I've been meaning for quite a while to write about a strange experience I had in August of 2018. It will be kind of hard to explain, which is one of the reasons my heels have dragged.
I was raised by a Boomer dad whose father fought extensively in the European theater of WWII. Like most males of that generation, his childhood was a steady stream of WWII-related pop culture output and history. Accordingly, when I was very young in the early 1980s our house had among its bookshelves an ample supply of those kinds of "Jane's Fighting Aircraft of the World" and "Atlas of WWII Battlefields in Germany" type books that one always found lying on the Discount table at Crown Books / Waldenbooks / B. Dalton Bookseller / a bunch of other book retailers I've forgotten that used to be everywhere but since went bankrupt.
As a devoted enthusiast of G.I. Joe action figures (and of course the cartoon) by about age six, I spent many evenings thumbing the pages of those books. One thing that is hard to communicate is the sense of ~*~mystery~*~ that surrounded everything about the Eastern Bloc before 1989. Photos of Russian aircraft were always grainy and highly surreptitious in tone.
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Information was always qualified as "allegedly" or "reportedly." It was all very cloak-and-dagger and I fucking loved it. What, after all, was G.I. Joe vs COBRA but the Cold War in animated form for kids.
Of all the things that captured my attention, nothing amazed me quite as much as a little-known airfield in Yugoslavia (now in Bosnia) called Zeljava. One of these encyclopedia-style books wrote a short piece on it, in hushed tones of danger, including a single photo:
Zeljava Air Base was – imagine being six in 1985 and learning this fact – cut into the side of a mountain. The planes would wait safely under the bulk of an enormous mountain while the nuclear warheads fell and then emerge (from a PLANE-SHAPED HOLE IN THE MOUNTAIN) to do air battle with Tom Cruise in an F-16. That was the most James Bond, COBRA, Secret Agent Man thing I had ever heard. I asked my dad repeatedly to confirm that it was real, and not just a story. The picture looked real. It was real. Whenever I saw a book from this genre in a bookstore, the first thing I did was flip to the index to see if it contained any information about this mysterious spot. Many did, and included this, its most widely-circulated photo.
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Look at how grainy it is! Like it was taken IN SECRET by a real SPY.
I just could not get enough of it. It was, at that point in my life, the coolest thing in the world.
Fast forward several decades. Last summer, at age 39, Question Cathy and I were on vacation in the Czech Republic. After a few days of castles and beer and museums, I tentatively brought up the prospect of using our rental car to take a drive down unpaved, remote Bosnian roads to an unmarked and now abandoned Yugoslav Air Force Base. Since she is always indulgent of this type of thing on my part, she agreed. A few hours later, thanks in no small part to the miracle of Google Maps, I took this picture:
That's me, standing in front of the airplane-shaped hole in the side of a mountain in the middle of nowhere in Bosnia.
Also present that day were a cop ("Remember the Dumb American routine I taught you, tell them we thought this was a mall and we got lost!") who was chatting with a friend, obviously looking for an out of the way place to stash himself so as to avoid working, and a pair of young men using the 2500m runway to do quarter-mile tests with their very obviously prized Skoda Fabia. Nobody appeared to care in the least that we were all at what, as of 1980, must have been one of the most secretive and restricted places on the continent.
It was, and is, difficult for me to explain what it felt like to close that loop. Think of the changes that have taken place to the world we live in between the time this was built (at an enormous cost its society probably could ill afford) until today, when the investment has been declared superfluous, abandoned by the MiG-21s of a country called Yugoslavia and left to young men racing their hatchbacks in a place called Bosnia.
It goes without saying that plenty changed for me between the ages of 5-7 and 39. I can't say I thought about the air base in the side of a mountain every day, obviously, but it was a thing I never quite forgot due to how completely it fascinated me when I was very young. There's no way 1985 Ed would have believed, looking at the grainy picture, that he'd be able to visit it someday, nor can Present (now 40) Ed fully appreciate that, for all the things he has failed badly at in life, he has also done some pretty cool shit that a vast majority of people will never get an opportunity to do.
Anyway. It was a good trip.
34 thoughts on “NPF: FULL CIRCLE”
" Think of the changes that have taken place to the world we live in between the time this was built (at an enormous cost its society probably could ill afford) until today, when the investment has been declared superfluous, abandoned by the MiG-21s of a country called Yugoslavia and left to young men racing their hatchbacks in a place called Bosnia."
That's what they WANT you to think, Ed!
Safety Man! says:
Tom Cruise flew an F-14 (Navy, swing wings). The F-16 is the one with a single engine. I know this because I read the same books.
Now explain to the Americans what a Skoda is because they have no idea.
Bitter Scribe says:
They spent all that money to stash airplanes in a hole in a mountain, and in the end, their nation and their society got blown apart by atrocities fueled by ages-old ethnic and religious hatreds. Proof, as if more were needed, that a strong military is no panacea for a country's problems.
