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

By me
All photos credited and copyrighted as noted

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

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

Fleet In One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parade Lap

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

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

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

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

Base Lučko:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Base Pleso:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Report – The Wizard Of Kranj: YuAF Aircraft Restored

By me
All photos me too, copyrighted

As I had already noted in a previous post, the world of social media – while often tenuous – can on occasion also be a fantastic (and nearly inexhaustible) source of inspiration and information on pretty much any topic conceivable. Having already been responsible for two of my historic articles to date, Facebook (for one) must take the plaudits for #3 as well, having led me (by a roundabout way) to probably one of the most interesting aeronautical projects in the region 🙂 .

While browsing a local aviation group one day, I chanced to stumble upon an unusual photo of a partially-disassembled North American F-86 Sabre wearing the tell-tale colors of the Yugoslav Air Force. Instantly intrigued, I’d started digging a bit deeper, eventually discovering that it is actually an in-progress restoration job going on next door in neighboring Slovenia. Naturally enough, it did not take me long to find and bother the people responsible, eventually managing to set my sights/viewfinder) for the towns of Kranj and Pivka in the hilly west of the country…

Boran in Wonderland

While it cannot match the scale (nor financial backing) of similar endeavors further out west, this project is nevertheless a sight for sore eyes, and represents one of the most detailed aviation preservation works undertaken since the fall of Yugoslavia. Headed in the hands-on department by Mr. Alojz Potočnik, the Sabre’s restoration is actually part of a much larger museum drive jointly led by several notable Slovene institutions, including:

  • the Pivka Park of Military History (Park vojaške zgodovine Pivka), which has been given long-term use of the aircraft and will display it in its own collection
  • the Slovenian Army Military Museum (Vojaški muzej Slovenske vojske), which is formally the owner of the aircraft and whose custodian – Mr. Matjaž Ravbar – is responsible for the historical and technical accuracy of the restoration
  • the Slovenian Army (Slovenska vojska), which has provided some of the workforce for the restoration work
  • and the Pivka Municipality, which has – in this instance – fronted part of the restoration costs, with the rest having been made up from various EU funds

Though the Sabre was the one item that had initially caught my eye, the project also includes the preservation and display of several other aircraft that had previously flown with the Yugoslav Air Force – or had played their part in the defense of Slovenia during Yugoslavia’s violent dissolution in 1991. Numbering at four machines so far – two already displayed and two (the Sabre included) still in the works – this project is well on its way to becoming one of the highest-quality aeronautical collections in the region, and is already beginning to draw in an ever increasing number of visitors – some even from well outside the former borders of Yugoslavia. One of these, however, had decided to askew the normal tour program, electing instead to start straight at the source: the workshop of Mr. Potočnik 😀 .

The place where a number of the Park’s non-winged exhibits also came from, it was on this day home to two aircraft which, on the face of it, should not really rate all that high on the rarity list: the West’s most produced jet fighter – the Sabre – and the world’s most produced fighter, the MiG-21 🙂 . Standing at 9,680 and 10,645 examples produced respectively (excluding Chinese-built versions for the latter), both are still present in significant numbers on the airshow circuit, with the -21 still clinging on in front-line service even with several forces in the European Union*.

* Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania to name them. While the type is also in use in Serbia, it has been relegated to secondary roles and exists today in small numbers only.

However, the actual machines present here were of a different class altogether, representing first the exceedingly rare IF-86D – a Yugoslav home-brewed reconnaissance version of the “big Sabre” – and then the MiG-21F-13, the type’s first ever operational variant. In various stages of restoration (with the MiG significantly closer to completion), they had both promised to provide fantastic insight into the restoration process – as well as allow me to sneak a peek at some of their inner workings… 🙂

1. North American IF-86D-41-NA Sabre, 14325

Even though it shares the name, designation and general stature of one of the West’s most prominent fighters, the first machine to be featured here is actually somewhat of a black sheep within the extended Sabre family tree. Longer, wider, heavier and faster than all of the originals, the D model – often called the Sabre Dog – is in reality a separate type altogether, owing only its basic configuration (and various other bits of DNA) to the stock F-86…

Even without most of its extremities, the Sabre Dog is still a sizable piece of machinery. While it may look compact (like the original Sabre), it actually stands 12 meters from nose to tail – more than the wingspan of the Cessna 172.

