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)…
On the whole, I normally do not get much in the way of opportunity to scribble about the operational aspects of flying (and aviation in general) here in Croatia. Most of the time our pedestrian aviation scene simply doesn’t produce any material worth writing home about, while the country’s mostly pleasant terrain and climate – despite my regular rantings 😀 – also leave little in the way of excitement 🙂 .
On 30 July however, my hand was suddenly forced into action by the arrival of cyclone Melisa, another in an increasingly unusual string of low pressure systems to hit the region of late. Having made landfall on a broad front between the Adriatic towns of Pula and Zadar, Melisa had initially seemed to be a strong – but otherwise generally harmless – rainstorm, which would leave behind the occasional flooded street, but little else. However, news reports from Zadar had quickly revealed that this was no usual event, with the nearby island of Silba receiving 218 liters of rain per square meter in just 24 hours – an amount it normally gets in three months!
The red flags here in Zagreb were already beginning to come up by the time the cyclone had crossed the Velebit mountain range, having been replenished along the slopes by a strong, moist southern wind. Increasing in strength, the core of the storm had started turning slowly towards the city, prompting the Zagreb Airport (ZAG/LDZA) met office to issue a series of increasingly pessimistic TAFs – culminating in the dreaded +TSGR, thunderstorms with heavy hail…
Though the hail had failed to materialize (at the airport at least), the torrential downpour that followed was about to launch ZAG into a world of issues. One of the day’s METAR reports perhaps best illustrates just what was going on out there:
measurement taken at Zagreb Airport on the 30th of the month at 13:00 UTC (15:00 local)
wind from 220 degrees, speed 38 knots (70 km/h), gusting to 48 knots (89 km/h)
meteorological visibility 400 meters
Runway Visual Range (RVR) down RWY 05 varying between 400 and more than 2000 meters, no significant change
RVR down RWY 23 varying between 50 and more than 2000 meters, no significant change
thunderstorm with heavy rain
few clouds at 1300 ft above ground, CBs covering 6/8 to 7/8 of the sky at 3000 ft above the ground
temperature 17 Centigrade, dew point 16 Centigrade
QNH 1006 hPa
weather imminently turning into a wind from 050 degrees, speed 10 knots (18 km/h), visibility greater than 10 km, few clouds at 1500 ft above ground, scattered clouds at 3000 ft above ground (they’d missed badly with this one!)
The first thing to go wrong was the runway midpoint transmissometer (one of three such units that measure RVR). This was not all that unexpected to be honest, since they also have a tendency to fail during heavy snows (and are an endless source of amusement during the winter 😀 ). Pretty soon however, the downpour became so severe that all operations were stopped dead in their tracks, eventually leading to the full closure of the airport (on top of the fact that even before the storm hit, flights were being delayed by 30 minutes due to anti-hale rocket activity in the area).
However, the worst was yet to come. Several minutes later, I was informed by a colleague – who’d been listening in on the tower and ops frequencies – that ZAG had suffered a “complete technical failure”. Tuning to the tower myself, I was to discover that pretty much the entire airspace surveillance system was down; Approach Control, Area Control, the works. Effectively, the whole of the Croatian ATC – with the exception of the individual Towers – had suddenly gone completely blind.
The issue that had caused the problem was later reported to be a leak in the Area Control Center main building, which had allowed rainwater to make it down into the surveillance system’s power supply, shorting it out instantly and plunging the ACC into darkness. While still unconfirmed officially, this had already sparked some local controversy, especially given that the building was purpose-built (at great cost) and commissioned only nine years ago…
EDIT: the cause was later revealed to not be just a mere leak, but a torrent of water that had suddenly flooded the master electronics room (located under the main ACC building). Subsequent reports had put the depth of the water there at between 1 and 1.5 meters…
A far more immediate problem though was the effect this failure was having on the flow of traffic through the country. Unlike its larger neighbors, Croatia has only one FIR – Flight Information Region, the area in which ATC provides its services – which covers its entire territory, and which is further subdivided into six “sectors” for easier management. However, all of these sectors are controlled and managed centrally from the same location, the ACC building at ZAG. With it out of the picture, there was no means to provide any form of control within the country’s airspace, leading Eurocontrol to impose the so called “zero flow rate” *.
