“Balkan Bulgarian Airlines” in the 1970s: Flying passengers to their deaths

Written by on June 20, 2017 in Bulgaria - Comments Off on “Balkan Bulgarian Airlines” in the 1970s: Flying passengers to their deaths

Note: This article was previously published on F&F Magazine, which is now part of The Sofia Globe.

Bulgaria Air today is a modern airline with excellent equipment. The airline offers domestic flights to Varna and Burgas, connections to lots of European cities, including Moscow, as well as to three Middle Eastern destinations.

They use a fleet of five state of the art Airbus A319 and A320 jet aircraft and a total of five smaller commuter planes, which are being checked and repaired by Lufthansa Technik at Sofia Airport. Bulgaria Air is a safe airline by now.   

It was very different, some decades ago. Bulgaria Air’s predecessor, Balkan Bulgarian Airlines, operated Russian built Ilyushin and Antonov planes, many of which crashed, killing passengers and crew members, especially during the 1970s.

In 1971 alone, there were three fatal crashes. From then onward, several tragic accidents happened, almost on a yearly basis. During those times, boarding planes by communist Bulgaria’s state airline was like playing Russian roulette. The probability for getting killed during the trip was very high. The planes in use were flying coffins.

The long series of fatal crashes started with the beginning of the jet age, in 1968. On September 3rd, 1968, an Ilyushin IL-18 with 89 people on board, crashed while trying to land at Burgas Airport. Forty-two passengers and five crew members died, when the aircraft, owned by “Bulair TABSO”, possibly the predecessor of “Balkan Bulgarian Airlines”, crashed short of the runway, in bad weather.

Probably due to the fact that few people flew in the late 1960s, no accidents seem to have happened in the following three years. But 1971 proved to be the year or horror and loss.

A Tupulev TU-154 owned by Balkan Bulgarian Airlines, in the 1980-s.

It was January 18th, 1971, when Balkan Bulgarian Airlines flight no. LZ-130 left Paris for Sofia. Originally, this flight of death was supposed to go via Zurich, but bad weather had been predicted. When the forecast suddenly changed for the better, the pilots decided to go to Zurich after all. When they attempted to land, the Ilyushin IL-18 banked left, just meters above the ground. The left wing hit the ground, they crashed. That day, 38 passengers and 7 crew members died. Only two people on board survived.

Just when the shock started receding slowly, the next Balkan Bulgarian Airlines flight crashed, in September of 1971. This time, air traffic controllers mistook the Antonov An-14, which was en route to Sofia from Karzhali, with another plane in the area, and told the pilots to lose altitude. As a consequence, this place crashed into the Sveti Duh peak, in the Rila mountains. Eight out of nine people on board lost their lives.

The news of two fatal accidents in one year must have sent shock waves through Bulgaria, if the communist regime released those terrible news. But there would be a third crash, before that year was over.

On December 21st, 1971, an Ilyushin IL-18 took off from Sofia Airport, with 62 passengers and 11 crew. The destination of this flight of death was Algiers. But, shortly after takeoff, the aircraft crashed, killing 26 passengers and two crew members.

It would take less than year, until disaster struck yet again. An Ilyushin IL-14, owned by Balkan Bulgarian Airlines, was on its way from Burgas to Sofia, on November 4th, 1972, when the pilots encountered a common problem: Fog was announced in Sofia. They decided to land at Plovdiv Airport instead. Everybody on board, 35 people, was killed instantly, when this aircraft crashed into a mountain.

No, this very long series of deadly plane crashes was far from over. On March 3rd, 1973, yet another Ilyushin IL-18, with the Balkan logo painted on its fuselage, along with the registration code LZ-BEM, left Sofia for Moscow. At 12:45 p.m. local time, flight no. 307, with 17 passengers and eight crew members, crashed during its second landing attempt. The aircraft broke apart and caught fire. Yet again, everyone on board the plane was killed instantly.

Another year later, three people were killed, when an Antonov AN-24, again owned by Balkan Bulgarian Airlines, crashed shortly after takeoff, at Sofia Airport.

This series of plane crashes ended in 1974. But it would take only four years to the next major accident.

On December 2nd, 1977, a Tupulev TU-154, yes, owned by Balkan Bulgarian Airlines, was en route from Jeddah to Benghazi, with 159 passengers and 6 crew members. The pilots could not find the destination airport, due to fog. And they could not locate any alternate airport either. This state-owned Bulgarian plane crashed when it ran out of kerosene. 59 passengers died in Lebanon.

With that many crashes, any western airline would have been shut down long ago. But this did not happen in Bulgaria. Just three and a half months after the Lebanon accident, on March 16th, 1978, a Tupulev TU-134 took off from Sofia Airport, on its way to Warsaw. Some kind of emergency must have happened on board, but, until today, nobody seems to know what exactly it was. This aircraft crashed shortly after taking off, near the town of Vratsa, killing everyone on board, 66 passengers and seven crew members.

After several quiet years, it happened yet again. A Tupulev TU-134 was coming back from Berlin on January 10th, 1984. It was foggy in Sofia, yet again. The pilots tried to locate the runway. While doing so, they did not keep above the so-called decision altitude. Therefore they crashed, some five kilometers from Sofia Airport. All 50 people on this plane died.

Just before communism collapsed, there would be one more fatal accident. On August 2nd, 1988, Balkan sent a Yakovlev YAK-40 off to Varna, from Sofia, with 33 passengers and four crew. The passengers probably wanted to enjoy some days at the Black Sea. But 28 of them died that day, when this aircraft crashed, due to a fire on board.

This was the last crash registered. But there were far too many. Balkan Bulgarian Airlines was not safe. Of course they were not the only ones in Eastern Europe. Or in the world. Another airline, the planes of which nobody should have boarded, even in the 1990s, was Cubana de Aviación. They crashed all the time. There were just as many tears shed at José Marti Airport, in Havana, as there were at Sofia Airport.

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About the Author

Imanuel Marcus is Associate Editor of The Sofia Globe. He is German and lives in Sofia. Contact: imanuelmarcus (at) gmail.com