By Chris Lofting and John Coupland.
After a successful first ever trip by BAES to Albania in May 2005, Alan Key came away determined to return. John Coupland was very pleased to be offered the chance to lead the proposed second trip, as he felt that there was still more to be discovered and more photographic opportunities to be had. This proved to be the case - read on.
The travel arrangements by the main group from the U.K, followed last years pattern, by Malev via Budapest to Tirana and return. The four sectors were flown by four different 737s of four different models, which pleased those interested in this aspect of the hobby. Other members of the group travelled from Germany and Holland to join us in Tirana. We were met on our arrival by our Albanian escort and travelled into the city by luxury coach over what must be the worst airport approach road that John had experienced in many years of worldwide travel. We called into the old airport at Lapraka, where we discovered that the Y5s had gone and the helicopter hangers closed up. Our escort did however make contact with an old friend from his air force days, who promised to try and arrange a visit later in the week .The rest the day was taken up with settling into the hotel, a quick walk around part of the city, and then the serious business of dinner and the introduction to "TIRANA" beer, £1 a litre.
Tuesday dawned blue sky and sunny, and after an excellent breakfast we were off at 8.00am, heading for the Air Force HQ, to meet up with the Chief of the Air Force Brigadier General Astrit Jaupi who welcomed us to Albania and then amused us with a run down of his own career and the history of the Albanian Air Force. He also told us the immediate future of the force will be established with 4 Y5s, 7 B206s, 3 B205s and 12 Bolkow 105s. The contract has been signed for the 105s and these will be delivered over the next 3 years, starting this November; 6 are destined for the Air Force and 6 for ministry agencies 4 being delivered each year. After a close inspection of the F6 preserved at the HQ it was off to the helicopter base at Farke.
A few changes had occurred here over the past year. The hanger being built last May was now in use, and housed B205 & 206s.Some maintenance was still being carried out in the old hangers. Nothing was off limits and it was possible to view and photograph every helicopter present. Of main interest were the Chinese built Z-5s. Although over half had already been partly scrapped, there were at least ten still looking active. The Z5s were parked more or less as last year, three were supposedly in reserve for possible use, including 6-54 previously seen at Kucove, and the rest were due imminent disposal. The group were somewhat dismayed when a series of explosions occurred and metal fragment were seen to be flying from the Z5 hulks at the top end of the airfield. It was explained that Special Forces were on exercise, but not to worry, they would break off to allow us to inspect the hulks. Where else in the world would you get this sought of service? A lasting memory will be our escort actually encouraging and assisting our chief con-number buff to gain access to some of the sealed Z5s to obtain the data. After a very successful tour we adjourned for lunch at a nearby restaurant and then returned to the city and the hotel.
Wednesday 10th May was a busy beginning with a visit to the Air Force Academy at Vlora, 160km. South of Tirana. A 6.30am departure was achieved complete with packed breakfast. The weather had taken a turn for the worst, dark overcast with heavy rain, so the best we could hope for, was that this would move through during the course of journey. The route proved quite a challenge for our driver as the road system is pretty poor, but he did a great job, and got us there in three hours, and the rain had stopped, all be it still cloudy. We were met by the academy Commander who gave us a briefing on the purpose of facility and the recent changes in the training syllabus that had occurred. A Mig 15 and a CJ6 are on display in front of the main building, but despite persistent questioning, we were unable to establish the whereabouts of the rumoured CJ6s supposedly in the area. We left rather disappointed, and headed back towards Tirana, and the main objective of the day, the Air Force base at Kucove.
Upon arrival there, we were met by the very jovial base commander who cut short the formalities and assured us that we had full access to his base. He did query whether, we really did want to visit the dark and dirty storage area, and was promptly assured that, oh yes we did. As we moved into parked aircraft area the sun broke through the overcast, several ground crew were despatched to uncover some of the half dozen which still had covers on covers were removed, and the afternoon sun provided great lighting conditions for the photographers. The collection of F6s, F5s, FT5 and Mig15UTIs, were parked much as before however the CJ6s were positioned better with all covers removed. The number crunchers, ever eager pressed on to the rework hanger, didn't wait for all the covers to be removed. A real pity! We were pleased to locate the Y5s from Lapraka, dismantled and stored in an adjacent building. Whilst investigating these they managed to incur the wrath of the rework supervisor, who did not appreciate their interest. When the rest of us caught up with the situation, extensive negotiations were entered in to, and paperwork examined. The supervisor was persuaded that as from two weeks previous his establishment came under Air Force control, and as such we had access to it He eventually backed off, giving us the access we wanted. Permission was granted to pull a freshly painted An-2 out into the sunshine for pictures. Chris assisted the half dozen engineers to push the An-2 out (whilst the remainder stood watching!) It did look glorious out in the sun and it was well worth the effort.
