Surviving NATO shootdowns

AFM’s Alan Dawes sheds light on reports from *the other side’ describing the experiences of downed Yugoslavian Air Force pilots.

IN THE comparatively brief history of aerial combat, the role of the fighter pilot has always been glamorised in much the same way as we looked upon medieval knights. It is, therefore, tragically apt that the majority of Yugoslav Air Force fighter pilots known to have been shot down during Operation Allied Force have all belonged to the elite 127 Squadron, known as The Knights. The squadron name celebrates the memory of Serbia’s revered medieval leader and his band of knights in during their previous ‘darkest hour’ of defeat on the Field of Blackbirds in 1389 (Kosovo: Serbia’s Heart, June, p24). This memory is so vibrant that today’s 127 Squadron pilots regard themselves as latter day Knights of King Lazar, with the intervening 600 years of history regarded as almost an incidental detail.

First victims

The Yugoslav military magazine Vojska has published brief accounts of the circumstances of these shootdowns, with the experience of one of the first MiG-29 pilots to fall victim to the NATO onslaught also related in the national newspaper, Politika. One pilot, Captain Zoran Radosavljevic, received the Medal for Bravery posthumously and was promoted to the rank of Major, but details of his final flight were not published. Forty-year-old Major (now Lieutenant Colonel) Nebojha Nikolic was the first pilot to be scrambled from Batajnica to intercept the incoming NATO attackers on March 24 and was actually shot down within minutes of getting airborne. The accounts differ in the detail of how Major Nikolic was shot down, although he was still gaining speed and climbing when his MiG-29 was hit at an altitude of 9,840ft (3,000m) over the town of Titel, as he headed north towards Zrenjanin.

The number of opposing NATO jets faced by Nikolic varies in these accounts between 24 and 30, and he is alleged to have been able to evade up to three missiles by hard manoeuvring and release of flares before launching a ‘small’ missile (probably an AA-8 Aphid) at his attackers. In the account published in Vojska magazine, Nikolic had radar confirmation of a hit and immediately attempted to acquire a second target, but then all the other aircraft allegedly turned on him and he was eventually hit by a total of three missiles. (He alleges that the NATO aircraft in the pack launched their missiles in order to finish him off by pulverising him.) Following these hits, the Fulcrum’s cockpit immediately filled with smoke, and with the aircraft rapidly becoming uncontrollable, he ejected at about 6,500ft (2,000m) in the vicinity of Zrenjanin. After a brief parachute descent, he landed about 400 yards away from his burning jet. Upon landing, he claims that his attackers continued to circle above the wreckage, still seeking revenge for ‘their defeat [sic] in an air battle in which strength was on their side’.

“NATO murderers»

The Vojska article also claimed that «it was not enough that the aggressors had a 24:1 superiority in numbers in this battle, not enough that they had come to Serbia as foreigners, whereas Nikolic was defending his own land, and it was not enough that they had been outwitted and beaten by an ace pilot — the NATO pilots were simply super sophisticated murderers without honour or morality who are fighting just for the money and with life insurance.» Nikolic also alleges that as he was descending by parachute “enemy planes kept circling around me trying to locate me in the dark and riddle me with bullets. They kept firing blindly, fortunately missing me and for this I am very eager to meet with them again. Only Goering’s Luftwaffe pilots in World War Two acted like that.” These allegations tarnish what would otherwise be a tale of great heroism, since it would have required that quality from Nikolic to take off and go into battle against such a numerically superior force. This clumsy propaganda also besmirches the honour of the Yugoslav Air Force in having to endorse such claims, as well the collective code of honour among NATO’s fighter pilots. If true, of course, then Lt Col Nikolic must be prepared to submit his allegations to NATO for formal examination and action.

From an account given by Nikolic’s flight leader, Lt Col LjubiSa Kulacin, they had been scrambled at 20.30 local time during a cruise missile attack on Batajnica airfield. As he headed north between Bedej and Edke he made radar contact with a target, but was then himself illuminated by a NATO fighter. He was able to evade his attackers by skilful manoeuvring, but expressed deep regret at being unable to protect his wingman in their brief 15-minute air battle. No details are given of Kulacin’s actions in the fight, but he was able subsequently to evade a ‘passing’ cruise missile as he landed his undamaged MiG-29 back at Batajnica. Lt Col Kulacin is the most senior pilot on 127 Squadron, albeit not actually described as its Commanding Officer. Of his 25 years in the Yugoslav Air Force, 23 have been spent flying MiGs and 12 of these have been on the MiG-29, with an overall total of 18 years as a flying instructor.

Direct hit

The other two MiG-29 pilots who, along with Major Nikolic, made up the trio shot down on the first day of Operation Allied Force (March 24) had possibly been operating out of Pristina air base. This was not stated specifically, but 40-year-old Lt Col Dragan Hid was engaged by a large enemy fighter force between Kosovska Mitrovica and Pec on the northern boundary of Kosovo Province. It is likely, therefore, that the aircraft had been forward deployed for the defence of Kosovo and Pristina, in preference to the locally based MiG-21 Fishbeds. Almost simultaneous with indications on his SPO-15 Beryoza RWR that he had been locked up by a NATO fighter, his MiG-29 turned into a fireball as he took a direct hit in the engines. With heat and flames cracking the cockpit canopy, llic had no option other than to eject. Lt Col Hid has been a fighter pilot since 1981 and was another of 127 Squadron’s most senior pilots.

