Aircraft #15 taxi's back into Graf Ignatievo after the Air Policing demonstration
Voennovozdushna Ucebna Baza - Air Force Training Base
The Mi-8 version of Mil's Hip helicopter entered service with the Bulgarian Air Force in 1968. The upgraded Mi-17 (Mi-8MT) was introduced from 1984 onwards, with a number remaining on strength with 24 Air Base. The rugged and dependable Mi-8 was initially designed as a multi-role transport helicopter capable of carrying troops and/or supplies. Since its introduction it has been adapted for a variety of tasks; being equipped with with rockets and guns to provide armed support to troops, MEDEVAC duties, VIP transportation, firefighting and as a heavy-lift transport utilising its under-slung load capability, airborne command post, electronic counter measures, communications intelligence and command relay, photo-reconnaissance, reconnaissance, mine-laying and mine-clearing.
The external cable is equipped with a weight-measuring device, which enables it to carry large cargo up to three tonnes in weight below the main fuselage. One of the BuAF Mi-17's performed a simulated fire-fighting demo with a Bambi-Bucket carrying 3-tons of water. The aircraft #419, performed just a single pass along the airfield runway, dispensing its load at the far end, before heading off into the distance.
Bulgarian Air Force
Graf Ignatievo Air Base
A Mi-24V Hind helicopter gunship secures the area and prepares for any Close Combat Attack (CCA)
from insurgents or enemy troops
Not what you want to see coming over the horizon if you are enemy troops on the ground
The unmistakable head-on shape of the Hind
Following the flypast by the Mi-17, a simulated Combat Search & Rescue (CSAR) mission took place over the airfield
This started with a single Airbus Helicopters AS.523AL Cougar (above) dropping a single para-jumper, who then proceeded to simulate a downed pilot who had ejected from a stricken aircraft
A flypast by a single Mil Mi-17 from 24 Air Base carrying the Bulgarian national flag opened the show
Manufactured by Aero Vodochody in the Czech Republic, the L.39 Albatross was designed to be a cost-effective jet-powered trainer aircraft. The L.39ZA operated by the BuAF is an upgraded, armed training and light attack version, employing sturdier landing gear, higher payload and provision for a GSh-23L 23mm twin-barreled cannon in a conformal pod under the cockpit. Outer wing pylons can carry K-13 or R-60 air-to-air missiles.
A simulated Combat Search & Rescue (CSAR) mission started the main event, with a single Aero Vodochody L.39ZA performing a number of reconnaissance passes over the airfield before two Sukhoi SU-25Ks from 22 Air Base, Bezmer, executed Close Fire Support (CFS) to destroy any ground targets in the area of the ‘downed’ pilot. Meanwhile a Bell 206 helicopter maintained reconnaissance around the stricken pilot whilst a Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunship secured the area and prepared for any Close Combat Attack (CCA). A Cougar helicopter then performed troop infiltration using the Fast-rope method to identify and secure the downed airman. A second Cougar provided the extraction team and the stretcher, which was lowered by the helicopter's winch and provided Medical Evacuation (MEDEVAC).
The Sukhoi 25s execute Close Fire Support over Graf Ignatievo. Note the extended air-brakes on the wingtips of #195(photo, right)
Aircraft #37 powers up as it trundles along the taxiway at Graf Ignatievo, leaving the tell-tale black smoke behind it
Although supposedly no longer in service, this Mikoyan MiG.21bis-SAU was also in the static. They were operated by 1 Eskadrilla at Graf Ignatievo and we were told that a small number, including this one, are maintained in flyable condition and could be airborne in a matter of hours if required. We also saw personnel wearing the 1 Eskadrile badge on their uniforms, which makes you think what we were told is true
You want smoke ?
Someone better call pollution control. The Klimov engines certainly provide some drama to the Fulcrum
Something a little more staid up next as the Aviation Training School performed with a Pilatus PC-9M and an L.39ZA Albatross
Six PC-9Ms were delivered in 2004; #665 was damaged in a forced landing in 2010 and was re-built by Pilatus in Stans-Buochs and only returned to service in February
'Fight On' as two MiG.29 Fulcrums from 2 Eskadrila perform Basic Flight Maneouvres over Graf Ignatievo. The photo right shows off perfectly the tell-tale smoke trail left by the Fulcrum as it powers up the two RD-33 Klimov turbofan engines. BFM is the first subject all fighter pilots are taught, learning to fight against a target they can see. Once mastered they move onto fighting and maneouvring against targets beyond visual range (BVR).
The L.39ZA is used for advanced and all lead-in fighter training, with approximately 130-150 hours flown by students
Celebrating 20 years in service with the BuAF is the Bell 206 Jet Ranger. The Otdelna Uchebno Aviozveno (OUAZ - Independent Training Flight) is also based at Krumovo. Six helicopters were delivered in 1999, with their primary mission being training, reconnaissance, light transport and MEDEVAC duties.
Billed as an ‘Open Flight Day’ by the Bulgarian Air Force, the event marked the anniversary of entry into service of the Mil Mi-24 helicopter 40 years ago, the 30th anniversary of the MiG.29 into service and 20 years since the introduction of the Bell 206 helicopter.
