In October 2021, MAR was invited to Skopje Petrovec Air Base a.k.a Naroden Heroj Strasho Pindjur, to spend three days witnessing the operations of North Macedonia’s Air Force. During these three days MAR was able to conduct interviews, visit a number of facilities such as the pilot training school, combat helicopter squadron & transport helicopter squadron, as well as conduct an air-to-air sortie with two helicopters, an Mi-17 and a Bell 206 Jet Ranger III of the Macedonian Air Force.
The Military Aviation Force of Republic of Macedonia was established on 10th of April 1992 with a decree issued by Kiro Gligorov, the first President of the Republic of Macedonia. On this day, the first Macedonian Air Force and Air Defence Command with its Aviation Brigade composed of Aviation, Transport and Combat Helicopter Squadrons were established. The Air Force celebrates the 10th June as the day of the Macedonian Air Force, since this day commemorates the beginning of the first flight in the Macedonian Air Force with an UTVA 75 on the 10th of June 1992.
The UTVA-66 and UTVA-75 were the first aircraft types to be introduced into the Macedonian Air Force and Air Defence Forces. Upon its creation, the Macedonian Air Force and Air Defence Forces could count on one UTVA-66 and four UTVA-75 A21 two-seat trainers, all leased from the Makedonski Vozduhoploven Sojuz. After the full-scale conflict began in 1991 in the newly independent republics of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Security Council unanimously adopted resolution, requesting the immediate UN arms embargo to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Macedonia and Slovenia.
In 1994, the Macedonian Air Force and Air Defence Forces acquired four Mi-17s from Ukraine. Because of the arms embargo they were delivered to the Macedonian Air Force and Air Defence Forces with civil registrations. In 1996, the Security Council excluded Macedonia from the UN arms embargo. Shortly after this all four Mi-17s of the Macedonian Air Force and Air Defence Forces were painted in camouflage schemes and they received military serials. A year later, 4 Zlin 242L two-seat trainers were acquired from the Czech Republic. They were used for basic, aerobatic, navigation, instrument and night flying, for formation flying and combat training maneuvers. One Zlin 242L was lost on April 7, 1999 when it crashed about 1 km west of Mantovo Accumulation Lake, near Radovish, the pilot escaping with minor injuries.
During the Kosovo crisis, the Macedonian Air Force and Air Defence Forces relocated all its aircraft in safe places, deep within Macedonian territory, while it monitored the trouble borders with Yugoslavia (in the part with Kosovo) and Albania. Macedonia also supplied a number of refugee camps with Albanians from Kosovo with food, water and medical care.
In 2001, there was an armed conflict which began when the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA) militant group launched large scale frontal assaults on police stations, check-points and border-points in southern Serbia and Macedonia. The crisis between Albanian Fighters and the Macedonian Government forces broke out in March 2001. During the conflict the Macedonian Air Force and Air Defence Forces rapidly increased in numbers receiving an additional 20 aircraft. The first large scale delivery was made on March 23 when Ukraine donated to Macedonia four Mi-8MT combat helicopters, that served with Ukrainian contingent of KFOR on Kosovo, and an 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. Between April 15th and September 4th, 8 more Mi-24’s were donated by Ukraine. In June 2001 four Su-25 (three Su-25 and one Su-25UB) arrived in Macedonia, marking them the first combat fighters for the Macedonian Air Force and Air Defence Forces. In December 2001 Macedonian Air Force and Air Defence Forces received and additional 2 Mi-24K Hind-G2 (photo-reconnaissance and artillery spotting version of Mi-24) helicopters from Ukraine.
As a response to the brutal assaults of Albanian Fighters on the town of Tetovo, on March 25, Macedonian security forces launched a full scale offensive attack in order to neutralize and eliminate the Albanian Fighters. In this operation, Macedonian Security forces used Mi-17 transport helicopters and the recently acquired Mi-8MT combat helicopters. This was the first time that Macedonian Air Force and Air Defence Forces aircraft were involved in combat.
