Bulgarian Air Force (Военновъздушни сили, ВВС) is a branch of the Bulgarian Army, the other two being the Bulgarian Navy and Bulgarian land forces. Its mission is to guard and protect the sovereignty of the Bulgarian airspace, to provide aerial support and to assist the Land Forces in case of war. The Bulgarian Air Force is one of the oldest air forces in Europe and the world. In recent times it has been actively taking part in numerous NATO missions and exercises in Europe. The current commanding officer of the Bulgarian Air Force is Lieutenant-General Simeon Simeonov.
The history of the Bulgarian Air Force can be traced back to the end of the 19th century, when in 1892 at the Plovdiv International Fair two lieutenants of the Bulgarian Army flew with the ‘La France’ airship of the Frenchman Goddard. Later, being inspired by the flight, they succeeded to convince the General Staff that the Bulgarian Army should build a balloon force. The Imperial Aviation School in St. Petersburg enrolled Lieutenant Vasil Zlatarov as a student, following numerous refusals from military schools around Europe to teach Bulgarian officers to use airships. On 20 April 1906 “Vazduhoplavatelno Otdelenie” (roughly translated as Aviation Department) was created to operate observation balloons for the army. After graduation Lt. Zlatarov was appointed its first commander. The first generation of Bulgarian aviators were trained on a balloon named ‘Sofia-1’, constructed by Zlatarov with materials bought from Russia.
In 1910 a Russian aircraft engineer, Boris Maslennikov, was invited to Bulgaria, where he presented his airplane, a modification of the French Farman III. Following his demonstration assisted by Vasil Zlatarov over the hippodrome in Sofia, the Bulgarian Government decided to acquire airplanes for The Aviation Corps. In early 1912 thirteen army officers were sent abroad for training as pilots and orders were placed for five French, British and German airplanes. In June 1912 Lt. Simeon Petrov , training at the school of Louis Blériot in France, for the first time in the history of aviation succeeded to land an airplane with a stopped engine. The event was praised in the French newspapers and La Poste, and the French mail service acknowledged it by publishing a stamp. The officers sent to France completed their training first and returned to Bulgaria in July 1912. The same year Bulgaria received its first airplane – Bleriot XXI with which on 13 August 1912 Simeon Petrov flew to become the first Bulgarian to pilot an airplane over Bulgaria.
On October 15, 1912 two pilots, Radul Milkov and Prodan Tarakchiev received an order to gather intelligence about the Turkish army strength and dispositions in the Odrin keep. Following the order, on October 16 the two airmen, flying an Albatros biplane flew over the city. During the course of the flight they dropped bombs over the railway station in Kara-Aghatch (considered a military target) - this was the first time in history that an airplane was used for an offensive action (in this case as a bomber). Only after their successful return from the mission did the crew discover that the plane had suffered substantial damage from the anti-airship batteries at Odrin.
Later that month with the expanding of the nascent Bulgarian Aviation Corps to three Aeroplane Platoons. Foreign volunteers began flying operational sorties alongside Bulgarian pilots, and carried out numerous reconnaissance, leaflet-dropping and bombing missions. During the course of the war at least three aircraft were shot down. Considerable help was received from the Russians in terms of aircraft, maintenance and training. Due to low aircraft serviceability and frequent training accidents, the number of missions actually flown was fairly low – however the Bulgarian pilots were able to gather aerial reconnaissance information, highly valued by the army General Staff.
The Kingdom of Bulgaria entered the First World War as an ally of the Central Powers on October 4, 1915. A 5-million Bulgaria raised a 616,680-strong army. It was the only country (along with Italy to some extent) which had experience with military aviation, dating before the war - at a time when war strategists such as Marshal Foch of France found the airplane a machine completely useless for the military.