* a common misconception is that a zero flow rate is equal to airspace closure. This is not so. When the airspace is closed outright, no flight is allowed to operate in it, be it an airliner, bizjet, private, IFR, VFR, training or any combination thereof. With a zero flow rate on the other hand, Eurocontrol’s Central Flow Management Unit (CFMU) simply does not approve any IFR flight plans that cross the target airspace. So, while the big birds were not allowed in, I could have taken my Skyhawk and gone flying without problems (apart from the rain obviously 🙂 ).
Activated at 13:40 UTC (15:40 local), the restriction was initially specified to last until 15:40 UTC, but was in the event extended to 16:40 and then finally 17:00. With the ACC restored to a minimal operational status, the restriction was lifted at 17:03, allowing traffic to resume using Croatian airspace. However, with the impetus being the get up and running as quickly as possible, the ACC had resumed operations with just three of its six sectors operational, each running at just 25% capacity – with expected effects on delay times…
Within the hour, all six sectors would be up and running, though still at just 25% of their nominal capacity. However, as the technicians worked their spanners off in the ACC, delays had started steadily dropping up until 21:00 UTC (23:00 local) when they dropped below the 15 minute mark and Croatia became grey again 😀 .
Other effects and consequences:
Unsurprisingly, Hungary had borne the brunt of the traffic diverted around Croatia. The high volume of aircraft suddenly crowing their airways – combined with the cyclone’s continued northward path – would cause a cascade effect, causing delays on par with those experienced in Croatia at the start of the storm (glowing bright red on the Network Situation snapshot). However, with only the west of the country affected, things had soon stabilized and delays dropped back to more manageable levels 🙂 .
Back at ZAG, other buildings had also suffered during the downpour. Drainage canals swamped by the sheer volume of water were responsible for the partial flooding of TWY F, ZAG’s only parallel taxiway and the only way to get to the RWY 23 without backtracking along the runway. The passenger terminal had suffered the same fate, though I’m told the flooding was on a very small scale and quickly taken care of…
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 😀 .
Even though Eurocopter had ultimately emerged as the victor in the recent tender to re-equip the Croatian Police helicopter squadron – managing to dethrone Bell as the county’s de facto default helicopter supplier – I could not in all honesty complete this run of rotary themes without at least casually mentioning Bell’s losing entry 🙂 .
A brand that has been associated locally with law enforcement ever since the late 60s, Bell has sadly been autorotating steadily downwards for years now, devolving into an almost marginal manufacturer living off little more than its former glory. Indeed, even a casual look at the company’s recent production lineup was enough to reduce one to tears, being made up mostly of models my grandparents would have taken for granted 😀 . The civilian division is especially guilty, having become quite comfortable in its rut of periodic refreshes of models way past their prime. The 407GX, for example, is a warmed-over 407 from the mid 90s, itself a development of the LongRanger (still in production as well!), which was created by stretching a JetRanger II back in the 70s. The 412 doesn’t even need an introduction, its family tree sprouting all the way out of the original long-body UH-1D of 1961.
The company’s military arm lags little behind in terms of complacency, offering only the 407GT (a lightly armed 407GX), the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior (a more thoroughly militarized original 407), the UH-1Y Yankee (a shiny 412) and the AH-1Z Cobra, an upgrade of the first proper US attack helicopter.
