Bulgaria: Fighter Force

Bulgaria: Fighter Force

Richard Clarke experiences the full-on action of the Bulgarian AF MiG-21s, MiG-29s and Su-25s during an epic five-day visit, which included going air-to-air in a BuAF C-27J Spartan with the fighter fleet!

I joined the first COAP assignment to No12(B) squadron at RAF Marham and witnessed first-hand the kind of access and opportunity that can be provided. I was particularly keen to photograph some eastern European heavy metal and when I saw the opportunity to visit Bulgaria under Assignment No7 I quickly registered my interest. It’s recommended to sign up and register on the COAP site, it’s not a commitment however it does give you a head start if the assignment is likely to be oversubscribed and you will be the first to get updates.

Our five-day Assignment to cover the Bulgarian Air Force's fighter fleet for a future e-book took us to Graf Ignatievo airbase located in the province of Plovdiv, a wide flat expanse overlooked by the Rhodope Mountains. Its Bulgaria’s last remaining air defence fighter base and home to the legendary MiG- 21bis/UM and MiG 29A/UB. It is fair to say that the air force is currently facing real challenges keeping a fighter force effective with a very restricted budget. To this extent only three MiG-21 remain operational.  It transpired on the trip that these aircraft will in fact be retired this November. Due to repairs at Bezmer airbase the BuAF Su-25UBK ‘Frogfoot’ fleet was also at Graf along with a Polish detachment of MiG-29s for the air policing role.

Following an introduction from Brigadier General Ivan Lalov, we spent our first day in wondrous light shooting aircraft on the flight-line, moving adjacent to the runway to capture take off and landings. Our accompanying hosts providing insight for the best locations, given the variance in take-off/landing performance between the aircraft types this was most helpful.

In the evening we attended a COAP workshop on-base, an opportunity to learn more about capturing the essence of life on front-line military operations. As a result I found myself thinking much more about composition and capturing images that tell a story.

Our second day was very special for me; it became apparent when the assignment was announced that there was the potential for an air-to-air sortie and I was selected to be a part of this historic occasion. Initially this was to be a simple sortie but it had evolved into a full-blown air policing exercise. We were to fly over Bulgaria for 3.5 hours at 12,000ft to test SAM capabilities and then join up with the MiG-21s and MiG-29s from both Bulgaria and Poland, as well as the very rare Su-25s. The effort undertaken by Rich and his Bulgarian counterparts to make this happen cannot be underestimated and carried numerous operational caveats. Following briefings from our Bulgarian hosts and Rich on the flight patterns and a safety briefing by the aircrew we donned our safety harnesses and boarded the aircraft, an Alenia C-27J Spartan. Once aboard and attached to a safety line we practised the procedure for moving to the open ramp several times before the engines spooled up and we taxied to the runway.

“I am already planning my next Assignment. ”

Take-off complete, the aircraft headed east to the coast of the Black Sea. My initial excitement in check, thoughts turned to anticipation and what I would witness. It was time, with the green light flashing and the klaxon sounding, the rush of air as the loadmaster opened the rear cargo door to reveal our first subjects. MiG-21s loaded up with live air-to-air missiles, powering through the white cloud and blue sky like supermodels strutting along the catwalk. A truly breathtaking experience in more ways than one and a real challenge to my photography skills, get the right depth of field and shutter speed for sharp, crisp shots and then anticipate the aircraft breaks and manoeuvres - all pre-planned and now down to the skill of the individual pilots to achieve. What a buzz.

On subsequent days we visited the Air Force Museum at Krumovo before returning to Graf for another workshop - a unique insight into the history of the air force - one of the oldest in Europe, an interview with Major Stanislav Dragiev (Maintenance Chief) to learn about the servicing of the aircraft followed by a walk around the maintenance hangars and lastly the night shoot with Ognyan Stefanov, the BuAF official photographer and night time specialist. This presented a fantastic opportunity to capture Captain Aleksander Staykov – the very last pilot trained to fly the MiG-21bis, posing in front of his jet.  

Given the interest we had shown our hosts on the final day presented us with the opportunity to visit Krumovo air base to shoot helicopter operations. Wow! Were we rewarded; Mil Mi-17 engine runs followed by a flying demonstration of its fire-fighting capability. Passes by two Bell 206 JetRangers from the training flight and two Eurocopter AS532 Cougars demonstrating the SAR role with simulated winching of aircrew and troop extraction.  

The itinerary for the week was well co-ordinated to maximise this great photo opportunity with access to most areas. Rich and Steve provided excellent support and guidance and I thoroughly enjoyed every moment. If you want to do more than simply take pictures at an air show or from ‘outside the fence’ and experience operations up close then this is for you. I am already planning my next Assignment.

NAME: Richard Clarke
LOCATION: Gloucester
KIT: Nikon
EXPERIENCE: 7+ years