Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The Tale of the Vanishing Air Force

Albania's story during the Cold War era is an interesting one. Occupied by Italy immediately before World War Two, it spent the war like the rest of the Balkans, a swirl of guerrilla warfare where bands of partisans, both communist and anti-communist, chased each other and the fascist occupiers up and down hill and dale.

After the war, the Albanian communists came out on top and the country was effectively a satellite of the Soviet Union. Or at least they were until after Stalin died and Hoxha gradually decided he was more communist than the Soviets. After the breakup with the USSR, Albania was cozy with the Chinese for a while until that relationship, too, boarded the last train for Splitsville in the Seventies when Mao kicked off.

Albanian J-7 (Chinese MiG-21 clone)

This left Albania, a lightly industrialized country, smaller geographically than Maryland and with fewer people than Kansas, to try and support a fleet of over a hundred jet fighters on its own. The results were sadly predictable...

Due to the collapse of relations between Albania and the Chinese, maintenance became extremely difficult and the number of deadly incidents involving Mikoyan fighters increased. Despite Albanian efforts and some initial success in repairing the engines of the MiGs, the lack of specific jet fuel forced authorities to start production locally, resulting in low-quality production (the first attempt was in 1961, when the Ku├žova factory produced the special jet kerosene called TSI). The fuel shortened the lifespan of the jet engines and was often blamed as the main reason for several deadly incidents. 35 Albanian pilots lost their lives from 1955 to 2005, mainly due to MiG mechanical failures.

I discovered this when I happened to chance across the Wikipedia page for the Albanian air force and noted it currently consisted of nothing but a handful of helicopters these days. A few years ago they basically took all their remaining high performance jet fighters (the ones that hadn't made like Texas lawn darts or been left on blocks after being stripped by black marketeers during the civil war) and put them on eBay.