Originally intended to be called the F-95, the D model can trace its roots back to the end of the 40s and attempts to turn the day-only Sabre into an advanced, all-weather fighter that could cope with the masses of Soviet bombers anticipated to eventually head for US borders. Faced with the need to carry both advanced weaponry and a bulky early-gen radar – AND then get both up to intercept altitude in a reasonable period of time – the new aircraft had immediately warranted a significantly more powerful engine, as well as a modified fuselage to accommodate the lot. Dispensing with the 23 kN General Electric J47-GE-13 of the later A models, the D would solve the first problem by being fitted with a reheated version of the same engine – the 33 kN J47-GE-17, later replaced by the 34 kN -33 – whose long reheat system and exhaust pipe had necessitated a one-meter fuselage stretch.

Its intended task as a bomber hunter had also brought about a rethink of its armament solutions. Rather than rely on old-fashioned guns – which were considered to be ineffective against dense, clumped masses of heavy aircraft – the Sabre Dog was to be armed with 24 70-mm “Mighty Mouse” Folding Fin Aerial Rockets (FFARs), housed in an unique retractable tray located on the underside of the fuselage. Wide by necessity – in order to accommodate the largest number of rockets possible without being too tall – the tray too had come to define some of the dimensions of the fuselage, being responsible for a small (but nevertheless noticeable) increase in the D model’s girth 🙂 .

In order to be able to find the bombers it would fire its mice at, the Sabre Dog was also fitted with an AN/APG-36 search radar, housed in a distinctive radome on the upper lip of the intake. With an effective range of some 55 km (30 NM), the radar was slaved to an (at the time) advanced fire-control system, allowing the aircraft to zoom in behind an enemy formation, discharge its rockets in a pattern calculated to inflict the maximum amount of damage – and then zoom out while still remaining (more or less) outside the presumed range of the formation’s defensive guns.

But, while all of this may sound solid in theory, in practice the aircraft had suffered from a number of serious shortcomings – all of which were a consequence of its transformation into something the original Sabre was never designed to be. The Mighty Mouse system, for example, was shown during tests to be inaccurate and ineffective; the aircraft’s sheer bulk had required a high landing speed and, by association, a long runway; the J47’s add-on reheat system was prone to malfunction – and the aircraft was generally too complex to handle by the average single pilot. All of this had, in fact, earned it the unflattering nickname Sabre Dog – alluding more to it being an under-performing “dog” than a separate model of the F-86 🙂 .

Nevertheless, between 1957 and 1961, the F-86D would be one of the mainstays of the US’ aerial defenses, until being supplanted and eventually replaced both by new aircraft types and upgraded versions of itself (most notably the much-improved F-86L). Its withdrawal from service had immediately led to a strong export drive, intended partly to recuperate as many of the funds invested into its acquisition as possible – but mostly to help shore up Europe’s WW2-battered defenses against the threat of the USSR**.

** following the formation of NATO as a functioning force, the US had instantly sought to strengthen the edges of Western Europe – and create a protective buffer for itself along the way – should the Union’s sabre rattling suddenly become less benign. Still not having caught their industrial breath following the ravages of WW2, countries such as Italy and West Germany were thought to be particularly vulnerable, leading to the decision to sell them – often for next to nothing – both surplus hardware from the war, and newer metal that could achieve a measure of parity with whatever the USSR could throw at them. Known as the Mutual Defense Assistance Program – MDAP – this project would eventually be responsible for most of the US machinery operated by West European forces throughout the 60s and early 70s.

