Photo Report – Life at Lučko, October 2014

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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… 🙂

Back home after an extended leave of absence due to a Cessna-mandated corrosion check, the legend of Lučko is back on the flying circuit. Parked – unusually – outside the hangar following its return from Varaždin (LDVA), BKS easily dominates the apron even in the dark…

Hands down one of the most interesting touring motor gliders (TMGs) in the region, the ungainly Vivat is actually based on the classic Let L-13 Blanik all-metal training glider, to which a 65 HP Walter Mikron III engine, side-by-side seating and a tougher, fully retractable landing gear have been added. Normally based at Sinj Airfield (LDSS) near Split, DSI had on this occasion popped into Lučko for some servicing, having suffered persistent issues with the engine starter.

A peek inside DSI’s clean and pleasant interior. Somewhat more complicated than a modern purpose-built TMG, the L-13SE contains almost as many controls as a standard light piston aircraft, including levers for the throttle, choke, elevator trim, airbrakes, wing flaps, cowl flaps and landing gear.

You could be forgiven for thinking that Lučko was having a helicopter theme day today! As well as HAT, HBA and HBB (the latter of which would later fly a short winch test), we’d soon be joined by Agusta-Bell AB.212 9A-HBM, which had – despite the day’s wind and in true Huey fashion – announced its arrival from miles away. Interestingly, the military side of the airfield was deserted for most of the afternoon, without a single Mi-8/171 to be seen (which in itself is quite unusual).

Definitely the most unusual new arrival into our little fleet, the Sova (“owl”) is an intriguing single-seat motor glider, designed and built by Mr. Marijan Ivanček. Among the many interesting details is the propeller – whirled by a two-stroke Rotax – that folds back under the action of a spring when the engine is not running, thus significantly reducing drag during soaring flight without the need to incur the weight penalty of a fully-retractable prop (of note, while the Sova is a glider with an engine, it does not fall into the same category as the Vivat from two photos above. Due to its ability to fly and operate like a “normal aircraft” during powered flight, the L-13SE is classified as a TOURING motor glider; the Sova however lacks that capability, and is thus labelled as an “engine-assisted glider”).

While for the most part the weather was just as fine as described in the introduction, several mornings – Sunday 19 October included – did let the side down. A common problem during autumn and winter (especially after prolonged rainy seasons such as this summer’s), Lučko, Pleso and indeed the whole of southern Zagreb can be blanketed by thick fog that can reduce visibility down to just 50 meters. While they tend to persist for days or even weeks during the winter, in October and early November they frequently disperse around noon, often leaving behind fantastic anticyclonic weather. On this occasion, a 125 meter visibility and 11 degrees Centigrade were replaced by clear blue skies, 23 Centigrade and just a hint of wind – all within one hour.

Once the fog did clear, flight ops had immediately picked up, including a few flights by the diminutive (and rarely seen) HMB – one of only two R-22s in Croatia and the only one still flying. The first series-produced design to come out of the pen of Frank Robinson – a world-renowned tail rotor expert – the R-22 had first flown way back in 1975 and has persisted in production to this day. HMB itself is an early Mariner version, equipped to carry inflatable floats on the skids for over-water operations and sporting an auxiliary 41 liter / 11 USG fuel tank located right behind the pilot. Interestingly, even though it is registered in Croatia and is operated by a Croatian company – Helimax – it is usually based at Ljubljana (LJLJ) in neighboring Slovenia.

Universally popular primarily due to their low acquisition costs and very agreeable operating economics, all R-22s are powered by variants of Lycoming’s O-320 four-pop – essentially the same engine fitted to the standard Cessna 172N. However, to prevent it from overloading the transmission system (and to assist with longevity), on the R-22 the engine has been de-rated from its nominal 160 HP to just 124. Another important modification – always the eyesore – is the forced cooling fan bolted to the rear of the engine, designed to blow cool, fresh air over the engine block and compensate for the lack of ram cooling in flight.

Photo Report – 24th Zagreb Kup Precision Landing Championship

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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.

