Photo File – From Europe With Love: Croatian Police’s First AW139

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Even though the Croatian Police’s drive to re-equip its air wing is pretty much old news here – with the first two additions, EC-135s 9A-HBA and HBB, having been flying their Fenestrons off for two years now – announcements of the impending arrival of a third machine had once again considerably piqued interest here at Achtung, Skyhawk!. The excitement was all the greater since the whirlybird in question was of a somewhat higher caliber than all the others, taking the form of the imposing (and loud!) AgustaWestland AW139 – in short, the largest and most powerful Western-built helicopter ever operated by a Croatian law enforcement agency.

Predictably enough, the magnitude of its arrival was not lost on me – so it was a given that I would be there to greet it when it alighted at Zagreb Airport (ZAG/LDZA) on 20 January for its formal handover ceremony… 🙂

Looking impressive and powerful in front of the Croatian Gov’t hangar following the formal end of the ceremony. Though this was I-EASM’s first visit to Zagreb, it was not its first time in country, having spent the previous night at Pula Airport (PUY/LDPL) halfway into its delivery flight from Varese in Italy.

Completed in December 2015 with the serial 31715, I-EASM will eventually carry the identity 9A-HRP, thus becoming the sixth distinct helicopter type operated by the Police since Croatia’s independence in 1991 (and the seventh overall since the formation of the air wing in the 60s). Unlike the aforementioned EC-135s, the AW139’s raison d’être is solely border surveillance, being part of an extensive assistance package from the EU to help reduce the porosity of what is now the Union’s second largest land border with non-EU lands (at 1198 km/745 miles, just 115 km/71 miles short of Finland’s border with Russia). Interestingly, current plans also call for a second example, which is intended to join the fleet likely in July 2016… 🙂

Rolling in slowly for the benefit of the press while the morning haze does its best to spoil the lighting. Despite being intended primarily for patrolling the country’s long land border, I-EASM is also equipped with a powerful winch on the right side of the fuselage, enabling it to provide a secondary sea rescue capability (which also falls under the header of border security).

While the AW139 may not have the most elegant fuselage cross-section around, its boxy shape makes it a good practical hauler, with lots of space, easy entry and egress and the ability to haul bulky cargo – or, in HEMS/SAR ops, a lot of vital equipment.

In addition to a nose-mounted EO/IR (Electro Optical/Infra Red) turret cam – a must-have item for any serious patrol duty – I-EASM is also fitted with a Trakka A800 IR spotlight, which greatly increases the precision and quality of both IR cameras and night vision systems (and can even “illuminate” underwater areas up to a depth of 5 meters).

Up front, business is as usual for a machine of this size and sophistication, with advanced digital avionics and automation prevalent throughout. Despite this, the machine’s controls are still a handful, with the collective (out of shot) particularly notable for its number of switches and pushbuttons.

A peek inside the voluminous cabin, rivaling – or even exceeding – that of the AB.212 9A-HBM which had so far held the title of the Police’s largest whirlybird. Of particular interest is the surveillance system operator’s station, which controls and integrates the turret cam, IR spotlight – and a very powerful surface search radar housed in the nose that boasts an effective range in excess of 200 NM. Despite its small size, it has been described as a very powerful system – which is pretty much the heart of the AW139 in this configuration.

Whatever the mission, entry and egress are made quite easy by large sliding doors that remain flush with the fuselage – and bear a resemblance to those of the legendary Huey. Another detail – though impossible to see here – is a integral flotation system for over-water operation, charged by two (very large!) nitrogen bottles located right behind the doors.

Brothers in… rotors. With the ceremony long over, I-EASM prepares to be pushed into the gov’t hangar, while HBB – preceded a few seconds earlier by HBA – hovertaxis out for its return to Lučko. The participation of both new Police helicopter types may have been somewhat of a “marketing gimmick” – but it nevertheless made for a smashing photo op!

Current Police fleet strength:

  • Agusta AW139: AW139 (9A-HRP)
  • Bell 206 JetRanger: 206B-3 (9A-HDB, 9A-HBZ) & AB.206B (9A-HBC)
  • Bell 212: AB.212 (9A-HBM)
  • Eurocopter EC-135: EC-135P-2+ (9A-HBA, 9A-HBB)

Update – 25 March:

As of mid-March, 9A-HRP has officially entered active duty, operating out of both Zagreb and the standard Police squadron base at Lučko Airfield (LDZL). Even though it had spent most of the subsequent days flying up and down the country on familiarization and training flights, some persistent camping at the field had nevertheless provided me with the opportunity to snap it in the act… 🙂

Approaching its helipad on a crisp spring afternoon following a two-hour flight from Dubrovnik (DBV/LDDU) in the extreme south of the country.

Photo Report – Life at Lučko, October 2014

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Possibly to compensate for its blatant refusal to play ball for most of the summer, the weather here in continental Croatia has been on its best behavior since my previous post, providing us (mostly) with the same clear blue skies, calm air and pleasant temperatures that we’d expected to see in months past :). Fearing that it may all go terribly wrong at any time and without much warning, out fleet at Lučko has been out and about from sunset to sunrise, getting in as much work as possible without bending any rules. Naturally, the same weather had lured me and my camera out as well, allowing me to present another snapshot of Life at Lučko… 🙂

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Report – HBB to the Rescue as Well!