Although the Bulgarian Air Force is a shadow of what it was during the Warsaw Pact years, an impressive and dynamic event was put on, keeping the relatively small crowd, estimated at 8-10,000, entertained throughout. A small static display consisting of two MiG.29s, two MiG.21s and two Cougar helicopters, all of which were on show without any barriers in place, allowed the local public to get up close and personal with the aircraft; with cockpit access to all the MiGs proving very popular with old and young alike.
The Bulgarian President, Rumen Georgiev Radev, arrived to watch the proceedings a short time before the show commenced, inspecting the troops (photo, left) before taking his seat in the VIP grandstand.
This Airbus Helicopters AS.532AL Cougar was one of two on show in the small static display
Seen on its mobile transporter, the S-200 is a long-range, medium to high altitude surface-to-air missile (SAM), known by NATO as the SA-5 Gammon. Bulgaria is believed to have S-200 batteries still in service at Kostinbrod, 15km west of the capital Sofia
A two-seat MiG.29UB roars out of Graf Ignatievo to intercept the rogue C-27J
At its peak the BuAF operated 40 Sukhoi SU-25s, but since joining NATO numbers have dwindled and it is unclear how may remain operational. There have been numerous offers to replace and/or upgrade the aircraft to make them a viable asset. It is unclear what the future holds for them, but enjoy them whilst you can
The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG.29 Fulcrum is a 4th -generation air superiority fighter , capable of destroying air, ground and maritime targets, day and night, in all weather conditions. The twin-engine aircraft is capable of achieving Mach 2+ and can carry up to six guided air-air-missiles (AAM), or unguided air-to-ground bombs or rockets. Delivery of the MiG.29 to the BuAF commenced 15th June 1989, when two MiG.29UB two-seat aircraft arrived at Ravnets for 5th Fighter Air Regiment. A further two MiG.29UBs along with 18 single-seat MiG.29As joined the unit by the end of 1990. By October of the same year, the 1st Fighter Squadron achieved operational readiness. With the closure of Ravnets, the MiG.29s moved to Graf Ignatievo in September 2000, becoming 2 Eskadrila of 3 Air Base. For 30 years now, the Fulcrum has provided air superiority for Bulgarian air space. Following the break-up of the communist bloc,
The large cockpit of the twin-seat MiG.29UB is clearly visible in the photo above
Note the periscope above the canopy, deployed to give the instructor in the rear seat a better view
Special Forces troops fast-rope from Cougar #712 to secure the area, whilst #710 brings in the MEDEVAC troops with a stretcher lowered from the winch. A Mi-24 combat helicopter provides close air support in the background whilst the evac takes place
Alongside the MiG.21bis was a two-seat MiG.21UM, supposedly still operated by 1 Eskadrila
The immaculate condition of the aircraft certainly gives the impression that it is still airworthy
This single-seat MiG.29A comes to a halt at the 'Last Chance' checkpoint prior to heading out onto the runway
Celebrating 20 years in service with the BuAF, the Bell 206 operates with 24 Air Base at Plovdiv/Krumovo
Six of the type were delivered and operate in the training, liaison and observation roles
Two examples are equipped for MEDEVAC operations with high ground-clearance skids (as above)
This image of the MiG.29 in flight shows off perfectly the positioning of the large RD-33 engines on the Fulcrum
Having secured the downed pilot and placed him on a stretcher, the special forces lift him into the MEDEVAC helicopter
MiG.29 #33 is towed back to the hangar area by a Russian-built Ural 4320 truck
Seen closing the show at Graf Ignatievo is #142, the first of four Mi-24V to undergo refurbishment
Some of the air-to-air missiles used by the based MiG.29s were displayed in the static area, including the R-73 Archer (left) and R-27 (right) Alamo
The Vympel R-27 is a medium-to-long-range air-to-air missile (AAM) developed by the Soviet Union, whilst the Vympel R-73 is a short range AAM
Bulgaria joined NATO's Partnership for Peace in 1994, applying for NATO membership in 1997. During the November 2002 Prague Summit Bulgaria was one of seven former socialist countries invited to join the NATO alliance, becoming a member of NATO in March 2004. Since then the BuAF Fulcrums have provided non-stop air policing duties within NATO Integrated Air and Missile Defence System (NATINAMDS).
Two Sukhoi SU-25Ks from 22 Air Base, Bezmer, executed Close Fire Support to destroy any ground targets in the area of the ‘downed’ pilot. The SU-25 is another aging aircraft, entering service with the Bulgarian Air Force in 1985
The Leonardo C-27J Spartan is one of three such aircraft operated by the Bulgarian Air Force
Based at Sofia-Vrazhdebna airport, they operate with 16 Air Base
Next up was the opportunity for the 'home' team to show off their prowess, and a much anticipated demonstration by 2 Eskadrila and their Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG.29 Fulcrums. The demonstration of a NATO Air Policing mission, whereby two Fulcrums would take off and intercept an unidentified aircraft, with a C-27J Spartan transport aircraft playing the part of the 'renegade' aircraft. The demonstration would see the two MiGs perform a Quick Reaction Alert (QRA), intercept the C-27, identify it and force the aircraft to land.
