The Aeronautical Museum of Belgrade

With a few parallels in aviation history, especially in the years immediately following WWII, former Yugoslavia benefited from supplies by a great number of countries. As a matter of fact, the air force of this newborn communist republic was formed at first from leftovers of retreating Germany and conquering Britain, followed by the establishment of a supply line initially from the USSR, and later the US and again Britain.

The special political ability of marshal Tito, who ruled uncontested as a communist dictator since the foundation of Yugoslavia in 1945 until his death in 1980, and the credit he benefited from especially in Britain, allowed him to keep out of the sphere of influence of the USSR since 1948. In a strategic position on the border with NATO countries like Italy and Greece, Tito adopted a detente policy of ‘equal-distance’ between the two opposing blocs over the Cold War period (even though NATO did not trust him fully, as testified by the deployment of a SAM defense line in northeastern Italy, see this post).

Of course, most of the military supply was of Soviet make, especially after the death of Stalin and well until the end of communism in Europe and the bloody fragmentation of the Yugoslav state. However, concerning civil aviation, autonomy from Moscow allowed the adoption of western aircraft, like the French Aerospatiale Caravelle and much of the Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas inventory, in the major national airline JAT – something which happened very rarely anywhere in the communist bloc over the years of the Cold War, another notable instance being Romania, again a ‘semi-autonomous’ communist dictatorship, who refused the Soviet Tupolev Tu-134 in favor of license-built British BAC 1-11s.

Another effect of the autonomy from the USSR was the creation of a national aviation industry, which especially in the case of SOKO, produced military trainers and light attack aircraft of good success, which despite ageing, are still flying today.

More recently, the fierce conflicts raging over the Balkans in the 1990s have created a major active front for modern aviation, where the air force of Serbia – which inherited the geographically central part of Yugoslavia and its capital city, Belgrade – confronted the NATO alliance in an open conflict. The unbalance of forces allowed the western coalition to quickly establish air superiority, which did not come without a few notable material losses however.

A rich display of this peculiar aviation history, actually tracing back to WWI and the early years of aviation, can be found in the Aeronautical Museum of Belgrade, which despite being in today’s Serbia, acts as a kind of Yugoslav Aviation Museum. As a matter of fact, it was founded as such back in the years of Tito, and opened in its current building nearby ‘Nikola Tesla’ civil airport of Belgrade in 1989, when Yugoslavia was still a reality.

This short post provides an outline of what you can find in this museum, with photographs taken on a visit in April 2019.

Sights

The museum occupies a relatively large area in the vicinity of the airport of Belgrade, and is made of an open-air exhibition, open-air storage area, and big mushroom-shaped building hosting an indoor exhibition.

The ‘gate guardian’ is a SOKO J-21 Jastreb, a nice light multi-role aircraft from the 1960s, powered by a British Rolls-Royce Viper jet engine.

Indoor exhibition

The entry hall of the mushroom-shaped building features is a good example of the architectural style from the late communist era. The ground floor hosts a small exhibition about the early days of aviation in the former region of the Balkans, with documents from WWI years. Among the items on display, you can find early pilot’s licenses from notable war pilots, likely granted after training abroad, and actually written in French.

The main hall of the museum can be found upstairs. This large can be walked on two levels. Most aircraft are to be found on the lower level, but a few are suspended to the glassy circular sidewall of the mushroom, lighted from behind by the sunlight – so that taking pictures is just a nightmare!

The centerpiece of the collection is an exemplar of the SOKO J-22 Orao, a twin-engined – two Rolls-Royce Viper turbofans – light ground-attack and trainer aircraft from the 1970s. Designed jointly by Yugoslavia and Romania, this model equipped the Yugoslav (then Serbian) air force during the 1990s, where a handful exemplars are still flying today.

Indeed a clean design with an interesting performance, this aircraft was possibly the last heir of the Ikarus-then-SOKO lineage, originated back in the years before WWII. In this respect, some unique exemplars of aircraft are preserved in this museum, witnessing the existence of a school of skilled aircraft designers in Serbia, not much known in the western world.