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Hot on the tail rotor of my previous post come yet more Eurocopter news from the Croatian Police 🙂 . Not two weeks after 9A-HBA – the service’s first EC-135 – had started active duty has a second example joined the fleet. Christened 9A-HBB, this machine is also an EC-135P-2+, and sports pretty much the same family tree as its predecessor: manufactured in 2008 for Spain’s Guardia Civil (and coded HU.26-14), but never taken up and instead placed in long-term storage until being sold to Croatia late this year. Like HBA, it was also delivered with flight hours in the low dozens – and like HBA it still needs to be fully kitted out before assuming its intended border patrol role.

Thankfully, on the day of its arrival we’d had another of those beautiful, oddball days in the middle of an otherwise dreary month, making for some excellent photographic opportunities… 🙂

Approaching RWY 10S(un). Even though they’d spent most of the day rumbling around and across Southern Europe on HBB’s delivery flight, the crew was still ready, willing and able to fly a few photo passes down the airfield…

Cooling down after the delivery ceremony in the company of 9A-HBA. Originally flying under a Spanish flag and temporary reg - EC-030, still partially visible on the tail - HBB was "rebranded" into its Croatian identity within seconds of the rotors stopping.
Cooling down after the delivery ceremony in the company of 9A-HBA. Originally flying under a Spanish flag and temporary reg – EC-030, still partially visible on the tail – HBB was “rebranded” into its Croatian identity within seconds of the rotors stopping.

Rotary News – HBA to the Rescue!

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In living proof that the wheels of bureaucracy grind exceedingly slowly, 9A-HBA – the first EC-135 for the Croatian Police – has finally entered active service, more than a month after originally arriving at Lučko 🙂 . The culprit for the delay was, rather unsurprisingly, the mountain of paperwork needed to transfer the machine onto the Croatian register – paperwork that involved cancelling its test reg in Spain, re-registering it in Croatia, sorting out its insurance, airworthiness, maintenance providers, training programs and various other technical and legal procedures (that are, truth be told, common to all aircraft).

Though not yet fully kitted out – an EO/IR (electro-optical/infra red) turret cam being in the works – HBA had nevertheless still played a policing role on its first mission, providing air support for the commemoration of the fall of the city of Vukovar during the 90s civil war 🙂 .

Old meets new as HBA - mfd in 2008 - taxis past one of the three Police JetRangers, itself completed back in 1979 . Finally registered and airworthy on paper, HBA has in the mean time received additional markings, and had today departed towards the east on a training mission as soon as the morning fog had allowed...
Old meets new as 9A-HBA taxis out past 9A-HDB, one of the three Police JetRangers. Still going strong, HDB was part of a 55-strong batch of Bell helicopters bought by Yugoslavia between 1970 and 1980, a batch that had included a sizable force of 34 JetRangers (of all marks). In law enforcement service since their delivery, these Bell machines have become part of the landscape, making HBA stand out like a sore thumb

Photo Report – The Croatian Police’s First EC-135

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While last year’s spectacular run of rotary visitors at Lučko – including two US Chinooks and Knighthawks, a German Super Puma and EC-155, and the second prototype of the Bell 429 GlobalRanger – had raised hopes for an equally eventful 2013, the cold reality had seen the arrival of only one real highlight. But the lack of quantity was made up for with quality, with the highlight in question finding its way even into the mainstream media (without actually having to crash 😀 ). The machine in question is 9A-HBA, the Croatian Police’s first all-new helicopter in over 20 years… 🙂

Approaching its new home for the first time after an all-day ferry flight from distant Spain, still wearing its Spanish test reg

Not really an exciting type per se – with droves upon droves plying the skies of Europe – the EC-135 has nevertheless signaled a small (but significant) shift in the local helicopter community. Having inherited all of its hardware from former Yugoslavia, the Police had ended up being a staunch operator of Bell machines since the early 90s, flying a handful of JetRanger IIs and IIIs – as well as single, and much loved, Twin Huey – till this day. The arrival of HBA – whose acquisiton was sponsored in part by the EU – has broken Bell’s two plus decade long dominance in force, becoming the first Western European helicopter ever to be operated by any Croatian government agency 🙂 (with all the perks and ramifications attached).

While its shiny & clean exterior would suggest a new-build frame, HBA was actually completed back in 2008 and originally intended for service with Spain’s Guardia Civil, where it was briefly known as HU.26-15. However, soon after completing its validation and acceptance flights, it was – for various complicated reasons – mothballed and placed into long term storage. As there was no foreseeable need for it in Spanish service (having stood unused for five years), it was put up for sale, eventually finding its way into Croatian skies :).

Showing the Minister of the Interior – wedged in the cabin – just what the Fenestron tail rotor can do as it swings quickly about for a demonstration flight. Note also the PA system visible under the nose

With just 20-odd hours on the clock – most of which were incurred on the ferry flight from Albacete – HBA will be primarily used in the border patrol role, where it will eventually be joined by two additional examples (one of which is already on the books). Given their twin engine nature and full IFR avionics, these three machines will also likely become a replacement for the aforementioned 212, which is slowly nearing the end of its useful life after several decades of hard graft… 🙂