Even though it was somewhat on the wrong side of world politics, one of the type’s customers was also Yugoslavia, at the time looking to modernize its leftover WW2 fighter and ground attack forces (then made up of an eclectic mix of local, US, British, German, Italian and Russian machinery). Even though the 1961 sale of 130 examples (comprising 36, 41, 45 and 50 series jets) to a communist country had caused a bit of an uproar at home, the US government was nevertheless quite forthcoming, especially since Yugoslavia had already operated the Lockheed T-33, Republic F-84 and Canadair-built “straight” Sabres – all important bits in trying to lure the country (which has always been non-aligned) to its side of the Iron Curtain.

While all of these jets would go on to lead variously interesting lives – some having already been earmarked for cannibalization on arrival – the ones of special interest to us were the 32 examples intended for conversion into home-grown photo reconnaissance platforms 🙂 . Done by the Jastreb (goshawk) works of Zemun, Serbia, this modification had quickly become known as the IF-86D (I – izviđač, scout), and had entailed the replacement of the Mighty Mouse system and its launch tray with a custom fit of three Kodak K-24 downward-facing cameras***, as well as the addition of underwing mounting points for target illuminating flash bombs. Apart from this, the jets would remain the same in all other aspects in order to keep maintenance costs down to a minimum.

*** interestingly, the Sabre Dogs would not be the only machines to receive this treatment. Another notable type to be modified so was the TV-2/T-33B, designated the ITV-2 and IT-33

However, how and where 14325 fits among them is still subject to some confusion, since the machine’s true identity and lineage have not yet been conclusively established. Upon their arrival into the YuAF inventory, all 130 jets had been allocated codes in the 14001 to 14130 range; however, one modified into the IF-86 standard, the 32 jets selected were re-coded as 14301 through 14332. While the serials for all 130 are available through public channels, they are referenced only to the original codes, and are not correlated with the IF “re-branding” – making even the Park and Museum unaware of 14325’s full and complete history. The level of uncertainty is such that in some channels the aircraft was rumored to actually be 14307 – though this had been disproved by the Museum.

Whatever its case, a helpful fact is that all of the recce Sabres had stuck together their entire lives, flying first with the 184th Reconnaissance Aviation Regiment from 1963, and then with the 352nd Reconnaissance Aviation Squadron when the former disbanded in February 1966 – both of which had been based at my home airport, Zagreb (ZAG/LDZA) 🙂 . Interestingly, the IF would have relatively short service lives, having been withdrawn from use already in 1967, formally struck of the active inventory list in 1968 – and then replaced by MiG-21Rs when the squadron moved to Željava Airbase on the border of Bosnia and Croatia****. As was the case with other types being pulled completely from service, several IF-86s had soon ended up as gate-guards across former Yugoslavia, with 14325 being posted at Ljubljana’s Brnik Airport (LJU/LJLJ). Interestingly, once displayed, it would be given the code 14146, a fictitious out-of-sequence identity never used in actual service.

**** an interesting side-story is that the squadron, its aircraft and new base would later go on to play an important part in modern Croatian history. On 25 October 1991, (then) captain 1st class Rudolf Perešin would fly the squadron’s MiG-21R 26112 to Klagenfurt, Austria during a reconnaissance sweep of Slovenia, becoming the first Croatian pilot to defect from the YuAF during the 90s civil war.