Thanks, Ed. This is the best thing I've read all day.*
*Also the only thing. It's been a late start.
Awesome, Ed. Thanks. Still wanna see those pics of modernist Brasilia though!!
Erich Russell says:
The mountain would have been just about irrelevant. What kind of doors did they build to try to withstand a proximate thermonuclear blast, heat and air ignition?
The aviators seem appropriate.
@ Erich Russell:
It was inside Dukenkovver Mountain!
So many things to love here. The time warp back to sitting in my grandfather's study pouring over those Jane's-style books on naval aviation, the eternal allure and mystery of the old cold war sites…. Great post Ed.
Cool, Ed! I understand completely. I had the same reaction standing at Gate No. 2 at the Gdansk Shipyard. I wrote my honors thesis in college on workers' opposition in Eastern Europe, but never thought that I'd actually visit Gdansk. And I really didn't think that Gdansk would be a beautiful, prosperous city in a country that was a major member of NATO.
john danley says:
The "abandoned air force base" theme is now a decorative installation at various Anthropolgie locations. So, you are well justified in your mistaken coordinates excuse.
Fresh from reading articles about Fukushima, ocean acidification, migrants imprisoned under a bridge, your nifty essay kept me from wondering whether I should head to the doc for the giant party-sized bag of Zoloft.
Being born in ‘87 I missed out on the intrigue and shenanigans of the Cold War, since it all came apart while I was still engrossed in lofty pursuits like potty training and coloring inside the lines. My fascination didn’t start until well into my 20s. 25 year old me had roughly the same ‘gee whiz’ reaction when I learned about all the Mt. Yamantau theories or even more recently about Yulin Naval Base in China
Joseph P. says:
I went to Google Maps, did a search on "Zeljava Air Base," dropped the Street View pin at the end of the road closest to the base, and the image that appeared is of a decaying twin engine prop plane covered in vines and underbrush at the end of a lonely weed filled crumbling runway. Very spooky.
That's pretty neat. So much of the impossible, denied or exotic is now accessible. With jet travel, credit cards, satellite surveillance and the end of the Cold War, it is just much easier to travel anywhere in the world. It is also less important for governments to keep people out of the more sensitive areas. After all, the parties who want a look already have satellite surveillance. There are still relics though. For example, I was surprised to see a street of government buildings in Santiago with "no photography" signs, especially with a major tourist attraction on the other side of the street.
Anyone who read the founding document of the Cold War, Kennan's 1947 "The Sources of Soviet Conduct", published under the pseudonym "X", recognized that, behind all the cold rationalizations, the Cold War was fundamentally romantic. The idea was to have all the romance of World War II, a la "Casablanca", without tens of millions dead, cities in ruin or a surfeit of death camps. In a way, the Cold War succeeded. There were countless novels, movies and other entertainments exploiting its sense of danger, polarization and the forbidden.
Think of how much harder it is to do a romantic spy or war story these days. It is like Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard", "The movies have gotten smaller." The threat of a mushroom cloud was more convincing back when it was a serious possibility and likely to be one of many. The stakes were high. The enemy was mysterious or unknown. The names acquired almost instant resonance: "Iron Mountain", "On the Beach" or "Strategic Air Command". One reason for the success of movies like "Star Wars" and the Marvel Universe is that they offer bigger than life villains, higher stakes, romantic causes and romantic heroism. Our current dangers are just so much less dramatic. Lhasa, The Forbidden City, is now menaced by Han Chinese car dealers, not strange demons from Buddhist mythology.
As Darwin said of his theory of evolution, "There is grandeur in this view of life."
I grew up well inside the, "Kill Zone" around Offutt, AFB–about 15 air miles from ground zero. It was said, back in the 70's that Moscow had dozens of nukes with "Ешь дерьмо, Курт ЛеМей*" stenciled on their sides.
* Yes, LeMay was not the SAC C-in-C after 1957 but he was still in the USAF until 1965 or so and, well, as we know, the best hatred is OLD hatred!
Fukushima? It's all good, according to nuclear industry flaclulaters.
Major Kong says:
I was a B-52 Aircraft Commander at the very tail end of the Cold War.
It's pretty sobering to sign for an aircraft on the alert pad with 16 nuclear weapons on it.
I just saw a special about the last flight of the British Vulcan–it had a distinctive howl when it was coming up to full power. I never had the experience of being near a B-52 or B-58 on take-off. We did get to see a 16 plane flyover when General Holzapple retired as C-in-C USAFE back in 1969, I think. It was pretty fucking awesome. They were barely moving and had all the slats out with max throttle. It was like the soundtrack for "Top Gun" cranked to 11ty.
