Hunting for MiGs in Bulgaria
Ronald de Roij takes an East European journey
Not a well-visited aviation country, Bulgaria is now mostly visited by organised spotter groups and individuals for major aviation events. Its flying force, the Balgarski Voennovazdushni Sily (BVVS) or 'Bulgarian Air Force' has suffered badly from cutbacks in the nineties and its former strength in numbers has been replaced by smaller numbers of upgraded Russian jets and helicopters. Opportunities to see the MiGs and Mils in the wild are scarce, so any opportunity is sought after to see the equipment up close.
Bulgaria, like many other countries, has an 'International Children's Day' on the first of June. On this day several bases may have an open day, lasting from 09:00 till 13:30. With bases being few and far apart, not more than one can normally be visited, with the exception of Graf Ignatievo and Krumovo, situated at either end of the city of Plovdiv. After last year's failure to gain access to Graf Ignatievo due to the pending arrival of the Oregon Air National Guard F-15s deployment, followed by a late arrival at Bezmer, we decided to give it another go this year.
Via contacts with Bulgarian spotters, we found out that Graf Ignatievo was definitely open and Krumovo 'maybe'. On arrival at Graf Ignatievo only a handful of people were at the gate and we were on base in no time. It is amazing how few people are coming to such an event like this, even with Plovdiv - a city of some size - nearby.
At the moment, Graf Ignatievo is the only fighter base of the Bulgarian Air Force and one of five remaining air bases in the country. Since the Second World War, it has been the home to the HQ and 1st and 2nd Squadron of the 19th FAR, 10th Composite Air Corps, flying with types like the MiG-15, MiG-17, MiG-19 and MiG-21. In 1994 it became the 3rd Fighter Air Base (3.IAB) of the Tactical Air Corps, with the MiG-21Bis. Finally 'Graf' was transferred to the Air Defence Corps, which was created in 1996, and after the closure of Ravnetz Air Base in 2000 all MiG-29s were also transferred to the base.
There are two squadrons flying at Graf Ignatievo; 1/3 Iztrebitelna Avio Eskadrila, flying the Mig-21Bis and -UM, and 2/3 Iztrebitelna Avio Eskadrila, flying the MiG-29A and -UB. Also present are large numbers of Mig-21s stored on several aprons around the base, many have already found their way to the dump.
Coming back to the Open Day, one must not expect too much; it is more about quality than quantity. On the static line were a MiG-21Bis, MiG-21UM and a MiG-29A, next to some airport equipment. The flight line had a MiG-21UM and a MiG-29UB; the main types of this modest, but friendly, Open Day.
The flying display turned out to be bigger than the static part of the programme - a MiG-21Bis, MiG-21UM and a MiG-29UB in the first wave and three MiG-29As and a MiG-29UB in the second wave. All aircraft passed in front of the visitors on the taxi track, which gave excellent photo opportunities. The flying consisted of some touch-and-goes and a dogfight between two MiG-29s, although the latter did not provide for any photo opportunities due to the high altitude of the demonstration.
A big surprise was a Mi-24, ex-117 of the BVVS, destined for the African country of Mali. It was pulled out of one of the maintenance hangars for the first time since being painted and it made some engine runs, as part of a pre-delivery inspection. After the flying display we took some distant pictures of the QRA Mig-21s and the gate guards and were then off to Krumovo.
Krumovo has a long association with helicopter flying. It was the post-war home of the 44th Helicopter Regiment of 10th Composite Air Corps, with Mi-2, Mi-8 and Mi-17 based here. It also houses a military aviation repair factory. In 1994 Krumovo was re-designated 24th Helicopter Air Base (24.VAB) of the Tactical Air Corps. Now, its tenant units are 1/24 Vertoletna Avio Eskadrila, flying the Mi-24, 2/24 Vertoletna Avio Eskadrila, flying the Mi-17 and the AS 532 (twelve ordered examples are now on delivery) and Otdelna Uchebno Aviozveno with the Bell 206. All BVVS helicopters are now based at Krumovo.
During our visit to Graf Ignatievo, it came to our attention that Krumovo would not be open this year because of some rotary transport preparing for Afghanistan, for which an AN-124 was present. Next stop was the Bulgarian Museum of Aviation, located next to Krumovo's main gate. Established in 1991, the museum has around sixty aircraft on display.
One of the more unique types there is an Arado AR-196 combat floatplane, surrounded by most of the types used by the Bulgarian Air Force since the Second World War. The museum also provides opportunities for good photos of aircraft on the active field - this time we were lucky enough to catch some Mi-24s taking off and a Mi-17 passing by the museum yard.
On last place that we visited was Katunitza - on a local yard there are ten Mig-23BNs stored. These came from nearby Cheshnegirovo-Sadovo air base, former home of the 25 IBAB. The future of these planes is uncertain.
Compared to last year's failure to see any active flying at all, our visit in June was a great success with pictures that show the great opportunities of capturing Bulgarian MiGs. A word of advice to anyone thinking about doing the same next year: in principle there should be an Open Day on the first of June, but operational demands can easily cancel a day, like at Kromovo this year.