The leadership of Bulgaria’s Defence Ministry went into damage control mode on October 24 following media reports that fighter pilots at the Graf Ignatievo Air Force Base had refused to participate in training flights that morning because of safety concerns and low morale.
Deputy Defence Minister Atanas Zapryanov denied that flights from the base had been suspended. Bulgarian National Television reported the base commander as saying that the training flights had been suspended because of bad weather. Defence Minister Krassimir Karakachanov told reporters that someone was “artificially creating tension” among the pilots and he was looking into the situation.
Earlier reports said that the pilots were disgruntled because of the latest delay in the process of acquiring new fighter jets. They massively had refused to take off on October 24 because of safety concerns about their aircraft, while some reports added that they were worried by forecasts of bad weather. One specialist website said that there was a shortage of engine lubricant. Further, as reports last week had said, most of the overhauled MiG-29 engines delivered lacked proper documentation to justify putting the fighters into use.
Zapryanov said on October 24 that Russian company RSK MiG had delivered 10 MiG-29 engines, including six new ones and four overhauled ones.
He said that, according to a report by the commander of the Bulgarian Air Force, there were seven operational MiG-29s, and with the delivery of the engines, this number would rise to the number that Air Force estimates said would allow an increase in the flying time of pilots. The issue of the documentation for the engines was being overcome, he said.
The reports earlier in the morning had said that while the training flights scheduled for the day were cancelled, air policing missions were continuing as planned.
Karakachanov told reporters that someone was artifically stoking tensions among the pilots: “I am surprised that they have suddenly discovered that there are problems with aviation”.
He said that he had no idea why pilots thought there would not be a new fighter jet. “There would be already if they (fighter jets) were like vacuum cleaners, you go to the shop, pay, take it and use it.”
Karakachanov said that he had spelt out his priorities – first, maintenance and modernisation of existing equipment, negotiations to buy a new fighter and the purchase itself. “I have said this many times and I am surprised that they have not heard me.”
He said that he had visited Graf Ignatievo three months ago and if need be, would go there again.
Karakachanov said that the condition of all three branches of Bulgaria’s armed forces was critical. The army needed new armoured vehicles and the navy needed new patrol vessels. The problems dated back years because the issues had been neglected, and the problems could not be solved by waving a magic wand, he said.
The acquisition of the fighter jets, the infantry vehicles and the naval patrol vessels would cost Bulgaria 3.5 billion leva. “I do not want these things to be done on the run, and afterwards, someone finds out that there were omissions, violations and unprofitable transactions,” Karakachanov said.
(Photo: Krassimir Grozev)