The Aeroplane Section of the Bulgarian Army was deployed to Kumanovo Airfield in support of the rapidly advancing Bulgarian forces, but bad weather make flying virtually impossible upon arrival. To that moment the section had completed 11 combat sorties, flown from an airfield in Sofia (a location today occupied by the central railway station of the Bulgarian capital). With the advance of the frontline the unit re-deployed to airfields near Belitsa and Xanthi (an area populated by Bulgarian majority at the time; presently the region is part of Greece). The newly acquired German LVG aircraft were hastily pressed into action. Two more airfields were constructed near Udovo and Levunovo. The Allies started conducting reconnaissance and bomber sorties against the forward Bulgarian ground units on the Southern Balkan Front. Trough the entire period of fighting in World War I the Bulgarian military aviation experienced a steady boost in both numbers and quality of the types of aircraft in its inventory. However, they still were inferior to those, flown by the Allies, especially the British and French. The First Aeroplane Section (the country's only aircraft unit) was attached to the Second Bulgarian Army. It flew 255 sorties, compared with 397, flown by the four squadrons of the Entente it opposed. The Section operated the following types:
In addition, the Bulgarian Navy used the following airplanes:
A number of Bulgarian pilots flew with German air units at the Western Front. Even more pilots flew with the German units based at Xanthi. They operated Albatros D.III, Halberstadt, etc. which would later mistakenly be added to the Bulgarian inventory and scrapped at Bozhourishte.
On the 30 September 1916 a single French Farman 40 entered Bulgarian aerospace with the intention to bomb the capital Sofia. The two seater belonged to the French Escadrille 384. Pilot was Sergeant Maurice Rauable and, Branco Naumovich, a Serbian, serving in the French army, was the gunner. At Bozhurishte Airfield a pair of Bulgarian Fokker E.III was scrambled. One of them was flown by the German flight instructor at the Bulgarian Aviation School Feldwebel Wagner; the Bulgarian Lieutenant Marko Parvanov flew his wingman. After a rapid climb the fighters gained altitude of 3000 meters and entered a battle station over the village of Vladaya to the south of the city (today a part of Sofia), awaiting the intruder. At the same time a flight of 3 armed Albatros C.III twin-seater trainers was dispatched over the exact center of the capital as a second line of defense.
Heavy anti-aircraft ground fire met the Farman when it tried to enter the airspace of Sofia. The bomber quickly released its load (which caused no casualties) and the pilot Sgt. Rauable tried to elude the Bulgarian fighters. Fld. Wagner fires the guns of his Fokker E.III at the target, but missed. Then Lieutenant Parvanov engages the French aircraft and damaged it. The bomber made an emergency landing with a dead engine and the aircrew was captured.
Another Allied aircraft, captured by Bulgarian troops was a British Armstrong Whitworth F.K.3. Bulgarian fighter pilots forced the pilot to land and it and the crew of two were taken into custody unharmed. Later the bomber would receive Bulgarian insignia and introduced to service for "special operations". The Armstrong Whitworth was used for night bombings of Allied positions, the darkness hiding away its Bulgarian insignia and the sound of its engine representing a friendly machine. 42 such sorties are flown with considerable success before intensive AAA fire damaged the captured bomber. The pilot Captain Ivan Uzunov (to become a legendary airman, a national hero and a key person in Bulgarian aviation activities) was able to land it in the almost complete darkness and set the machine on fire. Together with his navigator Lieutenant Popatanasov they made a three-day-long march behind enemy lines, until they made it to the advancing Bulgarian infantry units unharmed.
Two Nieuport XXVII fighters were also captured . Lieutenant Vladimir Balan, Bulgarian fighter pilot who until that time flew with a German JaSta on the Western Front (and was awarded with the German Iron Cross for his excellent service) flew one of the Nieuports. During one such a sortie he shot down the squadron leader of the British No. XVII Squadron RAF Captain O'Dwyer.
Bulgarian airmen also suffered losses, but mostly when their recon planes were involved in dogfight with dedicated fighters.
