"The only way we can operate here is by building confidence with the local forces and being, as we say, firm, fair and friendly," says Royal Swedish Air Force Lt. Col. Jan Reuterdahl, United Nations (UN) Senior Air Operations Officer in Zagreb, Croatia. "If we have problems with local forces, I go to the commander's office and talk it through. Normally, it works out," he adds.

For almost three years, UN civilian-contract aircrews at Zagreb's Pleso Airport have been flying into some of the most dangerous locations in war-torn former Yugoslavia to keep the peacekeeping United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) working.

UNPROFOR's Air Support Group Pleso includes six fixed-wing aircraft and seven helicopters to move people and supplies around the former Yugoslavia. They are flown throughout Croatia and to Belgrade in Serbia, Skopje in Macedonia, as well as Sarajevo and Tuzla in Bosnia-Herzegovina. "Our number one priority is casualty evacuation," says Reuterdahl. "We also fly around the world during rotations of UNPROFOR troop contingents."

When UNPROFOR was established in early 1992, it was decided to rely on contract aircraft and crews as a means to cut costs. At the time, the UN was only policing the cease fire line between Serbia and Croatia, where it was thought that civilian contractors would be able to cope with this "routine" job. Since then, the troop strength of UNPROFOR has trebled and the mission area has grown to include all the republics of former Yugoslavia. During 1994, the unit flew 20,500 flight hours, carrying 150,000 passengers, 25 medical evacuation patients, 25,000t of cargo, 1,200 missions to Sarajevo and 40 missions to Tuzla.


On the day of Flight International's visit to Pleso, the Air Support Group's aircraft were being used on a typical selection of tasks. The Ukrainian Vitair Ilyushin Il-76s were being flown on two sorties to Sarajevo and the company's Tupolev Tu-154 was ferrying UK UN troops back to airports in the UK. One of three Air Troika Yakovlev Yak-40s had just been flown back from ferrying UN diplomats to Belgrade and the Russian airline's Antonov An-26s were parked next to the US Army Mobile Air Support Hospital (MASH) compound. Dutch airline KLM had two Sikorsky S-61s undergoing maintenance in the UN hangar. "Having the MASH next to the parking pad has saved many lives. We can get the casevac [casualty evacuation] aircraft to within 10m [33ft] of the hospital," says Reuterdahl.

Two Russian Mil Mi-26 heavy-lift helicopters, hired from Air Troika for three months, had just arrived and were being prepared for local familiarisation flights. The giant machines will be used to move engineering-plant equipment to remote locations, in preparation for the building of observation posts if the current Bosnian cease-fire holds. Otherwise, they could be used to move supplies to besieged enclaves or to withdraw UN troops. Three Bell 212s and three Bell 206s are hired from U S and Canadian firms to work in Croatia and Macedonia, mainly on liaison, observation and casevac missions.

Reuterdahl also has to co-ordinate the activities of all UN aircraft in the former Yugoslavia, including French, Norwegian and UK military helicopters being operated in Bosnia. US Army UH-60As in Skopje and Dutch Eurocopter BO-105s in Bosnia remain under strictly national control.

Apart from contracts limiting the use of the S-61s, 212s and 206s to Croatia and Macedonia, UNPROFOR aircraft are regularly flown anywhere in the former Yugoslavia where the needs of the peacekeeping troops or international diplomats require.

The 150-strong Air Support Group Pleso is run along Western military lines, from a former Federal Yugoslav air force hangar, which is still surrounded by old minefields. UK, Danish, Dutch, French and Spanish air force personnel man the Air Operations Centre. "We try to make it just like a Western squadron," says Reuterdahl. "The Russian and Ukrainian contract aircrew are easy to work with. It is part of their contracts that they have to understand English."

He continues: "Civilian and military flyers do the job just as well as each other. The only problem is if we get shot at. The military unit will possibly come back better because they have armour, chaff and EW [electronic warfare]."

Reuterdahl adds, "The military people in the ops staff tell the civilian aviation-support people what to do. They provide assets and monitor contracts," he says. "It is not for me to know the details of contracts," he adds. This is a very sensitive subject within the UN after a scandal in 1993 over alleged fraud in leasing helicopters for the Cambodian peacekeeping mission.


The former Soviet pilots and aircrews receive strong praise from Western military personnel assigned to the UN. "The Il-76 is perhaps the ultimate transport and the An-26 is the workhorse of this operation," says Reuterdahl. "The only down days we have are for crew rest," he adds. The Ilyushins are returned to Ukraine for servicing every 300h.

"East European pilots are just as good as anyone. They almost always do what they are asked to accomplish," he says. "One of the Ukrainian pilots has 5,000h on his aircraft," he adds. As far as getting shot at in Sarajevo is concerned, "they faced worse in Afghanistan", he says.

The Swedish officer stresses that he tries to reduce the risk to UN aircraft to a minimum, saying: "We always get flight clearance in advance from local commanders." To date, many UN aircraft have picked up bullets, but none has been lost to hostile fire."

Source: Flight International