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Where? Graf Ignatievo Air Base, Bulgaria
When? spring / summer 2015

The sights at Graf Ignatievo Air Base in Bulgaria are fascinating. A still typical Warsaw pact flight line filled with MiG-21s and MiG-29s, and even more Fulcrums are visible in the heat haze at the Eastern end of the airfield, ready to scramble with their live weapons for an air policing mission. But it is 2015, and these MiGs are guarding one of NATO’s Eastern frontiers.

ABulgaria 114 1652 Zeitler 700 470 90
ABulgaria 114 1652 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria 114 1740 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria 114 2144 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria 114 2436 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria 358 1845 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria 358 2108 Zeitler 100 67 85
ABulgaria 26 1823 Zeitler 700 470 90
ABulgaria 26 1823 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria 26 2170 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria MiG 29 2445 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria MiG 29 7540 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria MiG 29 7623 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria MiG 29 7710 Zeitler 100 67 85

And though Bulgaria already became a NATO member in 2004 and saw many reforms in the past 20 years, no new combat equipment was introduced within that time. But this is going to change in the near future.

ABulgaria 114 2588 Zeitler 700 470 90
ABulgaria 114 2588 Zeitler 100 67 85
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Bulgaria 28 2410 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria 358 1890 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria MiG 21 1599 Zeitler 100 67 85

Still operating original ‘adversary’ aircraft from a time when borders and the actual enemy were still clearly defined, Graf Ignatievo became a popular destination for Squadron exchanges with its Western Allies in recent years. The “3rd Fighter Air Base” is Bulgaria’s sole remaining fighter base and for some years already used to being the host for foreign jet Squadrons. This is not only due to favorable airspace conditions around the airfield to conduct their operations, but also due to the limits of their MiG-21 and MiG-29 aircraft. Compared to other countries such as Slovakia or Romania the Bulgarian fighters did not undergo an avionics modernization program, thus still lack NATO-wide standardized communication, navigation or IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) and therefore cannot deploy abroad.

ABulgaria MiG 29 2300 Zeitler 700 470 90
ABulgaria MiG 29 2300 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria 26 2096 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria 26 2473 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria 32 2053 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria MiG 29 2471 Zeitler 100 67 85
ABulgaria 33 2456 Zeitler 700 470 90
ABulgaria 33 2456 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria 26 2576 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria 32 2751 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria MiG 29 2400 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria MiG 29 2461 Zeitler 100 67 85

The MiGs thus only operate locally, and three „Thracian“ exercises kept the Bulgarian Air Force once again busy in 2015. Whereas “Thracian Eagle 1 & 2” focused on flying with US ANG units flying the F-15 Eagle, “Thracian Star” in July saw the visit of the US 117th Fighter Wing of the New Jersey Air National Guard to Graf Ignatievo from 13-24, July. The exercise was set-up as a bilateral, total force training event to enhance interoperability with the Bulgarian Air Force (BuAF) and to bolster readiness to conduct combined air operations.

ABulgaria So 2292 Zeitler 700 470 90
ABulgaria So 2292 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria Graf Ignatievo 1704 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria Graf Ignatievo 2063 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria So 2258 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria So 7795 Zeitler 100 67 85
ZBulgaria Flightline 2025 Zeitler 100 67 85
ABulgaria F 15 7597 Zeitler 700 470 90
ABulgaria F 15 7597 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria F 15 2192 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria F 15 2282 Zeitler 100 67 85
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Bulgaria F 15 7584 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria F 16 1726 Zeitler 700 470 90
Bulgaria F 16 1726 Zeitler 100 67 85
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Bulgaria F 16 1811 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria F 16 2106 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria F 16 2392 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria F 16 2633 Zeitler 100 67 85

As an additional highlight Bulgarian Su-25s fighter-bombers were also stationed at Graf Ignatievo during these exercises as their actual home airbase was closed due to repairs.

ABulgaria 240 2233 Zeitler 700 470 90
ABulgaria 240 2233 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria 240 1634 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria 240 2075 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria 240 2803 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria 240 2811 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria 254 2537 Zeitler 100 67 85
ABulgaria 254 2617 Zeitler 700 470 90
ABulgaria 254 2617 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria 240 2519 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria 240 2609 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria 254 2256 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria Su 25 1636 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria Su 25 1772 Zeitler 100 67 85
ABulgaria Su 25 7574 Zeitler 700 470 90
ABulgaria Su 25 7574 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria 254 1784 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria 254 2240 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria Su 25 2314 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria Su 25 2420 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria Su 25 2622 Zeitler 100 67 85

Whereas these “Thracian” exercises are held annually, the 2015 edition coincided even more with an uncertain and tensioned future of Bulgaria’s fast jet inventory. After the future of Bulgaria’s 12 active MiG-29s hung in the balance for quite a while, issues about spare parts also kept the MiG-21 Fishbeds on the ground for about one year with a negative impact for the whole BuAF. It meant a lack of platforms for jet fighter training, e.g. intercepts against the MiG-29 Fulcrums, and difficulties in keeping pilots and technicians proficient. This resulted also in a higher risk for flight safety on daily operations after the Fishbeds were gradually brought back in the air piece after piece from May 2015 on.

ABulgaria 358 1882 Zeitler 700 470 90
ABulgaria 358 1882 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria 358 2580 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria 358 2757 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria MiG 21 1600 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria MiG 21 2191 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria MiG 21 2527 Zeitler 100 67 85
ABulgaria 358 2698 Zeitler 700 470 90
ABulgaria 358 2698 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria 114 1571 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria 114 2705 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria 28 1550 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria Flightline 1971 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria MiG 21 2116 Zeitler 100 67 85

However, by the end of July the Bulgarian MoD announced to keep the MiG-21 in service only until the end of December 2015, with no real replacement following afterwards.

ABulgaria 33 1947 Zeitler 700 470 90
ABulgaria 33 1947 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria 33 2462 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria MiG 29 7536 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria MiG 29 7552 Zeitler 100 67 85
Bulgaria MiG 29 7647 Zeitler 100 67 85

The visit of these exercises thus coincided with a last chance to witness this legendary Cold War warrior in Bulgarian AF service.

This text is an excerpt of my article “TIME FOR CHANGE” published in Combat Aircraft Monthly, issue October 2015 - Vol 16 No 10 -

Thanks to BuAF PAO and 3rd Fighter Air Base personell for their outstanding support before and during my visit.

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