A key figure of the Ikarus design bureau, Dragoljub Beslin led the design of Ikarus S-451, a nice, very small, twin-prop attack aircraft flown in 1951, especially designed to sustain high load factors in maneuvers at high speed.

Another unique specimen is the twin-jet Ikarus 451M, the first jet aircraft built by Yugoslavia. Same designer as the S-451, this unusual jet-engined taildragger flew in 1952, but was soon superseded by more modern models, in those years of quick-paced development of aviation technology. Again, the engines were from the West, in the form of two French Turbomeca Palas turbojets.

Another member of the ‘Ikarus 451’ family – it must be said this Yugoslav one is likely the oddest model numbering systems ever created… –  the T 451 MM Strsljen (Hornet) features a more convincing configuration, resembling the single-engined British BAC Jet Provost and the Italian Macchi MB 326, both rather successful trainers from the late 1950s. On display is actually the ‘Strsljen II’ version, which is a attack/training version with more thrust than the first series aircraft. This model was conceived to operate from unprepared runways, and featured two Turbomeca Marbore II French turbojets. The aircraft flew in 1958, but an air force contract was not granted.

Some functional wind tunnel models of other aircraft, actually never reaching the 1:1 prototype stage, are on display. These include a rare ekranoplane design, the UTVA 754. With a mechanic-monster-like appearance like all ekranoplanes (the most famous being probably the Bertini-Beriev preserved at the Russian Air Force Museum in Monino, see here), this machine was designed in 1982 in the then-Yugoslav town of Zagreb, today the capital city of Croatia.

A medevac aircraft conceived for easy conversion between floats and wheels, the UTVA 66H can be visited also inside. The indigenous SOKO is represented by a number of models. These include the SOKO G-2 Galeb, a successful trainer/light attack aircraft from the 1950s, built around a single Rolls-Royce Viper turbofan. During its long history it was exported to several international operators, and gave birth to the more recent SOKO J-21 Jastreb. The Galeb was in service with Serbia until 1999.

Another section of the museum features aircraft of foreign make which witness the intricate history of alliances of both the pre-WWII Kingdom of Yugoslavia and the post-WWII communist Yugoslavia. Most remarkably, these include a Messerschmitt Bf-109-G! The history of this particular aircraft is not very clear, some sources stating it was captured from Bulgarian air force. As a matter of fact, Yugoslavia acquired about 70 Bf-109-E from Germany in 1940, which in turn furiously invaded from north in a quick an violent campaign in spring 1941.

Next in line is nothing less than a British Hawker Hurricane! A group of Hurricanes were acquired from Britain in the immediate pre-war years, and even license-built in Belgrade in a small number – Yugoslavia apparently purchased aircraft seamlessly from both opponents at the outbreak of WWII. Later on, Hurricane-equipped squadrons of Yugoslavia fought back on the side of the Allies from bases in southern Italy, finally regaining control over the Balkans.

In a similar fashion, a Supermarine Spitfire Mk.V witnesses the involvement of British-supplied national air force squadrons in the liberation of Yugoslavia from the German invaders.

In the closing years of WWII, Yugoslavia benefited also from the help of the USSR. This is witnessed by a massive – and pretty rare, out of former soviet republics! – Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik. This big attack aircraft, possibly the most famous Soviet aircraft of WWII, equipped three squadrons in the Yugoslav air force, and helped in the fight on the so-called ‘Srem front’ north of Belgrade. An often overlooked sector of the European front, substantial operations were carried out since late 1944 until April 1945, with the forces of Nazi Germany slowly retreating under the offensive of the Red Army (including Bulgarian divisions) and of Yugoslavia from the south. These operations involved 250’000 troops on either side, thus engaging the Germans and draining resources from mainland defense. At that time, an entire division of the Yugoslav air force were equipped with this aircraft type, kept in service until the 1950s.

Similarly, an elegant WWII Yakovlev Yak-3 fighter of Soviet make can be found nearby in the colors of Yugoslavia.

