Former guardians of Warsaw Pact now they rust in towns, villages
In the spring of 2022, Bulgarian military aircraft used during the Cold War suddenly became hot news. Should Bulgaria offer its old Soviet MiG- 29s to Ukraine, or shouldn't it? The debate went beyond the usual division between "hawks" and "doves." For some, sending the MiGs would help Ukraine to defend itself against an aggressor. For many more, including the Bulgarian president, himself a former fighter pilot, such a move would leave Bulgarian airspace unprotected, as some recently purchased US F-16s were yet to arrive. Significantly, the nay-sayers reasoned, such a move would make Bulgaria "a part of a conflict" it should be "neutral" to.
Long before the war in Ukraine, curious travellers in Bulgaria have had first-hand experience with old Soviet aircraft. Small-town Bulgaria is dotted with decommissioned military airplanes. At squares and by roads, they sometimes rust and are sometimes well maintained in silver or camouflage greens and browns. Some even have commemorative plaques.
What are these permanently grounded planes doing here in the first place? The majority of them were installed as monuments to Bulgarian military aviation. Some were dedicated to victims in the line of duty, others owe their existence to the nostalgia of retired pilots. Some mark a place of historical importance for the Bulgarian air force – like 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 or enthusiasts collecting parts as memorabilia.
The Ministry of Defence Air Force division maintains 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 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 air force 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 air force was transformed into Soviet MiGs, Ils, Tus and Yaks, plus East-German Lims and Czechoslovakian training L-29s. Up to 1989, the Bulgarian air force had invested in about 500 Soviet fighter aircraft and about 70 helicopters.
When the Cold War ended, Bulgaria reduced the number of military aircraft to about 220, and in 1998-2003 10 airfields were closed. At the moment Bulgaria protects itself with Russian MiG-29 jet fighters, upgraded to NATO standards, and Su-25 and Mi-24 ground attack aircrafts. In 2019, Bulgaria commissioned eight F-16 fighter jets from the United States, and in 2022 the US Congress approved the sale of another eight. These are yet to be manufactured.
Meanwhile, some of the old, decommissioned Communist fighter aircraft await you in Bulgarian towns and villages.
In the square by the church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary: L-29
In Batak, there is a tradition. Every generation born in the city – Bulgarians still use the military term nabor, or levy – has to do something for Batak when they reach the age of 50. Some of them have built public water fountains and others playgrounds for the children. Those born in 1949 installed... a plane in the centre. It was the idea of a retired pilot Mitko Karlyukov. It was enthusiastically supported by his nabori. The L-29 was bought and placed in the square in 1999. In 2020, the now septuagenarians repainted the plane.
Aero L-29 Delphin Specifications
Made in Czechoslovakia
First flight: 5 April 1959
Number built: 3,500
Crew: two students plus instructor
Length: 10.81 m
Wingspan: 10.29 m
Height: 3.13 m
Wing area: 19.8 sq.m
Empty weight: 2,280 kg
Loaded weight: 3,280 kg
Maximum speed: 655 km/h
Range: 894 km
Service ceiling: 11,000 m
Rate of climb: 14 m/s
Armament: 200 kg of guns, bombs, rockets, missiles
On the square: MiG-17 fighter aircraft
In the kindergarten: L-29 jet trainer aircraft
The MiG in the square is a memorial to a Soviet crew who crashed in the area, in 1944. It was restored in 2007. The L-29 is now used as a playground in spite of reports that its deteriorating condition makes it unsafe.
MiG-17F Fighter Specifications
Made in the USSR
First flight: 14 January 1950
Number built: 10,603
First fight: 1958, Straits of Taiwan
Length: 11.26 m
Wingspan: 9.63 m
Height: 3.80 m
Wing area: 22.6 sq.m
Empty weight: 3,919 kg
Loaded weight: 5,350 kg
Maximum speed: 1,145 km/h at 3,000 m
Range: 2,060 km
Service ceiling: 16,600 m
Rate of climb: 65 m/s
Armament: 1x 37 mm Nudelman N-37 cannon; 2x 23 mm Nudelman-Richter NR-23 cannons; up to 500 kg external stores including 100 and 250 kg bombs
In the village centre: MiG-17
The plane was placed in central Novi Han in 1997 by a local man, Hristo Petrov, who used to be an instructor at the Gorna Mitropoliya air force training ground. Novi Han's then mayor supported the idea. When asked by the Bulgarian National Radio why he did this, Petrov explained: "First, because we are from Novi Han. And second, because the mayor used to be radio operator at the air forces." According to Petrov, the grounded plane at Novi Han has promoted military career among locals, but this is hard to corroborate.
