Bulgarian Air Force History
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Mi-24D serial 122 (photo via Chris Remy)

Narrative History:
Bulgarian military aviation first began when an Aeronautical Platoon was created on 20 April 1906 to operate observation balloons for the army. Developments in aircraft were also closely watched. In early 1912 thirteen army officers were sent abroad for training as pilots and orders were placed for five French, British and German aeroplanes. The officers sent to France completed their training first and returned to Bulgaria in July 1912. On 13 August 1912 Simeon Petrov flew a Bleriot XXI to become the first Bulgar to pilot an aeroplane over Bulgaria.

Following the outbreak of the First Balkan War, the Bulgarian pilots still abroad hastily procured aircraft to follow them home. After the front lines had stabilised, an Aeroplane Platoon was established at a new airfield closer to the fighting. On 16 October 1912 a Bulgarian Albatros aircraft was used to perform Europe's first reconnaissance flight in combat conditions. Later the same month hired & volunteer foreign pilots began to fly operational missions. The nascent Bulgarian Aviation Corps expanded to three Aeroplane Platoons, and carried out numerous reconnaissance, leaflet dropping and bombing sorties during the war, with at least three aircraft (all flown by foreign pilots) being shot down. Considerable help was received from the Russians in terms of aircraft, maintenance and training. Low aircraft serviceability and frequent training accidents kept the number of sorties actually flown fairly low - however, when aerial reconnaissance information was available, it was keenly appreciated by the army General Staff.

Following victory in the First Balkan War, the eight remaining serviceable aircraft were relocated to the Serbian and Greek borders in preparation for the Second Balkan War. Bulgaria's attack on its erstwhile allies met with little success. On the Greek front the Bulgarian forces retreated in disarray and left behind three aircraft in the confusion. On the Serbian front only a handful of reconnaissance sorties could be flown before the war ended. During the subsequent demobilisation, balloon and aeroplane operations were combined into a single small unit based in Sofia.

Bulgaria entered the First World War with only the most meagre of air arms: the Bulgarian Army Aviation Corps comprised one Aeroplane Squadron with 5 aircraft, one Balloon Squadron and an aircrew training school with only 2 aircraft. In addition, three German-crewed Fokker E.IIIs were available to defend Sofia from air attack. Both the Aeroplane and Balloon units deployed with the Bulgarian Army during October 1915 as it advanced into Serbia and Macedonia, providing useful reconnaissance information. By November 1915 worsening relations with Romania required to relocation of the Balloon Squadron to the north east border region alongside the Third Army, while the Aeroplane Squadron moved to the Salonica (Thessaloniki) front with the Second Army near the river Struma. By April 1916 deliveries of new aircraft allowed the formation of a second Aeroplane Squadron to support the First Army on the Salonica front close to the river Vardar.

Fighting on the Romanian border errupted in August 1916, with the Balloon Squadron directing artillery fire on enemy positions. The rapid advance of the Bulgarian Third Army into Southern Dobrudja caused the Balloons to lag behind the front line, until the army reached the Danube Delta, where semi-permanent bases were established. Meanwhile, following a number of bombing raids on Sofia by French Farman 40 aircraft, a defending pair of Fokker E.IIIs managed to shoot down an intruder near the capital on 30 September 1916 - the first aerial victory by Bulgarian-based fighters.

As the war progressed, replacement of aircraft losses from anti-aircraft fire became increasingly difficult. Germany had few aircraft to spare for what it regarded as a 'secondary' front. By the start of 1917 only eleven aircraft were available to the two Aeroplane Squadrons on the Salonica Front. Despite limited resources, aerial reconnaissance of Entente forces helped Bulgarian forces repel an Entente offensive launched in April 1917. Increasing enemy air attacks on Bulgarian troops during 1917 highlighted the dire need for single-seat fighter aircraft on the front-line, and these finally arrived in June 1917 in the form of six LFG Roland D.IIs. The new fighters gained their first kill on 7 July 1917, against an Armstrong Whitworth FK.3. Continued losses offset the small quantity of new aircraft delivered in 1917, so that by the start of 1918 only ten aircraft were available to the front-line units - three of these being captured enemy aircraft! The equipment shortage also severely limited the training of new Bulgarian pilots. Night reconnaissance and bombing missions now became necessary to avoid enemy fighters, even though additional fighters arrived from Germany in May 1918.