After the end of WWII, Tito was determined not to surrender his political and economic independence to Stalin. In this high-stake gamble, he made no secret of his thoughts, and sought international recognition from the west. As expected, Stalin showed no sense of humor in that matter, and as the USSR broke relationships with Yugoslavia, this country faced the risk of isolation and of Soviet invasion in the early stage of the Cold War (late 1940s).

Over the years, the good relationship established with the western Allies during WWII were strengthened further, and most incredibly for a communist country, the US provided aircraft and helicopters, in the form of Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star, Republic F-84G Thunderjet and (much later, in the early 1960s) North American F-86D ‘long-nosed’ Sabre.

The years of Kennedy administration saw a significant improvement of the relationship between Tito and Khrushchev, and this led to a switch to Soviet aircraft in the form of the supersonic MiG-21, which equipped the Yugoslav air force in substantial numbers over the following two decades. An exemplar of this iconic and ubiquitous aircraft, an unquestionably well-performing aircraft in his age, is preserved in the museum. By the way, the early 1960s saw also the widespread adoption of SOKO Galeb trainers and the phase out of older British/US models.

Other peculiar exhibits in the indoor part of the museum are the wrecks resulting from air fight operations during the Yugoslavian wars of the 1990s. On the national (Yugoslav) side, the tail cone of a SOKO G-4 Super Galeb – a totally different design from the quasi-homonym G-2 – damaged by a shoulder-launched Stinger missile in 1991.

But much more material is from NATO countries, resulting from combat during operation ‘Allied Force’ against Serbia in 1999. Most notably, you can see a substantial part of the wing of a Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, the famous stealth aircraft downed by a vintage Soviet SA-3 Goa surface-to-air missile in March 1999, as well as a landing gear, ejection seat, pilot’s helmet, Vulcan cannon and some smaller parts of a General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon downed the following May, again due to an SA-3 missile. The first stage of the missile which hit the Nighthawk is on display too.

These are basically the only aircraft lost in action over enemy territory during that operation.

An apparently easier prey, General Atomics RQ-1 Predator UAVs were used in great numbers, some twenty of them being downed. One wrecked example is put on display.

More items of the kind include parts of NATO missiles, including HARM anti-radiation missiles and cluster-bombs containers.

On the upper level, you can find a mostly photographic exhibition mainly about the national carrier JAT. Interestingly, not a single Soviet-made model appears in the pictures, whereas you can find Boeing 707s, 727s, 737s, Douglas DC-9s, McDonnell-Douglas DC-10s, Aerospatiale Caravelles and ATR-42/72s – clearly a strong commercial bound with the West, pretty unusual for a communist country!

Another Yugoslav airline started operations to a later date – Aviogenex. This apparently did use aircraft from the USSR, in particular Tupolev Tu-134s, later flanked by Boeing 737s. Aviogenex ceased operations much later than the end of Yugoslavia, and operated as a Serbian company for some years.

One of the most iconic brutalist monstrosities in northern Belgrade is the skyscraper which used to host the headquarters of this airline – it looks like a good setting for some ‘Blade Runner’ or ‘Judge Dredd’ movie…

Some more panels include descriptions of airport history and modern operations in the nearby airport of Belgrade. The history line of the national aviation industry is also presented in detail through historical pictures.

Some more aircraft can be found on this level, as well as a SA-3 Goa missile in a non-operative paint scheme, likely for training or telemetry tuning purposes.

Outdoor exhibition

The large area around the building is split between a small outdoor exhibition prepared for the public, and a larger storage area with many more aircraft which can not be neared nor walked around.

The displayed aircraft include an Aerospatiale Caravelle in the colors of JAT. This exemplar was one of three operated by this airline, and was active between 1963 and 1976.

A much elder transport, a German (French license-built) Junkers 52 with P&W engines represents a fleet of four such aircraft operated by the Yugoslav air force, complementing another group of originally German aircraft captured during the war.

An aircraft of historical significance is an Ilyushin Il-14 twin-prop transport. This aircraft was a personal goodwill gift from Khrushchev to marshal Tito, and the founding member of Yugoslav presidential fleet.

