Erstwhile guardians of the Warsaw Pact rust and crumble in towns and villages
Issue 68, May 2012
by Minka Vazkresenska; photography by Anthony Georgieff
You happen to be travelling from God-forsaken-Bulgarian-village A to God-forsaken-Bulgarian-village B when, out of the blue, in the deserted square of God-forsaken-Bulgarian-village C you see a plane.
It is an old military plane, sometimes rusting, sometimes freshly-painted in silver or camouflage greens and browns. Sometimes there is even a commemorative plaque, but it rarely helps you to understand why the aircraft is there. The plaques are in Bulgarian and offer enigmatic information like: "Donation from 1949 recruitment." Asking the locals is no help, either. Most of them have no idea why they have a plane in their village.
So, you continue on your way to God-forsaken-Bulgarian-village B and the plane remains in God-forsaken-Bulgarian-village C, a mystery.
These aircraft are actually monuments to Bulgarian military aviation. Some are dedicated to victims of this dog fight or that crash, others owe their existence to the nostalgia of retired pilots. Some mark a place of historical importance for the Bulgarian airforce – like that in Svilengrad, from where the first Bulgarian military crews flew during the Siege of Edirne in 1912. A great many of the grounded planes are there simply because some aircraft-lover managed to install them there.
According to a list published on bgspotters.net, there are about 250 such planes in Bulgaria. The data, however, is unofficial and may be incomplete or incorrect. By 2012, 19 of the aircraft had been broken up and sold as scrap metal, a process carried out roughly between 1998 and 2007. Many of those still standing have suffered damage at the hands of local vandals and/or enthusiasts collecting parts as memorabilia.
The Ministry of Defence Airforce division keeps 63 of these aircraft. The location of 13 planes on the list is not specified, while the majority of the others are in public spaces in villages, towns and even the appropriately named Aviatsionen, or Aviation, Square in Sofia.
Most of them are MiGs and L-29s. These grounded planes bear witness to Bulgaria's former role in the Warsaw Pact.
Before 1944, the Bulgarian airforce flew French Blériots and German Fokkers and Messerschmitts. In 1925 a Bulgarian aircraft workshop opened in Bozhuristhe, followed by a factory in Lovech in 1943. Before they shut down in 1955 and 1954, respectively, they had produced about 1,000 DARs, a Bulgarian-designed aircraft.
When Bulgaria entered the Warsaw Pact its airforce was transformed into Soviet MiGs, Ils, Tys and Yaks, plus East-German Lims and Czechoslovakian training L-29s. Up to 1989, the Bulgarian airforce had invested in about 500 Soviet fighter aircraft and about 70 helicopters.
When the Cold War ended, Bulgaria was forced to reduce its number of military aircraft to about 220, and in 1998-2003 10 airfields were closed down.
At the moment, Bulgaria protects itself with Russian MiG-21 and MiG-27 jet fighters, the latter having been upgraded to meet NATO standards.
There are also regular proposals to buy Eurofighters, JASes and F-16s.
Meanwhile, some of the old, decommissioned Socialist fighter aircraft await you in Bulgarian towns and villages.
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers