The small sign pinned to the control-tower window at Bosnia's Sarajevo Airport says it all. "You are now standing in one of the most dangerous places on earth," it proclaims. Fortunately for the French air force air-traffic controllers, bulletproof glass now provides them with some protection from snipers.

Since June 1992, the French air force has run the airport, allowing more than 11,500 flights to carry more than 142,000t of humanitarian aid into the city. It has long since beaten the record established during the 1948 Berlin airlift for the length of the operation. That was passed in September 1993 and the service is now working towards the tonnage record of the famous Cold War air-bridge. Few observers of the Bosnian conflict would take any bets that it will not beat that record, too.

Some 240 French airmen maintain the heavily fortified airport, providing air-traffic control, administration, aircraft marshalling, communications and even a crash rescue team with its own armoured fire tenders. A small movement-control team from Norway co-ordinates the flow of people and aid through the terminal. To protect the perimeter, a battalion of French army troops mans field fortifications around the runway and terminal building.

Running a fully functional airport in the middle of a war zone is no easy job, according to Col. Jean-Claude Feve, the airport commander. "There are always arguments with the warring parties," he says. "It's like a chess game." The Serbs and the Bosnian Government keep liaison officers at the airport, to oversee the complex agreements between the United Nations and the warring parties, which allow the airport to operate. Sometimes, petty diplomatic arguments provide more disruption to the airlift than does a battle underneath the glide-path.

Depending on the military and political situation, the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) usually plans for about 20 flights a day into the city from its main airheads at Ancona, Italy, as well as from Split and Zagreb in Croatia. Canadian, French, UK and US Lockheed C-130s, along with German C-130s and chartered Ilyushin Il-76s are the mainstay of the aid operation. UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) Il-76s, Antonov An-32s and Yakovlev Yak-40s are also regularly seen in Sarajevo.

Feve is enthusiastic about the 40t capacity of the large Ilyushins. "The Russian aircraft and pilots are good for this type of work," he says. When the Americans were using Lockheed C-141 Starlifters in mid-1994, Feve says that 500t of supplies a day were being flown in. The average now, taking all aircraft into account, is 300t of supplies a day.

With road convoys constantly blocked by the war, the airlift is the most reliable way of getting aid into the city. After a Starlifter landed with four bullet holes and took off with a further 18, the aircraft were withdrawn from the airlift. This is such a common occurrence that airport personnel have lost count of the number of hits on aircraft. "I think it is 41, but I am not sure," says Feve. The only serious and fatal loss was the Italian Alenia G.222 shot down by an unidentified heat-seeking surface-to-air missile in September 1992.

The current buzzword at Sarajevo Airport is "Cyprusisation", meaning the growing permanence of the UN presence. The airport operation is becoming routine, apart from nightly firefights across the runway. All around the airport, French engineers are building more earth work defences and a lot of effort is going into increasing the size of the truck area. Baggage X-ray machines have also, recently been installed, to speed up the processing of passengers through movement control. Planned repairs to the runway had to be cancelled in the middle of 1994 because of an upsurge in fighting, but Feve says that they had been rescheduled for the middle of this year.

"They will likely be cancelled then as well," he says with resignation. The runway is also suffering from slight subsidence caused by the Bosnian Government arms-supply tunnel beneath.

There are now minimal ground-navigation aids at Sarajevo because the fighting has destroyed the old civilian systems. The VOR at nearby Kiseljak is on the wrong side of the front line and has an irregular power supply. The UN installed a tactical air-navigation system, but this only helps Western military transports. Air-traffic management of inbound transports, is handled by Croatian civil air-traffic control and NATO Boeing E-3 airborne warning and control-system aircraft.

"We can talk to NATO Deny Flight fighters and search-and-rescue forces from the control tower," says Feve. "The flight schedule is discussed between the UNHCR Air Operations Centre in Geneva and UNPROFOR Headquarters in Zagreb 48h ahead and then fixed 24h before."

"Maybe Airlines", as the airbridge is nicknamed, has been going on for so long that French personnel who helped Canadian Maj Gen Lewis MacKenzie open the airport in June 1992 are starting to return to Sarajevo on their second tour. "In 1992 it was real war, they [the citizens of Sarajevo] were in the cellars like rats," says one French major.

"I think we now go back to war," the major concludes.

Source: Flight International