Macedonian Air power: Air Brigade of North Macedonia at Skopje-Petrovec Air Base
After the second world war Macedonia joined the Federal Peoples Republic of Yugoslavia as a federal unit. During the referendum on 8 September 1991 the citizens chose for the Republic of Macedonia to be an independent democratic state. Since February 12th of this year the country is officially named North Macedonia and a long-lasting conflict with Greece, which always saw the name Macedonia as a claim on its own territory, has ended. The Air Force still uses the name Macedonian Air Force which also can be seen on the Mi-8 and Mi-17 helicopters. The country is a member of the United Nations and since December 2005 also a candidate to join the European Union.After the independence in 1991 more than 35 aircraft of the former Yugoslav Army which where based at Petrovec Air Base were distributed all over the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The Macedonian Air Force and Air Defence Forces was established on June 10 1992 with one Utva-66 and four Utva-75 two-seat trainers which were leased from the Macedonian Aeronautical Union. In 1994 they acquired four Mi-17 Hip Helicopters from Ukraine but due to UN arms embargo these helicopters were delivered with civil registrations. In 1996 Macedonia was excluded from the UN arms embargo and the Helicopters received military serials and a nice camouflage scheme. In 1995 four Zlin 242L trainers were acquired. In March 2001 the crisis began between Albanian terrorists and the Macedonian Government and in no time the Macedonian Air Force and Air Arms expanded with 20 aircraft. On 23 March 2001 Ukraine donated four Mi-8MT helicopters and as part of an old agreement also two Mi-24V Hind combat Helicopters were delivered. Out of solidarity Greece also donated two UH-1H Hueys on that same day! Within a few months another six Mi-24 Hind Helicopters were delivered from Ukraine. In June 2001 the first combat fighters arrived, being three Su-25 and one Su-25UB. At the end of 2001 another two Mi-24 Hind Helicopters arrived from Ukraine. In 2003 a four seat Zlin 143L and one more two-seat Zlin 242L were acquired.
At this moment the air assets of the Macedonian Government consists of four parts: Pilot Training Centre (PTC), Air Force, Ministry of Interior and the Protection and rescue directorate. The Protection and rescue directorate operates three civilian registered AT-802AF which are based at Skopje/Petrovec. Their main and only task is firefighting. During our visit they flew one mission after the other. The missions are mostly being done by retired Air Force personnel.The Ministry of Interior operates one civilian registered Learjet 60 for VIP / Government transportation which is based at Skopje/Petrovec. Also the Policija belongs to this unit. They operate one Mi-17 and two Mi-171 out of Skopje/Petrovec. Other helicopters operated by the Policija are one AB-206, one AB-212 and one Bell-412 but these helicopters are based at nearby Idrizovo where the Police Training Center is based.
The Air Force had to withdrawn the four Su-25’s Frogfoots during 2004 according to the draft to join NATO. During the years also six Mi-24’s where withdrawn from use. Those Mi-24’s and Su-25’s are still in “good” shape on a dispersal next to the operational ramp and it’s unknown what will happen to them. One UH-1H Huey was send to Greece for major overhaul but the costs couldn’t be paid so this helicopter is still at Stefanovikion, Greece. The other Huey is stored on a platform and won’t fly ever again. From the six operational Hinds five are awaiting parts for overhaul so only one Hind is really flyable at the moment. Every 50 flying hours the Mi-24’s are getting overhaul at Skopje but every 2.000 flying hours the Mi-24’s are getting major overhaul in Ukraine. Unfortunately two of the four Mi-17’s have been crashed which leaves only two operational Mi-17’s but luckily all four Mi-8’s are fully operational just like the civil registered four seat Zlin-143. The nicely camouflaged An-2, including shark mouth, hasn’t flown for several years but they want to make it operational again because the deal with the Macedonian Aero Club was that it would be returned from the Air Force to the Aero Club in flyable condition.