On June 23, one Su-25 took off from Petrovec Air Force base and was involved in a reconnaissance mission over Arachinovo village where heavy fighting were underway. This was the first time in the history of Macedonia that a fixed wing Macedonian Air Force and Air Defence Forces combat aircraft operated from a Macedonian Air Force and Air Defence Forces base. Despite the large quantities of anti-aircraft weaponry in the hands of the Albanian Fighters, no aircraft of the Macedonian Air Force and Air Defence Forces was lost as a result of anti-aircraft fire. The only loss suffered by the Macedonian Air Force and Air Defence Forces was that of an Mi-17 helicopter on March 17, which occurred because the helicopters rotor blade struck a flag pole during takeoff at a hotel in the Popova Shapka ski resort.
In December 2001, the Macedonian Air Force and Air Defence Forces were organised under a new structure. Until then, the Macedonian Air Force and Air Defence Forces Airborne Brigade was organized in the following three squadrons:
- 101. Avijaciska Eskadrila (101 Aviation Squadron),
- 201. Protiv Oklopna Helikopterska Eskadrila (201 Anti-Armour Helicopter Squadron) and
- 301. Transportna Helikopterska Eskadrila (301 Transport Helicopter Squadron).
With the changes made to the organisational structure of the Macedonian Air Force and Air Defence Forces, the Airborne Brigade became the Airborne Battalion, the 101. AE became 101. Avijaciska Cheta (101 Aviation Company), 201. POHE became 201. Protiv Oklopna Helikopterska Cheta (201 Anti-Armour Helicopter Company) and 301. TRHE became 301. Transportna Helikopterska Cheta (301 Transport Helicopter Company). As part of the reorganization of the Macedonian Air Force and Air Defence Forces new company was also established. Named as 401. Shkolsko Trenazna Cheta (401 Training Company), which operated four Zlin 242Ls, a single Zlin 143L and two UH-1Hs. Before coming part of the 401. ShTCh, the four original Zlin 242L two-seat trainers were part of the 101. AE and UH-1H helicopters were part of the 301. TRHE.
In 2003 a four-seat Zlin 143L and one more two-seat Zlin 242L were acquired from the Macedonian Authority for Civil Aeronautical Transport and Traffic. Training on the new Zlins started in 2004 when the original three Zlin 242s went to Moravan Aeroplanes in Czech for overhaul. The Macedonian Air Force and Air Defence Forces elite 501 parachute diversion detachment (501. Padobransko Diverzantski Odred) called “Falcons” (Sokoli) was officially promoted during the big military exercise that took place at Cojlija military range, near Petrovec Air Force base, on May 28, 2002.
The main tasks of this unit encompassed technical presentation of the equipment and the weaponry, search and rescue (SAR) operations, combat search and rescue (CSAR) of the pilot on hostile territory with the tactic operation called “small diamond.” The “Falkons” also demonstrated leading Macedonian Air Force and Air Defence Forces aircraft towards enemy positions (FOC – Forward Air Controllers), opening rifle fire from Mi-8MT and Mi-24V helicopters, parachute jumps and High-Altitude Low-Opening parachute jumps. In peacetime the 501. PDO is under the command of the Macedonian Air Force and Air Defence Forces and its main task is search, rescue and medical evacuation of the flying staff. In case of natural disasters its aim is assisting the population. Members of the 501. PDO are all experienced professional soldiers who had participated in the missions of NATO and Partnership for Peace program. The main aim of the 501. PDO is to become the most elite unit of the Macedonian Army.
The creation of 501. PDO led to a requirement to equip the Macedonian Air Force and Air Defence Forces with transport aircraft. As a result, the Macedonian Air Force and Air Defence Forces acquired one An-2 transport aircraft from Macedonian aviation club “Kumanovo” in 2003. The An-2 was used for parachute training of the 501. PDO. The unit also uses the Mi-24V, Mi-8MT and sometimes made use of the now retired UH-1H helicopters.
