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From Red Star to Red Bull: The History of Tito's Douglas DC-6B

Updated: Feb 15, 2021

Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito was a man who no doubt enjoyed traveling in style. He had at his disposal many modes of conveyance specifically designed and suited for moving him across his country and around the world in the most comfortable way possible. There was his yacht, the 'Galeb', which famously sailed Tito all the way to England on one occasion, while there was also the Blue Train, which was Tito's fully decked-out personal locomotive transport that some described as the most opulent train in the world during the time it operated. However, all else paled in comparison when Tito, in 1958, achieved the momentous status symbol of acquiring his first personal airliner, an American-made Douglas DC-6B. But while the history of Tito and his Douglas is no doubt an intriguing one, what makes this plane's tale all the more surreal is exploring just how the plane went from flying under the banner of Yugoslavia's red star to, just 60 years later, flying under the banner of the Austrian energy-drink company "Red Bull".

In 1958, two Douglas DC-6B airliners were completed and ready for shipment in their factory in Santa Monica, California. These two planes were the very last of the DC-6 class of airliners that Douglas was to manufacture, as, after this point, the DC-6 and all its varieties were retired from production. Innovated in the years just after WWII by Douglas, the DC-6 was revolutionary for its time, being among the first commercial aircraft which dedicated itself to passenger comfort, being fully pressurized and having a climate controlled cabin. Not only was comfort for passengers maximized, the plane could fly higher, further and more economically than many other passenger planes of the era, with many regarding it as the premiere piston-engine aircraft of the 1950s. These two DC-6B varieties purchased by Yugoslavia were models which were organized specifically for passenger service, lacking the cargo door which was present on the standard DC-6.

After manufacture was completed, these two airplanes proceeded to make their way to Yugoslavia after having been purchased by its government, with the craft subsequently arriving at their final destination in October of 1958. The first of these planes were put into the service of the country's national airline JAT Airways (with 'JAT' being short for 'Jugoslovenski Aerotransport' or 'Yugoslav Air Transport') and was critical in helping to develop its global presence, as this was the very first intercontinental plane in the airline's fleet. It was given the registration YU-AFB. Meanwhile, the second of these two planes was briefly held by JAT as well (given the registration YU-AFA), but it was quickly transferred to the Yugoslav Air Force, at which point it was converted into a personal aircraft for the official business and transportation of President Josip Broz Tito. It was then given the new registration 7451. In the process converting the aircraft from a passenger liner to a "Air Force One"-style presidential plane, it was befitted with a whole host of luxury items and additions in order to raise it up to the standard of shuttling Tito and his honored guests around the world. Upon receiving access to the Douglas plane, Tito's first excursion was flying a goodwill trip to India in January of 1959 in order to meet with its Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. From India, Tito went on visit Ethiopia, Syria and Sudan, meeting with the leaders there before heading back to Yugoslavia in February.

Tito, his wife Jovanka and their entourage disembarking from the Douglas plane. Credit: Museum of Yugoslavia
Tito [right] playing chess with Aleksandar Ranković [left] aboard the Douglas plane. Credit: Museum of Yugoslavia
Tito standing [center] in the aisle of the cabin aboard the Douglas plane. Credit: Museum of Yugoslavia

Tito went on to use this Douglas DC-6B for nearly ten years as his official airliner, with it sending him flying to locations around the world. This mode of air transport was no doubt instrumental for the international political business he did developing the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) of nations starting in 1961, which had Tito flying aboard his Douglas to every corner of the globe. Indeed, Tito using the maiden-voyage of this plane to visit Nehru in India (a leader who would be key in helping him orchestrate the NAM), as well as Sudan, Syria and Ethiopia (all early NAM members), indicates how important the Douglas was for Tito's successes internationally. Not only was the Douglas plane integral in getting Tito to where he needed to be to conduct his foreign political business, but it also operated as an effective and impressive tool for flying his fellow leaders around in the most lavish of settings.

