Thracian Eagle 2015–1

April 2015 saw the start of the Bulgarian/US exercise Thracian Eagle I. Dino van Doorn, Hans van der Wilt and Bas Stubert report from Graf Ignatievo air base.

Graf Ignatievo Air Base is one of only two fighter bases of the Balgarski Voenno Vazdushni Sily (BVVS – or Bulgarian Air Force) and one of five remaining air bases in the country. Since the Second World War, it has been the home to the HQ and 1st and 2nd Squadron of the 19th FAR, 10th Composite Air Corps, flying with types like the MiG-15, MiG-17, MiG-19 and MiG-21. In 1994 it became the 3rd Fighter Air Base (3.IAB) of the Tactical Air Corps, with the MiG-21Bis. Finally ‘Graf’ was transferred to the Air Defence Corps, which was created in 1996, and after the closure of Ravnetz Air Base in 2000 all MiG-29s were also transferred to the base. There are two squadrons flying at Graf Ignatievo; 1/3 Iztrebitelna Avio Eskadrila, flying the Mig-21Bis and -UM, and 2/3 Iztrebitelna Avio Eskadrila, flying the MiG-29A and -UB.

Bayou Militia

Graf Ignatievo was host to eight F-15C/D Eagles from the 159th FW, Louisiana Air National Guard, also known as the Bayou Militia, from April 14th – May 5th, 2015.They arrived at Graf Ignatievo Air Base on the 14th and 16th of April, stopping en-route at RAF Lakenheath with five aircraft arriving on the 12th of April and the remainder three aircraft arriving at Lakenheath on the 15th. Due to some technical issues with three of the Louisiana ANG F-15’s; the package was split into two flights.

The 159th FW deployed the following aircraft:
F-15C    78-0496, 78-0536, 80-0029, 81-0036, 81-0041 (marked 159th MXG), 82-0037
F-15D    82-0047, 83-0048

Support for the Atlantic crossing of the F-15 package was provided by KC-10 Extenders, while all ground support was airlifted by several C-17’s. Louisiana Air National Guard Lt. Col. Matt Rippen, 159th Operations Group commander, and around 150 Airman from the 159th FW, augmented by Iowa ANG crash tender crews  and other USAF assets were deployed to Graf Ignatievo.

During the two week deployment, missions were flown with Bulgarian Air Force MiG-29A/UB’s from 2 Iztrebitelna Avio Eskadrilabased at Graf Ignatievo and 1/22 Shturmova Avio EskadrilaSu-25K/UBK’s on TDY from Bezmer AB whilst the runway at Bezmer is being extended. Missions flown included Basic Combat Training (BCT) and Dissimilar Aircraft Combat Training (DACT). SAM missile batteries equipped with amongst others, the 9K37 Buk (NATO reporting names SA-11 Gadfly/SA-17 Grizzly) and 9K33 Osa (NATO reporting name SA-8 Gecko) missiles were also involved, giving the visiting Eagles some realistic training against modern Russian-designed weapon systems. Typically, two missions were flown each day. Usually the Su-25’s would form a strike package, protected and attacked by MiG-29’s and/or F-15’s. The number of aircraft per mission varied, but it was not uncommon to see seven Eagles, up to four MiG-29’s and up to three Su-25’s participate. Both the Bulgarians and the Americans got a taste of the other air forces aircraft, the two F-15D’s and two MiG-29UB’s gave both teams the opportunity to fly a mission in each other’s fighters. Many of the flights were flown into the eastern part of Bulgaria.

New old fighters

At Graf Ignatievo, the word was that the based MiG-21’s are to resume flying in May 2015. After delays in getting all the necessary spare part from Russia; deliveries finally came through. Whilst Thracian Eagle was in full swing; mechanics were busy working on the fleet of MiG-21’s in the large maintenance hangars on the base. The MiG-21’s are expected to be operational in time for exercise Thracian Eagle II, which will see the arrival of twelve 125th FW/159th EFS Florida ANG F-15C/D’s in early May. These Eagles are on a six-month deployment to Europe and have already participated in Frysian Flag 2015 at Leeuwarden air base, the Netherlands. They are expected to remain at Graf Ignatievo for a full month before redeploying to Norway. After this exercise Thracian Star is planned for July 2015 with F-16’s from the 177th FW, New Jersey ANG participating alongside the based aircraft.

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