Macedonian Air Brigade history
Seven months after Macedonia declared its independence from Yugoslavia, the Army of the Republic of Macedonia (ARM) was established on April 10, 1992. The development of the Macedonian Air Force and Air Defence Forces started from scratch because the former Yugoslav Army had taken all the weapons and equipment which Macedonia had accumulated, including 35 aircraft like the J-22 Orao and J-21 Jastreb.

On June 10, the first air force (officially named the Aviation Brigade of the Army of the Republic of Macedonia) flight took place using a UTVA 75A 21 basic training and utility aircraft that was leased from the Macedonian Aeronautical Union. Because of this historic fact, this date is now celebrated as the Day of the Air Force.

We spoke to Colonel Robert Malezanski, commander of the air force brigade. He has flown Mig-21 and Super Galeb before returning to Macedonia to be an instructor on the Zlin 242. He tells us about the history of the squadron: “The air force was formed with a combat helicopter squadron, a transport helicopter squadron and an aviation squadron for fixed wing. The first helicopters, Mi-17 were bought in 1994. They were white ones because, at that time, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) imposed an embargo from purchasing weapons and military equipment. But because the Mi-17 is the civilian version of the Mi-8, they could be purchased.” The embargo was lifted in 1995, and the white Mi-17s were painted in their distinguishable camouflage patterns and were provided with military serial numbers.

In February 2001, a militant group called the Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA) began attacking the security forces of the Republic of Macedonia. In order to increase its capabilities during this conflict, the air force fleet was substantially expanded in a short amount of time.

The first big-quantity delivery of new aircraft to the Macedonian Air Warfare and Air Defence Forces was made on March 23. That day, Ukraine donated four Mi-8MT combat helicopters, that served with Ukrainian contingent of KFOR to Macedonia, and as a part of old agreement delivered additional two Mi-24V Hind-E combat helicopters. Solidarity of Greece with the Macedonian Government was also shown that day with the delivery of two UH-1H Huey helicopters to the Macedonian Air Warfare and Air Defence Forces. Later that year eight more Mi-24’s followed from Ukraine. In December 2001, the Macedonian Air Force received two Mi-24K Hind-G2 (photo-reconnaissance and artillery spotting version of the Mi-24) helicopters from Ukraine.

The Ohrid Framework Agreement, which was signed on 13 August 2001, made an official end to the armed conflict. In the succeeding years, the Air Brigade was reorganized. The former Greek UH-1s were taken out of service. One of the helicopters was flown to Greece for a major overhaul but is stored at Stefanovikio in Greece due to financial restraints. The other aircraft has been stored at Skopje Air Base for several years now.

Location
Near Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, is Alexander the Great Airport. Part of this international airport is built as the republic’s only military air base, Petrovec. The air base houses the Combat Helicopter Squadron and the Transport Helicopter Squadron as well as the Pilot Training Center and Technical Maintenance Center.

Transport Helicopter Squadron
Colonel Malezanski introduces us to the Transport Helicopter Squadron. “The squadron has six helicopters, two of them are Mi-17, and the rest of them are Mi-8MT.” There used to be two more, but they were lost in accidents. “We’ve lost one in 2001 and the second one in 2008 on its way back from a EUFOR mission in Bosnia near the airport.”

Missions
Malezanski explains about the missions of the transport squadron: “The main mission of the squadron is to transport the troops of the Macedonian Army. Additionally, they are trained to perform forest fire fighting, search and rescue, transport of cargo including external cargo, sling loads and of course, the training of new pilots. We don’t receive fully ready pilots in the squadron.”

With the Colonel is Mi-8 and Mi-17 instructor pilot Lieutenant Colonel “Taurus” Bogdanoski, with over 1100 flight hours on his record. He adds: “We fly VIP transport for our government, our minister of defence, our general staff as well.” Casualty evacuation is also in their tasks, although the Mi-17 and Mi-8s are not fully equipped for MEDEVAC missions. “Because of that, we are performing just casualty evacuation, we have no medics on board, but we provide transport out of an area of conflict.” Colonel Malezanski notes: “Most of the civilian missions for search and rescue are executed by the police in the past couple of years. But we do search and rescue for the military, and of course combat search and rescue.”