A couple of Lisunov Li-2 and some original Douglas C-47 Skytrain, of which the former is a license-built Soviet version, are on display, albeit not all complete. A MiG-21 Fishbed and a Kamov twin-rotor helicopter are also on display.

Another extremely rare item from the post-WWII years, a Short SA.6 Sealand amphibious aircraft of British make has made its way to Belgrade, after years as a transport aircraft in the Yugoslav air force.

The non-visible part of the museum features a rather impressive collection of MiG-21 in several versions, SOKO J-21 Jastreb and SOKO J-20 Kraguj in a large number, a SA-2 Guideline soviet-made SAM launcher with two missiles, and a number of partly assembled aircraft and wrecks.

A mystery item is a part of an allegedly US aircraft, apparently a part of the tail empennage of a bigger transport – any suggestion about this item welcome!

Visiting

The museum is located to the northwest of the airport of Belgrade. It can be easily reached by car from the access road going to the main terminal area. Website with info in English here. Parking ahead of the entrance.

The museum can be visited in about 2 hours by an interested subject, much less if you have just a mild interest in aviation. Much paneling is in double Serbian and English language, allowing to get the most from your visit.

Despite being fully operative, the place has a somewhat rotting appearance especially from the outside, as mostly typical to former state-run institutions in former Yugoslavia. Furthermore, some form of protection for the aircraft in the outside exhibition is hopefully to be considered by the management, otherwise the aircraft with literally disintegrate to the action of the elements in a matter of some years.

Former Soviet and East German Military Bases in the GDR – Pictures from Above

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Soviet Ghosts in Germany

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At the end of WWII, the territory of conquered Germany was split in four sectors by the then-Allies – the US, Great Britain, France and the USSR. A substantial part to the north-east of the country fell in Stalin’s hands. A few years later, following a re-organization of all territories occupied by the Red Army during WWII, the Soviet part of Germany was turned into a communist-led state known as German Democratic Republic (‘GDR’, or ‘DDR’ in German language).

Especially from a military standpoint, similar to Poland, and later Hungary and Czechoslovakia, this produced a kind of cohabitation. As a matter of fact, besides clearly backing the communist dictatorship in occupied countries, the Soviets did not quit at all from newly acquired western territories. On the contrary, thanks to the position on a potential war front had the Cold War turned hot, the westernmost Soviet-controlled countries – with the GDR on top – were stuffed with Soviet military bases, and hundreds of thousands troops. These shared the map with the national military, which in the GDR were known as NVA (an acronym standing for the German equivalent of ‘National People’s Army’).

The national and Soviet forces often took control of separated military facilities, and while operating in a coordinated fashion, they were substantially different entities. As said, this was typical to many Soviet-controlled countries. Yet especially on the relatively small East German territory, of high strategic value thanks to the shared border with the West, the total number of tank bases, training academies, air bases, missile bases, nuclear depots, shooting ranges, etc., reached an unrivaled world’s peak, when compared to the population or the size of the country.

Following the crisis leading to the end of the GDR in 1989, and the collapse of the USSR roughly two years later, all these military assets turned surplus. The German reunification, and the disappearance of a significant military opponent in the close vicinity of the border, triggered a rationalization of military resources in Germany. Most of the NVA bases were closed. The Soviet-controlled installations were evacuated more slowly – it took until 1994 to bring back to their Russian homeland the thousands of troops and tonnes of material stationed in Germany. Once returned to Germany, also most of these bases were deactivated and closed.

Since then, the fate of these former military facilities in Germany has been in the hands of local governments or national initiatives. As a matter of fact, following a few decades spent as ghost bases – a real paradise for urbex explorers! – most air bases have been converted into solar power plants. Some of them have retained an airport status, either with a very reduced runway, or in some cases being turned into full-scale commercial airports. There are exceptions too, as some are still at least partly abandoned, and while invaded by vegetation, they are still totally recognizable especially from above. Other bases, like tank bases or nuclear depots, while mostly earmarked for demolition, have been comparatively better ‘preserved’ – at least, they have been attacked by the state more slowly, so there is still much to see there.