It would then stay at Brnik for the better part of 40 years, being forced to endure the fate of nearly all non-museum aircraft in the region – a slow death by atmospheric wear and sheer neglect. By the time it had been taken under Mr. Potočnik’s wing in 2014, 14325 had suffered extensive corrosion to parts of its structure, a tear in the lower aft fuselage – and the attentions of local scavengers and scrap-metal dealers. Thankfully though, all of the damage was deemed repairable (albeit with a lot of work!), making the aircraft an ideal candidate for restoration and display at the Park…

Even though they were dissimilar in a number of respects, the biggest differences between the normal and Dog Sabres were up at the front. Far more complicated than its gunsight & guns-only little brother, the F-86D had in reality needed a second crew member to operate efficiently; however, the Sabre’s front fuselage was ill-fitting for the addition of another seat, forcing North American to equip the Dog with some of the first computer systems ever fitted to a combat aircraft in order to keep it functioning as a single-man machine…

A close-up of the custom camera fit. An American modification of the 1920s British F24 device, the K-24s were also used on the IT-33, and had likely been obtained cheap during one of the West’s post-war “junk sales”.

Perhaps the most surprising detail on the F-86D is the sheer size of its engine. Complete from the tip of the intake centerbody to the exit of the tailpipe, the J47-GE-17B stands at 1.8 tons in mass – quite an increase from the original 1.5 ton J47-GE-13 of the regular Sabre.

2. Aero S-106, 22542

The second aircraft present in the shop though was perhaps even the more attractive one – if anything for the visceral appeal of the MiG-21 shape to a person used to seeing it his entire life 🙂 . Looking like it had just rolled off the production line, its sleek curves accentuated by the bare-metal finish, 22542 will eventually become one of only two F-13s displayed in the lands of former Yugoslavia – and one of the preciously few first-gen models of any sort to be found in this part of Europe…

Quite an evocative sight even without its wings! While keeping track of all the myriad MiG-21 versions can be a daunting task, the elegant F-13 can easily be recognized by its smaller intake and intake centerbody (lacking the radar of the later models), the smaller dorsal hump (which would on subsequent models be enlarged to include additional avionics and fuel), the forward-hinged one-piece canopy – and the Pitot-static tube located under the intake (not fitted here).

However, while it may look, smell and feel like a genuine YuAF example, 22542 is in reality a former Czechoslovak machine – which actually makes it an S-106, a MiG-21F-13 produced under license by the Aero Vodochody works near Prague (makers of the superb L-39 Albatros trainer) 🙂 . Having never had anything to do with Yugoslavia throughout its service life, now-22542 was manufactured in 1965 with the serial 560313, becoming 0313 when delivered to the Czechoslovak AF on 6 December of the same year.

Destined to spend its entire flying career on training duties, 0313 was first allocated to the Air Force Training Center at Přerov Airbase (PRV/LKPO), from which it would be transferred to the 1st Training Regiment (based at the same base) upon the latter’s formation in September 1973. Second in longevity only to Albania’s Chengdu-manufactured F-7s, 0313 and its squadron mates would eventually go on to become some of the oldest F-13s still flying in Europe, with 0313 itself struck off the military registry only on 19 June 1990 – and with just shy of 1,393 hours on the clock. Shortly afterwards – on 17 July to be precise – it would be transferred to the military aviation museum at Prague’s Kbely Airport (LKKB), where it would remain until acquired by the Military Museum in 2011 and picked up by Mr. Potočnik in 2014.

While the original intent had always been to restore an authentic Yugoslav machine, the inability to acquire one had forced the restoration team to think laterally and look elsewhere for a replacement. However, while they now had an aircraft to paint, its lack of a “Yugoslav pedigree” had meant that giving it an actual YuAF code would have been stretching history and accuracy to their limits – leading to the decision to simply give it a fictitious identity.

The task of choosing this new ID was – interestingly – pretty straightforward. Known in service as the L-12 (L – lovac, hunter), the YuAF had operated a total of 41 F-13s, all delivered between 1962 and 1966 – and designated 22501 through 22541. Slotting itself nicely into the sequence without causing too much historical disruption, the new addition was simply christened 22542 🙂 . Near completion at the time of writing, the aircraft will soon join the Park’s collection, and be displayed alongside the Sabre and two other machines in a new, purpose-built museum hall.

Very near its final form, outstanding items on 22542 include fitting the wings (which are already refurbished), slotting in its original engine and completing the restoration of the cockpit.

