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Janez Stariha is a legend of Slovenian gliding but he also had a very interesting career as a commercial pilot in business aviation. He visited 400 destinations as a pilot and yet never missed a national gliding championship. He has competed for 45 years in at least 90 competitions. He was a five-time national champion and won 3rd place in the European one. The list of his accomplishments goes on…

Whether it’s flying over the African virgin jungle or gliding inside the clouds, he seems truly fearless. “Janez, Jani, Stari”, that’s what his colleagues call him. He taught himself almost everything, driven by a total commitment to flying. We talked about the secrets of his success.

1. When did you first feel the desire to fly? Where did you go to school?

I wanted to fly since I was a kid, but I didn’t think everyone could do it. I started in 1965 when I was just over 15 years old. There were 100 of us at the course in Ljubljana. The Aero Club was on Kotnikova Street. If you wanted to be part of it, you had to be present at the airport. And I was at the airport every day. Only five of us were trained that year. Of these five, only Boris Staržišar-Jackson still flies. I started with gliding. I trained on Libis 17 airplane. In 1968, I started flying the Aero3 propeller aircraft.

Aero 3

2. How did you decide to fly professionally?

I never thought I would be doing this. I was flying engine airplanes and the hours were piling up. We went to Belgrade, Serbia for exams. I heard from one company that they were looking for a pilot and I went straight to them. They told me that if I signed a three-year contract, they would pay for my instrument raiting (IR). They gave me the opportunity to study in Vršac, Serbia and after I finished that, I had to go straight to Africa.

I always wanted to go to there, even as a child. My wish came true. I was 24 years old.

3. Africa took a lot of courage. There you flew for company Slovenijales?

Yes. They were indeed pioneers. They first came there by river in a log boat. Bayanga, in the Central African Republic, is located on the Sangha River. The Sangha flows into the Congo River and then into the sea. In Bayanga village, everyone had previously died of sleeping sickness. And that’s where Slovenijales started. First, they were in tents. Then they made the airport themselves. 1200m of jungle have been cleared. You couldn’t go anywhere without a plane. Back then, it was a virgin jungle, almost the size of Slovenia. There is no such jungle in Africa anymore.

Landing strip in Africa jungle

4. Being so young, you had to learn everything by yourself?

When I arrived in Bangui, there was a Britten Norman plane waiting for me, 2 engines of 260 hp each. But the problem was that I had never flown a twin-engine plane before. I was trained by a Frenchman who knew almost no English, and I knew no French. We flew around for three days, and then he signed papers that I was able to fly solo on this plane type.

The first flight was going to Bayanga. With me was a man who had lived there for many years. The flight took an hour and thirty minutes and I should have reached the river by then.

Everywhere you looked was a jungle. There was no river. I started to worry a little. Ten minutes have passed and nothing. I should have turned around, I was at the point of no return. At the time I thought: “What am I doing here,” I felt sorry for myself. And then I saw a shimmer. It was a river. African rivers have large meanders. And because I was driving along the river, I didn’t get to it. But where to turn now, left or right? It’s only one side that’s correct. And then I realized it was to the right and I got there. This took 20 minutes.

I learned it all on my own. Everything I brought on the plane, I bought. I was a buyer. Someone needed toothpaste, someone needed something else, and I carried letters. And I had one local to help me.

Before I bought all this, it was noon, when the cumulonimbus cloud was already there. The French said, “This crazy Yugoslav flies when the weather is at its worst!” But it was the only option.

5. What were the challenges of flying over the virgin jungle?

Where I lived, the home airport had an ILS landing system and a VOR radio navigation aid. As I was flying relatively low (6500 to 7500 feet) and the VOR was only available for about about 50 nautical miles, I could during this time see what wind corrections I had when I flew along a certain radial. Later, when the VOR was no longer available, I had to fly by visual reference only (it was a monotonous jungle as far as the eye could see) and I kept on the same heading as I had when I was flying the radial.

Africa’s clouds

6.) How did you cope with the weather? You have landed in the savannah.

I was there for about a month and I didn’t know the weather yet. They have a rainy and dry season. I had a weather radar, but it only worked for a month before it broke down and no one could fix it. So I flew without radar.

It was the dry season when I was coming back from Bayanga. We had a radio station in the city, in the jungle, and in the plane. When I established communication with the air traffic controller, he told me to hurry up because there was a tornado coming.

Then I understood that their “tornado” is a cold front that comes from the east about every 14 days. I was in downwind and could no longer land. The wind was already 60 knots. At 6 pm, it’s dark at the equator.

