Possibly to compensate for its blatant refusal to play ball for most of the summer, the weather here in continental Croatia has been on its best behavior since my previous post, providing us (mostly) with the same clear blue skies, calm air and pleasant temperatures that we’d expected to see in months past :). Fearing that it may all go terribly wrong at any time and without much warning, out fleet at Lučko has been out and about from sunset to sunrise, getting in as much work as possible without bending any rules. Naturally, the same weather had lured me and my camera out as well, allowing me to present another snapshot of Life at Lučko… 🙂
Looking back on it (even though it still has a month and a bit left to run), this year has, aviation-wise, been almost a complete joke. One of the rainiest years since record keeping began in Croatia some two centuries ago, it has produced no less than three major floods, interspersed with unusually frequent (and surprisingly violent) cyclones and depressions that had – in some cases – dumped a year’s worth of rain in just a few weeks. Scenes such as this and this had kept most of our grass airfields closed and flooded for days on end, trapping all of our money-making aircraft and rendering them unable to flee to the paved safety of the country’s major airports…
Likewise, man-made disasters had conspired against us as well, with the country’s long-standing economic crisis now running into its seventh consecutive year – with very little light only dimly visible at the end of the tunnel. Apart from a general reduction in life standard, spanners thrown into Croatia’s GA works include soaring fuel prices, increased maintenance costs – and, not least of all, stepped-up efforts by several operators of popular paved airports to collect increasingly exorbitant fees and charges in order to alleviate their own financial difficulties.
An yet, despite all of this, the local GA scene is operating like there’s no tomorrow (likely because if the weather continues like this, there probably won’t be 😀 ), with a new bizjet, new skydive Cessna, new glider and towplane all having arrived in country within the past few months. Flying clubs are on a roll as well, with mine already having beaten its previous flight time high, set – ironically – in 2013 :). Skydive flights, airshow performances, panoramic flights, private rentals… all seem to be coming back on track despite the worsening living standard (with only flight training letting the side down).
Much of the same could have also been seen during the 24th Zagreb Cup precision landing championship, held at Lučko Airfield (LDZL) on Saturday 11 October :). A yearly small-town event whose sole purpose is to have some good-natured fun (and enjoy a good BBQ afterwards 😀 ), the competition had this year attracted an all-time record in aircraft and competitors, numbering at four Cessna 150s, three Cessna 172s and 24 competing pilots respectively. While this doesn’t sound like much compared to some of the larger and more formal competitions held elsewhere in Europe, it is still of one of the main aviation (social) events of the season, and had this year easily topped the 2013 competition, where we had a showing of only five aircraft and just 18 pilots.
As nearly every year so far, the competition had been blessed with beautiful summer-like anticyclonic weather, sporting clear blue skies, temperatures of around 25 degrees Centigrade – and lighting conditions to die for. The only thing missing compared to last year was a stiff 15 knot crosswind, replaced this time by a light, variable and refreshing breeze – quite welcome when standing in the sun for several hours 😀 .
Even though this meant we’d miss out on the visually attractive landings of 2013, my shutter finger was not left to stand idly by, with my role as assistant judge allowing me the occasional opportunity to play around a bit… 🙂
Faced with a consistent lack of anything of note to write about – except the weather, which has been so poor lately that catching a good flying day is on par with winning the national lottery 😀 – I’ve decided to fill the void by cobbling together something of a “mix post”, combining the few recent photos from Lučko, Pleso and neighboring Slovenia into one convenient little package. It’s not really much to be honest, but hopefully it’ll provide for a bit of amusement until the arrival of an extensive, work-in-progress historical article… 🙂
* and that isn’t a misprint. While the “717” is today associated exclusively with the re-branded McDonnell Douglas MD-95, the designator had actually been in use ever since the late 50s. Following the introduction of the Boeing 367-80 jet airliner prototype – the famous “Dash 80” – a number of interested civil operators had requested that the design’s slim fuselage be widened to accommodate a six-abreast seating configuration. Boeing had readily agreed, thus giving birth to the 707 as we know it today. However, the US military – also one of the interested parties – was satisfied with the Dash 80 as-was, lobbying that it too be put into production. Knowing that the American military establishment has always been a loyal – and well-paying 🙂 – customer, Boeing agreed to these terms as well, christening the new-old model the 717.
But, since the US military has always used its own original aircraft designators, the new aircraft was quickly labelled the C-135. As the years went on – and the design started making a name for itself in its military guise – the 717 brand had slowly begun to fade from people’s minds… so when Boeing bought MDD in 1997 and inherited the in-development MD-95, they simply recycled the old designator and pinned it to the venerable Maddog (more precisely, the -95 became known as the 717-200 to differentiate it from the original, which had been known within Boeing as the 717-100 since its inception) 🙂 .