However, a close-up view maybe best illustrates the level of effort and attention to detail invested in the work: all of the ground crew instruction labels from nose to tail (and there are a lot of them!) have been reproduced in both the correct font and terminology… some rough parts still remain, but I’ve been told they’d be smoothed out before the aircraft goes on display.

Not the best of shots, but gripping a ladder with one hand and the camera with the other doesn’t leave you much in the way of options! One of the major sections still needing work, the cockpit will eventually be completed to in-service YuAF specs. But even as it is, it’s in quite a good nick given the difficulties of obtaining proper equipment for early generation models…

Looking remarkably like someone had sunk a MiG-25 into the ground, 22542’s wings wait to be mated to the airframe. Fully completed, they only lack their weapons pylons (one per wing), which are stored in a nearby garage.

A Walk in The Park

But, to fully appreciate just where these two restorations are going – and how much effort will yet be put into their work – one also needs to see and admire some of the “finished products” :). As mentioned in the opening entry, two completed machines – restored during an earlier phase and financed by the Army – are already displayed at the Pivka, and kept under the watchful eye of the Park’s expert associate, Mr. Boštjan Kurent. Continually maintained and meticulously cared for, both aircraft go quite some distance beyond normal museum specs and retain pretty much all of their operational fittings – including the engines and complete cockpit setups…

3. Republic F-84G-31-RE Thunderjet, 10642

The first of the pair to be featured, 10642’s story in many respects closely parallels that of the IF-86. However, while it too was produced in significant numbers – with 7,254 examples completed – the Thunderjet is nevertheless a much rarer sight today, with virtually all of the few surviving examples confined to a couple of (distant) museums in the West. Even more astounding is the realization that of the 231 (!) F-84s delivered to the YuAF, only 10642 and 10525 (of the Aeronautical Museum in Belgrade) still stand as display-grade examples, with most of the rest having either been sold or scrapped ages ago…

An odd-looking thing from any angle, the F-84 was once the spearhead of the Yugoslav Air Force’s modernization drive, and could be found at pretty much every significant airbase. Quite an irony then that existing examples have been whittled down to just 1% of the original fleet…

Looking quite fresh for its age (which says a lot about the quality of the restoration work!), 10642 had rolled off the production line in 1953 as part of the type’s third production series. Sporting the factory serial 3050-1829B and provisional USAF identity of 52-2910, it would be delivered the same year to the Italian Air Force, becoming MM52-2910 of the 5 Aerobrigata.

Following the end of Italian F-84 operations in May 1957, 10642 would be transferred to the Yugoslav Air Force as part of the continuation of MDAP, where it would take up its current identity as part of either the 82nd or 172nd Aviation Regiment of the 21st Division (the details are a bit hazy) based at Zemunik Airbase (ZAD/LDZD) on the Adriatic coast. Like virtually all newly-acquired aircraft at the time, 10642 would for awhile sport the original colors of its previous operator – bare metal in the case of the Italian AF – before being repainted into YuAF’s standard camouflage pattern some years down the line (as more funds became available).

At some point during its lifetime, 10642 would be transferred to the 82nd Air Brigade stationed at Cerklje ob Krki Airbase, Slovenia (LJCE), where it would continue to serve until its retirement in 1971. As was the standard modus operandi at the time, a couple of the type were picked up and placed as gate-guards at various locations of note, with 10642 having been allocated to Brnik alongside Sabre 14325 – gaining, like the latter, a non-existing identity (10914) in the process. Here it would remain unkempt for the next thirty or so years, before finally being rescued by Mr. Potočnik and the Museum in 2008.

Having been exposed to the elements – including high winds and snows – for more than three decades, the aircraft was, unsurprisingly, in a pretty poor state, requiring an extensive ground-up restoration that would continue well into 2013. Emerging from it looking like it had just rolled off the production line, 10642 was then placed in the open in the Park – from where it will move to the aforementioned permanent indoor location in September of 2015.

