and 375 HP.
The mighty heart of Cessna’s most sophisticated and capable single-engine model. It’s full name dragging out to “Continental TSIO-540-AF”, this engine is equipped with a turbocharger (TS – turbosupercharged) and direct injection (I – injected), while its six cylinders are arranged in a boxer pattern (O – opposed) and together give a cubic capacity of 540 cubic inches (8.8 liters). In this sub-version (AF) it produces 310 HP, while the design itself is capable of putting out anything between 260 and 375 HP.

x
The simple, uncluttered – and amazingly roomy – cockpit of the HB-21 motorglider. Featured here for the first time in my previous post, the HB-21 is an unusual pusher prop design, powered by a 2.4 liter Porsche/VW engine developing 100 HP. Light as a feather and with a wingspan that covers several post codes, the HB-21 has demonstrated an ability to tow gliders on par with that of the Super Cub – the very reason it was bought and brought to Croatia in the first place.

Photo Report – I have nothing to offer…

By me
All photos me too, copyrighted

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

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

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

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

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

T
The (mostly) fine weather had also lured out the air force, allowing us to play a bit of spot the differences! Even though they are essentially the same aircraft underneath, the legacy Mi-8MTV-1 and the modern Mi-171 do diverge in a number of details – the most obvious being the 171’s flat rear ramp. Other more subtle changes include the additional forward fuselage door – which had necessitated the relocation of the aircon unit to the top of the fuselage – and the Doppler Navigator antenna array moved further back down the tail boom. Intended to also provide at least some of the capability of the country’s long decommissioned Mi-24 fleet, the 171s also sport some additional combat equipment, including bolt-on armor plating around the cockpit, flare dispensers (above the CroAF roundel on the rear fuselage), IR jammers (at the back of the gearbox assembly) and provisions for carrying up to four B8V unguided rocket packs.

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

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

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

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

By me
All photos me too, copyrighted

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

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

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

Monday, 5 May

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

Wednesday, 7 May

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

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

Friday, 6 June

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

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

Friday, 18 July

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

Monday, 4 August

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

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

Thursday, 18 December

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

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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All photos me too, copyrighted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking – CroAF Mi-171 Firefighting in Zagreb

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All photos me too, copyrighted

Once again I am interrupting my usual programing for a bit of breaking news… on 14 April at around 13:30 local, the CIOS recycling plant in Zagreb caught fire. Apparently the plant’s warehouse had gone up in flames, creating a smoke plume that has blanketed the entire town center and can seen for dozens of kilometers around. Given the magnitude of the blaze, the Croatian Air Force had been drafted in, sending a “bambi bucket” equipped Mi-171 to assist in operations…

229 attempting to control the blaze using a FLORY 2600 bambi bucket. Scooping up water in a nearby artificial lake, the crew were able to drop a load every few minutes - sadly without much effect.
229 attempting to control the blaze using a FLORY 2600 bambi bucket. Scooping up water in a nearby artificial lake, the crew were able to drop a load every few minutes – sadly without much effect.

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On yet another run – one of a dozen I myself had witnessed, though the helicopter was at the scene for more than two hours. Thankfully, thunderstorms are inbound which should assist ground teams!

229 departing Lučko in a hurry before we knew what was going on. In the event, it was flying to the ZTC maintenance facility next to Zagreb Intl. to pick up the bambi bucket...
229 departing Lučko in a hurry before we knew what was going on. In the event, it was flying to the ZTC maintenance facility next to Zagreb Intl. to pick up the bambi bucket…

Photo Intermission – Rotors In Fog

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All photos me too, copyrighted

While continental Croatia has, on the whole, been spared a visit by the Four Riders of the Winter Apocalypse – Freezing Cold, Low Cloud Base, Snow and Fog 😀 – the light aviation scene had nevertheless wound down for the season, existing now only in traces and a few sporadic pleasure flights flown over the weekend. Even though we’ve been graced with generally good visibility and temperatures of 10 to 15 Centigrade, few people are inclined to get some serious flying in, leading me to a serious (and worrying) deprivation of news and photo opportunities…

So, to fill the void – and wish my readers belated season’s greetings – here’s a photo of some helicopters in fog 😀 .

