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New MiG-21's for Croatia - Zagreb-Pleso,  24 July 2014

On July 24th 2014 I had the opportunity to visit 91st Air Base Zagreb-Pleso with my family to see the recently delivered MiG-21bis Fishbeds of the Croatian Air Force and Air Defence.

 

A morning with test pilot Colonel Ivan Selak

So there we were, Thursday morning, waiting at the gate of 91st Air Base Zagreb-Pleso for test pilot Colonel Ivan Selak. At exactly 8:30h we were welcomed at the gate by Colonel Ivan Selak and his colleague test pilot Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Huf. We entered the base and only five minutes later we stepped into a big hangar where six MiG-21’s and two Mi-171’s were parked. Here we heard two flights were scheduled for this morning, one with ‘133’ around ten o’clock, and one with ‘165’ at noon. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take pictures of the MiG-21’s inside the hanger. But we were allowed to sit in one of the MiG-21’s where we talked about the modifications on the ‘new’ Fishbeds. After a phone call, Selak told us the test flight with ‘133’ was delayed to eleven o’clock and the flight with ‘165’ was cancelled. The red/white coloured twin seater had some oxygen problems on its previous flight, and the Ukrainian technicians were still busy solving this problem.

 

Colonel Selak tried to arrange a short visit to the QRA area, but as the QRA was on high alert for a T-scramble (training) we were not allowed to go there. Once or twice in two weeks the QRA performs a training sortie to stay well trained for real time action. After we visited the second hangar, where two stored MiG-21bis-D’s and three Mi-171’s were parked, we drove towards the small base museum where two MiG-21’s and two Mi-24 Hinds can be found. One of the MiG-21’s is the ‘102’, the aircraft in which Colonel Ivan Selak flew when he defected from Yugoslavia to Croatia in 1992. He proudly posed in front of ‘his’ aircraft with my son Damian. As it was still very early we went to Selaks office to have a drink, here Lt.Col. Robert Huf and Captain Maja Skrba (the ATC liaison of the Croatian Air Force and Air Defence at 91st Air Base Zagreb-Pleso) joined us. We talked about the history of the Croatian MiG-21’s, the local Air Traffic Control, the test flights Selak and Huf made in Odessa, Ukraine and about the Croatian Homeland War. Suddenly we heard the two Fishbeds of the QRA taking off for their T-scramble. Selaks flight was delayed again so we had some spare time to see the arrival of the two QRA MiG’s. Lt.Col. Robert Huf found a nice place for us to take photo’s, on top of the old ATC tower. Here we stayed the rest of our visit.

 

Around twelve o’clock Col. Selak went to his aircraft (133) to perform the pre-flight checks. A few minutes later he taxied out (callsign Knight96) and took off in a very spectacular way by turning early into the training area. For the test flights a special training area is arranged east of Zagreb, close enough to the airfield to return in case of an emergency. Today’s mission was to test the manoeuvrability of the MiG-21 during the 2nd stage afterburner. After a 30-minute flight Selak returned to the field and performed a nice low high speed pass for us, followed by a nice smooth landing. After a short debrief Colonel Selak joined us again and brought us back to the gate of the air base. This brought an end to an unforgettable morning with a true Homeland War hero.

 

 

Croatia’s Homeland War heroes

Colonel Ivan Selak, born on December 27th 1959 in Bjelovar, is a member of the Croatian Air Force and Air Defence since 1992 and fought in the Croatian Homeland War. During the war he was a MiG-21 pilot with the 21st Squadron at  91st Air Base Zagreb-Pleso. Selak has the most combat missions of the Croatian Air Force and Air Defence during the Homeland War. After his Squadron Commander Colonel Rudolf Perešin was shot down during Operation ‘Flash’ on May 2nd 1995, Selak was asked to become the new Squadron Commander of the 21st Squadron. He rejected this offer out of respect for his Commander Perešin, who was still missing. At the end of the war, when the fate of Colonel Perešin was still unknown, Selak decided to become a test pilot in the Control Department of the Aeronautical Technical Institute. A job he still performs with a lot of love, pride and devotion. He was awarded with the Homeland War Memorial, Order of Prince Domagoj with a necklace, Homeland Gratitude Memorial and with medals for ‘The extraordinary undertakings’, operation ‘Flash’ and operation ‘Storm’.