To complicate matters even further, the US military has actually operated – and still operates – BOTH the 707 and the 717-100. The former (in its 707-300 version) had served as the basis for the E-3 Sentry, E-6 Mercury and E-8 JSTARS, while the latter covers everything with a -135 designator (including the KC-135, RC-135, OC-135, VC-135 and so on)…
EDIT: after a lengthy struggle with an uncooperative piece of editing software, I’m also happy to bring you a short video clip to accompany the previous photo 🙂 . Mind you, it’s not really my best work to be honest, but I was handed a GoPro camera and told to have fun with it, so I tried to make the best of the situation (especially considering I did not get a suction mount to securely stick it to the window)…
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…
… 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)… 🙂
While many locals here in Zagreb have welcomed spring back with open arms – finally getting to enjoy clear skies, vegetation in bloom and more than reasonable temperatures – we one the GA side of things had something entirely different to be glad of 🙂 . After what seemed like eternity – exacerbated by odd weather patterns and even odder legal struggles – the flying season at Lučko Airfield (LDZL) is finally back up and running like clockwork! And while its start hasn’t been as bombastic as we would have liked, the airfield is nevertheless fully operational, with things on the whole progressing slowly forwards – a development that had lured back a number of light aircraft that had made their winter residence at nearby Zagreb Airport (LDZA).
And even though the apron is not nearly as full as in years past (yet), life has nevertheless finally returned to Lučko – a milestone that naturally warrants a small photo celebration! 🙂
While I’ve frequently dabbled with Yugoslav Air Force Dakotas on this site – the hunt for which had led me across multiple countries and left me with a sizable stack of fuel bills 😀 – I’ve never really delved deeper into the lives of their civilian counterparts, flying passengers and mail for the national airline JAT (Jugoslovenski aerotransport, Yugoslav Air Transport). Birds of a feather, the Daks of both services had seen their fair share of action during the later stages of WW2 – some even having participated in the Normandy landings and operations at Arnhem – and were later given the task of restarting and re-energizing Yugoslavia’s war-torn logistic and passenger air services.
But while the YuAF fleet had an auspicious debut here on Achtung, Skyhawk!, the introduction of the “Dakotaliners” starts, sadly, on a far more sombre note. Today completely forgotten and long buried by the sands of time (not to mention the period’s restricted freedom of the press), this opening story concerns Dak YU-ABC and its last ever flight into out very own Lučko airfield…
Its full name reading out as C-47A-25-DK, ABC had started out in life as 42-93352 of the USAAF, initially ordered in the 1942 fiscal year, but delivered – due to the immense backlog of orders – only in 1944, wearing the serial 13254. The finer details of its operational history are quite sketchy even on normally fastidious C-47 tribute sites, but it is known it had spent the entire war serving with the 3rd Combat Cargo Group initially stationed in India. A rag-tag formation cobbled together in a hurry during the spring of 1944, this unit was part of the so-called “Bond Project” (also known as “Project 90752”), and was intended to supply and relieve the British garrison in the mountain town of Imphal, at the time besieged by superior Japanese forces. Under this project, semi-trained and untested crews would be sent straight into the fray, where it was hoped they’d be brought up to standard as they went along by a cadre of experienced professional officers. Following their tour, the crews – now working together as tight teams – would be given additional advanced training and sent off into the more demanding and rigorous European hotspots.
Assigned to the unit’s 11th Combat Cargo Squadron, 42-93352 was commanded by (then) 2nd LT Duane B. Crites – who would later go on to fly F-86 Sabres, F-102 Delta Daggers and F-106 Delta Darts – and had quickly added its bit to the mass haulage of food, fuel and ammunition into Imphal. Abandoning the original plan of rotating the unit back to the States, the 3rd CCG would continue to operate in theater once the town had been secured, going so far as to even adding flights across the infamous “Hump” to its repertoire 🙂 . Following a spirited Allied advance near war’s end, the unit would eventually relocate into Burma in June 1945, becoming the 513th Troop Carrier Group along the way. However, 42-93352’s history beyond this point is unknown as far as the Internet is concerned; but, given that the unit was disbanded in April 1946 – and the JAT Dakota fleet formed in early 1947 – it is safe to say that it was part of the first batch of Daks acquired by Yugoslavia in the immediate aftermath of the war 🙂 .