As a demonstration of the Fulcrum's capability, two aircraft performing basic fighter maneouvres (BFM)
Operated by 2 Eskadrila/24 Air Base at Krumovo, 12 Cougars are currently in service with the BuAF
Four of the type are configured for CSAR, identifiable by the FLIR mounted underneath the nose
The C-27J Spartan taxiing back in with the Bulgarian flag flying proudly from above the flight deck
As to the flying display, well the BuAF’s helicopters were well represented in the shape of the Mi-17, Mi-24, Bell 206 and Cougar displaying a variety of demonstrations, whilst the fixed-wing contingent included examples of the L.39 and PC-9 trainers, C-27J transport, SU-25 ground attack aircraft and the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG.29 fighter; all-in-all enough to have almost continuous flying for the best part of four hours; and bearing in mind the limited numbers of aircraft available to the Bulgarian Air Force at present, they certainly put on a varied display. The media representatives also provided us with a programme of the flying display outlining exactly what was going to happen throughout the day, meaning we knew exactly what was 'up next'.
The inner vertical stabiliser of MiG.29UB #33 is emblazoned with a portrait of Nedelcho Bonchev. Born on 21st June 1917 in Sofia, he graduated from High School and joined the Military Academy, graduating from the Jet Fighter School in Karlovo and starting his career as a fighter pilot in the 642nd Wing. During the Anglo-American air raids on 1st August 1943 he participated in air battles for the defence of Sofia. On 17th April 1944, then First Lieutenant Bonchev intercepted a USAAF Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, attacking it from below. Having unintentionally got too close to the B-17, he rammed it and both aircraft crashed. Bonchev came to still strapped into his pilot’s seat. He managed to free himself and opened his parachute, but he landed in deep snow somewhere around the village of Studena, Pernik region without his boots. A local saved him from freezing, but due to frostbite he spent the next few months in a hospital with pneumonia. At the end of the summer he left the hospital and returned to his squadron, now under the command of the new authority after the communist coup d’état on 9th September 1944. In October 1944 Bonchev made a further eight flights, including leading two flights of Messerschmitt Bf.109s in attacking six Dornier Do.17 light bombers, as well as two attacks on his own along the Kriva Palanka – Kumanovo road. However, the German battery he attacked managed to bring down Bonchev’s plane at Stracin. A fellow pilot spotted him jumping from the burning plane, but unfortunately he also saw several German motorcycles with sidecars heading towards the spot. What happened next with remains somewhat vague; one version claiming that he was executed during a convoy somewhere along the roads of West Austria or Southern Germany, however this was never confirmed.
The BuAF received its first Pilatus PC-9M turbo-prop trainer in November 2004 as part of a €33 million ($43 million) contract. Bulgaria acquisition of the PC-9Ms included the the provision of training services, spare parts and logistics support. With its ability to carry a weapons load, the PC-9s are used for basic, advanced and weapons training.
Despite the popularity and capabilities of the MiG.29 fleet, the Bulgarian Government have been looking at options to replace the aircraft for some time, ironically placing an order for Lockheed Martin F-16s within two weeks of celebrating its 30 years of service with the BuAF. U.S Congress approved the purchase for eight F-16 Block 70 multi-role aircraft worth $ 1.6 billion. The purchase includes AN/AAQ-33 SNIPER Targeting Pods, AIM-120C7 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM), AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles, GBU-49 Enhanced Paveway II Kits, GBU-54 Laser JDAM Kits, GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs and MK-82 Bombs. The contract also provides a number of Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing Systems (JHMCS) II with Night Vision Goggle compatibility.
The Mil Mi-24 Hind helicopter is used primarily by the Bulgarian Air Force for close air support for the Bulgarian Army. Equipped with two TV3-117V turbine engines, it enable the Hind to operate in hot weather at high altitude (Hot and High). Entering service with the BuAF in 1979, when 38 Mi-24D were delivered, the V-version entered saw seven aircraft added to the inventory from 1985. With all the D-version helicopters having been withdrawn, there are just two remaining Mi-24V operated by 1 Eskadrila/24 Air Base at Krumovo, with a further four awaiting re-introduction upon completion of overhaul. Having been in service for 40 years, the Mi-24 continues to provide Close Air Support (CAS), Medical Evacuation (MEDEVAC), tactical transportation, aerial escort, infiltration/exfiltration and aerial reconnaissance.
We received notification by the Bulgarski Voenno Vzdushni Sili (Bulgarian Air Force-BuAF) that an event would be hosted by 3rd Air Base at Graf Ignatievo on 29th June, dedicated to the anniversary of three of its current aircraft types - the Bell 206 and Mil Mi-24 helicopters, plus the legendary Mikoyan MiG.29 fighter; celebrating 20, 40 and 30 years in service respectively. Having never visited or reported on the Bulgarian Air Force before and despite the relatively short notice, we felt it an opportunity too good to turn down and so we headed off to Sofia the day before the event to make sure we captured the action. We were not to be disappointed, with a small but excellent display laid on by our hosts.