Graf Ignatievo Open Day

Saturday 29th June 2019

When three types in your inventory reach their 20th, 30th and 40th anniversaries of service not just in one year, but in the same month, you have to mark the occasion, right? Well, that's just what the Bulgarian Air Force (BuAF) did in June 2019, celebrating those anniversaries of the Bell 206 JetRanger, MiG-29 Fulcrum and Mi-24 Hind respectively with an open day at Graf Ignatievo Air Base in central Bulgaria. The event not only showed off those types with a varied and dynamic show but saw participation from most other types in the Air Force as well.

Sam Wise reports from the Bulgarian fighter base for UK Airshow Review.

Airshows in Bulgaria are rare, but most bases hold an open day pretty much every year. While this year's at Graf Ignatievo, about 20 minutes outside the city of Plovdiv, was very much an open day in name and on the ground, given the themes involved and the amount put on display it's hard not to call it an airshow. Announced only a couple of months beforehand, with news of it really only making its way outside of Bulgaria with a few weeks to go, it was nonetheless a hard event to pass up. Bulgarian equipment is very rarely seen outside of its home country, and knowing that at least three types would be put on show was tempting indeed.

The actual flying programme was only announced two days before the show itself, and on the day visitors to the event were treated to examples of almost everything in the Bulgarian Air Force inventory with aircraft from many other bases joining to commemorate the significant milestones, in greater or lesser capacities. The flying lasted about 4 hours with a fairly varied programme that was split into two sections.

After the display was kicked off by a Mi-17 carrying the Bulgarian flag (later on it would also perform a waterbombing drop), the first half of the programme consisted of "demos" - showing what the pilots and crews do. For the L-39 and Bell 206 crews, this consisted of showing off the kinds of manoeuvres trainee pilots will practise while on those types. The combat helicopters - the Mi-24 being accompanied by two BuAF AS532 Cougars - put on a very dynamic Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) demonstration that began with an "ejected pilot" parachuting out of one of the Cougars. The sole Hind taking part flew in to provide defensive support and top cover, with pyrotechnics on the ground, while the Cougars carried on variously fast roping, winching and picking up troops and victims alike in front of the crowd. While the Cougars are somewhat derided in Bulgaria as being less capable than the aircraft they replaced, the Mi-17, the CSAR demonstration was certainly a crowd pleaser.

The most striking elements of the first half, unsurprisingly, came from the fast jets. A pair of Su-25 Frogfoots from Bezmer Air Base conducted a ground attack routine, again with pyrotechnics. Sadly in the worst light of the day, the routine only consisted of a number of passes at increasingly high dive angles, but it's hard to be disappointed by anything Frogfoot-related.

Probably the most dramatic role demo performed, though, came from the Fulcrums, showing off any fighter's primary peacetime role of Air Policing. Launching to intercept a "hostile, unresponsive aircraft" - in reality, a Bulgarian Air Force C-27J Spartan - the three aircraft came in over the base, one fighter in close formation with the transport and another trailing behind in the control zone. Through a series of tight turns the hostile transport was forced down to land at the base with one of the MiGs following it through the whole way. If you've never seen an air policing role demo before, it's an extraordinary demonstration of fighter pilot ability!

However, the best was yet to come as the second half of the programme was the "display" section. The crowd got to see, once again, the L-39, Bell 206 and Mi-24s perform solo routines that weren't, truth be told, totally dissimilar to those in the first half, but you couldn't really knock the helicopters getting their time in the limelight. Excitingly, the C-27, piloted by Captains Georgiev and Deneva, which had remained at the base following its force down performed its own solo routine - while not quite the loops and rolls of the Italian RSV's display the Bulgarian example still put on quite a competent demonstration of the transport's manoeuvrability and tactical capability.

The lion's share of the display element went to the Fulcrums. The show was closed by a solo demo flown by Colonel Nikolai "Hunter" Rusev, the base Deputy Commander (of note was the presence at the show of the Bulgarian President Rumen Radev, who flew the solo demo jet in 2012!), and as good as that display was - and oh, it was - by far the best act of the entire show was a dogfight section between the single-seater and twin-seater MiG-29s. This was no mere Duxford-style tail-chase, this was full on Air Combat Manoeuvring over the skies of Graf Ignatievo: hard angles, fierce turns and lots of keeping the nose in - it was a spectacle of two jet pilots fighting, and, let's face it, the fact that it was two Fulcrums just made it so, so much cooler.

Special mention has to be given to the PC-9 solo display that began the second half. Only slightly louder than the Bell 206, it certainly flew in the shadow of its fast jet cousins but the display itself was a really exemplary turboprop trainer routine that, for the enthusiast, warranted a particular appreciation. Taking aside the spectacle of the fighter jet show, it was probably the best display of the day relatively speaking. If airshow organisers in western Europe manage to attract the Bulgarian Air Force's attention, they could honestly do a lot worse than trying to secure this trainer demo: it would be a sure hit with the enthusiast crowd.

On the ground, the show was a small affair. Static-wise, there was a pair each of Cougars, MiG-29s and the recently retired MiG-21s. Engagement was spot on: the cockpits were open all day and the queues to sit in them were long. The crews seemed overjoyed to show off their machines and the ground displays of equipment and weaponry likewise received keen attention from the visiting public. And yes, there was quite a lot of merchandise on sale, much of which was made specially for the occasion.

In other areas, the country's lack of airshow nous and the otherwise small size of the modern BuAF was evident. Despite the headline anniversaries, there was no Hind or JetRanger on static. It's reported that the Mi-24 in the flying display is, in fact, the only one currently airworthy which might go some way toward explaining why they didn't fly a second one in, and indeed the Bells were announced as flying a pairs routine in the afternoon right up until only one took off. That said, both types had landed at the base in the morning and as such, perhaps they might have been towed over to the crowd barrier after their first routines to let people get up close.

More egregious were the display distances. The fixed-wing flying in particular was unbelievably far from the crowd line, at times well over 500m away. This did vary from display to display, with the Fulcrum display (which, it really has to be said, featured two consecutive tail slides!) being considerably closer than others, but photography-wise it was very much a case of take what you could get.

But, ultimately, that's the thing - it wasn't an airshow, it was an open day. The primary goal was engaging the Bulgarian public, showing them what the air force is about and what they do, and in that respect it was far from any kind of failure. Aircraft landed and taxied along the whole crowdline, pilots waving and kids waving back. Equipment was put on show and skills were evident. Fun was had, and Graf Ignatievo will stick in the memory. In a country where historically people don't get to see their air force do much, even the air base preserved collection, in Communist bloc tradition, was a delight to walk around and photograph, with the base personnel more than happy to let people go right up and have a look.

Whenever the BuAF decides to have another show of this scale, you should make sure it's on your calendar. There aren't many significant anniversaries coming soon, certainly not so many at once, but with the F-16V order still somewhat up in the air and no real replacement thought about for the Hind we could well see something similar in another five or ten years time. No doubt it'll be great then too.

Thanks to Ivo Pentchev for providing and translating many of the specific information points in this article.