On the road to the village of Sirishtnik: MiG-17
If there is something like a family of flying aces in Bulgaria, then it is that of Kovachevtsi's own Karamfil Stamenkov, a retired colonel. He and his three brothers were all fighter pilots. Between them, they completed 161,627 flights or 57,448 flying hours. Karamfil Stamenkov is also the owner of the only private Museum of Aviation and Astronautics in Bulgaria (entrance free), in Kovachevtsi, which has a collection of model aircraft, family medals, parts of the NATO missile that fell over Bulgaria during the war in Kosovo in 1999, and specimens of some astronaut food.
Col Stamenkov also has a plane. The MiG-17 fighter parked in front of the make-shift museum is the same machine which Stamenkov flew for 15 years. It was given to the municipality by the former chief of the General Staff General Miho Mihov, also a pilot and a student of Colonel Stamenkov.
By the entrance to the city from the Sofia-Varna road: MiG-19, MiG-21bis, Su-22 plus an M-11 missile
Welcome to the openair Aviation and Spacecraft Museum, created in 2008. Why here? Indeed, few Bulgarians now know that the nation's second astronaut, Aleksandar Aleksandrov, who spent nine days of July 1988 on the Soyuz TM-5 spacecraft, was born in Omurtag, in 1951. The openair museum brings together the three types of aircraft that Aleksandrov flew. The MiG-19 was the first to be placed, followed by other machines. The reason for the missile is somewhat unclear. It was an M-11 that downed an American U2 aircraft in 1960, leading to a new phase of confrontation between the Great Powers during the Cold War.
MiG-19 Fighter Specifications
Made in the USSR and China
First flight: 18 September 1953
Number built: 2,172 (not including Chinese production)
Length: 12.54 m
Wingspan: 9.0 m
Height: 3.9 m
Wing area: 25.0 sq.m
Empty weight: 5,447 kg
Maximum takeoff weight: 7,560 kg
Maximum speed: 1,455 km/h at 3,000 m Range: 1,390 or 2,200 km with external tanks
Service ceiling: 17,500 m
Rate of climb: 180 m/s
Armament: 3x 30 mm NR-30 cannons; hard-points with 4 under-wing pylons and provision to carry combinations of unguided rockets; 4 Vympel K-13 missiles, up to 250 kg of bombs
MiG-21 Fighter Specifications
Made in the USSR, also in India and Czechoslovakia
First flight: 14 February 1955
Retired: 1990s in Russia, still in use in a number of countries, including Bulgaria
Produced: 1959-1985 all variants
Number built: total 11,496
Length: 15.76 m
Wingspan: 7.154 m
Height: 4.1 m
Wing area: 23.0 sq.m
Empty weight: 4,871 kg
Gross weight: 7,100 kg
Maximum speed: 2,125 km/h at 3,000 m
Range: 1,580 km
Service ceiling: 19,000 m
Armament: 1 x internal 30 mm NR-30 cannon plus 2 x K-13 or K-13A missiles or 2 x 500 kg of bombs
Su-17/-20/-22 Fighter Bomber Specifications
Made in the USSR
First flight: 2 August 1966
Number built: 2,867
Length: 19.02 m
Wingspan: 13.68 m spread; 10.02 m swept
Height: 5.12 m
Wing area: 38.5 sq.m spread; 34.5 sq.m swept
Empty weight: 12,160 kg
Loaded weight: 16,400 kg
Maximum speed: 1,400 km/h sea level; 1,860 km/h altitude
Range: 1,150 km combat in hi-lo-hi attack with 2,000 kg war-load; 2,300 km ferry Service ceiling 14,200 m Rate of climb 230 m/s Armament 2 × 30 mm Nudelman-Richter NR-30 cannon, 80 rpg; two under-wing launch rails for R-60 air-to-air missiles for self-defence; up to 4,000 kg on 10 hard-points, including free-fall bombs, rocket pods, cluster bombs, SPPU-22-01 cannon pods with traversable barrels, ECM pods, napalm tanks, and nuclear weapons. Current aircraft compatible with Kh-23, Kh-25, Kh-29 and Kh-58 guided missiles, as well as electro-optical and laser-guided bombs.