Having eventually been re-fitted with a passenger interior – and re-christened YU-ABC – the aircraft was quickly pressed into passenger service, flying scheduled flights across the width and breadth of former Yugoslavia. It would continue to do so until 21 September 1950, when it was lost with all passengers and most of its crew in one of Zagreb’s worst ever aviation incidents…
Despite the fact that it remains one of only two fatal, large-scale airline disasters to occur in the Zagreb area since the war, this event is – as near as makes no difference – completely forgotten today, limited only to the odd footnote in the occasional list of Yugoslav passenger aircraft (indeed, I myself had found out about it completely by accident while reading up on an unrelated topic). With searches on the net unexpectedly drawing mostly blanks, I’d decided to dig into the city archives and attempt to shed some light on the matter. Unfortunately though, the only thing I did manage to find were two short articles in the daily newspaper, which – while containing valuable information – were essentially just brief snippets. More interestingly, the results of the official inquiry – results stating a definite cause – were published already on 23 September, which strongly suggests that the whole issue was quickly swept under the carpet and that no in-depth report was ever made publicly available. A follow-on article from a few days later praising JAT and the development of the nation’s air transport system further cements the impression that the findings – which had surely been made in great detail – were kept classified and hidden from view since day one. Somewhat unsurprisingly, books on Yugoslav aviation incidents were similarly vague – while even correspondence with the Archives of the Republic of Serbia, Archives of SFR Yugoslavia, Air Serbia (the legal successor to JAT), Belgrade’s Aviation Museum and the Serbian Civil Aviation Directorate had failed to yield much in the way of usable results…
Nevertheless, after collating together all the information available from reliable sources, a clearer picture of ABC’s last flight began to emerge. On that fateful day, the aircraft was operating a scheduled flight from Belgrade, Serbia (LYBE) to Pula, Croatia (LYPL) with a stopover at Lučko (LYZL and at the time still the city’s primary passenger airport). The flight was operated by a crew of four, including:
captain Borivoje Marković (a former military pilot)
co-pilot Stevan Tot
flight mechanic Milorad Jovanović
radio operator Nikola Jovanović (no confirmed family link to the flight mechanic)
The loads for the flight were light – just seven passengers – including:
and Pavle Mihajlović
Approaching Zagreb on a westerly heading on the leg from Belgrade, ABC had either “descended into fog” (according to the initial article) or was “caught in a sudden change of weather” (as per the 23 September report)*. In the process, it had apparently deviated from its course, bypassed Lučko by several kilometers and impacted into the slope of the Medvednica mountain some 200 meters/656 ft below its 1,035 meter/3,395 ft peak of Sljeme**.
* knowing Zagreb’s often unusual autumn weather, both situations are possible – though the former scenario appears more likely. While late September is generally known for its unstable and fast-changing conditions, it is also frequently marked by thick and long-lasting morning and evening fog. Given the length of the entire Belgrade-Pula route – 570 km/307 NM one way as the crow flies, or about 2 hours 30 minutes at Dakota speeds – it is possible that the flight had arrived overhead Zagreb during the late morning or early noon, which would have left it plenty of time to load at Lučko, fly to Pula and then return the same way – with the same stop-over – before dark. This would have meant that it might have arrived well before the morning fog had time to fully clear. An additional factor is Zagreb’s extensive underground water table, which often causes unusual fog formation; one end of town can thus enjoy clear skies and excellent weather, while the other – not 10 km/5 NM away – can be mired in deep fog, with visibilities down in the double digits of meters.
** this would have given it a height above the city’s mean ground level of around 680 meters, or about 2,200 ft – above the usual fog depth. However, assuming that the crew did not spot the mountain at the last moment and pull up in an attempt to clear it, this opens the door to a third possibility – that they’d descended not into fog, but a low stratus layer formed with the fog lifts. These are usually between 500 and 1,000 ft deep and can sit for days at anything between 1,000 and 2,500 ft above ground.
Of the 11 people on board, the only survivor was the radio operator Nikola Jovanović – 23 at the time – who’d suffered non life-threatening injuries. Indeed, in what is the only silver lining of the incident, he would remain with JAT after his recovery and eventually return to flying status, serving on the Ilyushin Il-14, Convair CV-440, Caravelle – and finally as the Flight Engineer on the Boeing 707 🙂 . Interestingly, he would be involved in another accident on 13 August 1972, when his 707-321 (YU-AGA) overran the runway at JFK during an aborted take-off*.
* on the take-off run, the copilot’s side window had opened with a loud bang, prompting the captain – who had assumed it could be an on-board bomb – to perform a rejected take-off even though the aircraft had passed V1 (decision speed) three seconds earlier. In the following overrun, the aircraft had struck a blast fence, with the left wing and engines #1 and #2 suffering damage by fire. Thankfully there were no fatalities among the 175 passengers and 11 crew, with only 15 light injuries reported during evacuation. The accident was also put down to an undetermined fault in the anti-skid system, which had disabled two of the 707’s eight wheel brakes, rendering it unable to stop in time. The aircraft was later repaired and returned to service 🙂 .