As was the case with the -21, 10642’s restoration had gone far beyond just making the aircraft look presentable. Accurate down to the millimeter, the refreshed scheme even includes all of the ground crew handling instructions – what I was told was one of the hardest part to get bang-on right.

4. Soko HO-42 Gazelle, TO-001

Conversely, the last machine on the list doesn’t really have much in the way of rarity on its side; however, what it lacks in that department it certainly makes up for in historical significance 🙂 . The Park’s only rotary-winged exhibit, TO-001 is often hailed as one of the most important aircraft in newer Slovene history – and is still ranked as one of Mr. Potočnik’s (and his team’s) best restorations…

The instantly recognizable shape of the Gazelle sticks out with ease even in a room full of armored vehicles! An intriguing exhibit, this part of the Park is devoted to the beginnings of the Slovenian military in 1991, and illustrates well the unavoidable mismatch in ground and air equipment that had been the case in Croatia as well…

Locally still considered to be one of the very few aircraft of any sort to fully live up to its name, the superlative Gazelle has always had a special connection to Yugoslavia, having been the mainstay of its light helicopter forces ever since its introduction into the YuAF in 1973. Still flying on the front lines in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina today, the SA-341 is pretty much part of the aeronautical landscape, a reputation no doubt due to both its stellar flight performance – and its long-lasting license production***** by the Soko works in Mostar, Bosnia.

***** of interest, during the 70s and early 80s, Yugoslavia had gone on a number of mass hopping sprees all throughout the West, purchasing significant batches of everything from the Cessna 150, via the Bell 212, to the HS.125 bizjet. Numbering well into the treble digits of machines, the intent of these acquisitions was to prop up the country’s aviation sector by equipping flying clubs, schools, government agencies, larger companies – and even police air units – with modern, capable Western hardware.

Interestingly, all throughout the deal, the country’s purchasing committees had always shown a clear preference for aircraft designed in the US, but if at all possible manufactured somewhere in Europe – or even at home, if the production capabilities so allowed. Thus most of the smaller Cessnas bought were actually Reims machines – and most Bell helicopters were in fact Agustas (the only exceptions were aircraft not produced anywhere but in the States). Eventually, the only type to be built whole in Yugoslavia was the Gazelle (starting in 1978 from knock-down kits) – though license manufacture of various components (such as the Bristol-Siddeley/Rolls-Royce Viper turbojet) had been relatively widespread.

To differentiate them from original French-built examples (only 21 of which had ever been delivered to Yugoslavia), Mostar-produced examples came in a variety of designations******, including:

  • HO-42: a basic version equivalent to the military-export SA-341H (HO – helikopter opšti, general-purpose helicopter)
  • HI-41 Hera: a reconnaissance and artillery-fire correction model based on the HO-42 and equipped with the Hera gyro-stabilized laser range-finding system (HI – helikopter izviđački, scout helicopter)
  • HS-42: a MEDEVAC version based on the HO-42 (HS – helikopter sanitetski, sanitary helicopter)
  • NH-42M GAMA: an armed SA-341 sporting the 9M14M Malyutka wire-guided anti-tank missile and the Strela-2M air-to-air missile (NH – naoružani helikopter, armed helicopter; GAMA – GAzela MAljutka)
  • HO-45: another basic version, but based on the more powerful SA-342L
  • NH-45M GAMA: the same as the NH-42M, but based on the HO-45

****** another interesting tidbit is that the Yugoslav military designation system had often contained numerical references to WW2. The 41 in HI-41 thus refers to the start of the war in Yugoslavia (initiated by the Axis invasion on 6 April), while the 42 in HO-42 refers to the year Partisan forced had first really made themselves felt in their fight against the German Army. And the 45 is rather obvious 😀 .

