Published in Nacional number 776, 2010-09-28
Major crisis in the Air Force
Another 30 pilots to leave air force for civilian jobs
A high-ranking military official warns that the remaining Croatian MiG's will fall apart in the air, the Croatian Air Force has been reduced to just two instructors, and that not a single new pilot has enrolled for studies in 2009
Colonel Robert Huf is the only remaining flight instructor for supersonic fighters employed by the Croatian Armed Forces"The time has come for the combat component of the air force to be entirely shut down or for new aircraft to be procured. Anything else, including some kind of announced modernisation of the MiG's, will just extend the agony and threaten human lives, both in the air and on the ground. The MiG's can no longer be modernised because they are falling apart in the air. That means that the structure of the material has served its time and it is only a question of time when one of the remaining six MiG's will simply break in half while airborne. The fact that one of the crashed aircraft was as much as 38 years old and the other 31 years old says enough of itself. Well, we got the MiG's unequipped and without armaments for 700 thousand US dollars apiece. Considering that, they have flown too much," Nacional was told by a high-ranking military official after last week's fall of two MiG-21's, adding that Croatia, because of its economic situation, does not need a squadron of 12 new aircraft, and four were enough for a start, around which a solid core of pilots and technicians could be formed for better times in the future when a more favourable financial situation could see us move to procure the optimal number of aircraft.
Government has been offered a bevy of options in making its selection, including a stay on the payment of the first instalment up to 2014 or 2015. And the suppliers are willing to immediately invest an amount equal to the purchase price of the aircraft into the Croatian economy. For example, that means that if four new aircraft with armaments, training and spare parts cost 200 million euro, that same amount would be returned to the Croatian economy. So it's not so much about the money, since it is not needed until 2015, but rather that no one from the Ministry of Defence or Armed Forces has to date come before Croatian Government and the President and offered solid and rational reasons for investing into the combat air force. Above all these are constitutional determinants that speak of sovereignty, national pride, and technological and economic benefits. Nacional's source has confirmed that the regular reductions in the military budget from year to year are the greatest single cause of everything that has happened in the Croatian Air Force, and that the crash near Slunj was only the consequence of this situation, since there is no investment in new technology or in human resources. So the claims of Defence Minister Branko Vukelic that savings are not to blame for the accident - simply does not hold water.
The story surrounding the renewal of the fleet is over ten years old, but it has never come to anything because the word was the entire time that there was a lack of money. There is also no money for good pilot training or many hours of flight time, which is key to training in any air force. By all accounts, the Croatian Air Force has touched bottom. Its aircraft are falling apart in the air and it is only a question of time when age will see another MiG simply break in half. These aircraft are piloted by young pilots who migrate to the MiG's, rather than from a transition jet aircraft, from the turboprop Pilatus on which they had no firing training, which is a singular case in the world.
DOWNED PILOTS Igor Troselj and Marijan Kudlik with presidential advisor Gareljic, Croatian Armed Forces Chief of General Staff Josip Lucic, the prime minister, defence minister and the director of Dubrava hospitalThe annual flight time logged by Croatian pilots on the MiG's is about 40 hours, which is not enough for any serious evaluation of their readiness, because for them to execute their missions in the aircraft routinely and without excessive anxiety, they need at least 90 to 100 hours of flight time a year. To go from a fifth to first category MiG pilot a young pilot has to log about 500 hours of flight time. For a top-notch MiG pilot training lasts ten years and by some estimates costs the country upwards of six million US dollars. Even if the logged flight time of both of the pilots whose planes crashed near Slunj was combined they would not have that much. As a result of the small number of flight hours logged every year and the long periods between flights, the pilot's reflexes lose their sharpness and they need more time to execute a task. Worst of all, there is no one left to train the young pilots. There is only one MiG instructor in Croatia at the moment, and that is Colonel Robert Huf.
Brigadier Ivan Selak is the second instructor, but he is employed by the Aeronautics Technical Centre as a test pilot, which places legal limitations in training pilots on MiG's. The other instructors have come down with diabetes, thrombosis, barely survived heart attacks and the like over the past few years, and most have left the armed forces on their own account and filed for retirement. The sharp decline in health of these pilots should be attributed to the fact that Croatian MiG pilots fly operations into their 45th year, while Western air forces limit this to at most 35 years of age. The situation with MiG maintenance is similar to that of the instructors. There are two experts in the country versed in the maintenance of their power plants.
The two never travel together in the event of a tragic occurrence, leaving Croatia without its only experts for these propulsion units. It hardly needs to be said that the instructors have been known to personally visit storage areas looking, for example, for tyres for the MiG's as they have used up those taken off decommissioned MiG's. That is no way for a NATO-member air force to behave. Furthermore, the air force does not even have a regulations book, above all an ordinance on military flights, a "bible" of sorts detailing all the key elements when it comes to military flights. Over the past ten years the commanders at the head of the air force have not come from the ranks of combat airplane aviation, and have in fact been exclusively drawn from the ranks of the helicopter squadrons, so it comes as no wonder that there is a lack of understanding or a stronger engagement in the Croatian Air Force command in favour of combat airplanes. If one takes into consideration that to date 30 pilots have left the BRIGADIER IVAN SELAK, one of the two remaining active MiG instructors, is employed by the Aeronautics Technical Centre, which places legal constrains on his training of pilotsCroatian military system, which started training pilots back in 1993, Nacional's information that a further 30 are ready to leave the armed forces - right away because that is how many are registered in the databases of Croatia Airlines and Dubrovnik Airline - is more than alarming and tells of a complete disintegration of personnel policy at the defence ministry, which has done nothing to popularise air force pilot careers. The unfortunate event near Slunj will only further quicken the decision to leave the armed forces. It is no longer only about those who would be happy to leave the system, but the situation is devastating in regard to the popularisation of the career given the enrolment of candidates. Based on the results of the 2009 enrolment of candidates at the Faculty of Transport and Traffic Engineering to study to become military pilots it appears that Croatia could soon find itself without a future generation of military pilots.
That year, namely, there were only 75 candidates for enrolment, unlike a not so distant past when over a thousand applied. To make matters worse, none of the 75 candidates met the physical exam criteria, making it the first year in which there are no candidates to become air force pilots after the four-year university programme. As a result the selection criteria is being reduced making the selection of candidates very questionable. When speaking of the state of repair of Croatian MiG's, the only time the situation was worse was in February of 2008. There are a total of eight MiG-21's that are not airworthy of a total of 12, so it could be said of four aircraft that they are to some extent in good working order. As a result of frequent breakdowns and a lack of spare parts for airplanes and helicopters, as many as 36 of a total of 76 craft in service at the time were grounded. It is no secret that the catastrophic technical situation saw most pilots then on an unplanned collective winter break.
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