The Mi-8 is made as a combat helicopter, it can carry weapons and rockets. The Mi-8 has additional installation for weapons and the Mi-17 is just for transport. Bogdanoski: “We are using the Mi-8 with launchers to fire S-5 unguided rockets. The Mi-8 is not used for attack missions, the weapons are mainly for self-protection from ground troops.”

A lot of missions are flown in cooperation with special forces. Fast roping techniques, infiltration, and exfiltration techniques are trained, as well as parachute training with the special units.

But the most demanding missions are firefighting missions. In the summer time, there are several mountain and forest wildfires. Lt. Col. Bogdanoski explains: “You have to take a lot of water in one hour. For example, one cycle is around five or ten minutes maximum. That means, every five minutes, you have to take water, and in the next five minutes you have to drop the water on target.” He recalls a particularly hard to fight fire: “In 2007 we flew seven hours per day firefighting missions for a few days in succession. It was totally exhausting, when you go home, you feel broken.”

Because of the lack of equipment, the Macedonian Air Brigade hasn’t gone on missions or exercises abroad in recent years. Bogdanoski’s last exercise abroad was in 2012 and took place in Szolnok in Hungary. “In that exercise were pilots from Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, and they were also flying the same types of helicopters. At the end of the exercise, we had a crew exchange, where we flew in each others aircraft. When you are using one type of helicopter, for example, Mi-17, you must follow the rules for that type. That means that they are flying with more or less the same principles. It was a good experience for us to fly with other helicopters.”

Maintenance
Maintenance is done on base at Skopje-Petrovec as well, but the budget is tight. Colonel Malezanski explains that there are three stages of maintenance: “On these types of helicopters, the first level of maintenance is done at the squadron, the second level is done at the maintenance squadron, and the third level of maintenance is the overhaul, generally in the overhaul factory.” During our visit, the Mi-24s were in overhaul in the AVIAKON Aviation Repair Facility located in the town of Konotop in Ukraine.

‘Taurus’ Bogdanoski loves the Mi-8/17: ”This type of helicopter is very robust, but it’s very useful and you have a lot of power, and can carry a lot of cargo. You are able to land on high mountains. Because I started my career flying fixed wing aircraft, before I continued on helicopters, I can say that flying helicopters may be two or three times harder than flying fixed wing.”

Experience
So what is it like to fly the Mi-8/17? Bogdanoski clarifies: “I have experienced flying the Gazelle helicopter, while I was already flying the Mi-8. When I was flying the Gazelle, the first few hours I was thinking: I don’t know how to fly a helicopter anymore, because the difference between the Gazelle and the Mi-8 was very big.”
Every flight in a Mi-8 or Mi-17 is a special experience. You can find something interesting in every flight. We have a lot of flights, we have a lot of missions.” The most interesting flights are international flights for the Lt Col though. “When we have a mission in Bosnia, we fly from Macedonia to Bosnia over Albania and Croatia. Flying over the sea is special, as Macedonia is a landlocked country. The views are spectacular.”

The type is the solid transport backbone of the Air Force, “In the basic version, we have 24 seats in the cargo compartment. But there is a possibility to mount a fuel tank inside to extend the range, limiting the capacity to 15 fully armed personnel. Inside we can carry four tonnes of cargo. Without the extra fuel tank, the range is about 500 kilometers, with the additional fuel tank inside its 750 kilometers.”

Pilot Training Center
Training of the Mi-8 and Mi-17 pilots also takes place on the air base. ELMAK (Elbit Macedonia) has won a 43 million euro ($61 million) deal to set up a helicopter pilot training facility for Macedonia’s military and police.

