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Željava (former Yugoslav Air Base),   20 July 2014

Željava Air Base, also known as Bihać Air Base, Objekat 505 or KLEK, was an air base west of Bihać in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) on the border with Croatia. The airfield construction began in 1948, twenty years later in 1968, the airbase became operational and all construction was ended. It was one of the biggest and most expensive military constructions in Europe, the largest airfield in Yugoslavia and one of the largest in Europe. Its role was to provide, integrate and coordinate the nation wide Early Warning radar network in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. It was designed to sustain a direct hit from a 20Kt nuclear bomb, roughly the equivalent of the Nagasaki bomb


Fighters at Željava Air Base

The first combat unit (117th Fighter Aviation Regiment) flew in from Zagreb-Pleso Air Base in 1968. Besides the main purpose of a protected radar installation, a control centre, secure communications and related facilities, the air base contained underground tunnels for the use, parking, and maintenance of three  complete squadrons,  two fighter and one  reconnaissance.

These units were the 124.LAE (Fighter Aviation Squadron) and 125.LAE equipped with MiG-21bis fighter aircraft and 352.IAE (Reconnaissance Aviation Squadron) equipped with MiG-21R reconnaissance-fighter aircraft.


Although Željava was a MiG-21 fighter base, it also had other aircraft types on base. Three of them remain on base until this day: near the barracks area an old C-47 and two derelict F-84s can be found. Unfortunately these aircraft are overgrown by bushes, which makes it very hard to take pictures. Other aircraft known to have operated from the air base: 8 J-21 fighter bombers were based at the airfield in 1990, although they could not be stored in the bunkers because of their wingspan. Instead they were parked outside entrance #4. Two UTVA-66 light trainers were parked outside entrance #1.



The air base layout

The entire air base occupied an area of 9x4 kilometres west of Bihać, where the personnel used to live. The underground facilities, known as KLEK was lined with semi-circular concrete slabs of ten meters as an extra resistance to attack weapons. It had its own water supply, power generators, crew quarters, which were of strategic advantage in the event of war. KLEK even had a mess hall to feed 1000 men at once and enough supplies of weapons, food and fuel for 30 days without a single resupply from outside. Fuel was supplied by pipe from a facility 20 kilometres away.


Outside the bunker complex the base had 5 runways and numerous short range radar 2K12 "Kub" (Russian: 2К12 "Куб"; NATO: SA-6 'Gainful') systems. Access was monitored by heavy surveillance and guards were authorized to open fire on anyone attempting to enter without authorization. In practice though, unwanted visitors were simply turned away. At a total length of 3.5 kilometres of tunnels the complete bunker had four entrances, protected by 100 tonne pressurized doors, three of which for use by the based fighter aircraft.



The beginning of the end

When the Yugoslav Wars broke out in early 1991 the base was extensively used. In April 1992, the Yugoslav Peoples Army (JNA) began to withdraw from the airfield. They destroyed the airport by filling and igniting the explosive positions that were built-in during the construction phase of the base and as part of base design. It was from then on guarded by the military of Serbian Krajina (a Serbian puppet state in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina that was in the background controlled by Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic). This prevented its use by either Bosnians or Croatians. When it became clear their positions would not be sustainable in the long run, the Military of Serbian Krajina finalized its demolition in May 1992. They set off an additional 56 tons of explosives to prevent any possible future use of the complex and preclude any advantage to an opposing party. The ensuing series of explosion was so powerful that the nearby city of Bihać shook violently for two days. Villagers said that there was smoke coming from inside of the tunnels even 6 months after the destruction.



Željava Air Base nowadays

Today extreme caution must be used when visiting the Željava Airfield Complex, in view of the extensive number of landmines on and around the former air base. The local police uses the area to train dogs with the use of actual landmines due to the enormous amounts of mines that exist within the complex area. In November 2000, a Federation Air Force Major suffered a mine strike and died of his injuries sustained by the explosion of a PROM-2 anti-personnel mine after searching for mushrooms.


Nowadays it is possible to visit the airfield, but with Croatian Border Police permission only. Entering the field is still at your own risk (mines!) and entering the underground facility is possible, but downright life threatening. Any attempt to enter into the underground complex carries two basic risks - gases and landslides. There used to be large numbers of oil and kerosene tanks. Big clouds of gases that have not evaporated during the explosions might be still inside tunnels. You are strongly advised to not bring any kind of open flame source inside, since any sparkle can be deadly! During the explosions, concrete disintegrated or was severely weakened, so now it has minimal potential strength. A person weighing about 85 kilograms (an adult with minimum equipment) provides enough weight to start moving debris and cause landslides! Aside from the dangers of the tunnels, the airfield is also dangerous because of unexploded mines and pollution of the terrain and tunnels with toxic chemicals such as PCBs. A final risk is the Croat/Bosniak border. The border is clearly marked with large concrete blocks and Croatian police does patrol the area. It is best to stay on their side of the border.


The amount of the destruction and devastation of the buildings and materials cannot be expressed in money and caused great environmental damage. Any idea of reconstruction on this volume is limited by a lack of necessary resources and hindered by heavily mined lands. As an added complication the state border between Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina runs straight through the middle of the base. Today it serves as a location where much illegal immigration takes place. Plans for a centre for asylum seekers, or a military training facility as part of the Udbina complex have so far not been converted into actions. The Municipality of Bihać has launched an initiative for use of the runway on Bosnian territory for the opening of a local airport, which is why the airfield has an ICAO code assigned.  source: www.forgottenairfields.com




Copyright © 2014 by Rob Hendriks


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