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Franc Kralj has been committed to aviation for 75 years. He is the only pilot in Slovenia to have received the highest national award for achievements in the field of sport, the Bloudek Lifetime Achievement Award. He is also the first Honorary Member of the Maribor Flight Centre (Letalski center Maribor/LCM), which confirms his outstanding contribution to Slovenian sport aviation. His dedicated work has helped the club to achieve outstanding results, stabilize it financially, and build infrastructure. He was also the initiator of the establishment of the anti-hail defense system, which is run by the LCM.

His career began in 1946 in a flying model section, where he was already a young boy enthusiastically building model airplanes. He made his first flight in 1949 in a Vrabec glider. He has also done parachuting, and jumping with different types of parachutes. In 1957, he started flying motor-powered aircraft. He has shared his knowledge and experience as a motor flight instructor for many years and has trained a big number of pilots. He has flown more than 30 types of both, gliders and motor aircraft.

We talked about training before and now and the importance of camaraderie in aviation.

“Honesty, kindness, respect for all those who are here, and respect for yourself. To check yourself. Sometimes it’s better to check yourself than someone else. You have to love the other.”- Franc Kralj

Franc Kralj

1. Have you wanted to fly since you were a boy? When was your first flight?

In 1928, Maribor hosted a major airshow. My father took me with him when I was 8 or 9 years old. We watched them all fly in the air. Next to it, airplane model makers were playing with aircraft models. I said to my father, “Dad, look at this grasshopper!” A slightly bigger boy stood next to me and said, “You idiot, that’s not a grasshopper, that’s a glider.” I pointed to the glider that was in the air and said, “Hey, remember, I’m going to be the pilot.” I started flying when I was 15 years old. My first flight was 75 years ago, on 3.6.1949 with a plane Vrabec, training exercise “drs” and time 0 seconds. Back then, we didn’t have the two-seater for beginners training like we do today.

2. Glider pilot training in those days was very different and much more demanding than today.

Today, the flight instructor shows you everything, you sit down in a two-seater. At that time, we were alone in the plane and flew only as instructed. We had to learn everything ourselves. You must have had keen reflexes. Current training techniques have advanced. Today, aircraft have more quality and the way we train is different. Then, staying in the air for more than an hour was already a great success. Not to mention longer flights. A 50 km flight was as successful as a 300 km flight today.

3. How did your training look like? You as students repaired the planes by yourself.

The way of training was completely different from today. The first exercise was called “balancing”. The next one was “drs”. The winch pulled the pilot on the runway on the ground and he had to balance the plane. This was followed by a “jumping” exercise to a height of 3 m. In this exercise, in addition to balancing the wings, it was necessary to maintain the heading and speed after departure and to land correctly. This exercise was very difficult in my opinion at the time of my training. You were in the air for the first time in your life, with a lot of trepidation and fear. In this exercise, we experienced all kinds of things… In case of damage, we took the parts of the aircraft to the workshop and repaired them, in most cases by the next day. This was a pass of the A exam. You were awarded a badge, one seagull on a blue background.

For the B exam, the flight height is increased to 50m. It was necessary to make an S flight and land in the direction of take-off. This exercise already required coordination of flight controls. As the flying altitude increased, so did the complexity.

The pinnacle of beauty and success was the so-called “high start”. They hoisted you up as far as they could with a winch. The pilot’s job was to do a proper traffic pattern. As we didn’t have a radio communication, the flight instructor helped the student by signaling him when to make a turn with a flag. My memory of that first traffic pattern is unforgettable. It lasted exactly 1 minute and 45 seconds.

For the C exam, you flew a properly designed glider with a closed cockpit, no top, and windscreen only. We had a Salamandra plane for this purpose. My flight was 4 minutes and 20 seconds.

4. To fly off the hill, you pushed the plane on foot for about two kilometers.

From the old airport in Tezno in Maribor, we took the airplane Vrabec on stilts along a local dirt road to a small hill, and we flew with the help of a rubber rope.

It used to be a very common take-off aid, especially when taking off from hills, but today’s young pilots are not familiar with it. It was a 15 to 20-metre-long rubber rope. There were 5-6 students at each end of the rope. On the teacher’s command, the pupils start pulling the rope. This was followed by the command “Let it go”. This meant that the student who was on the tail had to let go of the plane. The plane flew as if it had been launched by a slingshot.

It took 13 to 15 people and a pilot who was lucky enough to be flying that day. So we did a maximum of 4 to 5 starts in one day. That means you’ve been working for two to three days for one start. Would you today?

5.) Milestones in training through time were also different types of aircraft. The flight with aero tow was a turning point.

The airplane types Vrabec, Roda, and Blanik were the most significant changes in the training. The Vrabec glider is connected by steel cables. And whoever wanted to fly it had to finish music school. Namely, if the speed was high, high-pitched tones were heard, if the speed was low, the sound went down. That’s what you listened to as a pilot. It was a practical thing that we pilots flew by. The Vrabec’s romance ended in 1951-52.