One of 157 examples made in total, TO-001 can trace its roots back to the second production batch of HO-42s, leaving the factory floor in 1979 with the serial 028 and YuAF code 12660. There follows a two-year gap in activity that I could not account for, but in 1981 it would be allocated to the 894th Helicopter Squadron for Reconnaissance and Signals based at Brnik. Its subsequent history would be relatively uneventful (apart from a minor landing incident in 1984) all the way until 25 June 1991, when all helicopters based at Ljubljana were transferred to the Šentvid Barracks north of town – just days before one of the opening shots of the 90s war, the 28 June aerial attack on Brnik.

Two days later on  27 June – the day Slovenia had declared its independence from Yugoslavia – the unit was deployed east to monitor the Slovenian-Croatian border, with 12660 additionally tasked with airlifting an injured soldier to hospital in the town of Maribor, located in the north-eastern corner of the country. The next day – 28 June – when piloted by captain 1st class Jože Kalan and aviation technician sergeant-major 1st class Bogo Šuštar, 12660 had defected to the Slovenian Territorial Defense forces, flying west out of Maribor at high speed along the Slovenian-Austrian border, and onwards to the Golte forest where it landed at a winter sports facility and surrendered.

Having subsequently been moved several times to confuse enemy intelligence – even hiding on farms on occasion – the helicopter would, in the event, play no further part in the war. Nevertheless, it would soon be rechristened TO-001 (TO – teritorijalna obrana, territorial defense) and named Velenje, a homage to the Slovene town of the same name whose TO ground units were tasked with its protection while on the run. In 1992 though, it would be transferred to the civil register as SL-HAA (SL being Slovenia’s first post-independence prefix, before being allocated the current S5) and repainted into an aquamarine scheme reminiscent of 70s Bell JetRanger factory colors. It would then continue to fly with the 15th Brigade of the nascent Slovenian Air Force, serving mostly in various training and light transport roles.

All of this would come to an end however on 21 June 1994, when (now) S5-HAA had suffered a landing accident at Kočevski rog in the south-east of the country. Deemed to be beyond economical repair (as the only one of its type in-country), it was instead restored to display status and in 1996 installed as a gate guard in front of the 15th Brigade’s HQ at Brnik. But, like Thunderjet 10642 and Sabre 14325, it had suffered greatly from its exposure to the weather (even though it was outside for a “mere” decade only), leading to a drive to restore and preserve it once again as an important part of the country’s recent history.

Taking place from August 2008 to its unveiling at Pivka on 27 June 2012, the restoration effort is still hailed as one of the biggest aeronautical history projects in Slovene history, and had involved a sizable team of 26 people – including numerous active military personnel and the crew that had flown it over on 28 June 1991 🙂 . As is the case with the Thunderjet, the work had gone far beyond the usual museum standards, going on to include the entire cockpit, all ancillary equipment – and the complete Astazou IIIA engine…

Attention to Detail 101. In order for the scheme to be as historically accurate as possible, during restoration TO-001 was first painted in its 12660 guise – and then its markings were covered up and superficially repainted in nearly exactly the same manner as in 1991…

I would also like to extend my sincerest thanks to: Messrs Potočnik and Kurent for their time, friendliness and forthcoming assistance; Mr. Svetozar Jokanović of the “YU vazuhoplovna istorija” group for information about the YuAF recce Sabres and their service lives; and Mr. Tomaž Perme for information on the project’s organization and various corrections of the machines’ individual histories!

Sources

Change log and revisions

  • 13 MAR 2016 – added new details of the IF-86D mod

Photo Report – Spring at Pleso

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All photos me too, copyrighted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By me
All photos me too, copyrighted

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

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

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

Monday, 5 May

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

Wednesday, 7 May

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

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

Friday, 6 June

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

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

Friday, 18 July

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

Monday, 4 August

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

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

Thursday, 18 December

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

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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All photos me too, copyrighted

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

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

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

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

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All photos me too, copyrighted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short Photo Report – MiGs in the Mist

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All photos me too, copyrighted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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