In April 2012, F-16 Fighting Falcons arrived at Graf Ignatievo Air Force Base in Bulgaria for military exercises. The operation involved two USAF fighter squadrons and more than 500 personnel from the 31st Fighter Wing based at Aviano Air Base, Italy. More than 20 jets attached to the 555th “Triple Nickel” and 510th “Fightin’ Buzzards” Fighter Squadrons flew to Bulgaria to take part.
According to the USAF’s official policy statement, Thracian Star is a joint Bulgarian-U.S. air combat training exercise designed to build partnerships, increasing interoperability, and train the participating forces in the areas of tactical interception and combat air defense.
For those who recall the dark days of the Cold War, however, exercises like Thracian Star mean much more. They are a shining example of how old rivalries and conflicts can turn into new friendships. They are also a stellar opportunity to see some venerable Russian (and Soviet) supplied aircraft alongside the USAF’s finest fighter jets.
For the pilots, exercises like this are a rare opportunity to fly aircraft that are outside of their normal reach — Bulgarian combat pilots were able to fly and practice ACM in F-16 Fighting Falcons while USAF pilots were able to fly in the MiG-29 Fulcrum. The Bulgarian Air Force fielded its older MiG-21 and Su-25 as well as the newer MiG-29 that forms the backbone of its air defense capability. In addition, Bulgarian anti-aircraft defense forces participated in the exercises.
The USAF exercise was led by Col. David Walker, assigned to the 31st Operations Group as the Thracian Star 2012 detachment commander. Senior personnel from both sides were involved, including Lt. Col. Karl Ingeman, the 555th Fighter Squadron commander; Maj. Matthew Brockhaus, 555th Fighter Squadron pilot; Maj. Ilia Doychinov, the 1st Fighter Squadron commander; and Maj. Metodi Orlov, a Bulgarian Air Force MiG-29 pilot; and many others at all ranks, as well as the NCOs and airmen who make it all possible.
It is from exercises like these that lasting friendships are born — and one can never underestimate the impact of pilot-to-pilot interchanges in forging new ties among nations and allies as each come away with a new appreciation of the other and the aircraft each flies.
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Photo Credits: SrA Katherine Windish, USAF Combat Camera