Having flown close a few days before, I knew that there was one area where the savannah was, on radial 270. And I told myself that the only chance I had was to land there. I found it. First I examined it, and then I landed. It was tall grass. When I landed I told myself that I had to report it somehow, so I flew to about 3000 feet to establish communication with the air traffic control. I asked them to report that everything was OK and that I would come back the next day. I decided to spend the night on the plane. As I was getting ready to go to bed, some locals came from a distance, and then a local came by in a Landrover, and I saw that he was showing me that he had come for me. There was a Belgian missionary who saw the plane and told him to go and look for the pilot.

I spent the night at the missionary’s place. He cooked a moldy soup, and I ate it out of politeness. He had Mass at 6 am and then he took me to the plane and I flew out.

6. Were you afraid of anything? To land somewhere in the jungle where you would never be found again?

Yes, that. And I was afraid of storms. Cumulonimbus clouds. Later, the plane I was flying crashed. The pilot was French. There were ten deaths because of engine failure.

7. Have you flown for many people, including President Bokassa?

Yes, later I also flew for diamantaires, for hunters, and sometimes for their government. I always flew in jeans. But once they told me I had to wear blue trousers and a white shirt the next day. At the time, I was taking President Bokassa and his ministers to Sudan. They straightened out that savannah a bit and we landed right there and waited.

Then Beechcraft Baron aircraft landed. The French President and his son went hunting. They were friends because Giscard d’ Éstaing’s father was a forestry officer and lived in Bangui. I flew back empty, and a bigger plane DC3 came for them. He always took his ministers with him.

8. And once you went on a short trip from Africa to Ljubljana, Slovenia, and came back with beer?

When Bokasso was crowned, JAT transported the coronation furniture from Venice, Italy in 1977. I invited the crew to my house for dinner. They flew in a Boeing 707. The next day we accompanied them to the airport because they were flying to Venice. We were having coffee on the terrace and Captain Višnjić said to me: “Janez come with us, tomorrow we are coming back.” But I had no passport. And the captain told me to go get it. “I haven’t paid my taxes!” I said because you need a receipt that you have paid your taxes. “Who’s going to ask you, you’ve got a badge!” said Višnjić. And I did indeed go and get my passport and smuggle myself onto the plane. During the flight, he said to me: “Come on, Janez, let’s give you some work.” And made me in charge of radio communications for the time of the flight.

I rented a a-car in Venice and drove home. When I showed up at the doorstep, it was the evening news on TV. Mum almost collapsed from surprise. “Aren’t you in Africa?” she asked me. “I came to see you for a little while” I replied.

The next day I went back to Venice and when we landed I got on my plane and flew into the jungle. When I got there, they asked me what was new in Bangui. And I replied: “Ask me what’s new in Ljubljana. I came from Ljubljana now.” “Come on, don’t fool around,” they said. “Where do you think I got this beer from?”, I replied.

9.) You also invited your friend Boris Staržišar-Jackson to Africa.

Captain Višnjić asked me if I had anyone to bring him to me and I thought of my friend Jackson who was also a pilot. I called him and told him that if he was interested in coming to Africa, he needs to be at the hotel in Venice the next day at a certain time. That is how he came to Africa where he also got a flying job.

10.) You have become an expert on diamonds and mahogany wood?

They thought I was an expert. The diamonds were not from mining. One Belgian man had rough diamonds in his hand-cash. Half of the men in the jungle thought I was an expert and shook that sand and asked me to see if it was diamonds. But they weren’t.

11.) But you did take the actress of the legendary Slovenian film Vesna to a diamond dealer?

Vesna’s character was played by Metka Gabrijelčič. She was a civil engineer and she drew the sawmill and the veneering plant in Baianga. When it was opening day, she was there. I took her to the jungle, to a coffee plantation, along with my mother, who came to visit at that time. Metka wanted to buy diamonds. When a salesman shook them on a big green table, she started to tremble from excitement and bought a few. I also bought some for my friend Ivanuš Dušan. He was the golden C in glider flying.

11.) How long have you been in Africa?

Almost 4 years. After three years, the company Geodetski Zavod made me an offer if I would fly for them. So I had to decide whether to stay in Africa or go home. And I went to them. In Libya, they were working on the Great River Project. This was Gaddafi’s project. In the 1980s, huge quantities of fresh water were found and they wanted to channel it to the coast. Geodetski Zavod has been tasked with recording where the pipes will be laid. We were based in Benghazi. I took the plane to England so a hole would be made for the cameras.

Since there was no plane at the time, Jackson asked if I would be his best man at his wedding. At work, I asked if I could have one month of unpaid leave, but Director Belc said I could have paid leave just to come back. I was in Libya for a month, then I moved to work for the Iskra company. I got a good offer from Iskra, I had to make a decision. Jackson lost his job in Africa because of GPS (there were new techologies coming and being experienced at knowing the jungle stopped being so important). Pilot skills used to mean something.

souvenir from Africa

12.) What was it like to come back to Europe from the immaculate wilderness?