One Bell, many whistles
When all was said and done then, up until a few years ago, the last all-new civilian helicopter to come out of the Bell works was the elegant 222 – debuting way back in 1976. The military division had fared somewhat better though, having managed to pull off the MV-22 Osprey in 1989 (despite what was a VERY difficult birth). But for the most part, Bell’s pre-2007 catalog was as refreshing and interesting as a week-old salad… *
* however, the rival Eurocopter can’t boast an all-new offering either 🙂 . The AS.350 Ecurueil is an Aerospatiale handover, like the AS.365 Dauphin and the veteran AS.332 Super Puma (their military versions included). The EC-145 had also started out in life as a late 70s design (the BK-117), as had the EC-135 (the on-off Bo-108) – while technically even the Tiger gunship predates the creation of the company (if only by a few years, having been jointly developed by Aerospatiale and Daimler Aerospace/MBB right before their merger into Eurocopter). The only “pure”, new designs on offer are the EC-120, EC-130 (and even that’s a stretch), EC-175 and the NH90, developed together with AgustaWestland. But, unlike Bell’s refreshes, virtually every Eurocopter upgrade is a significant leap forward in all aspects of the aircraft’s design – and not just a few bits of new tech shoehorned into an airframe that hasn’t changed much since its introduction.
In terms of sheer development speed though, even Eurocopter lags behind the aforementioned AgustaWestland – a company that seems to pop out a new model every lunch break, with the majority of its products developed on this side of the year 2000 🙂 (even though it, like Eurocopter, had a crop of existing Agusta and Westland helicopters to choose from at the time of its creation in 2000) .
Some – but not all – of this would change in 2007 with the first flight of the all-new 429 GlobalRanger 🙂 . Bell’s first civilian helicopter designed from the ground up since the old 222, the 429 at first glance doesn’t really suggest that the company’s engineers had fully woken up from their stupor just yet, bearing a startling visual similarity to the unloved (and commercially unsuccessful) 427 twin. The ultimate – if slightly forced – evolution of the JetRanger, the 427 is essentially a thoroughly updated version of the very rare 206LT TwinRanger, itself (as the designation suggests) a LongRanger with an extra engine. Heavy, yet underpowered, with a useless cabin configuration and severe asthma at altitude, the 427 had failed miserably in its quest to become the new standard in HEMS/utility machinery, eventually ending up making the most money (and not much at that) on the private marked (with one example even having made it to Croatia as 9A-HTI 🙂 ).
Still sore from this debacle, Bell’s engineering teams had finally put their heads together and decided to go all out, no-holds-barred with the new GlobalRanger – agreeing also to future-proof it as much as possible along the way in order to avoid any hassles when they (inevitably) decide to recycle it later on 😀 . To this end, the 429 was conceived around a modular construction concept – called the Multiple Affordable Product Line, or MAPL – in which the design would essentially be made up of three sections (front, fuselage and tail) that could then later be scaled up or down to quickly and cheaply produce new helicopters of different sizes and roles.
However, therein lay the 429’s first stumbling block – a block that continues to haunt it to this day. Being the module that holds the whole helicopter together, the fuselage section would naturally be subjected to the greatest loads in flight, requiring it to be made the toughest and strongest. Now, this wouldn’t be much of an issue if the design would later only be scaled down; the fuselage section could then be designed to fit the 429, with any smaller helicopter – with a lighter nose and tail – benefiting from additional robustness and crash protection.
The original intent though was that the design could also be scaled up, which required the fuselage to be capable of withstanding the greater loads imposed by the new machine’s increased weight. Consequently, the GlobalRanger had ended up with a thoroughly over-engineered fuselage for its size, a fuselage that had added considerably to its (already not insignificant) empty weight.
From a purely engineering standpoint however, this was still not the end of the world – you could simply bolt on more powerful engines and off you went 🙂 . Yes, the resulting machine would burn more fuel and be more expensive to operate, but the added structural strength would (as in the case of a scaled-down machine) make it considerably safer and more durable* – traits particularly useful in the world of HEMS, often noted for its appalling safety record and the need to operate at high loads in almost any weather.