We re boarded our coach very pleased with what we had achieved, and we still had the storage area to do. Last year the existence of a storage area containing aircraft, had been totally denied, so we were not sure what to expect. We drove further along the taxiway past the control tower and eventually turned left on to a wide taxiway, which we were then informed was in fact the emergency runway. It stretched before us inclining slightly upwards towards the surrounding hills. We proceeded through a security check point having also to negotiate some low slung telegraph wires, to the top of the incline to be confronted by large steel doors securing the entrance of a large cavern cut into the hillside. A taxiway curved to the left at this point and as the view broadened we were confronted with the sight of 15 assorted Mig design aircraft, Mig15s, Mig15UTIs and F6s, all in near perfect lighting conditions and no covers.
The steel doors were wound open and the group were invited to enter. The only light that was available came via the entrance door, as apparently there was insufficient fuel to run the emergency generator. After proceeding forward, about 80 meters into the ever-increasing darkness, I was beginning to wonder what we were in for. Then out of the gloom ahead, the shape of an aircraft became apparent, identifiable as an F6. This proved to be the first of 30 aircraft stored in this cavern, mainly F6s but also Mig15s, Mig15UTIs and an F5. As the cavern curved to the left so it became pitch black; it proved quite a task to obtain the details of the serials, and even more so the con numbers, with only the aid of one or two torches and camera flashes. At the same time we had to avoiding tripping over tow bars and falling down a number of open manholes. We all did emerge from the exit unscathed, to be faced with task of photographing the aircraft outside. A totally jubilant group were finally assembled, and after a grateful thank you to the Albanian Military for their help we headed to the base HQ to say good bye and thank you to the base commander before a short stop to photograph the four gate guards, still looking good, and as we finished, the sun disappeared behind the clouds for the rest of the day. How lucky can you get?
The days tour proved to be a great talking point that evening, many rating it high in their list of aviation related experiences.
The next day clear skies were back and we off again at 8.00am heading for Lapraka and the helicopter units where arrangements had been made for a tour of the facility and an AS350B and Alouette III wheeled outside. The Alouette subsequently took off, on a mission, whilst the As350 did a short engine run. Another successful visit.
It was then off to Gjader, about 50km.north of Tirana. Upon arrival, the base commander and his staff welcomed us and after a short introduction, they escorted us to the entrance of the storage cavern. Gjader closed as an active air base in 2001, like Kucove it also has an underground tunnel complex built into a nearby hillside but on a much larger scale. We were given unrestricted access and walked from one end through to the other, this revealed another 31 stored jets mainly F-6s and F7s. There was fortunately fuel to run the lighting generator, so although rather dim, it did make it easier to inspect the stored aircraft. Nothing had changed since last year's visit and the group moved eagerly through the cavern. As John had experienced this before, he busied myself slackening and easing back the protective covers, to reveal the serials, enabling the digital guys to get their record shots. The base commander following up at the rear appeared totally unconcerned with all this, but he did draw the line at pulling an aircraft outside for photography. With the numbers in the book we finished off, with a drive down the runway in the coach as last year, and then headed back towards Tirana. We stopped off at a local restaurant known to our escort, for lunch and a well-earned drink. It was after the lunch that John was made aware of the only negative comment on the trip; there was apparently too much food to eat. It seems you cannot please everyone. With another successful day behind us, we headed back to the city, with enough time for any last minute present buying and a relaxing evening.
The last day and we were again blessed with clear skies and bright sunshine as we headed for Tirana International Airport and the co-located Krahu Ajror Air Force Base. On arrival we were received in the now, customary friendly manner and after the introductory briefing, were soon heading for the operational hanger which contained 3 Y5s and the H5/Il 28. The base personnel pushed two of the Y5's outside for us to photograph (again with Chris assisting) however, requests to get the H5 out however failed miserably, apparently it hasn't moved for six years. The two preserved F6s were dealt with, and we then headed, by coach, for the fast jet facility located 600m north of the airport and connected by a narrow taxiway. Proceeding on through the gates, we were pleased to see a line of stored aircraft still intact and a welcoming party of Albanian military personnel. After introductions were made, we were led to their demonstration hanger, which this year contained 2 F7s, both looking in flyable condition. Following a request, assistance was summoned and out from the hanger came 0209 into the sunshine. It really looked great and there was quite a chorus of camera shutters clicking.
