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… 😀
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”… 🙂
Anybody who has ever spent some time flying light aircraft – especially those part of smaller flying clubs – will no doubt have experienced what I’ve come to call the “cascading planning failure”. It’s the weekend, the weather is (nearly) perfect, the bird is operational and ready… and willing pilots can be found in their dozens. After several rounds of negotiation – and a hefty phone bill – you finally end up with a working plan, one that will both make everyone involved happy and keep the aircraft’s down time to a minimum. Excellent. All that remains now is one person to derail the entire works right at the outset… 😀
Such was the case on 13 April, when a planning meltdown kicked off my series of flights with an hour’s delay. What was a mild irritant at first had though quickly turned to excitement, proving conclusively (once again) that there really is a silver lining to every dark cloud! Rejoining the pattern at Zagreb Intl. – now well over two hours behind schedule – I happened to catch a transmission by an N-reg aircraft on approach, complete with a movie-set American accent. And while we do get quite a few N-numbers here in Croatia, most of them are aircraft actually based somewhere in Europe and operated by European companies and individuals – so catching an “authentic” US machine was immediate cause for excitement. Rolling lazily into the downwind leg, I scanned the skies for signs of the newcomer, expecting it to be a small business prop or the like… and then I saw it, dead abeam and 1000 ft lower – a pristine white Learjet gliding in towards the touchdown point.
Being a lifelong fan of the Learjet (thank you Microsoft Flight Simulator 98 😀 ), I was naturally through the roof, especially given my recent photographic dry spell. And while I couldn’t make out the exact model from the air, I’d assumed it was one of the established, “common” models like the 45 or 60. So you can imagine my surprise when, while holding on TWY B for the traffic to clear, a brand new Learjet 75 happened to roll by in front of my nose… 🙂
Nip ‘n’ tuck
The newest operational member of the Learjet family (notwithstanding the recently problematic 85), the model 75 is not a new design per se, but rather a revamp and thorough upgrade of the best-selling model 45 (the aircraft included in the aforementioned Flight Simulator that had sparked my love affair with the brand 🙂 ). First flying in 1995, the 45 was conceived as the replacement for the superlative model 31 – for many the greatest of the classic Learjets – and had introduced a new, wider fuselage, reworked wing for higher cruise speeds and a new, state-of-the-art glass cockpit (the Honeywell Primus 1000 suite to be exact).
Despite being a clean sheet design, the 45 was nevertheless still a “proper Learjet” in every way – not the most commodious of aircraft, but one that could out-accelerate, out-climb and out-fly pretty much everything else in its category. And while its ceiling of 51,000 ft – known in the 60s and 70s as “Learjet country” – was neither that impressive nor unobtainable anymore, the way it got there had nevertheless still guaranteed it a healthy and loyal customer base.
However, by the early 2010s, the 45 was becoming increasingly hauled in by time, prompting Bombardier to put on its thinking cap and develop a modernized version. To that end, they took the basic 45 airframe and refitted it with new winglets (a design borrowed from the Global Express), more powerful Honeywell TFE731-40BR engines producing 17.1 kN of thrust each (versus the 15.57 of the 45’s TFE731-20s) and a completely redesigned cockpit featuring the newest in Garmin digital avionics. In this form, the new aircraft would become the model 75*, first flying in late 2012, with FAA certification following on in November 2013 🙂 .
* the same treatment would also be applied to the Learjet 40, the 45’s shorter brother. Fitted with the same suite of upgrades, it would become the model 70, with its certification still pending.
With the aircraft now ready for sale, all that was needed was to whip up a fully spec’d demonstrator and head out into the world. Such was the role of the titular aircraft, N446LJ, which had popped into Zagreb to take on fuel before continuing onwards to Denmark. Having rolled onto the GA apron just a few minutes later, I was at the plane in moments, camera naturally set and ready… 🙂
I would also like to extend my sincere thanks and appreciation to the crew of N446LJ for allowing me to snoop around and snap at will!
With the weather finally turning for the better, I have come once again to the point where my (admittedly limited) flying duties see me visiting Pleso Airport (LDZA) on a near-daily basis (not that I’m complaining! 😀 ). The upshot of the situation is that my camera invariably visits with me, which – combined with generous apron access – often makes for some good and exciting photography. As I’d explained previously in another post on this very topic, Pleso’s status as the default gateway to Croatia is a surefire guarantee that something interesting will pop in every once in awhile, whether it be a heavy freighter, a fast military jet, or an unusual little prop 🙂 .