We spoke to Shraga Yaari, director of the Helicopter Pilot Training Center (PTC). With an impressive track record of over 7000 flight hours, most of which were flown on the Cobra, he retired as a squadron leader in Israel before Elbit called him to set up and run the Pilot Training Center in Macedonia. Candidates for the PTC will start with an air screening process on the Zlin 242, “This is a kind of evaluation, we have special drills, our examiner will perform the drill first, and the student has to try to copy it, and we try to analyze if they can complete this specific course in a set time frame.” After a year of ground schooling, and more training on the Zlin, students will transfer to the Bell 206B-3. “The first six months on the Bell are what we call a basic training session, that is kind of a transition to the helicopter world, including a solo, and touching all of the relevant maneuvers that the helicopter can perform. After that comes an additional six months of advanced training, related to instruments, emergencies, tactical air navigation, and missions.”

Every pilot in the aviation brigade must pass an amount of hours on the helicopter in real flight, and an amount of flight hours on the simulator every year. The simulators are also used for new pilots to make the transition from the Bell 206 to the Mi-17 and from Bell 206 to Mi-24. The training center is home to two advanced simulators, Mi-17 and Mi-24. Those two simulators that are produced by a daughter company of Elbit, Simultec in Romania, are for use by the military pilots and police. But not only Macedonian pilots make use of the simulators: “We have a lot of spaces for international trainees. Just recently we’ve had pilots from Cameroon that made their transition to Mi-24, so we did all the ground schooling here. We’ve placed one of the Mi-24 in our hangar to study the systems. We’ve had Nigerian trainees, we’ve had trainees from Bosnia, and some from Croatia.” Mr. Yaari is very proud of the simulators, and not without reason: “In the world, there are many simulators for Mi-17 and even for the Mi-24, but none of them are full motion, and none of them are equipped with this specific upgraded avionics.”

The PTC is in close contact with the Macedonian Air Brigade Shraga Yaari says he tries to see the center as a unit of the Air Brigade. “Any of our changes in the flying syllabus, or ground school topics we do in consultation with the Military Academy and with the Air brigade. We are limited by the Israeli minister of defence to transfer any doctrines, but helicopter flying in the same whether it is a Cobra, Mi-17 or Bell 206. We believe we can share a lot of our experience and that is what we try to do.”

Upgrade programmes
Elbit does more in Macedonia however, they also started with modernization programs for the Mi-24 & Mi-17. In December 2003 the Macedonian Government awarded Elbit a US 2 million contract for an upgrade of two Mi-17 and two Mi-24V helicopters. The helicopters have been upgraded with the Aviators Night Vision Head-Up Display (ANVIS/HUD) System, a helmet mounted display. By equipping its aircraft with this system, the Macedonian Air Force became one of the very few operators of night-operation Mi-24 helicopters worldwide, even before NATO-member countries Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Bulgaria.

All four aircraft involved in this modernization are now operational again and have redesigned cockpit layout, adapted for night vision goggle (NVG) operations, and are also equipped with ANVIS/HUD System.

According to Colonel Malezanski, there will be a second stage of upgrade for the two Macedonian Mi-17s that were involved in the first stage: “The second level will include an ILS (Instrument Landing System), a moving map, a mission computer with multifunctional displays and a new type of radio for communication.” The new Talon radios and secure communications are also important as Macedonia wants to join NATO, but in order to be compatible, have to adopt NATO standards for communication. There are also plans to equip the helicopters with chaff and flares, as they are now lacking countermeasures.

The future
For now, NATO membership is not in sight. Macedonia’s budget for the entire ARM was just over Euro 91.5 million. While this looks impressive, it’s just 1.09% of the Macedonian GDP, and NATO requires members to spend at least 2% of their GDP on defence. Budgets are always an issue with the air brigade. The current transport fleet is estimated to be able to operate for 7 more years in its current condition. After that, it will be hard to conduct maintenance, and a replacement will have to be in place. Until then, there are a lot of uncertainties when it comes to the equipment, also because it is hard to foresee the future. The Air Brigade s very depending on membership, but will Macedonia join NATO?

THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED HERE:

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Air Forces Monthly 2017-08. 3 images.

Siivet Finland 2017-05. Article and 4 images.

Vayu India 2017-06. Article and 3 images.