Bulgarian naval aviators also played important role in the air war. In 1912 Petty-Officers Lyapchev and Mikhailov were sent, along with other officers and seamen, to the German naval aviation forming facilities for training. Another group of naval personnel followed in the beginning of the First World War. Training was held at List, Nordenhai and Kiel. In November 1915 a seaplane station under German control was established near Varna, operating 4 Friedrichshafen FF-33 bombers and a Rumpler 6B-1 fighter. Later at the coast of the Varna Lake a second seaplane station was built (this one under Bulgarian control), operating the same inventory. Near Sozopol a forward fuel and ammunition replenishment base was established in support of patrol flights over the southern Bulgarian coastline. At the end of 1917 the German station was transferred to the Bulgarian Navy. At the time the armistice the Bulgarian fleet air arm comprises two seaplane stations, a forward replenishment base, three hangars, three workshops, ammunition warehouses and 10 seaplanes. After the cease-fire the machines were used for mine reconnaissance. At the end of 1919 they are transported by train to Bozhurishte Airfield to be scrapped along with the army aviation inventory.
The Bulgarian balloon observers also took part in the war. They were most active on the Dobrudzha Front, where aircraft activities were scarce (a German bomber squadron, flying missions against Bucharest and Constanţa in "Gota" bombers accounted for the most flights). Near the Bulgarian city of Yambol an airship hangar was constructed to house a Kaiserliche Luftflotte "Schütte-Lanz"-type airship "SL 10". According to documents of the time it was assigned to the Bulgarian Army, but was actually under German control. Shortly after arrival it was lost during a flight over the Black Sea. In due time L.59 replaced it. That airship flew a series of remarkable missions, such as an attempted resupply of the garrison in German East Africa and the bombing of Naples. During a combat flight against the British naval base in Malta a lightning set it on fire over the Mediterranean Sea and caused its complete destruction. All hands were lost.
The Chaika Naval Seaplane station at Varna was under Naval command.
On November 27, 1919 the Treaty of Neuilly-sur-Seine was signed. In accordance with the treaty The Kingdom of Bulgaria was banned from operating military aircraft under any form for the next 20 years. For that reason all Bulgarian airplanes, balloons, aviation equipment, weaponry and ammunition were to be destroyed under Allied control. Under the terms of the treaty any aircraft, procured for civilian purposes, were to be bought from the countries on the winning side. The combined engine power for any airplane (including multiengined ones) was not to exceed 180 hp. In addition, the Bulgarian airspace was to be controlled and used in the victorious countries' interests.
In accordance with the treaty during 1920 no less than 70 airplanes, 110 aviation engines, 3 air balloons, 76 aviation machine guns, a number of photographic cameras and as well as other aviation equipment were destroyed at the military airfield of Bozhurishte. The seaplanes of the Bulgarian Navy were delivered by train to the same airfield and scrapped soon after that.
Thanks to the devotion of the Air Troops personnel and the help of the population of the surrounding villages several aircraft were hidden, thus evading Allied inspection and following destruction. Seven DFW C.V, Albatros C.III and a single Fokker D.VII were among the survivors. In addition, at least ten aviation engines (Benz-IV and Mercedes-III) were also saved.
The Bulgarian government tried to get around the ban for military flight activity by establishing a Gendarmery Aeroplane Section in 1919. Since the Gendarmery was at that time a service under the Ministry of War, the creation of the unit was met by fierce opposition by the Allied commission. This almost resulted in the destruction of the whole Vrazhdebna Airfield, but the disbandment of the unit prevented this from happening.
An Aeroflight Section under the Ministry of Railways, Postal Service and Telegraph was created in 1920. Bulgarian aviation personnel assembled two airplanes from hidden spares and parts, salvaged from the destroyed military airplanes. The two aircraft, known as "the mixed planes", recorded about 1000 flight hours altogether. The sole remaining Bulgarian Fokker D.VII was disguised as a two seater, thus being classified as a trainer and returning to active service.
On 5 July 1923 Bulgaria ratified the International Civil Aviation Treaty. From that moment on its air vehicles would carry a registration in the form B-B??? (the latter three signs being a combination of capital letters). In 1923 the first group of cadets, called "student-flyers" entered the Flying school at Vrazhdebna AF.
