27 March, 2000
KRALJEVO - In a restaurant in the city of Kraljevo in Central-Serbia, not far from the airbase where he's stationed, flight-captain Vlatko Petkovic shows pictures of himself in action. There's something of the glamour of Hollywood movies like 'Top Gun' in them. In spite of the war with NATO, the Serb can smile about that comparison.
The first pilot of the Yugoslav airforce to give an interview to a Western newspaper about NATO's attacks on Serbia last year, says he will only talk about his personal experience: military secrets and political themes are off limits.
The 30-year old airman - Petkovic is not his real name - has lost friends in the war. Pilots like him. "These were very special guys," he remembers them. "They knew they didn't stand a chance, and still they took off. Try to imagine the sound of all those NATO planes, and there goes a colleague into the night. All by himself. To do something, to do anything. It was one of us against ten of them. Call it courage, call it madness, but we saw no other way. Each of us was prepared to climb into the cockpit and go.''
In their group, the pilots had spoken many times about the threat of war. In the beginning of October, 1998, when the Holbrooke-Milosevic accord hadn't been signed yet, all Yugoslav airbases were put on alert, although at that time the pilots didn't think anything would happen. "I couldn't believe NATO would bomb us. I was convinced something like that would only happen in far away countries, in Africa. We thought no political reasoning could justify such an aggression against our country.''
After the failure of Rambouillet at the end of February last year, suddenly everybody was alert. According to Petkovic, the Yugoslav airforce had prepared itself excellently when the first bombs fell. "All our equipment had been moved and brought to safer places. Yes, also our aircrafts. I can't tell you more about that. It's classified information.''
One of the planes he flies is the J-22 Orao, [Eagle] a Rumanian-Yugoslav fighter-bomber, equipped with American television-guided Maverick-missiles. And he also flies the Super Galeb [Seagull] G-4, a trainer which can also be used in bombing missions. Neither type of plane saw much action in the Kosovo war. The only airplane in the Yugoslav airforce which can, perhaps, compare with NATO's F-15's, F-16's and F-18's is the Mig-29.
"I didn't fly any missions during the war.'' The pilot is very sorry for that. To be grounded, to wait for an assignment, for him that was maybe the most difficult experience. "We hoped for a miracle to happen, so we could fly. Because that's what we're trained for. We all felt that something was expected from us. We are trained to protect our families and our children.''
The Yugoslav pilots, he says, could have shown their capabilities in the air, had they had technically better aircraft with more modern electronic equipment at their disposal. Now, confronted with NATZO's air superiority, most of them had to bite their nails in shelters and underground operations centers. At first, Petkovic was afraid that many of his colleagues would get demoralized because they all were aware they couldn't defeat Nato militarily. Maybe they would desert.
But that didn't happen. "Our pilots work for low pay. But their job, unlike in Western countries, is a matter of honor, family and patriotism. It's not just work. This, and the fact that we were all so close to death, brought us together.'' He has heard about a colleague who had already gotten all the papers to emigrate to the West, and who had been relieved of all his military duties. Still, when the war started he stayed in the airforce and risked his life.
According to Petkovic, with all the technological superiority of NATO the alliance didn't impress the Serbian airmen very much. Speaking like a professional, without a hint of triumphalism or frustration, he says he'd expected more of by far the most powerful alliance in the world. Many times the enemy pilots didn't seem to know exactly what to hit. They flew at a high altitude, so as to stay outside the reach of the Yugoslav flak, and this damaged their effectiveness a great deal.
"Not even half of the planes in my squadron were destroyed. In spite of all those Western experts who said we were like sitting ducks, their pilots felt unsure. They were nervous, afraid. We could see that because of the many mistakes they made.''
At home, he tries to explain to his children that not all people in America are bad. He tells me that during the war, nobody harmed Albanians in Serbian cities. "We are not a people who by definition spread hatred.''
He bought a model kit of a fighter airplane for his son. An F-16.