Near the village centre: MiG-17
It is tempting to speculate that this fighter is a memorial to the village's greatest son, wrestler Dan Kolov (1892-1940), who made his name and fortune as an undefeated champion in the United States. His best-known position was called "a plane," and after his return to Bulgaria in 1935, Kolov donated money to the state for the purchase of either a military or a postal plane (sources differ).
However, the reason for the MiG-17's presence in Sennik has nothing to do with Dan Kolov. Sennik is also the birthplace of former chief of the General Staff, Gen Miho Mihov, the aircraft being the same machine he flew.
In a neighbourhood by the border with Romania: Tu-134
The passenger Tu-134 of the now nonexistent Balkan Airlines company was parked in a garden between some Communist-era housing estates and the bank of the River Danube in 1995. For several years it was used for educational activities and a computer club, but was later closed owing to cash shortages. In 2021 some local activists renovated it as an educational centre with plans to add some multimedia featuring conversations between pilots and ground control in the well preserved cockpit.
Tu-134 was one of the most used commercial aircrafts in the Comecon and was the first USSR airliner permitted to fly internationally. Under Communism, Silistra used to have its own airport, but after a decline in air traffic post-1989, it was closed indefinitely in 2000.
Made in the USSR
First flight: 29 July 1963
Number built: 854
Crew: 3-5 flight crew + 3-4 flight attendants
Length: 37.1 m
Wingspan: 29.01 m
Height: 9.02 m
Wing area: 127.3 sq.m
Empty weight: 27,960 kg
Loaded weight: 47,600 kg
Maximum speed: 950 km/h
Cruise speed: 850 km/h
Range: 1,900-3,000 km
Service ceiling: 12,100 m
Sofia Military Museum: Several types of MiGs and a training L-29 in its open-air section
Aviation Square: Laz-7 replica
Unsurprisingly, Sofia is an aircraft buff's heaven, as the Military Museum exhibits arguably the best public collection of planes in the country.
The openair section of the Sofia Military Museum is the top spot in the country if you are looking for lots of MiGs in one place.
For a true legend of Bulgarian aviation, however, go to Aviation Square. There, there is a replica of a Laz-7 bomber. It was designed for the Bulgarian air force in the late 1940's by a Bulgarian engineer, Tsvetan Lazarov. The two-seater bomber was introduced in 1949 and was used for training and night flights. It was assembled in the the State Airplane Factory in Lovech. Until its closure in 1954, 313 Laz were produced in it.
Our to pick: RAZGRAD
There is no airport for miles around, yet a Soviet passenger Tu-134 lies permanently parked in what appears to be a forest. If you identify its whereabouts and drive up to it you will see what appears like a guarded fence. Take it easy. The fence has huge holes in it and is partly down anyway. Trouble is you will have to know exactly where you are going, for the airplane is so much overgrown you will not be able to see its fuselage until you literally bump into it.
The surreal site, evocative of the iconic Into the Wild bus, has a sinister story to it. Because there has never been an airport anywhere nearby the plane had been cut into pieces, transported and reassembled in situ... in what used to be a top secret Internal Armed Forces facility.
The Internal Armed Forces, colloquially referred to as the Blue Berets, were set up in 1985, when Bulgaria was a hardline Communist state. At the the height of the forcible Bulgarisation campaign against this country's ethnic Turks the Communist leaders feared violence and terrorism. The berets were supposed to thwart them. The Tu-134 was set up as a training site for them.
The facility was abandoned in the 1990s when the present-day gendarmerie, the successor to the Blue Berets, no longer had any use for it.
This overgrown shell of a Soviet-manufactured airplane, indicative of the poignant history of Bulgaria's Communist-era aviation, is best seen from above. Bring a drone.