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Bulgarian Air Force (BUAF) is planning to use a total of 4 Mi-17 helicopters for firefighting missions both in country and abroad. The new project is in fact a joint initiative of several government agencies including the Council of Ministers, Ministry of Defense (MOD) and Ministry of Interior.
Bulgaria lost its national helicopter firefighting capability several years ago after a Mi-17 crash in the area of Betolovoto near-by the town of Razlog. The terrible accident occurred at about 09:15 on 24th July 2003 when the helicopter was involved in fighting a forest fire. All four crewmembers including Col. Milko Peykovsky, Maj. Nikolay Rululov, Lieut. Boyko Panayotov and Col. Kiril Chamishky died in the crash.
Now 7 years after the crash the Bulgarian Government is determined to restore the country’s Mi-17 firefighting capability. On 8th October 2010 one BUAF Mi- 17 helicopter (number 419) made a demonstration flight with a Bambi Bucket over the VIP-area of Sofia Airport. The event was attended by Bulgarian Minister of Defense Ret. Gen. Anyo Anguelov, Chief of Defense HQs Gen. Simeon Simeonov and Chief of Air Force HQs Gen. Konstantin Popov. The demonstration was best described in the words of Gen. Popov who said that “It was perceived as a positive sign by the Bulgarian society because it shows the contribution of the Air Force to the safety and well-being of the citizens in times of peace.”
The idea for restoring the Mi-17 firefighting capability belongs to Gen. Simeon Simeonov, Gen. Konstantin Popov and Pencho Penchev who is General Director of “Air Squadron 28”, a Government service that is subordinated to the Bulgarian Council of Ministers. In fact “Air Squadron 28” operates the Bulgarian Government aircraft among which are several planes (Airbus A319 LZ-AOB and Falcon 2000 LZ-00I), and helicopters (Mi-8 LZ-CAT and AW 109 LZ-BMB). Says “Air Squadron 28” Director Penchev: “The mission of our agency is to provide for the VIP-trips of Bulgarian Government delegations by air. However we have a number of well-trained and experienced pilots who can participate in a variety of other missions including firefighting. In August 2010 they had supported search and rescue operation
In September 2010 the combined efforts of these three Government agencies gave birth to the new emergency Helicopter Unit for firefighting, search and rescue missions and natural disaster operations. Presently it operates the above mentioned BUAF Mi-17 helicopter (pennant number 419) and relies on the experience of three rotating crews. The crew that conducted the demonstration flight in October 2010 includes chief pilot Vassil Ivanov (from “Air Squadron 28”), co-pilot Col. Zlatko Zlatev (Commander of BUAF helicopter base “Krumovo”) and chief engineer Capt. Angel Nonin. “We did a lot of training with the Bambi Bucket to get ready for the demonstration”, says chief pilot Vassil Ivanov. “The most extensive training session took place in BUAF base “Krumovo” on 1st October 2010 and lasted about 2 hours. We performed a total of 28 water drops and poured down about 70 tons of water”, Ivanov reveals.
Both Vassil Ivanov and Zlatko Zlatev have considerable experience in the helicopter aviation as well as in fighting forest fire. Vassil Ivanov is a former Commander of BUAF base “Krumovo” and has accumulated a total of 5000 flight hours on Russian made Mi-2, Mi-8 and Mi-17 helicopters and other types. Most important he had participated in firefighting missions in Turkey and Portugal where he accrued about 20 % of his total flight time. Zlatko Zlatev has completed a total of 2800 flight hours on a variety of platforms including Mi-2, Mi-8, Mi-17, Bell 206 and AS.532 AL Cougar helicopters.
The project for restoring Mi-17 firefighting capability proved to be a timely and wise decision because shortly after the above flight demonstration at Sofia Airport destructive fire broke out on a total of 37 locations throughout Bulgaria. Approximately 50 % of them were on the territory of three regional districts in Northern part of the country. In early November 2010 the local governments in the districts of Sofia, Lovech and Montana required the support of MOD, BUAF and “Air Squadron 28”. On 9th November BUAF sent one Cougar AS 532 helicopter from “Krumovo” air base to over fly the area and gather information about the fire locations in the municipalities of Etropole and Teteven which are part of Lovech regional district. On the next day the Mi-17 helicopter came in and participated successfully in extinguishing a forest fire in the area of Yamna village near-by Etropole. The mission lasted for 3 hours while the helicopter made a total of 9 water drops and poured down more than 20 tons of water.
According to MOD plans by May 2011 the new emergency Helicopter Unit should have another three BUAF Mi-17 helicopters in service. This will bring down the total number of Mi-17 helicopters in the unit to four and will enable Bulgaria to participate in firefighting missions in neighboring countries Greece, Turkey, Romania, Serbia and Macedonia.