 

Colonel Ivan Selak made his first solo flight as a MiG-21 pilot in 1981 with the Yugoslav Air Force. In the early stages of the Croatian Homeland War he was stationed at Željava Air Base, near Bihać, Yugoslavia. As he was born in the Croatian part of Yugoslavia he didn’t want to fight against his own people, so the first plans to flee to Croatia were made together with his colleague Col. Ivica Ivandić in mid 1991. Due to unforeseen circumstances the plans got delayed by almost a year. On October 5th 1991 Col. Ivan Selak had suffered a plane crash at his home base Željava in which an UTVA-66 caught fire and two of his colleagues lost their lives. Selak was the only survivor of the crash and had to recover from his injuries for months. In March 1992 he finally received the approval to fly again.

 

The first Croatian runaway pilot from the Yugoslav Air Force was Rudolf Perešin who fled with his MiG-21 from Željava Air Base to Klagenfurt, Austria on October 25th 1991. He was followed by his colleague Danijel Borović who brought Croatia their first supersonic combat aircraft, the MiG-21bis, when he fled to Croatia in February 1992. The moment of decision came on May 15th 1992, when a flight of four pairs were scheduled for a training flight. At first Selak wasn’t scheduled for the flight, but when one of his colleagues dropped out due to health problems a decisive moment occurred. On this day Colonel Ivan Selak and Colonel Ivica Ivandić both flying for the 124lae took off from Željava Air Base for their moment of truth. After circling around Serbia the radio call finally came and Ivandić set course to Split where he safely landed his MiG-21bis. Moments later Selak separated from his formation and flew towards his homeland where he safely landed at Zagreb-Pleso Airport.

 

Both MiG-21’s received a special nickname after they entered service with the Croatian Air Force and Air Defence in 1992. The MiG-21bis in which Selak flew had Yugoslav AF serial 17235, which later became ‘102’ within the Croatian Air Force and Air Defence. It received nickname ‘Osvetnik Dubrovnika’ (Avenger of Dubrovnik) in memory of the city Dubrovnik which was heavily damaged by Serbian air and artillery strikes. The ‘102’ served with the Croatian Air Force and Air Defence during the Homeland War and was withdrawn from use in 2004. Nowadays it is preserved at the base museum of 91st Air Base Zagreb-Pleso. The MiG-21bis in which Col. Ivica Ivandić flew during the escape mission on May 15th 1992 had Yugoslav AF serial 17167, which later became ‘103’ with the Croatian Air Force and Air Defence. It received nickname ‘Osvetnik Vukovara’ (Avenger of Vukovar), to commemorate the attacks on the city of Vukovar. The fate of the ‘103’ is much sadder, it was shot down by Serbian Air Defence missiles in Vrginmost on its way back to Croatia on September 14th 1993 in which Colonel Miroslav Peris sadly lost his life.

 

 

Mismanagement or just bad luck

The Croatian Air Force and Air Defence received its first MiG-21 on February 4th 1992 when Danijel Borović defected from Željava Air Base to Pula in a Yugoslav AF Fishbed, followed by two others on May 15th 1992. These three were the only former Yugoslav AF MiG-21’s that ever flew for the Croatian Air Force and Air Defence. In 1994 a total of 23 MiG-21bis’ and 8 MiG-21UM’s were purchased by Croatia from the Ukraine. About 25 former Soviet AF jets were quickly restored to airworthy condition to equip two squadrons. By the end of the war all MiG’s were delivered. During the Homeland War Croatia lost four MiG-21’s, two former Yugoslav AF jets and two of the former Soviet AF jets purchased in the Ukraine.

