Pieter Stroobach Visits Albania Airbases
Albania is a not so lucky nation in terms of aviation history. For that matter Albania was not so lucky on being in the USSR sphere of influence after WOII but that is another story. Although they ordered their first aircraft in 1914 it was not until the aftermath of WOII that the first military aircraft reached the Forcat Ajrore Shqiptare (FASh – Albanian Air Force). In the early fifties the USSR supplied the Albanians with the early MiG fighters like the MiG-15bis “Fagot”, MiG-17 “Fresco” and MiG-19 “Farmer” and Mil Helicopters like the Mi-1 “Hare” and Mi-4 “Hound”. However relations soured and from the early sixties Albania sourced it aircraft from China like the Harbin Z-5 “Hound”, Nanchang PT-6A, Yunshuji Y-5 “Colt”, Shenyang F-5 “Fresco”, Shenyang FT-5, Shenyang F-6 “Farmer”, Chengdu F-7A “Fishbed”. Creating a very unique air force in the process. Although never used in ernest during the cold war intercepts of “accidentally” lost Yugoslavian aircraft were regular. During the nineties the FASh needed it’s outdated aircraft when the conflict in the Balkans erupted and Albanian airspace was regularly violated. Nowadays the Albanians are converting into a modern day helicopter force in the form of the Albanian Air Brigade concentrated at Farke AB and build themselves up to NATO standard which the Albanians hope to join somewhere in the future. In the longer term transport and fighter capabilities will be rebuild. But the remains of the past are still visible on several military sites.
Most people who are intoxicated with the spotting bug have a to do or wish list. Most likely a quite long one come to think of my own list. One of those items on my personal wish list was going for a spotting trip to Albania’s mountainous landscape where artificial caverns up to 600 meters deep were created with help of the Chinese. Those caverns were used as aircraft shelters in the past.
On what once were the main airbases of Kuçova, Gjardi and Rinas there are large numbers of aircraft stored. At Kuçova AB the largest number of aircraft are stored. Time and money permitted Kuçova AB will be fully updated and be the second operational airbase in the country. It also starred in an episode of Topgear, the BBC’s well know car program. Unfortunately the tunnel at Kuçova AB is closed forever because of maintenance issues. All the aircraft that use to be in the tunnel are parked in front of the tunnel and it is clear that in the open the aircraft deteriorate rapidly. However it is an impressive site seeing all those fighters together. Rinas AB is the military side of Mother Teresa International Airport and here are only a small number of aircraft stored in shelters (mainly FT-5’s) and three aircraft are preserved on gate duty in front of the HQ building (two F-6’s and the sole Harbin H-5 “Beagle”). The once present Ilyushin Il-14 “Crate”s are already scrapped. At Gjadri (also known as Zadrima) only the tunnel remains. The rest of the base is redeveloped as a housing estate. When the airbase was in full operation the aircraft could be serviced and begin the take off run if needed in the tunnel. In the past the tunnel could be entered from both sides but this is no longer the case. At this tunnel only 100 meters are illuminated nowadays. In the illuminated aera the F-7’s are placed. The aircraft were stored early in the century. The twelve Albanian F-7’s are also interesting because they were built at Shenyang before production was switched to Chengdu. After the illuminated aera things get complicated because it is pitch black after the tunnel curves to the left. Pitch black in the sense that you don’t see your own hands in front of you! Apart from that abandoned equipment is lying around and there are several manholes without cover in the tunnel. So bring a torch! In the dark are the F-6’s hidden, around 20 of them. For the photographers amongst the readers think about a shutter speed between 25 and 60 seconds! Depending if you brought you own light source or just open your shutter and start flashing. Yep, a tripod is very useful on days like that. There are plans to turn the tunnel in a museum.
Since the FASh stopped flying with it’s outdated aircraft quite a number of them already are scrapped. Most notably ate the Il-14’s, Z-5’s and F-5’s. So far the plans for the remaining aircraft are to sell the best, donate some to museums and the about the rest continuing rumors that they will be scrapped in the near future persist.