Pilot Training Centre (PTC)
In 2011 the Israelian company Elbit systems opened a completely new pilot training centre (PTC) at Skopje/Petrovec. The PTC uses the five two seat Zlin-242’s and acquired four Bell 206’s training helicopters in 2013. The PTC is since then recruiting pilots according to Israeli philosophy. Elbit is working very closely with the MOD and every two years it’s being discussed if the contract will be expand or the MOD will take over the PTC. The current contract is ending at the end of 2020. The PTC is trying to recruit pilots for other countries but it’s hard because North Macedonia isn’t part of NATO. One of the countries where the PTC is trying to get in business with is Bosnia Herzegovina because they need 35 pilots! Countries like Austria, Cameroon and Nigeria are investigating if the PTC is suitable for them. The PTC is FAA standard so they can train civilian pilots but at this moment there is no market, maybe in the future there will be. The PTC is introduced to NATO in Brussels so hopefully more countries are going to use the PTC. A big advantage is that if there is a problem Elbit solves it within a few days. If the MOD has to solve it, it would cost weeks or months. Another big advantage is that due to own fueltanks there is always fuel to fly the Zlins and or the Bells. The question is how this will turn out if the MOD is going to take over the PTC.
After finishing the military academy you’ll go to the PTC and fly 10 hours in the Zlin 143 just to see if you’re feeling comfortable with flying. After this you’ll have the basic training which is 40 flying hours in the Zlin 242 except landings. If you succeed the basic training the next step is flying the Bell 206. The first 50 flying hours are basic training and after this follows the advanced training of 180 flying hours including 75 flying hours of night flying and also tactical missions are made to see what you’re capable of. At the end of this stage the choice have to be made if you’ll go to the Police or Air Force and which helicopter you’re going to fly. For the Air force the options are the Transport squadron and fly the Mi-8 / Mi-17 or you’ll go to the Attack Squadron and fly the Mi-24. For the Police various types are possible. Before flying the real helicopters several hours have to be spend in the simulators to see if the wright choice has been made. The screening is very strict but when they’ll pass they’ll be ready for it. It’s very hard to train a good pilot, out of every 1.000.000 people only 1 is capable of being a military pilot! Before the PTC acquired the four Bell 206 training helicopters pilots went from the Zlin directly to the Mi-8/Mi-17. Also the PTC has two advance full motion tactical simulators, one for the Mi-8 / Mi-17 and the other one is for the Mi-24. The simulators are equipped with advanced avionics providing an optimal training environment. At the moment of our visit pilots from Poland and Cameroon where using the simulators and they were very satisfied about it. Later this year Bulgarian pilots will follow. Also PTC is trying to expand the use of the simulators to countries like Croatia and Serbia.
The Pilot Training Center is a well organised organization and is hoping for many more customers in the future so there is more money to invest in the PTC and the Air Force. Their Zlins and Bells are well maintained and flyable for many more years. The transport helicopters of the Air Force are still in good shape and flyable condition but they are getting older which is the same for the Mi-24 Hind helicopters except these are having problems with getting spare parts and only one is operational at the moment. They are looking for new helicopters but changing from eastern to western helicopters is not easy and will cost a lot of money, it’s not mandatory but highly recommended! So the future of the North Macedonian Air Force is unclear.
The North Macedonian Air Force have been taking part with helicopters in exercise Adriatic Strike which has been held for several years in Slovenia. Last year they attended with a Mi-8 helicopter. Also a Mi-24 should have gone to Slovenia but had a problem and cancelled. Last year they were also overwatch for Anatolian Eagle and they want to participate in this exercise with helicopters but the main problem is the airworthiness of the helicopters and off course money. By joining the NATO they’re hoping it’s easier to get spare parts for the helicopters and to make them all operational again so they can participate in more international helicopter exercises.
The Authors of Lowpass Aviation.com would like to thank the personnel of the Macedonian Air Force and the Staff of the Ministry of Defence of North Macedonia for their hospitality and their time and help during our visit to the North Macedonian Air Brigade at Skopje-Petrovec Air Base !