The following year (1924) the first new airplanes were acquired. Those were machines of the Potez VIII, Caudron C.59, Henriot XD.14, Bristol 29 Tourer types; Avro 522 seaplanes were also procured. During the same year the Bulgarian airplane construction specialist Atanas Grigorov (who obtained his qualification at the "Albatroswerke - Berlin") assembled his superb seaplane, called "Grigorov-1". The aircraft made several test-flights, recording excellent characteristics, but was damaged beyond repair by a storm in the hangar where it was stationed. Also in 1924 the Aeroplane Section was expanded to an Aeroflight Directorate still under the Ministry of Railways, Postal Service and Telegraph.
1925 saw the Potez XVII, Bristol Lucifer and the Macchi 2000/18 flying boats boosting the country's aircraft inventory. The Bulgarian government invited a group of German aircraft engineers, headed by the constructor Herr Hermann Winter to help establish and aviation factory. Named The State's Aeroconstruction Atelliér (more popular as DAR-Bozhurishte) the factory was initially managed by the first Bulgarian pilot to achieve an aerial victory - Mr. Marko Parvanov. The first aircraft types, produced by the plant were the "Uzounov-1" (an indigenous variant of the wartime German DFW C.V) and the DAR-2 (indigenous variant of the German Albatross C.III of the same era). Both types well-known and loved by the personnel of the former Air Troops and with Bulgarian combat service experience. A new type - the DAR-1 was also in a phase of development.
During the course of 1926 the Airplane School was moved to the geographical center of the country. The town of Kazanlak was well suited, for it stayed away from the Allied Control Commission. The Czechoslovak "AERO-Praha" company has also built an aircraft factory near that city, but its models were not up to the requirements of the Bulgarian authorities. After unsuccessful switch to automotive production the plant was finally sold to the Italian Caproni company. The factory became popular as "Balgarski Kaproni" or "Bulgarian Caproni". The first examples of the very successful DAR-1 were produced and entered service with the Aeroflight Directorate during 1926.
The 1927 structure of the Directorate was the following:
In 1928 the Ministry of War started the ambitious 10-year program for development of the military aviation (still banned by the peace treaty). According to the plan the following structure had to be achieved:
In 1931 Bulgaria signed the Warsaw Treaty, concerning international civil air activities and the country was assigned the new civil registration - LZ-??? (the latter three signs being a combination of capital letters). In 1933 the Bulgarian Council of Ministers approved the following wartime order of battle of the aviation:
Bulgaria started acquiring German, Czechoslovak and Polish airplanes.
In 1934 the Aviation Regiment was renamed in His Majesty's Air Troops, comprising a headquarters, two army orlyaks (based at Bozhurishte and Plovdiv airfields), a training orlyak (in Plovdiv), a maritime yato (at NAS Chaika, Varna) and additional operational support units. Chief of the HMAT became Colonel Ivan Mikhailov with Lieutenant-Colonel Georgi Vasilev appointed as his Deputy.
The first combat aircraft entered service in the reestablished air force in 1937. These were 12 Arado Ar.65 fighters, 12 Heinkel He.51 fighters, 12 Dornier Do.11 bombers and 12 Heinkel He.45B recon planes. These machines are known as the Royal Gift, donated to the HMAT personally by King Boris III.
During the traditional military parade of St. George's Day (National Day of Bravery and of the patron-saint of the Bulgarian Armed Forces) in 1937 military aircraft officially debuted as a part of the armed forces after nearly two-decade hiatus. A month later Boris III himself presented the Bulgarian air regiments with their new combat flags at an official ceremony at Vrazhdebna Airfield. In 1938 14 newly built polish PZL.24B fighters were acquired along with 12 PZL.43B light bombers.
When the Third Reich occupied Czechoslovakia, absorbing it as the Directorates of Bohemia and Moravia, its air force ceased to exist. Bulgaria used the opportunity to acquire large numbers of relatively modern aircraft at a symbolic price. 78 Avia B.534 biplane fighters, 32 Avia B.71 bombers (a license version of the soviet SB-2"Katyusha" light bomber) and 60 Letov-Šmolnik S.328 recon were part of the reinforcements. In less than 3 years the Air Force inventory had grown up to 478 pieces of which 135 of Bulgarian construction.
