F‑16s, MiGs engage over Bulgarian skies

GRAF IGNATIEVO AIR BASE, Bul­gar­ia (AFNS) — U.S. pilots from the 555th and 510th Fight­er Squadrons based out of Aviano Air Base, Italy, have been giv­en a rare oppor­tu­ni­ty to train and share expe­ri­ences with Bul­gar­i­an air force MiG-21 and MiG-29 pilots dur­ing their deploy­ment here in sup­port of Thra­cian Star 2012.

Col. David Walk­er, 31st Oper­a­tions Group and Thra­cian Star 2012 detach­ment com­man­der, and Capt. Petar Milkov, Bul­gar­i­an air force MiG-29 pilot, pre­pare to fly in an F‑16 Fight­ing Fal­con April 19, 2012, at Graf Ignatie­vo Air Force Base, Bul­gar­ia. More than 500 peo­ple are deployed here from the 31st Fight­er Wing in sup­port of the month-long coali­tion train­ing exer­cise aimed at increas­ing inter­op­er­abil­i­ty between NATO allies. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Air­man Kather­ine Windish)
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Since the start of the train­ing mis­sion on April 18, Bul­gar­i­an and Amer­i­can pilots have been fly­ing togeth­er and work­ing toward the goal of the exer­cise: to strength­en part­ner­ships, increase inter­op­er­abil­i­ty between NATO allies and main­tain a stan­dard of excel­lence.

Through­out the month-long bilat­er­al train­ing exer­cise, Aviano F‑16 Fight­ing Fal­con pilots will spend more than 60 hours per week fly­ing close air sup­port, basic fight­er and air com­bat maneu­vers, tac­ti­cal inter­cepts, defen­sive counter air and large force mis­sions with Bul­gar­i­an MiG-21 and MiG-29 pilots.

“We are per­form­ing the same mis­sion sets we do at home sta­tion, but we are inte­grat­ing the Bul­gar­i­an pilots into the train­ing,” said Capt. Bryan Faughn, 555th FS F‑16 pilot. “It gives us an oppor­tu­ni­ty to see how anoth­er country’s air force works. They are a pro­fes­sion­al air force just like we are and they take pride in what they do. We are gain­ing expe­ri­ence while work­ing with an inter­na­tion­al part­ner — it’s a unique oppor­tu­ni­ty.”

To gain bet­ter insight into both the tac­tics of the pilots and the capa­bil­i­ties of the dif­fer­ent air­craft, pilots have gone on ride-along flights in the oth­er country’s jets.

Capt. Kir­by San­ford, 555th FS F‑16 pilot, was the first Amer­i­can pilot to get the oppor­tu­ni­ty to ride in a MiG.

“It was tru­ly an awe­some, once-in-a-life­time expe­ri­ence,” San­ford said about his flight. “It real­ly high­light­ed the advan­tages of both air­craft and show­cased the mind­set, skills and tech­niques of the Bul­gar­i­ans.”

“Though the MiG is an old­er air­craft, it is still a very capa­ble air­craft,” he con­tin­ued. “It just goes to show that even an old­er air­craft can be a for­mi­da­ble adver­sary with the right pilot.”

Bul­gar­i­an air force Capt. Petar Milkov, was the first MiG-29 pilot to fly in an F‑16 dur­ing Thra­cian Star 2012. The air­craft was pilot­ed by Col. David Walk­er, 31st Oper­a­tions Group and Thra­cian Star detach­ment com­man­der.

“I was very impressed by the cock­pit ergonom­ics, ease of flight and mis­sion com­plex­i­ty,” said Milkov. “This bilat­er­al train­ing with my Amer­i­can col­leagues is a great chance to extend our part­ner­ship in a pro­fes­sion­al, cul­tur­al and per­son­al man­ner. I also hope to enrich my per­son­al expe­ri­ence and make new con­tacts.”

While the lan­guage bar­ri­er could have made it dif­fi­cult for Bul­gar­i­an and Amer­i­can pilots to find com­mon ground, San­ford says they all have one thing in com­mon that makes it easy to relate to one anoth­er: a love of fly­ing.

“We’ve all want­ed to be fight­er pilots since we were young,” he said. “That’s a good basis to start from. We already have some­thing in com­mon that each of us can relate to that has brought forth a mutu­al respect between us.”

U.S. Air Force