FLYING LOW

by Anthony Georgieff

Defence Minister Dragomir Zakov was quick to assert that NATO's Air Force command centre assessed the aircraft as a potential risk

lz airplane

In early June a small plane flew into Bulgarian airspace from the northwest and landed at what used to be a commercial airport near Vidin. Apparently, the aircraft refuelled. It is unclear whether the pilot or pilots got any on-the-ground assistance from anyone or just poured fuel into the plane's tank from canisters. Guards from a private security company that was supposed to protect the ruins of Vidin Airport, which was abandoned in the 1990s, noticed the activity and alerted the local police. But the aircraft was quicker. She took off before the police arrived.

The aircraft flew off eastward and landed at Targovishte, some 400 kilometres away. There, its passengers covered her with a piece of tarpaulin, installed a camera and left – before anyone could do a thing.

Since then the Bulgarian police and prosecutors have been unable to identify who the aircraft belonged to, why she flew through half of Bulgaria without getting intercepted and most importantly who and why flew her into this country one stormy night last June.

The Bulgarian Air Force commanders seem to have learned a lot since then.

In July two Soviet-manufactured MiG-29s were sent off from the Graf Ignatievo air base, in southern Bulgaria, to the area of Svishtov, at the Danube river, to intercept what was apparently a small aircraft that was flying at an altitude of 600 metres, or 1,800 feet, and did not have either a flight schedule or an activated transponder.

Defence Minister Dragomir Zakov was quick to assert that NATO's Air Force command centre assessed the aircraft as a potential risk. The MiGs followed the aircraft, a Cesna-150, and she landed peacefully at an airfield near the Pleven village of Bohot. The pilot of the aircraft was detained and released the following day. The MiG pilots, reportedly some of this country's youngest Air Force aces, were congratulated on the successful mission.

This is a joke, commented the Bohot airfield owner, Anton Georgiev. The Cesna was perfectly legitimate and did not break any rules as this type of aircraft was under no obligation to have an active transponder. The aircraft is the property of a local organisation that uses it for training purposes. According to him, the media frenzy that followed the incident was meant as a distraction from this country's failure to identify who and why flew the aircraft that landed and was abandoned at Targovishte in June. 

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