A handy visual guide to everything you need to know about the competition. Closest to me is the landing field used for the purpose, drawn up in lime powder on the right side of RWY 28L. 72 meters long in total, it is marked off in several 5 meter wide grids, plus a two meter wide “zero mark” that represents the ideal touchdown point. For 20 meters on either side, the grids are further split into one meter wide segments – as shown here – to aid the judges in determining the exact point of contact. Further back behind the field are three of the seven competition aircraft – parked on RWY 28R – with the competitors monitoring progress on the runway’s edge.

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… 🙂

The first group of competitors (minus C150 9A-DMI standing to my left) prepares for take-off down RWY 28L. Since they were departing individually, for reasons of safety the lead ship had to be the fastest of the group – C172 9A-DFH – with the three slower C150s at the back sequenced by their pilots’ precedence on the competition roster. Of note, since the competition field took up half the width of the runway, all competitors had to take off from an intermediate position – roughly 200 meters from the threshold – to avoid blowing the flags and lime away…

To avoid running over the above – and the occasional judge – on the way to the intermediate position, the competitors had to taxi past the field on the left side of the runway, which had conveniently brought them to within a few meters of my position – thus allowing me plenty of opportunity to play with various compositions as they rolled by. One of these had inadvertently ended up being a study of the minute differences and options available on the Cessna 150 during its production run…

One of life’s rare opportunities to stand in front of a (slowly) taxing aircraft on the primary runway of a (somewhat) busy airfield with a camera in one hand and a cool beverage in the other!

A crowd on final like we’re at a proper airport! Even though the competition specified a separation standard of one and a half minutes between successive aircraft – enough to have four machines evenly spaced around the circuit all at once – different piloting techniques and approaches had invariably eroded it from time to time…

“Caution wake turbulence”. They may not be fast jets and there’s no smooth tarmac under their tires, but it nevertheless makes one happy to see them! Interestingly, by the time CCG had turned onto the crosswind leg, the lead ship of the group – Cessna 172N 9A-DHL – was already turning final…

Even though it happens only rarely, it is not unseen for contestants to have occasional tailstrikes during these sorts of competitions. Thankfully, in this case the actual strike was very light and brief, with only the tail tie-down ring making contact with the ground. Had it not been there to kick up the grass, we likely would have never noticed…

Deja-vu from 2013… even though there was almost no wind for the entire duration of the competition, occasionally some of the contestant had made a hash of their final “no flaps, no power” approach, forcing them to stretch their glide as much as possible and plonk the aircraft down on its last few Newtons of lift. While this does look somewhat dramatic, the competition rules allow it up to a point, provided the wheel in the air is at a height less than its diameter and not for more than 5 meters horizontal distance.

Photo Report – News From The Realm

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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… 🙂

The only (operational) Blanik at Lučko poses with its best friend while they wait on RWY 28R for their pilots to assemble. In the event, the first flight of the day would be with a future gliding student, who was given a short demo flight above the western end of town…

While it sounds deceptively simple, a proper aerotow take-off often requires a helping hand on the ground. Due to the absence of a conventional landing gear arrangement, most gliders – especially those boasting larger wingspans – require someone to hold the wingtip at the start of the take-off run. Intended to prevent it from scraping along the ground and possibly slewing the glider off course, this is only necessary during the first few seconds of the run, until the speed builds up sufficiently for the aerodynamic forces on the ailerons to take over.

One of the most beautiful kit planes in Croatia is seen rolling towards RWY 10R after a short fuel stop. Part of the famous Van’s family of nippy two-seaters, DVM is the company’s only design registered here, and spends most of its time staying clear of the more frequented airfields (to the continuing disappointment of the author).

The simple and uncluttered cockpit contains everything one really needs for a good time aloft. Interestingly, even though it is powered by a four-cylinder engine developing 200 HP, DVM uses a fixed pitch propeller – something not generally seen on speedy homebuilt kits of this power range.

The “Grey aircraft only seem to fly in on grey days” photo series continues with the legendary Stratotanker, which had on this occasion hauled itself into Zagreb all the way from Minneapolis. A modernized version of the aircraft that many still consider to be THE tanker, the R model differs primarily by its powerplant, dispensing with the old J-57s in favor of the modern, economical – and significantly quieter – CFM56. An interesting detail is the frost on the wing underside, a common feature on original 717s* during humid days.