Unfortunately, it is unlikely that more detailed information about YU-ABC might appear any time soon. As I’ve been told openly in more than one archive, many such documents from the period were either not diligently kept, were instantly classified – or outright lost and destroyed during the chaos of Yugoslavia’s dissolution in the early 90s (indeed, neither the Civil Aviation Directorate nor its accident investigation unit had anything on file about the incident). Lacking the high profile and international reach of the region’s other major air incident – the mid-air collision above ZAG VOR at Vrbovec in 1976 – means that digging up any subsequent report on ABC’s last flight could very well make “looking for a needle in a haystack” seem like child’s play…
I would also like to extend my sincere thanks to Mr. John Crites, son of the late Duane Crites, for information regarding his father’s service record!
While 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 😀 .
My regular readers will no doubt recall me often going on about the rich and textured history of Lučko Airfield, a small and unassuming grass strip on the edge of town that had over the years produced a good chunk of the country’s pilots – myself included :). Nowadays a quiet place that can send you to sleep within minutes, Lučko nevertheless has a varied and interesting past, having been everything from a commercial airport, to a WW II airbase, to today’s joint sport field/helicopter base since its beginnings back in the mid 30s. But while this roller coaster development had made for some excellent Achtung, Skyhawk! material, most of the time it was wasted on my ground-level perspective, offering only limited ways in which to chronicle and evoke the finer details of the field’s history.
A few weeks ago however I had the great fortune to be taken up for a short hop in an ultralight trike (a fascinating experience I must say!), finally allowing me a proper bird’s eye view, free from the constrains of windows, doors and that incessant necessity of having to continually look where I’m flying :D. So, for a short historical interlude, here’s Lučko’s history as read from the air :).
So, starting from the lower left corner we have:
the old WW II runway, whose remains today make up most of the main apron. Used in some form of military capacity ever since its opening, Lučko was initially home to a squadron of Messerschmitt Bf.108 Taifun liaison aircraft operated by the air force of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Following the German invasion of 1941, the airfield was – not unsurprisingly – reformed into a fighter base, becoming home to Bf.109s, Dornier Do-17s and Fiat G.50s of the Ustaše, the Fascist puppet government that came to power in the wake of the invasion. Though it’s hard to be entirely sure – many documents from the period having been either destroyed or classified – this runway was one of two used by these aircraft, stretching roughly in a 31-13 direction over a distance of at least 500 meters…
the current control tower in the top left corner (with the green roof), a cheap-and-cheerful affair that more than adequately serves the field’s needs 🙂 (as well as my own photographic ones when I want an elevated view 😀 )
slightly to the right is the field’s newest hangar, completed only a year or so ago and home to a nice selection of (rather rare) motorgliders
further right and sporting a grey roof is the old WW II hangar, one of two that had originally been located at Borongaj airfield, but moved to Lučko sometime in the 50s when Borongaj had ceased operations. Home to the small fleet of the AK Zagreb flying club, this hangar is pretty much the only piece of 40s aviation infrastructure still in use at the airfield, though its tattered insides and leaky panels definitely show its prime has passed…
dominating the scene next to it is the HZNS hangar, owned by my former University and home to its five-strong air wing (that had seen me through my CPL training 🙂 ). The largest and most modern single facility at the field, it boasts proper all-round heating (!), simulator facilities, offices and a handy classroom for preflight preparation (and post flight bantering). Doesn’t sound like much, but it’s the closest thing we have to a proper training facility in the area…
on the extreme right though is one of the most overlooked buildings at Lučko, its original passenger terminal and control tower :). A leftover from the field’s commercial heyday in the late 40s and 50s, it is nowadays abandoned and pretty much forgotten, having become just another obstacle to bypass when pulling into the parking lot. Up until a few years ago, it had also been home to Aerotel, a sorely missed “watering hole”, and had even included rudimentary sleeping facilities for out-of-town crews wishing to overnight for not much money. While there were several recent attempts to clean the building up, nothing much had come out of them, with the entire building condemned to slow decay..
and finally, at the bottom of the shot is the field’s de facto main operations building, which houses a briefing room, auditorium, offices for the various local flying clubs – and the inevitable storage facilities for everything from parachutes to gliders :). Another oldtimer, this building has been part of Lučko’s cultural identity ever since sport flying kicked off in the 60s, having been the site of pretty much every social event, meeting and award ceremony at the field for half a century… 🙂