Finland Joins NATO – A Brief History of the Ilmavoimat
Story and photos by Ken Kula
Finland has become part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The country’s armed forces have been involved in numerous conflicts during the 20th Century, especially in the first five decades of the 1900s. The Finnish Air Force (known as Ilmavoimat) was formed in March, 1918. That predated both the British Royal Air Force (formed one month later, in April, 1918) and the Swedish Air Force (formed in 1926).
Some brief history: Finland was known as the Grand Duchy of Finland under Russian control in early 1917. When the Russian Revolution began in late 1917, Finland declared its independence from Russia. During early 1918, the Finnish Civil War occurred, and Bolsheviks squared off against the White Guard.
Thulin Type D
Although neighboring Sweden was declared as neutral, Swedish citizens enabled the nascent Finnish Air Force (White Guard) to operate a handful of aircraft. The first aircraft in the force was a Nordiska Aviatik A.B. Albatros; the second was a Thulin Type D. National markings on the Thulin aircraft included a blue swastika, which was a good luck symbol adopted by the Swedish National Socialist Bloc. This symbol would be used for several decades, until World War II and Nazi Germany’s negative connotation. The Albatross floundered while its delivery to Finland due to a balky engine, and thus the Thulin Type D is routinely identified as Finland’s first military aircraft.
The Whites and the Reds (Bolsheviks) used aircraft for reconnaissance, artillery spotting and bombing (explosives and leaflet/propaganda) duties. The Red forces began operations with some seven aircraft, many operated by Russian crews. Ultimately they operated several dozen airframes. The White forces began with just three aircraft, with a mixed force of Swedish, Danish, Russian and Finnish crews. German personnel also assisted. Swedish citizens assisted the Whites, as well as Swedish and German military personnel. By the end of the Civil War, this Air Force had 40 aircraft on hand, including multiple captured Red aircraft. The Finnish Air Force was thus formed at the end of the Civil War, and known as “Suomen Ilmavoimat” (Finnish Air Force).
During the late teens through the 1930s, Finland was equipped with French and British aircraft. Both land and water-based aircraft were purchased for reconnaissance and surveillance purposes. In 1923, initial fighter aircraft were bought, and pilot training for this discipline commenced. During the 1930s, fighters were upgraded with the likes of the Dutch Fokker XXI and bomber aircraft like the Bristol Blenheim were procured. Just before the initial battles of World War II in Europe, The Finnish Air Force bought more modern fighters like the US Brewster Buffalo, the Fiat 50 and Hawker Hurricane.
VL Humu, a Finnish modification of the Brewster Buffalo
After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, the Soviet Union began to pressure Finland. The Winter War between the two countries began on November 30, 1939. The first aerial combat took place on December 1st. With a few more than 100 aircraft, the Finnish Air Force scored over 300 aerial victories while losing 62 before hostilities during the War, which ended in March, 1940. Anti-aircraft artillery accounted for some 300 more Soviet Union aircraft too. The Finnish Air Force had grown considerably in a few months, with donation and purchases of more modern aircraft.
At the end of the Winter War, Finland ceded some of its territory to the Soviet Union. During the timespan of a little more than a year, the Finnish Air Force replenished and repaired their aircraft. Germany was on the offense, and soon Luftwaffe aircraft and crews were operating from Finland, against the Soviet Union. On June 22, 1941, Germany attacked the Soviets, and Finland attacked the Soviets in the first actions of a second conflict against the Russians, called the Continuation War. By then, the Finnish Air Force was equipped with over 500 aircraft.
Although Germany had helped to equip Finland with light bombers and ME-109 fighters, the Soviets soon amassed more aircraft that were technically equal or better than the Finnish aircraft. Home-grown aircraft were made from wood to conserve metal, and Finland withstood a large Russian attack during the summer of 1944. A number of captured Russian aircraft were turned against them too. An armistice was declared between Finland and Russia in September, 1944. During the Continuation War, Finland had shot down near 1700 Soviet aircraft by ground fire and aerial victories from the Air Force and Navy. The Finnish Air Force lost 182 aircraft, and close to 160 pilots and crew. However, 87 pilots achieved ace status.
A third, localized conflict ensued, beginning in October, 1944 in the northern part of the country. Finland entered the Lapland War, where they forced German occupiers out of their territory as the Nazi empire collapsed. This ended in April, 1945, with the loss of 10 aircraft and 16 crew. After World War II, training and exercises were curtailed for several years, and several treaties, signed in 1947 after the War, limited what flight operations could occur. The blue swastika was replaced with a blue and white roundel too. Finland has the distinction of fighting three Wars in the 1939 to 1945 timeframe against both the Soviet Union and Germany, and remained its own sovereignty!
Most of what remained of the Finnish Air Force consisted of a large group of older Me-109 fighters and training types. However, by the 1950s, new aircraft entered service. The Finnish designed and produced Valmet Vihuri trainer was accepted in 1951, British-built DH-115 Vampires were purchased in 1953, and the Folland Gnat came later, in 1957. Saab Safir piston trainers and jet Fouga Magisters came in the final years of the 1950s.
Improvements to the Air Force came with the purchase of Soviet MiG-21s in 1962. The Command and Control systems also came up to speed during this time to help guard the sovereignty of Finnish airspace. Ilyushin IL-28 bombers were added, as well as Polish SM-1 helicopters.
In 1972, Finland purchased Saab Draken fighters, and finally got a true all weather, all aspect interceptor. Further improvements in 1978 came in the form of MiG-21bis interceptors too.
BAE Hawk Mk.51A
In the 1980s, the BAe Hawk was chosen to be the new advanced trainer of the Air Force. Fokker 27 and Lear 35 transports were adopted, and ground-based command and control capabilities were strengthened too.
During the winter of 1992, several aircraft were tested to become the new front line fighter of the Air Force. The McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet won the competition, and replaced Saabs and MiGs in the fighter/interceptor role. Although Finland has taken part in numerous international exercises since the early 2000s, its inclusion in NATO will undoubtable strengthen its border defense.
Fokker FK-27 M
Since 2007, the CASA C-295M transports began supplementing and replacing the older Fokker 27s, and several Pilatus PC-12 transports were added too. Grob F-115E trainers have been adopted too.
On the horizon, Finland is set to receive F-35 Lightning IIs, beginning in 2025. That’s quite an accomplishment over the span of 105 years… from a Swedish-built Thulin Type D to the Lockheed Martin F-35.