Tito standing [center] during a ceremony in India during his January 1959 visit to the country. Credit: Museum of Yugoslavia
Tito disembarking from the Douglas plane in Damascus, Syria, 1959. Credit: Museum of Yugoslavia

While the Douglas was continuing to run excellently through the 1960s, in 1967, Tito replaced the Douglas as his presidential air transport with a new Soviet Ilyushin Il-14, which was itself replaced two years later in 1969 with a French jetliner Sud Aviation SE 210 Caravelle. Then, in 1975, Tito gave up the Caravelle for a new American-made Boeing 727 jet aircraft, which he used until his death in 1980. It was also in 1975 that Tito took the trusty Douglas plane that had taken him on nearly 60 trips around the world (which had been utilized by secondary Yugoslav politicians over the last eight years), and gifted it to Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda for his use as a personal presidential aircraft (at which point it acquired the new registration GBM 110). As an early member of the NAM and its chairperson from 1970-1973, Kaunda was reportedly a close friend of Jozip Broz Tito, so much so that Kaunda had a house built in Lusaka for when Tito visited Zambia and is documented to have dramatically wept in front of Tito's coffin during the funeral in 1980. As such, Tito gifting the plane to Kaunda makes more sense within this context. It is also important to mention that along with the 'Tito' Douglas, Kaunda also was gifted its sister plane, the other 1958 Douglas aircraft which had been used for years by JAT.

A 1977 photo of Tito and entourage exiting the new Yugoslav Boeing 727 during visit to China. Credit: Museum of Yugoslavia
A vintage photo of Tito [right] and Kaunda [left] standing together in the 1970s. Credit: Nomad Africa Magazine

During the mid-1970s, Kaunda used the 'Tito' Douglas for transport to many high-level political meetings within Africa (most notably the famous Victoria Falls Conference, for which Kaunda acted as mediator). Meanwhile, the sister Douglas aircraft operated primarily as transport for Kaunda's cabinet members and associated politicians. However, the two planes were used for only a few years before Kaunda and his cabinet opted for a more modern set of aircraft, at which point the Douglas planes were stored away in a remote hangar at Zambia's main airport in Lusaka for more than 15 years. In 1992, the two planes were discovered by pilot Chris Schutte, who operated a sightseeing charter airline in neighboring Namibia called "Namibian Commercial Aviation" (NCA) based out of Eros Airport in the country's capital city of Windhoek. The 'Tito' Douglas was in extremely good shape for its age, with only 4,700 logged flight hours on it, so Schutte made a deal with the Zambian Air Force and purchased both planes for his tour business. The Tito airliner was given the registration V5-NCF and given the nickname "Fish Eagle" (the Namibian national bird) while its sister plane was given the designation V5-NCG and named "Bateleur". Both planes were subsequently repaired, refurbished and given a new paint job, with the interior given a 'safari-theme' decor. However, despite these decoration changes, much of the configuration of the interior was left in its original state. Schutte flew the planes on regular touristic flights around the region, particularly to Kariba Gorge and Victoria Falls.

Chris Schutte's business of operating his vintage Yugoslav Douglas airplanes for touristic excursions went successfully through most of the 1990s. However, with a flare-up of violence in neighboring Angola near the Namibian border in 1999 as a result of the ongoing Angola Civil War, international tourism to Namibia fell dramatically. As a result of this steep decline in business and sudden lack of funds, Schutte was forced to sell one of his planes. With the 'Tito' Douglas (now named "Fish Eagle") in better condition compared to his second DC-6B "Bateleur", Schutte decided to put Fish Eagle up for sale in 1999. This is the point where Siegfried "Sigi" Angerer comes into the story. Angerer was at that time the head pilot for "The Flying Bulls" collection of vintage airplanes based in Salzburg, Austria, which he operated with Austrian "Red Bull" energy drink magnate Dietrich Mateschitz. In March of 2000, Angerer just happen to come across an ad for the sale of Schutte's DC-6B in an aviation magazine. Thrilled by the idea of a vintage Douglas plane in such good condition, Angerer immediately flew down to Windhoek, Namibia to meet with Schutte. The meeting went successfully and together Angerer and Schutte signed a sales contract for the plane within two days of arriving. Some sources assert the sales price was roughly the equivalent to 1.2 million US dollars.

From this point, Angerer and a team of pilots set about preparing the plane for a nearly 8,000km trip back to Salzburg, Austria. Because of the range restriction of the aircraft, the trip needed to be made in four segments. Starting on July 7th, 2000, from Windhoek, they traveled to Harare, Zimbabwe, then to Kampala, Uganda, then to Cairo, Egypt, then finally they arrived in Salzburg, Austria after four days of traveling and 28 hours of air travel. Part of the length of the trip was the result of the DC-6B only having a top cruising speed of 480 km/hr (about half that of a modern-day jet airliner). A documentary film crew was brought along to record the events of this ambitious flight, footage of which can be watched at THIS You Tube link. The plane was then taken to "Hangar 7" at Salzburg Airport, which is an opulent glass-pane private airplane hangar owned by Red Bull's Dietrich Mateschitz, which would become the new home and exhibition space of the Douglas. At this point, the plane was given the new registration N996DM. Upon arrival, it was found that the plane was not as in good condition as originally believed, as such, it was clear that a full overhaul of the entire DC-6B was need. Over the next four years, the plane was completely taken apart piece by piece, with every single part and element of the Douglas being restored to the most exacting detail. In the restoration and repair of the plane's exterior and interior, every effort was made to keep it as close to the original appearance as possible. In addition, the aircraft was given a new paint job and polished metal facade that, although original and distinct to the Red Bull brand, was kept in the spirit of the plane's history and heritage. The long progress of this restoration was also filmed and can be seen in the above linked documentary.