The French have a nice expression “maladie d’Afrique”, meaning “sick because of Africa”. Everyone who has lived in Africa would like to go back. Life was more easy. There’s no rush, like here. The French know how to live. Wherever they go, they make sure they have a good time.

13.) You started flying business jets.

In 1980, Iskra bought a Cessna Conquest turboprop airplane and I went for training.

We flew to Russia for the first time in 1980 when the Olympics were held. The CEO of Iskra went to sign a contract for telephone connections. The Russian navigator came with Aeroflot airline to Zagreb, Croatia, took a bus to Ljubljana, Slovenia, and flew with us back to Moscow, Russia.

They signed a contract and we flew around Russia a lot, especially with the company Smelt. In 1985, Smelt purchased a Citation S2 aircraft, which was registered in Switzerland. We were employed by Iskra, but we also flew for Smelt.

In Russia, we always flew with a navigator. The navigator was in charge of the radio communications and sometimes we would look at the charts together to see where we were going.

14.) Later you switched to fly for Linxair and also flew for Eurotransplant.

Linxair was based in Moscow and Slovenia. We mostly flew rich Russians to St. Moritz and Cannes.

We flew a lot for medical purposes as well. Babies were taken to London for heart surgery. A few years ago I was putting my sailplane back in the trailer when a lady came by with her child. She said I had flown this boy to London when he was a baby. I got shivers. “Well,” I said to myself, “I did something good after all.”

In Linxair

15.) How did you balance flying with family life? All the time you were flying for Linxair you were gliding with sailplanes as well?

Of course. I flew for 14 days and was home for 14 days. And I have to stress that my wife has been very patient. I spent all my holidays on sailplane matches. In winter there was no flying, so in summer. I don’t think I’ve missed a single gliding race since I started racing in 1972. That’s why I have so many off-airport landings, I think around 200. In the old days, sailplanes were wooden and didn’t have the same performances. This is why there were more off-airport landings.

16.) Did anything critical happen to you while flying?

Once, the oil pressure dropped on the Citation of one of the richest Croats, and we were flying to Geneva. We had to switch off the engine. But the passenger can’t see it because the engine is at the back. We didn’t even tell him. When we landed, the aircraft was there for a month to have the engine repaired.

17.) Have you ever been tempted to go fly a large passenger aircraft?

I was in good company, I never clashed with anyone. I had the opportunity to apply for the Adria Airways tender and I am not sorry that I did not. I had a good time, while at Adria Airways they were just waiting for you to make a mistake, and if someone wanted to give you a hard time, they could do it on the simulator to the point where you didn’t know what your name was. We didn’t have that here.

I went to the simulator in America and everything was always fair. I saw a lot of the world that I would never have seen in Adria, I was my own boss, and flying was always interesting. I have flown to over 400 destinations.

18.) You have been competing for 45 years and have been to at least 90 competitions. You were five times national champion and won the European Championships in 3rd place. And the list goes on. What is the secret of your success? Why did you go to the races?

Experience. I went to the races mainly for the company of fellow pilots and the organized flying. Sometimes you have to fly in the weather when otherwise you wouldn’t even open the hangar. You learn to fly in bad weather. In good weather, anyone can. My wife used to say, “You glider pilots, when you land, you still fly for two hours.” You can’t compare gliding and motor flying. A glider plane has to land the first time.

Gliding race in Subotica. Jani Stariha, Maks Berčič and Vlado Pfeifer

19.)You were passionate about flying in the clouds?

Yes. Once upon a time, flying in the clouds was allowed. But this is a special training. It is not easy. In Lesce we had a simulator and we flew only slip coordinator every winter. It’s easy to fly with the horizon, but not with slip coordinator, because it only shows the angular velocity. It’s a challenge to fly like that.

I did the Diamond Altitude for the Diamond C flying badge in the cloud. In a cumulonimbus in Lesce over Stol mountain. Vesna Žnidarsič killed herself in this cloud.

It was pulling up 5 m/s meters from the bottom and 10 to 15 m/s inside the cloud. In between I even fell into a and I went out and back from the side again. You have to switch off your senses completely, you have to believe in the instrument.

At 6000m I decided to go out but before I got out I was already 7000m high and without oxygen. I was young and stupid.

Vesna also went to the cloud but had no experience. She fell in the wrong position, on her back, her tail flew off and she killed herself on the mountain, in that same cloud.

20.) When was your last professional flight?

About five years ago, Niki and I flew a plane to Dallas. It was a private flight, with no passengers. Now I fly gliders in Lesce and sometimes I do a bit of motorplane towing if they need me.

21.) Your life has been steeped in flying. What has flying taught you?

You have to enjoy it and be lucky. I was. I love flying and never got tired of it.

With his recognitions and medals at his home in Trnovo, Medvode

Photo sources:
Kopilot Magazine, XII- 2018, Milena Zupanič

Interview by:
Eva Kraš

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