You can find on this website several reports about quite a few of these military bases in the former GDR – especially airbases – from a ‘ground perspective’. Sometimes, it is difficult to appreciate the size, shape, as well as their concentration over the former GDR territory. In order to better show these aspects, now here you have a portrait of many of these bases from the air!

The photographs in the present post are from a single, two-hours flight on a Cessna 172 single-prop aircraft. The flight took place in July 2019. As you can see from the locations pinpointed on the map below, on our route we met not less than 15 former (or still active) military items. And this is just a short trip mostly in southern Brandenburg – i.e. the region immediately south of Berlin.

This report is a complement to other chapters on this site, yet it is especially interesting on its own, as a comprehensive bundle of aerial pics on this subject is not easy to find!

Sights

Points of interest are listed following the flight plan, which was flown roughly as on the map, in a counter-clockwise direction, starting from Reinsdorf Airfield.

Soviet Nuclear Bunker Stolzenhain

This one-of-a-kind facility – there were actually two such depots, but one is today demolished and inaccessible – used to be a major storage for nuclear weapons for the Soviet Western Group of Forces, which included all Soviet troops stationed in the GDR.

The bunker is today closed, but it apparently lies on private land, hence sparing it from being turned into something else (or simply flattened) by the local government. You can see a dedicated report in this chapter.

Vegetation has grown wild in the area, but from above you can clearly spot the rectangular perimeter of the external concrete wall. From north to south, an internal road crossed the rectangle in the middle.

The bunkers are half-interred, hence from above you can barely spot the entrances. These are aligned along a service road arranged in a hexagonal shape.

To the south of the bunker area, you can spot a former group of barracks and an access road heading west. Construction and demolition works are taking place in this area.

Control and Reporting Center Schönewalde

This is an active military installation, and actually quite an advanced one. It is tasked with monitoring the air operations over a large part of the airspace over Germany.

The origin of this half-interred technical installation can be traced to the 1970s, when the site was activated under responsibility of the NVA. Following the end of communist rule and after German reunification, unlike many others this site was not demolished, but instead it was developed further, and pressed into the defense chain of NATO since the mid-1990s.

You can see many half-interred warehouses, garages for trucks, a smaller radar antenna to the west of the complex, close to a helipad.

There is also a larger antenna to the northeastern corner of the CRC.

Holzdorf Air Base

This large airport used to be an airbase of the NVA. It is one of the few airports from the Cold War in the GDR which were turned into a full-scale modern airport. Today it is a base of the Bundeswehr, i.e. the German military.

As we approached from north, you can spot first typical large communist buildings, forming a citadel which is likely still today hosting troops and their families. There is also reportedly a flight academy for helicopters in this complex, north of the airport.

The airport features large hangars for military helicopters to the northwest of the runway.

A rather old-styled control tower can be seen to the south of the runway.

Falkenberg Air Base

We reached the southernmost point on our flight with the former Soviet base in Falkenberg. This old base dating to the 1930s went on to be developed into a Soviet base home to fighter aircraft, MiG-23 and later MiG-29. Close to the airfield, there used to be a SAM missile battery (to the west of the runway).

Approaching from the north-west, you can notice a small ghost town and a large technical area, with what appear to be big unreinforced maintenance hangars, today used for something else by local companies.

The airport is today dedicated to light aviation activities. The runway has been shortened, and sadly large portions of the original airfield have been covered with solar cells.

Most interestingly, in the trees to the northwest of the runway, you can spot four unfinished aircraft shelters – possibly of the type AU-16, which could host both the MiG-23 and MiG-29. They look like short concrete tunnels. They should have been covered with land, but works were interrupted in 1990.

More aircraft shelters – completed – can be found to the east of the field, today used for storage, as it is often the case.

Finsterwalde Air Base

This installation was operative since WWII, when the large hangars and control tower still in place to the south of the apron were built. The base went on serving as a Soviet base, hosting fighters and fighter-bombers of many kinds along its illustrious history. A visit to this site, with its nuclear depot, can be found in this chapter.