Roda airplane fundamentally changed the technique of training. Here, the teacher could show the student how to fly, and could also correct mistakes.

There were several turning points in training at that time. One of them, I think the biggest for that period, was flying with the help of aero tow. We flew on a two-seater called a Ždral. After 4 to 5 starts you were able to fly the plane Čavka solo. Next came the planes Grunay Baby, Jastreb, Mu 13, Triglav, Vaja, Orlik, etc. All the flying was done without radio communication. You were left to yourself.

6.) In 1950, motor flying training was a privilege.

Most of them were pilots trained in the army. Pilot training in clubs started with the motorplane Trojka. The prerequisite for training as a motor pilot was a silver C and a lot of merit in the club. My beginnings in motor flying began in 1957 in Trojka. In 1978 I passed the exam for motor flying instructor. I have trained hundreds of pilots who have gone on to successful careers as competitors in the sport of aviation, and many have gone on to professional careers.

7.) What do you see as the biggest difference between flying in the past and today?

At that time we shared a true friendship and a common hobby, aviation. We were willing to work for each other. It was not a problem to carry out the work action at that time. The first years were not such a problem because it was all financed by the state. Then there was a steady decline in funding and the need to get back on our feet. We started to develop other activities to raise money. We made screws. We cleaned the Stražun Canal. We were making badges… we did all sorts of things. The Maribor Flight Centre hangar was built “with a shovel”. We didn’t have a concrete mixer then. And it was no problem to get 20, or 30 people when we were pouring concrete.

If you look today, people are grouping—small groups here, small groups there. Look at the technical day, how few come. No one sat still then. In those days, if someone landed, they all came to help immediately. This is the attitude.

I have always put stories aside, I did not exaggerate them. It’s the fact that people don’t come to help that stays with me. Clean up after yourself or pick up if something is lying around. I always consider the space of an aviation center as my backyard.

8. When did the changes in attitude start?

Around 1957/58. During this time we moved from the old airport to the new one, today’s Skoke airport. At that time, things were getting a bit commercialized. The big change came in the 1980s. Then it got commercialized entirely.

9. You are practically the author of the anti-hail air system defense. You also have around 100 hours of such flying...

The anti-hail system defense project is mine. I and two other colleagues brought the project here because we had seen it in Austria. I arranged for the Utva 75 airplane to be fitted with generators from Austria. Complex documentation had to be prepared. At that time, everything went through the Ministry of Transport in Belgrade. I studied at university and, with the help of guys at other universities, we did the technical and economic elaborate for the project. In Belgrade, they carried it around and showed how the elaboration should be done. Then we bought a Cessna 206. We have made improvements and made connections with other countries.

I have about 100 hours of anti-hail defense flying time, which is not a small amount. Then they banned us, saying that you can’t fly anti-hail defense with a PPL and that only professionals can fly it. That is to say, I can train a professional from the beginning up to the professional license, I can train him to a Cessna 206 for anti-hail defense, but I can’t fly the anti-hail defense. We have such rules.

10.) What makes a good flight instructor?

A good flight instructor must have a special feeling for the person he is teaching and must keep an eye on him. But also to be able to tell a person if training isn’t for him. Some have a problem with depth of field, with basic reflexes. You can say to someone like that, you can come here, you can be a student for 30 years, but you will always fly with someone.

11.) You swear to train by focusing on emergency procedures.

This is the old way of training. Any “monkey” can fly on a route. How about landing in a field? That’s a bit more difficult. If our engine fails, we are in the same situation as glider pilots. Same procedure. And nobody can do it because they can’t do the sideslip. The sideslip is one of the very important maneuvers that a pilot must be comfortable performing for a successful off-field landing. You have to get higher, you can’t get too low, otherwise, you’ll end up in a ditch. With a sideslip, you can reduce that height very quickly. If you land sharply with a sideslip there is no problem to land in such situations.

12.) What are the qualities of a good aviator?

It is wrong to be fearless. That’s not OK. You have to arrive at the airport with a lot of responsibility and respect for what you are flying. Do not underestimate or overestimate yourself. And to admit when you’re not able to. It is not a sin to admit to your teacher that you are not good at something. Say it.

Honesty, kindness, respect for all those who are here, and respect for yourself. To check yourself. Sometimes it’s better to check yourself than someone else. You have to love the other.

13.) What would be your aviation advice for young people?

Let aviation be a hobby that is highly valued, has value, and in which care must be taken because it is also life-threatening. Knowing that I am getting on the plane with certainty, that you, flying before me, have not left something out. We must respect each other and rely on our comrades.

14.) Final thoughts on aviation?

It’s about love for aviation, respect for what you have, pride in being able to do it, and respect for your comrades. I flew good planes, I flew bad planes, but in the end, they were all good planes for me.


Intervju: Eva Kraš


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