Last year some of the covers were removed from the line up of aircraft outside, this year all the covers were removed and great shots were to be had. A great surprise was then in store as there, behind the stored Mig15s/15UTIs, was large pile of aircraft scrap consisting of fuselage sections, cockpit sections, nacelles, undercarriages and engines (8); unmistakably identifiable as Il14s. The pile bore little resemblance to the heap of aluminium scrap located in the area last year, and the senior officer said that the sections had been moved there, from the airport, within the last twelve months. The last aircraft in the storage line, an F6, was being dismantled in preparation for transportation off site. It was photographed intact last year.
It was off to the shelters next, three were in use, two each containing four F6s and the third four FT5s. One shelter was also gated and locked, but the key was located and after a slight delay we gained access. Requests were then made for an F6 and FT5 to be pulled out into the open, and with the eager assistance by some of our group; the soldiers were quite willing to do so. The change of attitude in our military hosts during our tour was very noticeable. What had started off with straight faces and glum looks on arrival, had changed to good humour and openness and they appeared to really appreciate the interest that we had shown in their aircraft and base facility. The quick reaction alert area at the IAP is no longer in use. So yet again a happy group departed from the base.
This concluded our visit to the Albanian air force where we were given complete access to all the aircraft present on each base we visited. The number crunchers felt we may have seen the whole air force in the course of the week, which was very likely as the Chief of the air force had already told us during his brief, that the order had been signed to start the disposal process of all the withdrawn airframes but none had been scrapped or sent for preservation so far. But the clock is ticking for all these extremely rare Chinese built types.
As the trip went, we cannot think of one more enjoyable, a view that was shared without exception by the rest of the group. All credit must be given to Alan Key, for doing the groundwork, in setting it up, our Albanian escorts for their liaison work and to John who deserves some credit for his desire to achieve more following last years visit.
Another visit followed in September, spurred on by the success reported above, which was also a great success and found the missing Yak 18's from Vlora which are now at Kucova. See the Proposed Tours page for yet another trip planned for 9th-12th April 2007.
The following comments have been received from some of the members in this group:-
Andy Marden told me that last year's Albanian tour was the 'best ever' organised tour he had done. This one exceeded even that. The hotel - excellent. Air Force hospitality - brilliant! Food - excellent! Beer - cheap! Haxhi - helpful, informative, top bloke!
The co-operation from the Air Force was outstanding. It was a pleasant surprise to track down 50 or so fast jets not found last year. Also excellent photo opportunities with many aircraft pulled out for pictures. Who else has sunny ramp shots of an Albanian F-7?
Overall, full marks. I was very impressed!
I also must say that this was the best trip I have ever been on. I could not have wished for more. Perfect weather, perfect company, perfect trip!
Special thanks to John for escorting us and Alan for arranging all this.
For those who are interested, I already have some pictures on my site: www.flightline.nl
I would also like to express my thanks to you for organising this trip, (best I've ever been on), for John who did an excellent job of getting the most from our hosts and our hosts themselves including our escorts who accompanied us throughout the visits and translated our wishes into facts, photos and numbers.
It was about the best trip I have ever been on. Please thank John for all his efforts at this very difficult time for him. Thank you for all the hard work you put in arranging these trips. I will advise my friends how good BAES trips are.
Rob Jonkers and Adriaan Ellingens
We were delighted how the trip was arranged especially the cooperation from the military establishment on the spot at the several bases thanks to the splendid contacts of BAES in Albania (deleted Ian Allan from my list for future trips and put BAES on top); you are pro's.
I am writing to add my congratulations to those of others, for the extremely successful BAES tour to Albania last week.
This was actually the 46th "aerotour" that I have done with several tour operators over the past twenty years, plus a large number of major tours I have organised for myself, and consider this to be one of my all-time "top five" to-date. Indeed, it might actually have rated as "THE" most successful had the tour been longer with more to see, and it is a pity that reports of any Albanian Air Force jet activity are obviously well overstated. Nevertheless, to come away from a country such as this to say that only one based aircraft, I believe, was not seen, is unlikely to ever be repeated. We were even amazingly lucky with the weather when we really needed it. The friendliness and openness of our Albanian military hosts was especially appreciated, while on a personal note it was a first for me to meet an air force commander-in-chief, and I will always remember being personally escorted along the storage tunnel at Gjader Air Base by none other than the base commander!
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