 

In 1999 when military threat was at low level for Croatia the air force started talks with Romanian and Israeli firms to upgrade their 24 MiG-21’s to ‘Lancer 3’ standard. By the end of 2002 all MiG-21’s were reaching the end of their service lives, so the decision came to overhaul and upgrade a squadron of twelve older aircraft by Aerostar in Romania, followed by a second squadron of younger airframes. Not only to extent the service lives, but also to make them compatible for NATO systems. A total of eight single-seat and four two-seat aircraft were overhauled in Romania, receiving a new designation, MiG-21bis-D and MiG-21UMD. By the time the first squadron arrived back in Croatia no further actions were taken to overhaul the second squadron. The younger airframes ended up in storage areas at 91st Air Base Zagreb-Pleso and Velika Gorica. So the decision to start with the older airframes first was not really fortunate.

 

The twelve overhauled MiG-21’s were supposed to remain in service until late 2011, so in 2008 Croatia started looking for a successor. Plans to acquire ‘new’ fighters came to a hold in late 2010 due to the global economic crisis which also affected Croatia. In June 2013, after various offers (Luftwaffe F-4’s, Swedish Gripens, USAF and RNLAF F-16’s and even former Hungarian MiG-29’s and French Mirage F.1’s) the Ministry of Defence finally announced the Ukrainian firm Ukrspetsexport (Ukrainian Special Export) will upgrade eight single-seat and four two-seat MiG-21’s. Seven of these will be refurbished Croatian airframes and the five remaining will be ‘new’ aircraft. The latter were supposed to go to Yemen, but were never delivered and were stored at Odessa airfield for several years.

 

 

Croatian Fishbeds, the story continues

So another overhaul lays ahead in which the service life of the airframes will be extended again and new navigation- and communication equipment will be installed. The few airworthy MiG-21’s left in Croatia’s inventory were set to be out of flying hours in November 2013. The first overhauled MiG-21’s were expected to return to Croatia in October 2013, but problems with the nav/com system set the delivery date back to December 2013. In November Colonel Ivan Selak finally began test flights with the new/overhauled MiG-21’s at Odessa airfield in Ukraine. While the initial problems in Odessa were technical, political problems intervened when Russian forces annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. The political problems grew out over the entire Ukraine eastern border, which started a war between Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels which are supported by Moscow.

 

Finally on April 12th 2014 the first ‘new’ MiG-21 arrived at 91st Air Base Zagreb-Pleso by road. Followed by a team of Ukrainian technicians in order to reassemble the MiG’s and prepare them for the final test phase and the handover. The overhauled MiG-21’s, now designated as MiG-21bis and MiG-21UM (no longer as bis-D or UMD) received a new NATO style grey color scheme and low visibility insignia. In June 2014 the first two ‘new’ MiG-21’s (131 and 135) were handed over after multiple test flights done by test pilots Col. Ivan Selak and Lt.Col. Robert Huf. Now the ‘new’ MiG’s could finally take over the QRA task from the last two remaining bis-D models (121 and 122). During our visit on July 24th seven overhauled MiG-21’s were delivered at 91st Air Base Zagreb-Pleso. The last five are expected later this year, but that still depends on the situation in the Ukraine, as no test flights can be made from Odessa airfield. It is still too dangerous to travel to Ukraine and to perform test flights. Every week aircraft are shot down by the pro-Russian rebels. These rebels don’t care whether it’s a military, foreign military or a civilian aircraft, as we saw with flight MH17 of Malaysian Airlines, which cost 298 innocent lives.

 

 

Test phase far from uneventful

In May 2014 Colonel Ivan Selak saw death in the eyes when he made a test flight with MiG-21 ‘134’. When climbing to FL390 (13km) and breaking the sound barrier he heard an explosion and saw smoke in the cockpit. Selak immediately shut down the engine and his MiG-21 started falling to the earth. He turned his aircraft in the direction of an unpopulated area and began the procedure to start the engine again. At FL180 (6km) he succeeded and began his descent into 91st Air Base Zagreb-Pleso where he safely landed his MiG-21.