* 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)…

Another of the year’s Globemasters to have visited Pleso, “Reach 574” is just about to put to an end its long flight from Mazar-i-Sharif in Afganistan. Transporting home soldiers of several NATO nations, it would eventually depart again towards Kogalniceanu Airport, serving the Romanian coastal city of Constanta.

A machine that gives no impression that it is actually 33 years old, DJM is one of the last Skylane RG models to have been manufactured by the renowned Reims works, located in the town of the same name up in northeastern France. Sporting retractable landing gear, full IFR equipment and the capability to carry four people with nearly full fuel tanks, the 182RG is probably one of the best cheap – but still capable – light touring aircraft nowadays available…

A bit of that Alpine feel as we climb along the MODRO 1W departure procedure following takeoff from RWY 30 at Ljubljana (LJLJ), Slovenia. While we were expecting (and hoping for) a bit of fog to test our instrument skills, by the time we’d gotten airborne it had already transformed into broken mid-altitude clouds, leaving us with an almost ideal late summer’s day (despite the frosty 12 C out on the apron!).

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)…

Photo Report – Life at Lučko, June 2014

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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 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.

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 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 – 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.

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…

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… 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 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 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…

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 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 few aerodynamic improvements to make it easier to fly, as well as an 80 HP Rotax 912ULS in place of the extinct Laurin & Klement inline.

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.

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.

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…

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).

Short Photo Report – Spring at Lučko

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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! 🙂

Life, life at Lučko! The only airplane to have succeeded fighting against the day's very strong southwestern wind - with gusts peaking at 30 knots - N50DD is a long-time resident of various Zagreb airports, and is seen here cooling down after its repositioning flight from Pleso .
Life, life at Lučko! Flying in the very day the airfield had reopened, N50DD was the only airplane to succeed in the fight against the day’s strong crosswind, which had actually managed to touch the 30 knot mark at one point. Despite its reg, the aircraft is a long-time resident of various Zagreb airports, and is seen here cooling down after its 10 minute repositioning hop from LDZA.

ome of our birds at Lučko have started the new flying season like fish out of water . Out of the hangar for the first time in several months, AK Zagreb's Jantar will first receive a thorough wash, after which it'll be given back its wings and horizontal tail surfaces (stored away in the corner of the hangar)
Some of our birds though have started the new season like fish out of water! Out of the hangar for the first time in several months, AK Zagreb’s Jantar will soon receive a thorough wash, after which it’ll be given back its wings and horizontal tail surfaces (stored away in the corner of the hangar). By the end of the morning, it would be happily catching thermals above town.

A glider you really can't loose in a crowd! Despite its staggering similarity to the Polish-built PZL-Bielsko SZD-24 Foka - one of the world's most beautiful wooden gliders - the Delfin ("Dolphin") was actually designed and produced by the Vazduhoplovni tehnički centar ("Aircraft Technical Center") at Vršac in Serbia, well known locally for both its own and license-produced high performance gliders.
A glider you really can’t loose in a crowd! Despite its staggering similarity to the Polish-built PZL-Bielsko SZD-24 Foka – one of the world’s most beautiful wooden gliders – the Delfin (“Dolphin”) was actually designed and produced by the Vazduhoplovni tehnički centar (“Aircraft Technical Center”) at Vršac in Serbia, well known locally for both its own and license-produced high performance gliders.

The mass hangar clean-out had also given me the opportunity to visit our old Aero 3, usually inaccessible without serious aerobatic moves around and over several gliders . A remainder of better flying times, CPC had undergone restoration several years back, which had faltered due to a lack of funds. Expecting that it'll fly eventually, the aircraft had also received a Croatian reg, whose application had not progressed beyond appearing in the register...
The spring hangar cleaning session had also given me the opportunity to visit our old Aero 3, usually inaccessible without some serious aerobatic moves over and around several rows of gliders. One of the few remaining examples of the type, this machine had actually undergone restoration several years back – a process that had, sadly, been curtailed due to a lack of funds. Planned on being returned all the way to flying status, the aircraft had also received a Croatian registration, which had never actually been used outside the official register…

A sight to warm the heart! Blue skies, bright colors and a raft of lighties eager to fly.
A sight to warm the heart! Blue skies, bright colors and a raft of lighties eager to get off the ground. Leading the pack was our colorful gliding pair, consisting of Schleicher Ka-7 9A-GKA and the afore-pictured Delfin 9A-GHS. They would soon be joined by Pilatus B4 9A-GPA, seen just in front of the hangar doors.