|1992||On the 10th April 1992, the first President of the Republic of Macedonia, Kiro Gligorov, signed decree number 60 establishing the founding of the Air Force and Air Defence Command. The first flight was conducted with an UTVA-75 around Drachevo and lasted around 20 minutes from 10:15 until 10:35 am. The flight was flown by Major Dane Ilijevski and Captain Aleksandar Manev. In memory of this day, the Macedonian Air Force celebrates the 10th of June as the official day of the unit.|
|1993||The Aviation Brigade (ABde) was composed of: Command, two Aviation Squadrons (AS), and Anti -Armour Helicopter Squadron (AAHS), Transport Helicopter Squadron (THS) and Reconnaissance and Signals unit.|
|1994||On the 28th June 1994, the Macedonian Air Force received its first Mi-17 helicopter, which was followed by three more brand new Mi-17 helicopters later on in the year.|
|1995||A Radar NARM – 61 was acquired and put into service.|
|1996||Towards the beginning of 1996, a Zlin-242 trainer aircraft (serial VAM-102) was acquired from the Czech Republic. This was the first out of three aircraft initially acquired.|
|1997||During 1997, the Macedonian Air Force defined the tasks for the Aviation squadron, such as finishing the ongoing training for all pilots on the Zlin 242L and making sure that the Transport helicopter squadron maintained the necessary level of training to ensure that all possible uses for the Mi-17 were exploited.|
|1998||During this year, various members of the Macedonian Air participated in a series of exercises to increase their experience, such as Cooperative Zenith in the USA, Strong Resolve in Italy, Cooperative Determination in Bulgaria, Olympia in Greece, Cooperative Best Endeavour in Bulgaria and Cooperative Key in Turkey.|
|1999||In 1999, the Macedonian Air Force participated in a humanitarian mission delivering water, food and medical supplies to the refugee camps from Kosovo.|
|2000||In 2000, members of the Aviation Brigade participated in the military NATO exercise ‘Cooperative Key’ in Constanta Romania with two Mi-17 helicopters from the 4th – 14th September.|
|2001||This year was very important for the Macedonian Air Force as within a period of three months between 17th March and 4th September four aircraft types were acquired. In 2001, the Aviation Brigade of the Macedonian Air Force thus consisted of three Aviation Squadrons:|
101st Aviation Squadron equipped with three Zlin-242L and four Su-25 Frogfoots,
201st Combat Helicopter Squadron equipped with twelve Mi-24 helicopters, and
301st Transport Helicopter Squadron with two UH-1X helicopters, three Mi-17 and four Mi-8MT helicopters.
|2002||During 2002, the Aviation Battalion was transformed into Aviation Wing and members of the Macedonian Air Force participated in exercise Cooperative Key in St. Dizier France as part of the NATO and Partnership for Peace program, with two Mi-17 helicopters and 42 servicemen.|
|2003||During this year AF and AD was composed of: AF and AD Command, Aviation Wing, 3rd AD Battalion, ARR Battalion, Security and Logistic Support Battalion and Parachute Diversion Detachment;|
On 8th July 2003 the Ministry of Defence signed an agreement with aero club Done Bozinov from Kumanovo for the purchase of one An-2 aircraft. Furthermore, members of the Macedonian Air Force participated in exercise Cooperative Key in Graf Ignatievo near Plovdiv in Bulgaria with 45 Wing servicemen, two combat helicopters Mi-24 and one Transport Helicopter Mi-17.
|2004||In the beginning of 2004, the Training Squadron received two more Zlin-242L aircraft and one four-seater Zlin -143L, bringing the total of aircraft to 7 trainer aircraft. Furthermore, 2004 also saw the start of the project for the modernization of the unit’s aircraft with night flight systems led by Major Dragan Nedelkovski.|
|2005||Towards the end of November, with the new transformation, the Air Force Wing was moved from AD and AFD Command and was now under the Joint Operations Command (JOC) in Kumanovo;|
The Macedonian Air Force also participated in exercise Eagle SAR 05 with helicopters and service personnel, at the airfield Farka in the vicinity of Tirana in Albania.