At the beginning of World War Two the combat air fleet comprised 374 machines in various roles. In addition orders were placed for 10 Messerschmitt Me.109E-4 fighters, 11 Dornier Do.17M/P bombers, 6 Messerschmitt Me.108 light liaison and utility aircraft, 24 Arado Ar.96B-2 and 14 Bücker-Bestmann Bü.131 trainers.
The Air Force order of battle comprised the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Army Aviation Orlyaks (Army Air Groups or air regiments), each attached to the correspondingly-numbered field army. Each orlyak had a fighter, a line bomber and two reconnaissance yatos (Squadrons). There was also an Independent Aviation corps, which combined the 5th Bomber and 6th Fighter Regiments. The training units consisted of the "Junker" School Orlyak at Vrazhdebna airfield, the 2nd Training Orlyak at Telish airfield (called the Blind Flying Training School) and the 3rd Training Orlyak at Stara Zagora airfield. In 1940 the Bulgarian aviation industry provided the HMAT with 42 DAR-9, 45 KB-5 aircraft and the serial production of the KB-6 - Bulgaria's first twin-engined aircraft was scheduled to commence. At year's end the Air Force had 595 aircraft (258 combat) and 10 287 personnel.
The Kingdom of Bulgaria entered the Second World War on the 1st of March 1941 as a German ally. Under the signed treaty Bulgaria allowed the use of its territory as a staging point for the invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece and some minor logistical support.
Despite the impressive inventory, Bulgaria's fighter force at the time consisted of 91 machines, with just 10 of them being of the modern Me.109E-4 type. Further 11 were of the outdated PZL.24B; the remaining numbers were of the Avia B.534 biplane types. The ground-based air defenses were made up of only 8 88mm and 6 20mm AA guns. To help its new ally the 12th Army of the Wehrmacht offered support with its air and air defense assets and 8 Freya-type radars dispersed throughout the country. A dispersed observation and reporting system was gradually developed.
The first air strike against Bulgarian targets was carried out by 4 Yugoslav Dornier Do.17Kb-1 on the 6th of April 1941 on the city of Kyustendil and its railway station killing 47 and injuring 95, mostly civilians. The air strikes intensifying following days; British Royal Air Force units based in Greece participated in the attacks as well. At the end of April 2nd and 5th Bulgarian Armies occupied Greek and Yugoslav territories according to an agreement with the Third Reich. As a part of the joint armed forces' effort on June 26, 1941 6 Avia B.71 and 9 Dornier Do.17M bombers were transferred to the Badem Chiflik airfield near Kavala (in modern Greece). They were tasked with ASW patrols and air support for Italian shipping over the adjacent area of the Aegean Sea. In addition 9 Letov-Šmolnik S.328 based in Badem Chiflik provided the ground troops with air reconnaissance. At the Black Sea shores the "Galata" Fighter Orlyak was established at NAS Chaika, Varna, with the 10 Me.109E-4s and 6 Avia B.534. The S.328s were also used for ASW patrols over the Black Sea, flying out of Sarafovo and Balchik airfields. At the end of 1941 the inventory of His Majesty's Air Troops consisted of 609 aircraft of 40 different types.
In the past decade Bulgaria has been trying actively to restructure its army as a whole and a lot of attention has been placed on keeping the aging Russian aircraft operational. Currently the attack and defence branches of the Bulgarian air force are composed mainly of MIG-21s, MIG-29s and Su-25s. There are also several Su-22s, used primary for surveillance purposes. About 16 MiG-29 fighters are being modernized in order to meet NATO standarts and until now everything is going according to plan (7 jets will be ready until September 2007). In about 2 years time the government intends to purchase 16 modern jet fighters but due to the lack of funding the procedure of choosing the best alternative could prolong itself. The main competitors are expected to be Eurofighter, Dassault Rafale, JAS 39 Gripen, F-16 and F/A-18 Super Hornet. In 2006 the Bulgarian government signed a contract with Alenia Aeronautica for the delivery of five C-27J Spartan transport aircraft in order to replace the old soviet made An-24 and An-26. The first Spartan is expected to arrive in year 2007 and the remaining four until 2011.