When the new boss, Davey Jones, came in, his wife wanted a new "Silver service" for a dinner party. I worked on the requisitions (cutting into my drinking time) a few days before the event. A couple of F4's or other aircraft flew from their base in Germany to Maguire and picked the packages up, turned around and flew back–all written off for "training".
While you were in Gdansk, did you get a chance to visit Danzig?
Major Kong says:
We had a Vulcan in our museum at Barksale AFB. I got to crawl inside it once. Made my (very cramped) B-52 seem positively roomy in comparison. Only the two pilots had ejection seats. The three crew members downstairs had to jump out the hatch WWII style, which was an iffy proposition at best. If anything happened at low altitude they didn't have a chance.
Great story, Ed. I live just up the road from an abandoned Nike Missile post — one of many that ringed major cities (Philadelphia, in this case). They offered protection from the waves of Russkie bombers that were sure to come.
Then came the ICBM….
One other thing…I get how the planes took off but how the hell did they land???
Steve Bottoms says:
Getting a kick here. Loved War Games and any other story mentioning NORAD… fast forward to my early 20s… riding a bus into Cheyenne Mountain as an Air Force computer tech. The novelty took a few weeks to wear off.
Another NORAD CSB: On August 29th, 1997 inside of the mountain, two venerable Honeywell Missile Warning Mainframes nicknamed 'Skynet' were ceremoniously (donuts and orange juice) decommissioned.
A Majpr Kong:
One of my b-i-l was a USAF meteorology tech, back in the late 50's. He told stories about the B-47 which had similar ejection systems. I think the navigator had to eject from the underside of the aircraft–could be messy if it was not sufficiently airborne.
@ Steve Bottoms,:
And those discarded sentinels have been plotting tbeir revenge, ever since.
Major Kong says:
"One other thing…I get how the planes took off but how the hell did they land???"
Probably on a nearby highway, where they would be towed back into the bunker. The Swedish Air Force still operates fighters that way.
Back in the 1980's NATO aircraft would occasionally practice taking off and landing from sections of the German Autobahns.
"Back in the 1980's NATO aircraft would occasionally practice taking off and landing from sections of the German Autobahns."
Isn't that a feature of our Interstate Highway system? I think I remember reading somewhere that they were designed so that every x amount of miles there would be x amount of straight roadway that would enable aircraft to land in an emergency.
"there would be x amount of straight roadway that would enable aircraft to land in an emergency."
Now we know why those liebrul bastards in Massivetaxeschussetts depressed the Central Artery going through Boston–to deny the forces of White Freedom their LZ!
Major Kong says:
That one's an urban legend.
The only planes that can operate from highways are fighters and some smaller tactical cargo planes.
Unless we were at war with Canada or Mexico, our forces would either be deployed overseas or we'd be launching strategic bombers which require long runways.
I can't think of too many scenarios where we'd ever have to do that.
I strangely found myself getting teary eyed while reading this. Exploring forgotten, bygone places used to be one of my favorite things to do. Growing up just outside of Detroit felt similarly about the grand old Michigan Central station, which had been abandoned shortly after I was born. It had been this hulking carcass on the Detroit skyline that always made me wonder about what it was like to wait in the station with its soaring, vaulted ceilings and giant columns, what it was like to actually have useful rail service.
When I was in college, a friend of mine and I got the gumption to sneak in and explore the place. Seeing it in all it's ruinous decay made my feelings of nostalgia even stronger, though I felt satisfied to have at least some connection with that building that seemed so close, but so far all that time. Now, as you may or may not have heard, Ford has purchased the building and is turning it into their new center for autonomous vehicle development. This January, I went to a winter festival outside the building, sponsored by the company, where they showed off their restoration plans. I have definitely never cried at a corporate event before, but the idea of someone taking this symbol of decay and returning it to at least some semblance of its former self I wished I had been around to experience… I was just kind of overwhelming.
Apparently other people felt the same one. Someone who had taken a giant clock face from the building wrapped it in canvass, left it in a field, and anonymously called Ford's preservation group to have them reclaim it. After that, Ford put out a call for other people to return artifacts from the building, no questions asked. When they did, several other people came forward. These weren't scrappers or greedy thieves; they are people who lived the building as much as I did who were afraid the place would eventually be demolished and wanted to preserve part of it. With the restoration moving forward, they felt it was safe to return the items to allow everyone to see what we lived about the place.
Anyway, sort of a winding tangent, but the point is, great piece, I know where you're coming from!
@ Major Kong:
schmitt trigger says:
Fromm Atlas Obscura, I ignore how much of this remains true:
"Unfortunately, since the migrant crisis, it's difficult to reach this place. In fact, this Airbase is exactly on the border between Croatia and Bosnia, many cops patrols turn around. If they catch somebody, they will have to pay a fine. But it can be possible to send a letter or a mail to the Croatian police saying you are a tourist who wants to visit this place."
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