Ostrich Street, Belgrade, and my first encounter with Balkan wit goes something like this: ‘Serbian forces today shot down a NATO stealth fighter and two Tomahawk cruise missiles over Kosovo. The Pentagon has denied the claim in a statement saying that all three had returned safely to base.’
Side-splitting, I’m sure, if you like your humour as dark as the Turkish coffee which is readily on tap here. (‘Ostrich Street’ incidentally is also a Belgrade in-joke; it’s officially Strahinjica Bana but its cafés are a favourite haunt for gaggles of single girls with expensive tastes who optimistically crane their necks at each passing top-of-the-range car.)
Serbia’s civil carrier Jat Airways turns 80 today but it’s the political tinderbox of Kosovo which is still dominating the headlines. There’s no ignoring the military aviation angle in a city which experienced the last hostile air campaign in Europe and, since my host is a Kosovo-born Serb, it looks like I’m going to have to mention the war. Either that or mention the Eurovision Song Contest.
The stealth fighter gag is an echo from the 1999 conflict and, in particular, the 78 days during which NATO bombed Yugoslavia and its capital city. Belgrade has several monuments to the attacks, some of them – such as the barely-standing pile of red bricks on Ulica Nemanjina, once the Yugoslav Army headquarters – imposed involuntarily with the aid of high explosives.
My host is a former television presenter who, fortunately, was working for a different channel the night NATO took out the Radio Television of Serbia offices and, as an encore, laid into the 200m TV tower on the summit of Avala. Belgrade’s tallest structure was suddenly its longest and the Serbs are still sore about it.
“They went fundraising and collected a lot of money. So they’re building a new one,” she says. And then, pointedly: “Taller.”
Relics from the unpleasant recent past of former Yugoslavia are part of the history housed in and around a mushroom-shaped concrete-and-glass structure on the perimeter of Nikola Tesla Airport. Wingtip-to-wingtip on the unkempt grass, behind a forlorn and grime-laden Jugoslovenski Aerotransport Caravelle, are parked enough Soko G-2s, MiG-21s and other combat aircraft to start a small war – exactly the reason, of course, why they’ve been put out here to gather moss.
Crammed inside the circular arena are dozens more aircraft and helicopters; the centrepiece is a polished example of the Bosnian-built Soko J-22 Orao ground-attack jet. Among the other exhibits are the bizarre Ikarus 451 in which the pilot lay horizontally, a Spitfire, Hurricane and Me109, all in Yugoslav air force colours, and various light utility aircraft from the Utva plant at Pancevo, east of Belgrade, which still bears the heavy damage sustained by NATO air strikes. The museum also claims to be restoring the sole surviving Fiat G50.
But it’s arguably the scattered fragments from the battle for Kosovo which are the most fascinating. Like a morbid trophy collection, a Tomahawk missile lies in pieces alongside the J-22; nearby are the remnants of a German CL-289 unmanned aerial vehicle and a Predator from the USAF’s 11th Reconnaissance Squadron.
Perhaps unsurprisingly there’s no sign of any damaged Yugoslav equipment – with the exception of an empennage from a G-4 Super Galeb, which remained airborne despite a Stinger missile hit over Croatia in September 1991. The accompanying placard says: “The occurrence proves that the G-4 aircraft, of Yugoslav origin, is very resilient to hits from surface-to-air rockets.”
More resilient, one might be led to conclude, than your average NATO jet, judging by the adjacent display. It’s the vertical fin from the Aviano-based 555th ‘Triple Nickel’ Squadron F-16 hit by anti-aircraft fire over Kosovo in May 1999. The blurb simply claims it was shot down, which is a little unsporting when you learn that its pilot nursed the crippled aircraft through Serbian airspace before being forced to eject.
But the propaganda prize undoubtedly goes to the angular black item kept locked inside a nearby glass case: nothing less than the jagged cockpit canopy of the only F-117 stealth fighter ever to be lost in combat, its downing – like that of the F-16 – credited to an SA-3 fired by the 250th Yugoslavian rocket division. Lucky hit or not, it was all rather embarrassing for the USAF given that the F-117′s main selling point is that you’re not supposed to know it’s coming until it goes dark and all your windows disappear.
Not much of the jet is on show because the rest was boxed up in crates by gleeful Russians. And there’s no-one on duty at the gift shop so I can’t check out the rumour that it once sold small chippings as souvenirs. But apparently, if you know where to look, you can still buy T-shirts with a picture of the F-117 in all its glory, alongside the slogan: ‘Sorry NATO – we didn’t know it was invisible.’ Oh, stop. You guys are cracking me up.