And while 2014 has so far been somewhat of a slow year for Achtung, Skyhawk!-worthy aircraft, a few oddballs have nevertheless flown in, providing me with enough material to satisfactorily continue this photo series… 🙂
* definitely one of the most interesting aircraft to have come out of the Antonov works, the An-74 is an upgraded, Arctic-capable version of the An-72, both of which owe their unconventional looks to the application of the so-called “Coandă effect”. Named after its discoverer – Romanian aerodynamicist Henri Coandă – this effect describes the tendency of a moving gas to follow the shape and form of the surface it is flowing against. Recognizing its potential to drastically reduce an aircraft’s minimum approach and landing speeds, Antonov had in the mid-70s decided to implement it on an actual aircraft – the An-72 – in which the engine exhaust gasses flow over the flaps and inner sections of the wing, increasing their generated lift without necessitating an increase in flight speed (Boeing had applied the same principle on its YC-14 – an aircraft roughly identical in shape and function, and created round about the same time). Originally conceived as pure-blooded military transports, the An-72 and 74 would eventually also evolve into a number of passenger models, the first of which was the An-74TK-200 pictured above. Interestingly, the design had also served as the springboard for the modern An-148 and 158, which were derived from the visually nearly-identical An-74TK-300.
With “my” airplane now more-or-less permanently based at Zagreb’s Pleso Airport (LDZA), I’ve by necessity ended up spending as much time there as I did at Lučko back in its heyday. And while I’m not really a fan of the restricted (but understandably necessary) operating policy of larger airports, my relocation is not necessarily a bad thing… for despite the ton of paperwork, lots of security measures and more waiting for the big birds to clear, there’s a bewildering array of interesting aircraft to be seen, at times far eclipsing in size and scope anything possible at a small field 🙂 .
Even though Pleso itself is not a big facility by the standards of the world – most European countries would classify it as a regional airport – it does have a lot of things going for it that are conductive to aviation photography. The first (and foremost) is its status as the main gateway to the country’s capital, which by default implies bizjets and bizprops by the dozen. The other thing in its favor – though the airport management would struggle to agree with me on this 😀 – is its relatively low traffic volume, which lends itself to those aircraft that can’t be bothered to wait in queues or tend to take up too much time and space. Lastly, being the only port of entry in the area – as well as the largest airbase in Croatia – it tends to attract everything from ultralights to combat jets, so you’re never left wanting for something unusual 🙂 .
Since my last post on the topic, the tempo has picked up quite a bit – it being summer and all – so here’s what we’ve been graced with in the past few months… 🙂
Deciding to forsake the wonderful world of aircraft instrumentation for some sun, fresh air and photography, I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone by giving spotting at Pleso another shot, after the previous week’s somewhat disappointing results. Now that the sterling work of my colleagues at the Croatian Aviation Forum was beginning to pay dividends in spotter-security relationships, a friend from the said Forum and I made arrangements to camp out unstressed under the RWY 05 approach path and see if something unusual – something not on the timetables – might show up. A recent visit by an Omani C-130 Hercules tanker – and a Qatari A340 and Jordanian A310 before it – kept our spirits up, so we set out to see whether our luck was to be match as our optimism… 😀
By a stroke of good luck – and through the perseverance of my spotting colleagues – our little spotting group had managed to break into the mainstream media today :). Nothing really unusual out in the civilized world, but getting a four-minute time slot – on national television no less – for a “marginal” hobby can be considered quite an achievement here. Consequently, we were to gather at Pleso airport with all our gear and be filmed enthusiastically taking photos from the airport’s normally closed observation deck, opened just this once especially for us… 🙂
Now, normally I don’t photograph “standard” airliners, being a staunch member of the “when you’ve seen one A320, you’ve seen them all” school, but given that this was for the benefit of the group, I decided to try and make the best of it. Pleso does occasionally get a few gems (KC-10s, the odd CC-150 Polaris, Il-76s and the like), so hoped that something obscure might be in town today too…
But soon we ran into a problem – being a slow morning on Easter weekend, there wasn’t really much to photograph full stop, with a whopping six airliners and two movements in the hour we were there. Nevertheless, with the press eager to get it over with, we set to work :).
In another run through my database (lost count of them all 😀 ), I’ve seen I’ve got quite a few interesting shots from Pleso airport, our big bad international gateway (for our GA expectations anyway 🙂 ). Having often selflessly volunteered to fly there for fuel once our own station at Lučko closes for the day, I’ve had the chance to spend some quality time on the GA apron, snapping a few shots here and there while waiting for the bowser to trundle up. At other times I’ve taken my telephoto lens to the RWY 05 approach path, snapping a few landing photos before the police inevitably shoo me away :). So, while patiently waiting for something new, I’ve decided to compile a little collection of what can be seen operating in and out of our friendly little airport…
As an afterthought, I’ve though I might add something a bit bigger as well :). Though most of the commercial traffic in and out of Pleso consists of boring Airbii, Boeings and Dash 8s, there are a few gems every now and then… big, smoky, Russian ones… 🙂