The withdrawal of Russia from the War on 9 December 1917 allowed the balloon forces in Romania to be redeployed to the Salonica front. However, during the massive Entente offensive of September 1918 overwhelming enemy air superiority prevented the balloonists from effectively assisting Bulgarian forces, and they were soon put out of action. Similarly, the handful of serviceable aircraft available were only able to perform a few individual reconnaissance missions at great risk. The last combat mission was flown on 28 September 1918. The war ended the following day when Bulgaria unconditionally surrendered to the Allies. On 12 October 1918 the surviving aircraft were withdrawn back to Bulgaria. Little flying was carried out after the war, and in November 1919 Bulgarian military aviation was banned under the terms of the Treaty of Neuilly.

By late December 1920 the Bulgarian Army Aviation Corps had been disbanded and it's aircraft destroyed. In order to retain some aviation experience a Gendarmerie Air Otdelenie (Squadron) was established in 25 January 1921 to perform customs and police duties. However, the military background of it's personnel was not viewed favourably and it was disbanded on 30 March 1922 on the orders of the Allied Control Commission.

In 1923 civil aviation in Bulgaria was approved by the International Aeronautical Convention. An Aeronautical Administration was set up in 1925 to oversee civil flying. At the same time, a number of low-powered aircraft were obtained from abroad to boost the capabilities of the Aeronautical School at Bojurishte. A state-owned airline, BUNAVAD, commenced limited domestic operations in 1927, but lasted less than a year. More successful was the creation of three clandestine military air squadrons, under the pretext of civilian Sport, Transport and Postal units. Two of these units participated in Army manoeuvres in September 1927, gaining much needed experience.

In 1930 an Aeronautical Regiment was established to provide military control of the clandestine units. In 1932 it was renamed the Air Regiment. On 28 July 1934 the air force was officially re-established, when the Air Regiment was upgraded to become the national Air Army (Vazdushni Voyski). Many orders for new aircraft were placed, and these began to arrive from late 1936, allowing new units to be formed.

The new Royal Bulgarian Air Force remained an integral part of the army. In 1937 the restrictions of the Treaty were openly renounced and on 27 June 1937 Tsar Boris III personally bestowed battle standards on each of the new air units. While many of the new aircraft came from Germany or Poland, in 1939 the government was able to obtain a large fleet of ex-Czechoslovak aircraft from Germany at a substantial discount.

On 30 May 1940, the Armed Forces Act was adopted by the National Assembly, defining the Air Force as an independent armed service. Later in the year, a reorganisation of air units introduced multi-role Air Regiments to perform tactical air operations. An Air Warning Service was established in June 1940, with ground observers visually tracking enemy aircraft over-flying Bulgarian territory.

On 1 January 1941 Germany began negotiations with Bulgaria to allow German troops to use Bulgaria as a base for the planed attack on Greece. On 2 March 1941, one day after Bulgaria signed the Axis Tripartite Pact, the German 12th Army and Fliegerkorps VIII began to deploy inside Bulgaria. A number of aircraft were also supplied from Germany, and Luftwaffe advisors and instructors were attached to Bulgarian squadrons. Operation Marita, the German attack on Greece and Yugoslavia began on 6 April 1941. Bulgarian forces did not participate in the attack, but took up defensive positions to counter possible retaliation. A few air raids by Yugoslav and RAF bombers were carried out before the rapid German advance over-ran enemy air bases.