Furthermore, in 2005 high ranking officials of the Macedonian Ministry of Defence, ARM General Staff and representatives from the Israeli company Elbit Ltd. attended the official presentation of the first ARM pilot- instructors operating the night flight system (ANVIS/HUD-24). The systems were integrated into the Mi-24 and Mi-17 helicopters a few days before the event.
|2006||On 22nd May 2006, the Macedonian Air Force participated in the peacekeeping mission EUFOR ALHTEA in Bosnia and Herzegovina with two Mi-8/17 helicopters and Aviation Wing service personnel.|
|2008||This was a difficult year for the Macedonian Air Force, since on the 12th January in vicinity of Blace, Katlanovo, an Mi-17 with construction number VAM-304 crashed. All eleven servicemen from the Helicopter Wing lost their lives in the crash.|
|2009||On 26th November at the airport of Aleksandar Veliki and the Military Training Area Krivolak there was a presentation and live firing exercise, which was further proof of the dedication of the Air Force service personnel.|
|2010||In 2010, two Mi-8/17 helicopters and two Mi-24 helicopters along with 35 service personnel participated in the multinational exercise Logical Decision 2010 in Papa, Republic of Hungary.|
|2011||As a result of an Agreement for Cooperation between the Republic of Macedonia and Republic of Montenegro, members of the Macedonian Air Force attended the Air force Academy of the Republic of Montenegro. Three Lieutenants attended the pilot training for Gazelle helicopter and the results they achieved confirmed the high quality of their training and the skills they have acquired in the Training Squadron.|
Furthermore, in 2011 members of the Macedonian Air Force along with service personnel of the Air Force Brigade of the Armed Forces of Republic of Slovenia participated in a bilateral military exercise Challenge 2011.
|2012||The heavy snowfall and the bad weather conditions in February 2012 resulted in the immobilization of many villages and towns in the Republic of Macedonia. The Wing delivered food, water, medicine and basic toiletries for those places that were isolated by the snow. The military helicopters were used to evacuate people with serious health problems from these areas. The helicopters also transported ETSOM and EVN teams to specific locations to check and repair the electric installations and networks.|
The main goals of the second visit of the Deputy minister Emil Dimitriev and the Chief of the General Staff, Major General Gorancho Koteski of the Aviation Briagade in Petrovec, were the implementation of the new structure of the Wing following the transformation into Aviation Brigade, as well as the new candidates selection for the Pilot Training Center.
The main mission of the Air Brigade is to provide air support and transport of the Army units, observation of airspace of the Republic and air defence of the elements of combat arrangement of units, significant objects on small elevations, provides overall sovereignty of the state airspace and participates in peace support operations abroad. At the same time in times of natural disasters performs civil search and rescue, fire-fighting and medical evacuation. It is composed of the following four main squadrons, all based at Skopje:
- 201 Combat Helicopter Squadron “Night Thunders” (Mi-24V)
- 301 Transport Helicopter Squadron (Mi-8MT/17)
- Training Squadron (Zlin 242L and Zlin 143L)
- Pilot Training Center (Bell 206B-3)
Tasks of the Air Brigade:
- Plan coordination and control of the subordinate units;
- Planning and implementation of measures, activities and procedures for raising the level of combat readiness in accordance with the estimated security situation and received orders;
- Planning and implementation of activities and procedures to support central and local government in dealing with natural disasters;
- Organization and implementation of monitoring, control and securing the sovereignty of airspace of the Republic;
- Continuous monitoring of aircraft in the airspace above the Republic;
- Navigation help to aircraft;
- Identification of aircraft in the airspace above the Republic;
- Distribution of knowledge on the state of air space to interested users;
- Automatic digital exchange of data on the situation in the airspace at regional level;
- Preparation for execution of mobilization;
- Achieving and maintaining combat readiness;
- Training of staff for participation in multinational operations and peace keeping missions and counter terrorism;
- Participation in exercises with NATO and coalition partners.
On the first day of our visit, we were greeted by our hosts who gave us a brief overview of the plan for the following three days. We would start with a bang, with the Mi-17s and Mi-8s of the Air Force. Our guide took us on the platform where all the active Mi-8s and Mi-17s are normally parked, and we were able to capture the crew preparing an Mi-17 for takeoff along with taking static shots of the other three Mils present on the ramp in glorious sunshine.Following the static shots, we were then also allowed to climb onto a mound where we were able to clearly see the Mil-17 start up, taxi and takeoff in front of our own eyes.