A contrast that perhaps best of all illustrates why I love Lučko: we've got everything from gliders to transport helicopters, fun to security and dull grayness to cheerful colors.
A contrast that perhaps best of all illustrates why I love Lučko: we’ve got everything from gliders to transport helicopters, fun to security – and dull grayness to cheerful colors.

The only aerobatic aircraft at Lučko had also used this nice day well, firing up its engine for the first time after servicing (and several months on the ground). One of only three aerobatic machines on the Croatian register, DID is actually a kitplane, assembled from prefabricated components .
The field’s only aerobatic aircraft had also used the fine weather well, firing up its engine for the first time after some minor servicing (and several months on the ground). One of only three aerobatic machines on the Croatian register – and one of two physically in Croatia – DID is actually a “kitplane”, assembled by the end user from prefabricated components.

History – Cold Case: The Last Flight of Dakota YU-ABC

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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.

One of the very few color shots of the typical late-service JAT Dak (their paint schemes had constantly varied throughout their lifetimes). In use all the way up to the late 70s – well into the jet age – these machines were all WW2 veterans, some having even been passed down from the YuAF once the latter were done with them (photo from: http://www.dc3history.org)

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 🙂 .

A rare shot of Duane Crites - far right -
A rare in-theater shot of 2nd LT Duane Crites (far right) kindly provided by his son, John. The magnitude of the task thrust upon aircrews in Burma – and especially those of the Bond Project – can best be illustrated by the final report issued by (then) Brigadier General William H. Tunner, commanding airlift operations in the theater: 509 aircraft lost, 1314 crew and passengers killed, 81 aircraft unaccounted for with 345 on board MIA, over a total of 1.5 million hours flown…

http://www.cbi-history.com/part_vi_eac.html
A line of CCG Dakotas wait for their next mission at Myitkyina in Burma as an unidentified P-47 beings its takeoff roll. Even though they did not have the supercharger upgrade of the C-47B – intended outright for operations at high altitude – the A models had nevertheless acquitted themselves well, operating successfully in the often dangerous and treacherous conditions predominant in the foothills of the Himalayas (photo from: http://www.cbi-history.com)

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:

  • Bedžih Srega
  • Borivoj Stanić
  • Sava Ribić
  • Svetozar Ljubenović
  • Raka Ruben
  • Đuro Matijević
  • 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.

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A topographical representation of the distance between Lučko and YU-ABC’s impact site. This assumes that the aircraft had impacted on the south-eastern face of the mountain; it is possible – but highly unlikely – that it had actually hit on the opposite side, though this would have involved a lengthy detour around the town that would have added at least 15 minutes to the length of its flight and given very little operational benefit.

A 3D perspective from the approximate altitude of impact (800 m/2,600 ft above sea level). This view more-or-less also coincides with the likely direction of ABC’s approach to the city
A 3D perspective from the approximate altitude of impact (800 m/2,600 ft above sea level). This view more-or-less also coincides with the likely direction of ABC’s approach to the city.

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 🙂 .

YU-AGA in its original guise in 1971, without the engine hush kits that would be fitted after its accident (photo from: Flickr, user Mike Didsbury)

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!

Sources:

  • paluba.infoYugoslav passenger aircraft registration database
  • comcar.org3rd CCG service & crews
  • Croatian National Archives – Vjesnik newspaper, issues 22 and 23 September 1950
  • Croatian National University Library – Politika newspaper, issues 22 and 23 September 1950
  • airdisaster.comJAT Boeing 707 RTO incident report

Photo Intermission – Rotors In Fog

By me
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…

History – An Apron’s Story

By me
Photos me too, copyrighted

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 :).

Only an aerial view can show the hodge-podge of historical influences that make Lučko what it is today...
Only an aerial view can show the hodgepodge of historical influences that make Lučko what it is today…

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… 🙂