Blade Runner has "tears in rain", while Lučko airfield has "rotors in fog". Slowly disappearing into the evening's radiation fog, a selection of Mil helicopters prepares to go to bed. Leading the pack are three Mi-171Š transports, followed by a "legacy" Mi-8MTV-1, while in the distance - already nearly obscured - is a visiting Mi-35 gunship from the Czech Republic...
Blade Runner has “tears in rain”, while Lučko has “rotors in fog”. Slowly disappearing into the evening’s radiation fog, a selection of Mil helicopters prepares to go to bed. Leading the pack are three Mi-171Š transports, followed by a “legacy” Mi-8MTV-1, while in the distance – already nearly obscured – is a visiting Mi-35 gunship from the Czech Republic…

Short Photo Report – MiGs in the Mist

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In light of my recent run of law enforcement themes, for this next, short bit I’d decided to draft in the military as well and give their flying forces a bit of screen time too 🙂 . While the Croatian Air Force’s rotary units are featured here on occasion – operating, as they do, from Lučko – most of its fixed-wing assets are generally kept out of sight in the country’s two main air bases, one of which can be found tucked away behind the terminal of Pleso Airport (LDZA).

Even though the AF boasts a number of different airplane types – including the Air Tractor AT-802, Antonov An-32B, Pilatus PC-9 and the Zlin Z-242L – the most interesting of them all have always been the MiG-21s; old, worn and tired beasts that are still the elite of the entire force. The rock stars of the local aviation world, they don’t have much in the way of raw military capability – with all of them already in their late 30s – but their iconic looks, distinctive camouflage schemes and (not least of all) their deep, throaty roar never fail to excite the inner nine-year-old 🙂 . Put simply, they’re like the Rolling Stones: years of hard graft and abuse have taken their toll, and in purely technical terms they’re somewhat past their expiry date… but when you see and hear them in person, you’re as sold as you would have been when they were in their prime!

122 spooling up and preparing to light the reheat for a practice scramble. Along with its sister ship 116, 122 is part of the so called QRA pair - short for Quick Reaction Alert - on permanent standby to take off in minutes and intercept any aircraft in Croatian airspace
122 spooling up and preparing to light the reheat for a practice scramble. Along with its sister ship 116, 122 is part of the so-called QRA pair – short for Quick Reaction Alert – on permanent standby to take off within minutes and intercept any stray aircraft within Croatian airspace

However, while their evocative rumble on take-off can often be heard all the way to town, seeing them up close is quite a different story. While I personally do get the odd chance to enjoy them from the apron – as in the shot above – for many the only shot at a close approach is at the (almost) annual Open Day at Pleso, held this year on 13 December. While this may seem an odd date to host an open-air exhibition – with visitors having had to contend with 100 meter visibility, -5 degrees Centigrade and pervasive freezing fog – the event is traditionally tied to the anniversary of the formation of the Air Force, officially created on 12 December 1991 🙂 .

Undaunted though by the increasingly pessimistic forecasts from the airport met office – and eager to test out my new 24-105 lens 😀 – I decided to brave the cold and fog and see just what kind of shot I could pull off this year… 🙂

Weathered and tired - but still timeless - 121 is seen quietly sitting around in the background of the official anniversary celebrations, held a day earlier on 11 December. Sadly, this is one of the last times we'll be able to enjoy the good old camo scheme, with the fleet being progressively repainted into a customized NATO-standard air superiority grey pattern...
Weathered and tired – but still infinitely charismatic – 121 is seen quietly sitting around in the background of the official anniversary celebrations, held a day earlier on 12 December. Sadly, this is one of the last times we’ll be able to enjoy the good old camo scheme, with the fleet being progressively repainted into a customized NATO-standard air superiority grey pattern…

Fading into white nothingness... while the weather did leave a lot to be desired, it did at least provide me with an quite the symbolic shot for what was once Europe's most widespread fighter...
Fading into white nothingness… while the weather did leave a lot to be desired, it did at least provide me with quite a symbolic shot for what was once Europe’s most widespread fighter. Operated throughout the East, the -21 is today clinging onto the Balkans for dear life, being still flown in front line service in Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania (and relegated to secondary duties in Serbia)

Sad and forlorn - but still not forgotten - old 102 defies the fog on a bitterly cold morning at Zagreb, Croatia's Pleso Air Base. Named "Osvetnik Dubrovnika" ("Avenger of Dubrovnik"), 102 is actually a distinguished combat veteran, having defected - along with three other examples - from the Yugoslav Air Force at the start of the 90s civil war. Comprising three bis interceptors and a lone recce R model, these four would eventually become the stuff of local legend, with several of them going on to form the first proper fighter wing fielded by the nascent Croatian Air Force.
Sad and forlorn – but still not forgotten – old 102 defies the fog at the head of the base’s small open-air museum. Named “Osvetnik Dubrovnika” (“Avenger of Dubrovnik”), this machine is actually a distinguished combat veteran, having defected – along with two other bis interceptors and alone recce R model – from the Yugoslav Air Force at the start of the 90s civil war. The three bises – including 101 and 103 (“Osvetnik Vukovara”) – would quickly go on to form the first proper fighter wing fielded by the Croatian Air Force; sadly, only 102 would survive till the end of the war, with the rest having been lost in action with their pilots in 1992 and 1993 respectively