Following the helicopter’s departure, we went on the ramp were two Mi-24s hinds were parked to take static pictures of them. The hosts were very cooperative in that they agreed to take off most of the covers that were covering various parts of the hinds. The first Mi-24s were delivered to Macedonia on Mar. 23, 2001. Since at the time, the Macedonian Air Force had only two crews qualified on the Mi-24, the “Hinds” of the Macedonian Air Force were initially piloted by hired pilots from the post-Soviet republics. The first combat operation of the Mi-24 was a combat flight against the positions of Albanian separatists north of the city of Tetovo on Apr. 2. According to reputable sources, the use of Macedonian Mi-24s in the summer of 2001 was so intense that they allegedly ran out of all 57 mm missiles that were available in the country. Macedonian Hinds also used about 40 Shturm-V anti-tank missiles during the conflict, sometimes during night attacks. During the fighting for the village of Aračinovo, which began on Jun. 21 at 4:30 in the morning, the Mi-24 also dropped four 250 kg bombs. During attacks on ground targets, Hinds crews often used flares to prevent Albanian militants from shooting down helicopters with various MANPADS. After the conflict, Mi-24‘s versions K and V became part of the 201st anti-armour helicopter squadron. The Mi-24Ks were later decommissioned and currently the Macedonian Air Force is armed with four Mi-24V helicopters, modernized by the Israeli company Elbit.
Following the visit to the 201 Combat Helicopter Squadron we were given the opportunity to take pictures of the sole An-2 (withdrawn from use) that is sitting on the same ramp as well as take pictures of a Zlin 242L aircraft that returned back following its morning mission. By the time we finished taking all these images, the Mi-17 came in for a low approach on the airfield to pick up our guide, since he was also an Air Force pilot that needed to perform a mission onboard the same Mi-17 on that day.
Following his departure, we were given a brief tour of the hangars of the pilot training school, where we were able to capture the Zlin 242L and Bell 206 jet rangers that are in service with the Macedonian Air Force. By the time we were finished taking photos of all the zlins and jet rangers, we positioned ourselves on the ramp to capture the arrival of the Mil-17, again in glorious sunshine. We were also allowed to approach the helicopter as the crew performed post flight checks and prepared the helicopter for another flight the next day.
This marked the end of our morning visit on the base. Before we left the base, we negotiated with our guide the remainder of the activities for a late afternoon visit. Due to the fact that favourable weather conditions were only going to be experienced on that day, we asked for permission to conduct a sunset shoot and a night shoot on the ramp with the Mi-17s and Mi-8s. This decision proved to be an excellent choice as the photos turned out to be brilliant, as one can note below.
On the second day of our visit, we had the opportunity to visit the Pilot Education and Training school of the Macedonian Air Force, where prospective Mi-8/Mi-17, and Mi-24 pilots learn the principles of flight and more specifically helicopter flight on the Zlin and Bell 206 Jetranger III aircraft in service with the air force. Compared to the facilities of the transport and combat units, the facilities of the pilot training school were far more modern, having been completed in 2014. This was due to the investment made by North Macedonia in 2012 where the government invested 42.4 million euros (5.3 million euros per year over a span of 8 years) in the development of a pilot training centre with the help of Israeli Company Elbit Systems, aimed at training air pilots for the needs of the Macedonian Army, Police Force and other state institutions. Besides offices and classrooms, the building also houses two state of the art simulators used for simulator training on the Mi-24 and Mi-17.
The contribution that Elbit Systems gave to the Pilot Training School is considered as a state secret by the Macedonian Government. However, based on how Elbit’s training centre is marketed, one can obtain a very good idea of the value that this centre has provided to the Macedonian Air Force. Elbit’s modern solutions for a pilot training centre coupled with its extensive experience in aircrew training and aircraft maintenance, ensures a high quality, efficient and safe environment for the training of military aircrews. The centre aims at managing the training process from initial candidate screening to primary, basic, and advanced training, and focuses primarily on providing a comprehensive, Classroom-to-Cockpit training solution incorporating:
- Curriculum development and customer tailored syllabus.
- Experienced flight Instructors and qualified ground school teachers.
- Ground-based training facilities.
- Advanced Ground Based Training Systems (GBTS).
- Training aids and debriefing, &
- Aircraft operation.