* the fixed-wing world provides ample proof to back this up, especially in the form of the superlative DC-9 🙂 . A singularly tough old bird, the Diesel-9’s longevity needs no special mention, with numerous examples still flying scheduled commercial services all over the world. The legendary Dakota – as well as Bell’s own untearable Huey – also leave little room for doubt.
But, while all of this sounds perfectly reasonable here, in the real world it’s not nearly as straightforward – especially when aviation regulators become involved 😀 . As designed, the GlobalRanger was intended to be certified to FAR Part 27 standards, which specify a maximum take-off mass of 3180 kg/7110 lbs. But, the extra bulk of the one-size-fits-all fuselage had kicked the 429’s empty mass up to 2012 kg/4455 lbs, leaving just 1159 kg/2555 lbs left over for the fuel, crew and whatever/whoever would be crammed into the back. While this too doesn’t sound like a show-stopper, this payload is a whopping 640 kg/1411 lbs (or roughly 45%) lower than that of the design’s main rival – the EC-145 – which was from the outset certified against the much more demanding FAR Part 29, allowing it a higher maximum take-off mass (all the while being 228 kg/503 lbs lighter while empty).
However, the very FAR that taketh had also offered Bell some hope of reprieve 🙂 . Among its myriad stipulations is a paragraph that gives individual Civil Aviation Agencies free hand in approving a 227 kg/502 lbs increase in MTOM within their jurisdictions, bringing the 429’s payload deficit down to a more agreeable 413 kg/911 lbs. Creating thus the 429IGW (Increased Gross Weight), this approval was duly granted by the CAAs of Canada, Brazil and China – but, surprisingly, not by the FAA, denying Bell a competitive place on its traditionally most important market…
While it can then be conclusively stated that MAPL had backfired straight into Bell’s face (leading to its swift abandonment even though it was now forever integrated into the GlobalRanger), other innovations intended to give the design the edge had met with more success 🙂 . One of these is what could best be described as a “brand-neutral” cockpit (officially called the BasiX Pro), in which Bell – and not the manufacturer of the actual equipment – is responsible for systems integration. In simple terms, in a “traditional” cockpit, the aircraft maker selects one avionics manufacturer and then commissions it to put together the entire avionics fit AND then get it to work seamlessly on the actual aircraft. This was always a laborious and time-consuming job – since the avionics maker has to tailor its setup to the specifics of the aircraft and its systems – whose sheer costs and complexities generally perclude it from being repeated with a second avionics brand.
What the BasiX Pro did was leave all that integration to Bell – meaning Bell’s own engineers would now have to do the hard work of connecting the electronic dots 🙂 . The upshot is that each buyer can now request an avionics setup from a different manufacturer, as opposed to just deciding between predefined options from only one maker. For example, one buyer might want a system built entirely out of Garmin blocks, while another might be more partial to Bendix-King; previously one of them would have to choose, but now both can have their cake and eat it 🙂 . The downside though is that this had ended up consuming FAR more time and resources (financial included) than Bell had anticipated, adding yet another item to the list of things the company will not attempt again in the near future 😀 .
But, by far the most successful (and painless!) innovation of them all was the implementation of the advanced MSG-3 maintenance standard, itself short for Maintenance Steering Group 3 and a first for any helicopter to ever go into series production 🙂 . In a traditional maintenance system, the useful life of an aircraft component is defined by a fixed time period known as the Time Between Overhauls – TBO – expressed either in terms of flight hours flown (more common) or “regular” months and years (for components that wear out regardless of the actual “airtime”). The default measure that has been used for ages, TBOs are however often quite conservative and rigid (in the interests of safety) and may not be at all representative of the actual state of the component. For example, a bearing that has a 1000-hour TBO might break in half after just 700 flight hours – but it may also continue to work all the way till 1500 with no issues whatsoever*.
