Bulgarian Air Force Triple Anniversary

Bulgarian Air Force Triple Anniversary

Report and photos by Gabriele Rivera

August 20, 2019

After the revolutions of 1989 that brought to the collapse of USSR, Bulgaria, like most of the eastern European countries, started an uneasy journey towards the West, joining the Partnership for Peace in 1994, becoming a NATO member ten years later and being admitted in the European Union in 2007. The goal to integrate in the NATO structure and in particular in the NATINAMDS (NATO Integrated Air and Missile Defense) was not one immediately at grasp, but year after year the Български Военновъздушни Сили (BVVS, Bălgarski Voennovăzdušni sili, Bulgarian Air Force) followed a modernization path to meet NATO standards, practising them in several bilateral and multilateral exercises. During the years Bulgaria has sent military contingents in Iraq, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

For obvious reasons the Bulgarian Air Force is still almost entirely equipped with Soviet hardware and a lucky coincidence has given the BVVS way to celebrate three different anniversary of as many models: the Mil Mi-24 Hind (entered in service in 1979), the MiG-29 Fulcrum (the first two aircraft landed in Bulgaria on 15th June 1989) and the Bell 206 Jetranger, whose first deliveries started in July, 1999.

The celebration day has been set up at 3rd Fighter Air Base Graf Ignatievo, where the MiG-29s are based since 2000; the base is located 6 miles north of Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city. Near the local airport a small but very interesting aviation museum can be found; over 50 airplanes are exhibited outside the museum buildings, while in the indoor spaces the history of the Bulgarian Air Force is narrated with the help of several historical items, including a room dedicated to the space exploration, where the original Soyuz 33 reminds everyone of the Bulgarian contribution with two cosmonauts to the space race.

Entering the base and walking along the paths we have had a nice surprise; several aircraft that during the years have served in the BVVS placed in the gardens as “gate guardians”, all of them becoming obvious targets of the cameras of aviation enthusiasts.

The celebrations started with the President of the Republic, Rumen Radev, reviewing the troops; President Radev is a major general and just before being elected was the Air Force Chief of Staff. After the President’s speech the dynamic display has been opened by a Mi-17 carrying the national flag, followed by an AS-532 AL Cougar dropping a parajumper. The Eurocopter Cougars joined the fleet with 12 airframes ordered in 2005.

One of the main acts of the day has been the well orchestrated CSAR (Combat Search and Rescue) mission, simulating what can be done to recover someone (i.e. a bailed-out pilot) in a hostile environment. The mission started with a L-39ZA executing aerial reconnaissance to have a clear picture of the situation; a few minutes later a flight of Su-25 Frogfoot, based in Bezmer, provided Close Fire Support destroying ground targets. The two Sukhois showed how to obtain awareness of the ground situation flying reverted a few seconds before starting a dive attack run (which gave way to appreciate the original solution adopted by their designer for the airbrakes).

Then it was the turn of the helicopters; a Bell 206 located and identified the pilot in distress; after a short while two Cougars, escorted by a Hind, manoeuvred to recover the pilot; armed troops rappeled down in order to cover the medical team that, once reached the pilot and stabilized his conditions, started to perform the hoisting of the stretcher.

The patrolling performed by the Mi-24 proved to be invaluable, quickly suppressing a reaction by enemy forces rushed in just during a vulnerable phase of the recover.

After the completion of the MEDEVAC (Medical Evacuation) the scene returned to the fast jets, performing a Slow Mover Interception; the aircraft interpreting the role of the “Renegade” was a C-27J Spartan (another recent Western addition to the BVVS inventory), intercepted by a two-ship MiG-29 formation. Even though the Spartan tried to evade the close chase with a quite hard bank, the Fulcrums had the upper hand in forcing her to land.

The Fulcrums played also another interesting show, taking off in couple just to split immediately after, only to merge few seconds after to start a series of BFM (Basic Fighter Maneuvers); surely a nice way to celebrate 30 years of service!

During the two-seat MiG’s taxiing, a painted portrait of an officer was spotted on the internal side of the left vertical stabilizer; a few checks and the answer to the question was found, the man is First Lieutenant Nedelcho Bonchev, who on 17th April 1944 survived to the aerial ramming he performed (most likely unintentionally) against a Flying Fortress during a raid over Sofia, resulting in the loss of both aircraft.

All the other intervened airframes (except the Su-25s and included a PC-9M) performed their demo flights, while a Mi-17 showed her firefighting skill, using the Bambi bucket to drop up to 3 tonnes of water.

Approaching the end of the celebrations, another Fulcrum ( Bort number White 37 ) delivered a high-performance exhibition, followed by the Jetranger and Hind’s salutes and, as final act, a MiG-29’s leveled fast passage.

Once ended the dynamic phase of the event, it was time to turn to the static exhibition, small but with a couple of gems, two MiG-21 which, like the two MiG-29s and the Cougar on display, were surrounded by people queueing to get in the cockpit or taking selfies, always with a hand extended to touch the airframe. With a mix of delight and delusion we learnt that a couple of weeks before the two-seater Fishbed had flown; it would have been a magnificent sight to witness a flight of her!

The small platoon of aviation enthusiasts started a sort of watch, awaiting the right moment to take as many shots as possible when everyone left the surroundings of an aircraft void of human presence. Our appreciation go the the Bulgarian Air Force personnel who, with great patience, let us take pictures of the planes just before being prepared before being towed to their hangars.

In the end of July has been reported that, after a heated debate, the Bulgarian government has signed a contract with the United States to purchase 8 new F-16 Block 70 fighters; 4 should arrive in 2023 and the other 4 the following year. This decision will surely mean that MiG-29s will be flying until the day when the F-16s will be fully operational within the BVVS. Should Bulgarian Air Force decide to celebrate a farewell to the Fulcrum, for sure we will be there!

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Gabriele Rivera on Email
Gabriele Rivera
Photojournalist at Aviation Photography Digest
Gabriele was born in Turin, Italy, grew up in Sicily and now lives in Rome. His love for aviation goes back to the days when he was seven years old, he started to collect the ‘History of Aviation’ sold weekly at the nearby newsstand. With that, he realized that his goal was to become a military pilot. This dream met a harsh reality when, during the medical tests, a defect in his chromatic sense of sight was discovered.

His interest in photography arose a few years later, when he bought from a colleague his first single-lens reflex camera, a Pentax ME Super. Then everyday life took its toll; working as an IT analyst, studying for an MD in political science and starting a family left no time for enjoying his old interest for aviation. One day in 2008, he decided to revive the passion, starting again to take pictures of aircraft each time he has a chance. Now, using Canon gear, he is striving to become a photojournalist.

Gabriele can be reached at: [email protected]

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