The experiences of his wingman, Major (now Lt Col) lljo Arizanov, were published in slightly more detail. Having taken off just after 19.00 local time with Lt Col Hid , Arizanov detected a number of targets, allegedly 29 (!) in all, amongst which, he claimed, was an F-117. Having manoeuvred into a position to fire, he launched a missile at it. (No description of exactly how the F-117 was detected and identified as such was given in the article.) At that point, a missile struck the rear fuselage of his Fulcrum and the aircraft went into an uncontrollable spiral dive to the left. He could see that he was on fire in his rear view mirrors and decided to eject. He landed safely in a vineyard to the southwest of Pristina in the Albanian-dominated region of Suva Reka and immediately heard local voices nearby. Villagers had obviously observed his descent and were looking for him. Setting off in the direction that would take him back to the ‘territory he had just come from’ (i.e. probably Pristina) he gave a wide berth to a search party and continued walking for about two to three hours.

The terrain was hilly and dotted with Albanian villages and he had to remain vigilant because there were several search parties operating over the entire mountain area. Wet and frozen, he knew he had to keep moving to avoid capture and to keep warm. It was so cold during the night that he reflected that the “freezing night would kill him when the most lethal aircraft in the world could not». The lights of a town which he had seen during the night were still a long way off and he had to continue walking and resting — he was able to drink melted snow, but had no food. He almost came face to face with a member of the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) at Golesa; he reached for his CZ-99 pistol, but the UCK man turned and ran off. This experience gave him renewed vigour and he vowed to himself that if necessary he would traverse the entire breadth of Kosovo, but he would not be taken captive. Finally, at 10am, almost 15 hours after being shot down, he reached Pristina airfield and safety.

Highly experienced

A number of interesting points arise from the accounts in Vojska and Politika. The first is y that with the exception of the one j comparatively junior pilot, Captain Zoran f Radosavljevic, who was shot down and killed, the other four were all highly experienced MiG-29 veterans in their forties. Two of the pilots, Major Nikolic and Major Arizanov, were promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and awarded the Medal for Bravery after their ordeals; the other two, Lt Col Kulacin and Hid already held that rank. These older pilots had allegedly gone into combat first in order to set an example to the younger members of the squadron. What is interesting is that there were at least two Lieutenant Colonels on the same squadron, as well as at least the two Majors. This must have required an unusual chain of authority within the squadron, but is perhaps also a reflection of the special status of the MiG-29 in the Yugoslav Air Force. All four have probably been involved with the aircraft since its introduction in 1987, hence the references to being among the most senior pilots on the squadron. It would be interesting to know whether these four officers were the only senior pilots on 127 Squadron. Also, in the postwar reconstruction of the Yugoslav Air Force, will the presence of four Lieutenant Colonels on the Knights Squadron create an awkward imbalance of authority?

Accounts of the MiG-21 pilots shot down are inexplicably reticent about the actual type of aircraft flown, whereas all the MiG-29 pilots were clearly identified as such. Of two probable MiG-21s downed, the aircraft type had to be inferred from context, although bases were not given (“for understandable reasons” according to Vojska). Conversely, the mounts of two SOKO J-22 Orao pilots who were featured in the two magazines were stated openly. Lieutenant Colonel 2ivota Djurid (36) was the CO of the Tigers (i.e. 241 Squadron based at Ladjevci/Kraljevo in Serbia) at the commencement of hostilities and was caught in unspecified crossfire in his Orao, disabling the aircraft. Faced with the decision as to whether he should eject and save himself or ram one of the attacking NATO aircraft, he chose the latter and a dramatically heroic death. This decision was claimed to be inspired by the belief that the NATO pilots would not pass up the chance of finishing him off with gunfire, either as he descended by parachute or when he was on the ground. (The aircraft rammed and destroyed by Lt Col Djuric has not been identified or confirmed in NATO communiques.) The persistently-stated fears and claims that NATO pilots would shoot at defenceless pilots who eject from their aircraft are very disturbing and require proper examination by both sides once the conflict is over.

The officer who probably replaced Djurid as CO of the Tigers, 37-year-old Lt Col Sreto Malinovid, was awarded the Medal of Honour in mid-May for his inspired leadership of his younger pilots, although no specific references were made to actual sorties flown by 241 Squadron. There is clearly little doubt, even from these rather spare accounts, that the Yugoslav Air Force pilots who were scrambled against the NATO fighters in the first few days of Allied Force fought with great determination and valour. However, the Serbian media accusations of less than chivalrous behaviour on the part of their opponents, who are largely characterised as mercenary and murderous bullies, reveal that propaganda is the major weapon in this conflict. Perversely, this will be as damaging to the reputation of Serbian pilots as it could be to those from the NATO Alliance.

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