Scheduled training flights at the Bulgarian Air Force’s Graf Ignatievo base were suspended on October 24 as combat pilots massively refused to fly because of safety concerns and discontent over the delay in acquiring new jet fighters, several media reports said.
Policing of Bulgarian air space was going ahead as usual, with the Italian Air Force currently assisting the Bulgarian Air Force in a mission scheduled to end on October 31.
Public broadcaster Bulgarian National Radio, quoting its own sources, said that combat pilots reported that they felt “psychologically unable” to fly. The pilots were demotivated because of yet another delay in the process of acquiring new fighter jets.
As The Sofia Globe has reported previously, going by statements by Deputy Defence Minister Anatoly Velichkov, eight out of 10 of the overhauled MiG-29 jet fighter engines delivered to the Air Force had not been put into use because of shortcomings in the documentation about them.
Specialist website Aero said on October 24 that there was again a shortage of lubricant for the jet engines at the air force base. In May-June, there was practically a stoppage of flights at the base because of a lack of engine lubricant. In June, Defence Minister Krassimir Karakachanov promised that the problem would be resolved urgently.
The Defence Ministry posted a tender for the supply of engine lubricant on October 17, with a deadline of November 22 for the submission of offers. This means that the lubricant may be supplied only next year, Aero said.
According to BNR, pilots felt that conditions were dangerous and the risk of accidents was high.
Other reports said that, in addition to demotivation, pilots were concerned about taking off on October 24 because of weather conditions. Graf Ignatievo base is close to Bulgaria’s second city Plovdiv, one of numerous districts in Bulgaria that were subject to a “Code Orange” dangerous weather warning because of forecast heavy rain and strong winds.
Bulgarian Air Force commander Major-General Tsanko Stoykov, in interviews given to mark the centenary of Bulgaria combat aviation earlier in October 2017, said that the decision delaying the process of acquiring new fighter jets had hit pilots’ motivation hard.
“They feel neglected, somewhat offended, and for this reason this reflects on their further motivation to remain in the Air Force,” Stoykov said.
Asked if there was an outflow of pilots and engineers, Stoikov said: “Not for now”.
BTV said on October 24 that the Department of Defence had confirmed that the training flights at Graf Ignatievo had been stopped because of discontent over the state of the Air Force.
The television station quoted Deputy Defence Minister Atanas Zapryanov as saying that the lack of confidence was because of insufficient training, because of insufficient flying hours.
Representatives of the Ministry of Defence would hold a meeting with the pilots, he said.
Zapranov said that the issue of the documentation related to the overhauled MiG-29 engines was being resolved and more were being accepted as operational.
Bulgaria has been a member of Nato since 2004 and is meant to upgrade its Air Force by acquiring new multi-role combat aircraft to meet the alliance’s standards. Currently, the Air Force has ageing Soviet-made aircraft that are hugely expensive to maintain.
A succession of governments have not finalised the fighter jet acquisition process. In 2016, at the time of the second Boiko Borissov government, three formal offers were received in response to an official request by the government. Sweden’s Saab offered to supply new made-to-order Gripens, while Portugal offered second-hand US-made F-16s and Italy offered second-hand Eurofighters.
An interdepartmental expert committee, in a report presented to the Gerdzhikov caretaker cabinet in early 2017, ranked the Gripen offer as the best. Borissov, on returning to power at the head of his third government, told the Swedish prime minister that negotiations on the acquisition of Gripens would proceed within weeks.
However, a flip-flop followed, as Borissov’s GERB party initiated a parliamentary investigation into the process that led up to the report presented to the Gerdzhikov interim administration. In a highly politicised saga, which President Roumen Radev – formerly the commander of the Air Force – saw targeted at him, the committee found serious shortcomings” regarding the compilation of the expert report.
Voices in and close to GERB also appeared to now favour the F-16 option, as a means of currying favour with Washington. In a speech in the National Assembly on the special parliamentary committee’s report, GERB parliamentary leader Tsvetan Tsvetanov underlined how Bulgaria’s close neighbours and fellow Nato members Romania, Greece and Turkey were flying F-16s, while he derided Gripen.
The National Assembly approved the special parliamentary committee’s report, which asked the Defence Ministry to go back to the bidders for new offers. Soon after, reports began to emerge about low morale among Bulgarian Air Force pilots.