* a real-world example is the engine on the Skyhawk I currently fly. It’s nominal TBO is 2000 flight hours, a pretty standard figure for that type of engine – and a figure that has been shown though experience to usually be on the money 🙂 . However, as 2000 had ticked over on the totalizer, the engine was still as tight as a nut, with all of its parameters showing near-perfect scores. Clearly it could keep going well beyond its TBO with no ill effects – a fact that had enabled us to get a one-time 200 hour extension to the servicing interval, bringing it up to 2200 🙂 . And, 76 and a bit hours into that extension, the engine is still happily droning away.
MSG-3 gets around this issue by introducing specific monitoring procedures for each major component, giving the user unparalleled ability to see and track the ACTUAL state of the aircraft – and not just rely on a predetermined number. The advantage is that if the user notices a component has the potential for weakening before its TBO, he/she can replace it in due time before it starts making trouble. Another benefit is that if the user determines a component is holding its own better than the manufacturer said it would – like the engine in “my” Skyhawk – he/she can retain it in use beyond its normal TBO, reducing expensive replacements and loss of productivity due to aircraft down time (for reference, the overhaul of the O-320 on the N model Skyhawk takes up to two months and drains EUR 20,000 out of your pocket – almost HALF the value of the entire aircraft). Naturally, if the component can be kept going beyond what the papers say, MSG-3 specifies frequent checks and performance tracking more rigorous than a nun in a convent 😀 *.
* actually, the greater, overarching point of MSG-3 is the creation of a revised global maintenance standard, a standard rooted not in theoretical approximations or lab tests, but in actual data collected from real-world operations in real-world conditions.
Having finally shook itself out of its sedentary lifestyle, Bell was naturally quite keen to show the 429 off to potential customers from around the globe 🙂 . Somewhere on what would later turn out to be quite a long list was the Croatian Police, at the time still shopping around for something to use once the EU hands it the baton of protecting its borders.
The first of what would be the GlobalRanger’s two visits to Croatia would come in December of 2011, when N10984 – the type’s third prototype – stopped briefly in Zagreb on a promotional tour of the region…
Once N10984 had moved on – with photo evidence placing it at Nagoya, Japan barely two weeks later – we would have to wait a further 11 months for the type to return to the field, this time in the shape of the earlier second prototype. In town specifically to be presented to the Police and Mountain Rescue Service in great detail, C-FTNB had arrived fitted out with a full HEMS interior, including an appropriate – but hardly exciting – white-blue scheme 🙂 .
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… 🙂
As is the norm for the end of the year in continental Croatia, the weather had been up to its usual games lately, alternating between deep freeze and springtime, dull fog and depressing overcast – and naturally arid dryness and the full spectrum of winter precipitation :). Apart from the usual frost and freezing rain, the latter traditionally includes quite a bit of snow, which more often than not tends to fall suddenly and with a vengeance. True to character, the first week of December saw a short – but intense – burst of snowfall, which had dumped close to half a meter of snow in under 12 hours; an occurrence that hadn’t been recorded for more than half a century. It really did seem like the sky was falling down… 😀
The most visible manifestation of a particularly strong cold front that had passed through the area, this weather had ironically fully cleared the next day, resulting in beautifully calm, quiet and sunny conditions – the kind you see really on ski vacation posters. Inevitably – and though the roads still hadn’t been fully cleared – this turn of events had lured me to the airfield to see what had happened with the few planes still left there…
With a strong northern wind pinning everything down at the field for the past two days – and rapidly dropping temperatures killing any will to stand outside – I had decided to sniff though the hangar again in search of some inspiration :). And wouldn’t you know it – the Super Cub population had doubled! 😀 Normally parked outside the hangar – being a visitor while it’s base field of Buševec was undergoing some work – 9A-DBU, AK Velika Gorica’s towplane, took shelter alongside our resident 9A-DBS. So, with nothing better to photograph outside, here are the results!