Elbit’s modular syllabus also includes advanced operational courses such as Advanced Jet Training (AJT), helicopter landing tactics and manoeuvers, NVG flights, formation flight training, Live Virtual Constructive Training, and more. The company combines its world-leading training facilities, among which are the Israeli Air Force’s training academy, U.S. government’s fleet support and services and hundreds of aircraft operated in Private Finance Initiatives, with know-how and expertise in designing and developing pilot training programs, thus setting new standards for quality, value and efficiency in military aircrew training.
Following the expiry of the 8-year contract, Elbit Systems have transferred the entire management and ownership of the infrastructure, including hangars, classrooms and simulators over to the Macedonian Air Force. The Macedonian Air Force is proud that nowadays, it has achieved an important milestone where it can maintain the training facilities and train upcoming pilots by teaching them the principles of flight and enabling them to become frontline helicopter pilots.
On the third and final day, most of us got to fulfill a personal dream, i.e. that of conducting our first air to air photoshoot. The fact that three of us got to also experience a flight on a Macedonian Air Force Mi-17 was also the cherry on the cake. The air to air shoot was conducted with a single Bell 206 and a single Mi-17. We exchanged positions during our flight to enable all our members to gain multiple opportunities of getting the best possible shots, despite the fact that the weather decided not to cooperate on this day. Nevertheless, it was one of MAR’s best aviation experiences to date, and we would like to thank the Macedonian Air Force for making it possible.
Following the air to air shoot, we then conducted an interview with a senior safety officer of the Air Force, who also happens to be one of the most experienced Mi-24 pilots within the Macedonian Air Force. While he gave us an overview of the Macedonian Air Force, he also briefly discussed the recent wildfires that Macedonia experienced this Summer, which broke out in the beginning of August near Kocani and were the worst wildfires the country ever experienced since 2007. Following the catastrophic wildfires in 2007, in 2009 Macedonia bought three US-Built Air Tractor AT-802 ‘Fire Boss’ aircraft that became operational in 2010. However this year, using these aircraft to fight the wildfires was not possible due to the fact that the entire fleet was grounded as a result of poor planning and administration of the maintenance of these helicopters.
Due to the fact that the entire fleet of air tractors was grounded, and the fact that the helicopter fleet of the the Macedonian Police was not equipped well enough to support this cause, the Air Force ended up deploying three operational helicopters to help combat these fires (2 Mi-17s serials ‘302’ & ‘303’ & 1 Mi-8 serial ‘307’). In addition, it also had to beg for international aid, and the first country to respond to Macedonia’s plea for help came from Serbia’s Ministry of Interior, that sent a contingent of five helicopters led by the latest addition to their fleet, the H145M ‘YU-MUP’ carrying the Serbian Minister for Foreign Affairs. While this helicopter returned back to Belgrade a few hours later, the rest of the four helicopters (2 AB.212s, 1 Gazelle, & 1 H145M) started operations on August 4th flying in formation with the Macedonian Mi-17s and Mi-8. All helicopters used the bambi bucket system, however it was evident that the Serbian helicopters could not cope as well as the Mil-17s and Mil-8 due to the fact that they needed to strike a balance between the amount of water they could carry, and the time they spent battling the fires in varies regions of Macedonia.
One main positive aspect that was highlighted during this crisis was the effectiveness of the Mi-17/8 in carrying out not just firefighting activities, but all the tasks that are needed in the Macedonian Air Force. During this crisis it was proven how useful it would be if Macedonia invested more in the upkeep of these helicopters rather than focusing on procuring other different types of helicopters that may be perfectly suited for a particular task, but may not be able to carry out all the tasks needed by Macedonia like the Mi-17 & Mi-8 does. The officer also mentioned how in the near future a deal is going to be struck with a Czech company for the maintenance and overhaul of their helicopters, which would solve the current challenges they are experiencing with a shortage of spare parts, which is also limiting the number of helicopters that they can have operational at any given time.
This interview concluded our three days visit at Skopje Petrovec Air Base, in which we got to learn more about the operations of the Air Force and challenges being faced across all branches of the Air Force. This report would not have been possible without the cooperation of The Public Affairs Office of the Macedonian Ministry of Defence, all the branches of the Air Force that greeted us and made sure we got the best possible shots, and the local aviation enthusiasts that helped us out while we were there. It is fairly reasonable to say that MAR will be back in Macedonia in the near future!