In the summer of 2004, the Flying Bull's restored Douglas DC-6B was ready for its second maiden voyage after enduring thousands of hours of repair, rebuilding and refurbishment efforts. For a great collection of images of the exterior and interior of the restored Douglas, check out the gallery at Neil Aird's aviation website. With this restoration, a piece of aviation history has been preserved, making it not only one of the few air-worthy DC-6 class aircraft left in the world, it is also the only one still flying configured for passenger accommodation. The restoration experts of the "Flying Bulls" who took part in this project testify that the plane is in better shape now than when it rolled off the production line in Santa Monica all the way back in 1958, with others remarking that it may well be the greatest restored and operational piston-engine aircraft in the world. Today, the "Tito" Douglas DC-6B is unquestionably the shining centerpiece of the "Flying Bulls" aircraft fleet and continues to be exhibited at the Red Bull "Hangar 7" museum and restaurant located within the Salzburg Airport. The plane occasionally takes part in special air shows and promotional excursions. One such notable flight occurred in May of 2018 when the Douglas flew from Vienna to Tivat, Montenegro in order to take Red Bull staff (many who were originally from the area) on a coastal holiday. This trip was the first time that the Douglas returned to region of the former Yugoslavia since leaving 43 years earlier for Zambia. A video of the Douglas landing at the airport in Tivat in 2018 can be seen at THIS You Tube link.

The Red Bull Douglas DC-6B at its home in Hangar 7 located at Salzburg Airport in Austria. Credit: Andreas Lang
A close up photo of the Red Bull Douglas DC-6B at its home in Hangar 7 located at the Salzburg Airport in Austria. Credit: David Vardi

As a final note, I think it is worth mentioning the fates of a few of the other planes mentioned in this article. Firstly, the 'Tito' Douglas DC-6B sister plane named "Bateleur" that Chris Schutte brought to Windhoek, Namibia (after buying it from the Zambian Air Force in 1992) continued to fly tours for Schutte's NCA sightseeing airline up until his death in 2004. At that point it was used sporadically until being put into storage in 2010. There it sat for nearly ten years before being bought in the late 2010s by a San Antonio, Texas man, James Mac Ivor. However, as of 2020, the plane still resides in Windhoek, Namibia until Mac Ivor can raise the money to make the Douglas airworthy and fly it to Texas. Meanwhile, the 1957 Soviet Ilyushin Il-14 which Tito used briefly in the early 1970s (registered under 71301) was retired from service in 1973 and subsequently put on display at the Aeronautical Museum next to the Belgrade Airport in Serbia, where it still sits on display up to the present day. A recent photo of the Ilyushin can be seen at THIS link. Next, the Sud Aviation SE-210 Caravelle which Tito used during the mid-1970s (registered under 74101) was retired from service in 1979, at which point the Yugoslav Air Force sold it to a private buyer in France. It is currently being stored by its owner at M'Vengue Airport in Franceville, Gabon. A 1979 photo of the Caravelle right before it was sold by the Air Force can be seen at THIS link. Lastly, in the case of the two Boeing 727 planes that Tito used from 1975 to 1980 (registered under 74301 & 74302), they were both sold by the Yugoslav Air Force to the Serbian airline 'Aviogenex' in 1983 just after Tito's death. Aviogenex used these planes themselves over the subsequent years, but also periodically leased them out to airlines around the world. An article from 2006 indicates that both 727s were more than likely scrapped by Aviogenex in the mid 2000s as they went through financial trouble. A 1990 photo of the 74302 Boeing (which was flying as Aviogenex YU-AKD at the time) can be seen at THIS link, while a 1997 photo of the 74301 Boeing (which was flying as Aviogenex YU-AKH at the time) can be seen at THIS link.


If anyone reading this article has any information about any of the planes mentioned in this article, please feel free to reach out to me so I can continue to update this article with new information.

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07 de fev. de 2022

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