History: The story of the MiG from Klagenfurt

Few Croats haven’t heard of the MiG-21 from the former Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA), which in 1991 flew from Bihać to Klagenfurt, and especially the name we proudly remember – Rudolf Perešin. With this text, we remember him, an exceptional man who accomplished an even more exceptional undertaking that changed the course of the Homeland War.

Rudolf Perešin was a Croatian pilot, born in Jakšinac near Gornja Stubica in 1958. After studying at the Aviation Grammar School “Maršal Tito” in Mostar, he continued his flight training at the Aviation Military Academy in Zadar, which he graduated in 1981. In the same year, he was selected for pilot training for the MiG 21 supersonic aircraft, after which he was assigned the Željava military airport near Bihać as a place of service.

After the ‘Bloody Easter’ of 1991, the idea of ​​flying a MiG beyond the borders of Croatia and the entire former SFRY was conceived. The goal was to internationalize the aggression against Croatia, to give it importance so that the international community would intervene in time and take the desired steps. At that time, telecommunications engineer Ljubomir Topić approached Rudolf’s wife Ljerka and asked for a meeting at a then-neutral location. Since Rudolf and Ljerka lived in Bihać, the meeting was arranged at the ‘Tomislav’ restaurant on today’s D1 road, popularly known as ‘Stara zagorska’. There, Topić presented Ljerka with the idea of ​​flying the aircraft beyond the borders and asked her to discuss it with Rudolf. Ljerka later admitted that at that moment she thought such an undertaking was ‘whishful thinking’, but also a solution to the increasing tensions within the JNA and in Bihać itself, where the division between the peoples of the former country was becoming more pronounced.

Perešin accepted the envisioned undertaking and began working with Topić to accomplish it. Choosing the right time for the flight was crucial in this case because premature or delayed flights could have resulted in undesirable consequences. Rudolf, as a member of the reconnaissance squadron, received fewer flights during a period in 1991. This was due to a lack of trust from the JNA towards Croatian pilots, as well as pressure for Croatian members to utilize their annual leave and spend less time in the barracks and at the Željava airport. On the other hand, the then President of Croatia, Dr. Franjo Tuđman, issued a declaration accepting all military personnel who defected from the JNA and joined the Croatian armed forces before 10 November 1991, while defections after that date would not be tolerated.

After months of negotiations, during which Rudolf’s wife played a significant role, and whom he later referred to as his co-pilot, the right moment arrived. Due to the interruption of telecommunications between Croatia and Bihać, Ljerka asked a neighbor in Germany to call Perešin and convey to him a coded message that he was allowed to fly: “The wedding is in Austria, be sure to come and bring a camera and a camcorder!” The message contained all the information Rudolf needed for the flight: a pre-defined landing location and a request to fly with an aircraft equipped with all necessary gear.

In one of the interviews, Rudolf mentioned how even he wasn’t sure if all the prerequisites would be met, especially considering that the weather started deteriorating at the end of September and in October of that year. However, on October 25, 1991, Rudolf received the long-awaited order: he was instructed to lead a squadron to visually scout the withdrawal of the JNA from Slovenia. Despite seemingly favorable circumstances, Rudolf couldn’t be certain whether he would succeed in flying to Austria. The first step was to spontaneously and discreetly carry out the task without anyone suspecting that he didn’t intend to return. After the group flew over Karlovac, Perešin ordered the others to return because conditions weren’t suitable for visual reconnaissance. He continued the flight alone to Ljubljana, then to Koper and back, according to the predetermined plan. Upon returning to Ljubljana, he had to decide whether to proceed with the plan or not. He then decided to continue towards Klagenfurt. Descending beneath the cloud cover where visibility was good, he flew over the Alpine peaks towards Bleiburg. At a speed of 1,000 km/h and a height of 50-100 meters above the terrain, he entered Austrian airspace.

Upon landing in Austria, he was taken in for questioning, where he stated that he was a Croat and that he couldn’t and wouldn’t shoot at Croats. To protect him from unwanted interactions with those who disagreed with his undertaking, the Austrian military accommodated him in a private guesthouse in Feldkirchen, a small town about 20 kilometers from Klagenfurt.

In Zagreb, on that 25 October 1991, an air alert was declared due to Rudi’s flight, and until the Austrians announced it, no one, not even Topić and Ljerka, knew that Rudolf was carrying out the planned task.

The desired reaction was achieved – Europe and the world learned about the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia in the most spectacular way possible. The JNA, especially its air force, were shocked, thinking such an undertaking was impossible, and it paved the way for other Croatian pilots in the JNA to join the Croatian armed forces. Inspired by Rudi, pilots Ivan Selak, Danijel Borović, and Ivica Ivandić flew MiGs to Croatia in February and May 1992, which were also the first supersonic combat aircraft of the Croatian Air Force.

Upon his return to Croatia, Rudolf joined the newly established Croatian Air Force, and when the three MiGs joined, he became the commander of the fighter squadron. From his arrival in Croatia until 1995, Perešin was highly active in humanitarian efforts as well as in promoting the aviation profession.

Rudolf actively and selflessly participated in almost all aviation operations during the Homeland War, until the military-police operation Bljesak, when he was shot down near Stara Gradiška on 2 May 1995. After the wreckage of the aircraft was found and ejection was confirmed, Rudolf’s family began a two-year agony, not knowing whether he was alive and when he would be exchanged. His remains were handed over to the family in August 1997.

The MiG-21 with registration number 26112, flown by Rudolf to Klagenfurt, was hidden from public view for a long time. It was first publicly displayed, along with Perešin’s uniform and personal weapons, at the Military Museum in Vienna as part of the exhibition “Austria and the Breakup of Yugoslavia.” Austrian authorities were unsure whom to return the aircraft to, especially considering that both Croatia and Serbia were claiming it. However, after lengthy negotiations, Rudolf’s MiG was handed over to Croatia in 2019. Upon arrival, it was briefly exhibited in front of the Ministry of Defense before being transferred to the hangars of the “Colonel Marko Živković” military facility near Franjo Tuđman Airport.

Leave a Reply