Approaching from the southwest, we flew over the nuclear storage bunker, made for nuclear warheads to supply aircraft operating from here. The columns once holding the crane to lift the warheads can be clearly spotted.

There is also a group of Soviet-style houses for the families of the troops. Apparently somebody is still living there!

The base was enlarged with reinforced shelters to the north and southwest of the runway. The large hangars to the south are still in use with local companies, some of course connected with flight operations – this airport is still active for general aviation operations.

Enroute to the next waypoint, we flew over a natural preserve, which offered some quite spectacular sights.

Alteno-Luckwalde Air Base

This airfield north of Finsterwalde was a reserve airport of the East German NVA. While never developed to the extent of primary airfields, it was among the few reserve air bases to receive an asphalt runway.

Today, the view is rather desolating – the airfield has been totally covered with solar cells.

Brand-Briesen Air Base

This WWII base was selected for quick and substantial improvement since the early Cold War years, and went on to be one of the most developed Soviet air bases in the former GDR. In the beginning it hosted Ilyushin Il-28 bombers, but in the jet age it was home to a number of different squadrons and aircraft types. You can find the results of the exploration of a part of this base in this chapter.

Approaching from the south, you first spot an immense hangar, conceived at the turning of the century for commercial airships, and later turned into a water park – Tropical Island.

 

But more interestingly, to the south of the airfield – unusually far from it, actually – you can find a depot for nuclear weapons, to supply the aircraft operating from the base. Similar to Finsterwalde, the pillars once holding the crane for lifting the warheads can be clearly seen.

Still to the south of the airfield, the local citadel for the troops is today an interesting ghost town.

As you may notice, the airfield is today closed, and has been largely converted into a recreation park. Incredibly, they decided to build an array of small houses on the former premises of the airport, and in close proximity to the monster airship hangar.

Yet some relics from the past function of the air base are to be found scattered around. These include aircraft shelters, and more rare engine testing facilities – V-shaped concrete walls emerging from the grass nearby some of the shelters.

Kleinköris Air Base

This airbase was activated in the late 1960s as a reserve airfield for the East German NVA. It was used for exercises, and as a home base for helicopters of the Volkspolizei, i.e. the police of the GDR. After deactivation, it was used as a military storage for a while, and finally closed.

The appearance, perfectly evident from the air, is rather unusual – it features a long grassy runway, with concrete taxiways at the ends. To the reports from the time, this is the original configuration of the airbase. Luckily, it is basically still intact.

Wünsdorf

The name of this small town will be forever linked to the two military high commands which were headquartered on its premises – Hitler’s OKW first, and the command of the Soviet Western Group of Forces for the full span of the Cold War. You can find a dedicated chapter here.

From above, you can get a nice view of the extension and shape of this military town, as well as good portraits of some of the highlights in it. Approaching from the southeast, you first meet the most famous building in Wünsdorf, the officers’ house. This majestic building dates from the early 20th century. It knew an extensive renovation during the Cold War years, as an officers’ club for the Soviet Red Army.

This huge building features a statue of Lenin on one side. In the wings to the back, you can find a swimming pool and a theater. The round building with a mural is a late Soviet addition, and once hosted a circular panorama painting.

The high command occupied the buildings north of the officers’ club, today converted into something else.

Another highlight of Wünsdorf are the many bunkers. These include the Maybach bunkers from Hitler’s era, once hosting the OKW. These were designed for deception as living houses, but could withstand aerial bombardment. They were blown by the Soviet, with only partial success. The Zeppelin bunkers, like cusped concrete towers, were designed to resist bombardment, by deviating air-dropped bombs falling from above along the sidewalls and down to the ground nearby.

Soviet bunkers were located very close to the array of Maybach bunkers. They are largely interred, and from above you can see some concrete tunnels in the trees.

The railway line and station is an historical track from the time. The Wünsdorf-Moscow line operated in both ways on a daily basis. The service was suspended only in 1994, at the very end of the withdrawal of the last occupation troops to Russia – for many, the symbolic end of Soviet occupation.

The buildings for those stationed in Wünsdorf and their families were really many. Today this town, having lost its original core business, is largely uninhabited.