Soko J-22 and Avioane Craiova IAR 93 – Of Eagles and Vultures

A Striker out of Alignment

orao 1
An NJ-22 Orao in the markings of the air force of Serbia and Montenegro. Seen in Brno, Czech Republic in 2005.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the former Yugoslavia faced the pressing problem of finding a replacement for its remaining fleet of obsolete American made Republic F-84 Thunderjet fighters as well as the domestically produced Soko J-21 Jastreb light strike aircraft which had partially replaced the Republic jet in Yugoslav service.

The idea of producing the new aircraft domestically appealed to Josip Broz Tito, then president of Yugoslavia, and was a preferable course of action owing to Yugoslavia’s membership in the Non-Aligned Movement which he helped establish in 1961. The initial vision was that the new aircraft could be an option for other non-aligned nations to consider in favour of designs coming from NATO or Warsaw Pact countries.

While the domestic aircraft producer, Soko, had experience building their own aircraft and license producing machines by foreign companies; the development and production costs of a more advanced, potentially supersonic type were simply beyond the country’s abilities to carry alone. A partner had to be found to share the load.

A Partner Found and a Compromise Made

A partner for the project was found in Romania. The then president of Romania, Nicolae Ceausescu, shared Tito’s enthusiasm for such a project as the new aircraft represented and was quick to agree to a share in it. The project would serve that nation well on two fronts as it would not only give them much needed experience and credibility in modern aircraft design, the resulting aircraft would provide them with a replacement for ther fleets of Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 and MiG-17 fighters.

In 1971, the YuRom joint venture was formalized between the two nations with research and development began in earnest shortly after. Two problems delayed development of the new aircraft: Romania’s lesser degree of experience in aeronautical design, Avioane Craiova had been set up in 1972 specifically to carry Romania’s share in the project, and difficulty developing an effective afterburner for the Rolls Royce Viper engine which had been chosen for the new machine. The latter problem proved to be a constant one for the aircraft throughout its development and, with the exception of one supersonic flight done in a shallow dive in 1984, the aircraft remained firmly subsonic in performance.

The Romanian and Yugoslav prototypes had simultaneous maiden flights in late October of 1974. However, the flight development program was marked with delays from accidents and a great deal of experimentation with wing design options. Before the 1970s were out, three of the Romanian pre-production aircraft and one of the Yugoslav ones had been lost in crashes. Engine problems had been a factor in one crash while tail flutter, a situation in which part or all of the tail vibrates to structural failure, was the cause of two of the other crashes.

Another view of the  NJ-22 Orao at Brno in 2005.
Another view of the NJ-22 Orao at Brno in 2005.

Into Uniform

The new aircraft entered Yugoslav air force service as the Soko J-22 Orao (Eagle) in 1978 while its Romanian counterpart, the IAR 93 Vultur (Vulture) entered its respective country’s air force the following year.

The aircraft was a robust and relatively straight forward machine to maintain with no exotic avionics or radar. It was designed to be operable from austere field conditions and capable of taking off and landing from dirt or grass strips if need be. In these qualities, and somewhat in appearance, the aircraft could be seen as something of a counterpart to the Anglo-French Sepecat Jaguar strike aircraft whch had been developed and put into service on a slightly earlier timescale.

As one might expect of a machine developed outside of the superpower nations, produced in relatively small numbers and served only a modest number of air arms; the J-22 and IAR-93 led largely uneventful and unremarkable service lives. In the case of the J-22, however, a baptism of fire would come with the fall of Socialism in 1989 which precipitated the breakup of Yugoslavia and the begining of the Yugoslav wars which lasted from 1991 to 2001.

Initially operating under the jurisdiction of the Yugoslav air force, until that body was disolved in 1992, J-22s were used against targets in Croatia.

The Bosnian War (1992-1995) resulted in a number of former Yugoslav J-22s falling into the possession of the Republika Srpska air force.

The aircraft were used in a series of actions against the Kosovo Liberation Army in 1999.

The effect that the Yugoslav wars and the United Nations embargoes that accompanied them had on the aircraft and its creators was an excercise in contrasts:

Romania ceased production of the IAR-93 in 1992 and the type was completely retired from Romanian service by 1998. Avioane Craiova still exisits today as an aircraft manufacturer; producing its own IAR-99 jet trainer and providing a diverse selection of aviation services.

The J-22 Orao still flies in limited numbers with the Serbian air force. Soko aircraft factories were regularly targeted and attacked during the Yugoslav wars and the company was effectively out of the aircraft production business in the early 1990s as a result. Some of the company’s aviation production assets were relocated to the facilities of UTVA, another Yugoslav aircraft manufacturer that had worked very closely with Soko on the J-22.

Soko still exists today, but was substantially restructured in the late 1990s. Its aircraft division was not restarted and their present business seems to focus on refrigeration and air conditioning equipment.

What Remains and Learning More

Your chances of seeing a J-22 flying outside of Serbia are likely quite remote due to the small number still active, their advancing age and their relatively rare airshow appearances.

As of 2015, there are around 15 IAR-93 aircraft preserved in museums around Romania as well as examples preserved in Slovakia and Slovenia.

A similar number of J-22 Oraos are preserved in Museums around Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

This link will take you to a summary of the J-22 at the Aeronautical Museum of Belgrade, Serbia:
http://www.muzejvazduhoplovstva.org.rs/eksponati.php?jez=eng&id=34

This is the IAR-93 page at the Avioane Craiova website:
http://www.acv.ro/products_en.php?m=1&s=5

This page contains a photogallery of derelict IAR-93s in Romania in 2006:
http://www.targeta.co.uk/craiova_2006.htm

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