Modern EU-made transport helicopters were purchased in 2005 and until now 7 have arrived. In 2-3 years the Bulgarian Air Force will have 12 Eurocopter Cougar helicopters (8 transport and 4 CSAR), and the Navy - 6 Eurocopter Panther. Until then the Bulgarian Air force would have to rely on the Mi-24s and Mi-17s. Recently, the Ministry of Defense terminated the contract with Elbit Systems for modernizing 12 Mi-24 and 6 Mi-17 helicopters and will be looking for a new executor of the modernization.
Branches of the airforce include: fighter aviation, assault aviation, intelligence aviation and transportation aviation, aid defense troops, radio-technical troops, communications troops, radio-technical support troops, logistics and medical troops.
Reserve (closed) air bases
With the exception of the Navy's small helicopter fleet, the Air Forces are responsible for all military aircraft in Bulgaria. The Air Forces' inventory numbers 124 aircraft, including 46 combat jets and 42 helicopters. Aircraft of western origin have only begun to enter the fleet, numbering 13 of the total in service.
Bulgaria signed deal with the Eurocopter worth 358 million euros for purchase of 12 AS 532Eurocopter Cougar and 6 Eurocopter Panther AS 565. The Panthers will replace Mil Mi-14 in ASW role and AS 532 are to replace Mil Mi-17 in transport role.
As a result of new helicopter and transport aircraft purchase it was decided to delay purchase of new fighter for time being. It is hoped extra funds can be secured in 2009-2011 for purchase of 12-24 fighters.
Bulgarian AF plans to retire most of its Soviet era aircraft, keeping only Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-29 Fulcrum fleet which was modernized only recently.
! style="text-align: left; background: #aacccc;"|Aircraft ! style="text-align: left; background: #aacccc;"|Origin ! style="text-align: left; background: #aacccc;"|Type ! style="text-align: left; background: #aacccc;"|Versions ! style="text-align: left; background: #aacccc;"|In service ! style="text-align: left; background: #aacccc;"|Notes |----- | Aero L-39ZA Albatros | | advanced trainer/light attack aircraft | L-39 | 12 | |----- | Alenia C-27J Spartan | | transport | C-27J | 1 || 4 more under delivery | |----- | Antonov An-24 Coke | | transport | An-24 | 2 | |----- | Antonov An-26 Curl | | transport | An-26 | 3 | |----- | Antonov An-30 Clank | | aerial survey | An-30 | 1 | |----- | Bell 206 | | utility helicopter | Bell 206 | 6 | |----- | Eurocopter Cougar | | transport helicopter | AS532 | 8 || 4 in CSAR configuration under delivery | |----- | Eurocopter Panther | | naval helicopter | AS565 | || 6 under delivery for the Naval Aviation Service, to be operated onboard the new multirole corvettes | |----- | Let L-410 Turbolet | | transport | L-410UVP-E | 7 | |----- | Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 Fishbed | | fighter
lead-in trainer | MiG-21bis
MiG-21U | 18
3 | almost 240 acquired from the 60s until the 90s; although source claims 21 in service, some 60 or more are parked on Graf Ignatievo Air Base. |---- | Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-29 Fulcrum | | fighter
lead-in trainer | MiG-29
MiG-29UB | 16
4 | 7 out of 16 have been modernized and are in active service, others in process of modernization, which is to be completed around 2010. |----- | Mil Mi-14 Haze | | naval helicopter | Mil Mi-14PL | 12 || to be replaced by Eurocopter Panthers | |----- | Mil Mi-17 Hip-H | | transport helicopter | Mi-17 | 18 | |----- | Mil Mi-24 Hind | | attack helicopter | Mi-25 (export version of Mi-24D)
Mi-35 (export version of Mi-24V) | 12
6 | |----- | Pilatus PC-9 | | trainer/light attack | PC-9M | 12 | |----- | Pilatus PC-12 | | utility transport | PC-12 | 1 | |----- | Sukhoi Su-25 Frogfoot | | close support
lead-in trainer | Su-25
Su-25UB | 28
4 | |}