In late April 1941, Bulgarian ground and air forces moved into Macedonia and Aegean Thrace, as these areas now fell under Bulgarian administration. Numerous reconnaissance sorties were flown over the Aegean to track enemy shipping. In the summer, the aircraft strength along the Black Sea coast was boosted, as the German invasion of Soviet Union had not affected the offensive capabilities of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet.

Early 1942 was relatively calm, apart from some high altitude reconnaissance flights by British and US aircraft. Anticipating future developments, a request for night fighters from Germany was denied. From June 1942 North African based USAAF bombers began raiding the Ploesti oil refineries in Romania. The aircraft passed through Bulgarian airspace, dropping a few bombs on the way.

The increasing threat from air raids forced a re-appraisal of air defences. Existing fighter aircraft were of a diversity of types and, apart from the Messerschmitt Bf 109E, increasingly obsolete. Serviceability was also very poor due to lack of spares. Accordingly, a batch of Bf 109G and Dewoitine D.520 fighters was delivered in 1943, together with the deployment of the first radar units for the Air Warning Service. Luftwaffe fighter units based in Bulgaria were now increasingly needed on the Russian front, and so Bulgarian fighter squadrons had to assume a larger air defence role.

Operation Tidal Wave, a massed air raid by American B-24 Liberators on 1 August 1943 was intercepted by Bulgarian fighters as it headed towards Romania. The Royal Bulgarian Air Force was now able to claim its first aerial victories, with Bf 109G pilots managing to bring down four B-24s. 14 November 1943 marked the start of a series of nine daylight air raids on the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. A late warning hindered the defences and only one escorting P-38 was shot down. Subsequent raids were heavier and involved aircraft from the Italian-based US 15th Air Force as well as the North African-based 9th Air Force. Bulgarian air defences became increasingly well organised, but despite fierce fighting could only bring down and average of 2% of the enemy raiders (39 aircraft in total) for the loss of 14 of their own. Eight night raids were also staged, but the lack of night fighters and night flying skills left aerial defence to the anti-aircraft artillery. After April 1944 the Allied bomber offensive returned to attacking Ploesti, with only sporadic air engagements occuring over Bulgaria.

As the advancing Soviet Army approached Bulgaria's borders in August 1944, German troops began pulling out. The last German units left on 30 August 1944. The following week Bulgaria allied itself with the Soviet Union and began preparations to fight alongside the Red Army against Germany. Between 9 September and 7 October 1944 the Bulgarian Air Force flew more than 1200 sorties against German forces, in preparation for a ground offensive which began on 9 October. Support for the ground offensive was mainly provided by the Soviet 17th Air Army, as the serviceability of German-supplied aircraft began to decline rapidly. Combat operations ceased on 2 December 1944 with the liberation of Southern Serbia. In 1945 the first Soviet aircraft began to enter service, reflecting the new political orientation of the country.

A formal peace treaty came into force on 15 September 1947, which limited the size of the air force to not more than 90 aircraft. After treaty signature, Soviet military aid in the form of aircraft and instructors helped to rebuild and reorganise the air force. The first jet fighters arrived in 1953. By the mid 1950s, the air force, still controlled by the Army Command, was roughly double the size allowed for by the Peace Treaty.

In 1961, the air force was renamed the PVOiVVS (Air Defence and Air Force). It continued to receive the most modern Soviet front-line aircraft available for export. After the fall of communism, the first steps towards a western-style air force began. In 1992, the air force was renamed to its present title and a new national insignia, flag, unit badges and flying suits were adopted. In September 1994 the Soviet-style regimental organisation was replaced by a new air base structure modelled on that of the Turkish Air Force. In 1996 the BVVS started participation in Partnership for Peace exercises.

Aero L-39 serial 215.
(photo, George Petkov)

Thanks to Constantine Pehlivanov & George Petkov for updating this page.

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First Created: 5 August 2000 - Last Revised: 10 July 2005
Copyright © 2000 John Hayles.     e-mail: john@aeroflight.co.uk