 

The last MiG-21bis-D (no. 121) in operational service with the Croatian Air Force and Air Defence was less fortunate on August 5th 2014. While returning from the Croatian openday held at 93rd Air Base Zadar-Zemunik the first and second hydraulic system failed. The pilot, Colonel Stanko Hrzenjak, was unable to lower the right main gear, so he made some holding patterns to use as much fuel as possible, and tried to extract the right main gear a few times without success. In the last pattern he used the emergency air pressure system to lower his gear, which worked, but seconds later his wingman reported his engine was on fire. Hrzenjak turned away from the populated area and safely ejected at only 600ft. The MiG-21 crashed in a field in the village of Lomnica near Velika Gorica, just 2km south of the runway of 91st Air Base Zagreb-Pleso.

 

 

MiG-21’s in Croatian Air Force and Air Defence inventory (as of 13 October 2014)

116
 

 

117
 

 

118
 

 

131
 

 

132
 

 

133
 

 

134
 

 

135
 

 

164
 

 

165
 

 

166
 

 

167
 

 

 

c/n 75057500
 

 

c/n 75092923
 

 

c/n 75092905
 

 

c/n 75038327 
 

 

c/n 75038147
 

 

c/n 75036406
 

 

c/n 75038399
 

 

c/n 75038314    
 

 

c/n 516969001
 

 

c/n 516911036 
 

 

c/n 516951031
 

 

c/n 516987091
 

 

 

MiG-21bis
 

 

MiG-21bis
 

 

MiG-21bis
 

 

MiG-21bis
 

 

MiG-21bis
 

 

MiG-21bis
 

 

MiG-21bis
 

 

MiG-21bis
 

 

MiG-21UM
 

 

MiG-21UM
 

 

MiG-21UM
 

 

MiG-21UM
 

 

 

ex Soviet AF, ex Ukraine AF, delivered in 1994, overhauled by Aerostar in 2003, currently
in overhaul in Odessa, waiting for delivery

 

ex Soviet AF, ex Ukraine AF, delivered in 1994, overhauled by Aerostar in 2003, currently
in overhaul in Odessa, waiting for delivery

 

ex Soviet AF, ex Ukraine AF, delivered in 1994, currently in test phase at 91st AB 
Zagreb-Pleso AB, waiting for acceptance

 

ex Algerian AF, ex 2234 Yemen AF, delivered in 2014, currently operational with
Croatian Air Force and Air Defence

 

ex Algerian AF, ex 2230 Yemen AF, delivered in 2014, currently operational with
Croatian Air Force and Air Defence

 

ex Algerian AF, ex 2236 Yemen AF, delivered in 2014, currently operational with
Croatian Air Force and Air Defence

 

ex FA-92 Algerian AF, ex 2235 Yemen AF, delivered in 2014, currently operational with 
Croatian Air Force and Air Defence

 

ex FA-96 Algerian AF, ex 2233 Yemen AF, delivered in 2014, currently operational with
Croatian Air Force and Air Defence

 

ex Soviet AF, ex Ukraine AF, delivered around 1994/1995, overhauled by Aerostar in 
2003, currently in test phase at 91st AB Zagreb-Pleso AB, waiting for acceptance

 

ex Soviet AF, ex Ukraine AF, delivered around 1994/1995, overhauled by Aerostar in 
2003, currently operational with Croatian Air Force and Air Defence, red/white c/s

 

ex Soviet AF, ex Ukraine AF, delivered around 1994/1995, overhauled by Aerostar in 
2003, currently in test phase at 91st AB Zagreb-Pleso AB, waiting for acceptance

 

ex Soviet AF, ex Ukraine AF, delivered around 1994/1995, overhauled by Aerostar in 
2003, currently in overhaul in Odessa, waiting for delivery

 

 

Many thanks go out to Colonel Ivan Selak, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Huf and Captain Maja Skrba.

 

 

   

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