Serbs get a look at how the U.S. runs its Air Force
AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — Taking advantage of crisp, blue skies, pilots from the 510th Fighter Squadron have rocketed off the runway again and again this week.
The training flights aren’t anything unusual at Aviano, where F-16s haven’t flown directly against enemy targets since taking part in Operation Allied Force in the skies over Yugoslavia in 1999.
But in a twist, some of the former targets were passengers Monday and Tuesday, with Serbians riding in the backseat as the trainer F-16s soared into the sky.
“This is a huge step for us,” said Bojan Dimitrijevic, defense adviser to Serbian President Boris Tadic and a member of the small Serbian delegation visiting the base. “For both sides, I think.”
Dimitrijevic is quick to point out that the Serbs and the U.S. were allies during World War II.
But the two were on opposite sides over Kosovo, and America and its NATO allies inflicted a heavy price on the Yugoslav air force. Dimitrijevic estimates that more than 100 aircraft were destroyed in the air or on the ground and more than 70 percent of the air force’s infrastructure was destroyed. And the service still hasn’t recovered to this day, Dimitrijevic said.
But members of the delegation say that’s changing, and they hope that their former chief adversary will play a small role in the process. Dimitrijevic said the delegation — which included Col. Nebojsa Djukanovic, deputy commander of the country’s air force — is looking to see how the 31st Fighter Wing and the base operate. Serbia’s air force, Dimitrijevic said, is “transitioning” into a force that will be composed of two wings spread over three bases.
Most members of the delegation are either pilots or have been in the past. Some got their first look at an F-16 in the summer when two pilots from Aviano landed their jets at a base near Belgrade for an overnight visit. Several got their first flights in the aircraft Monday or Tuesday.
“Amazing,” said Capt. Nenad Milojevic of his Monday flight. “I’m still thinking of it.”
Capt. Brian Perkins, one of the Americans who flew into Belgrade, is part of the group that met with the Serb delegation during this week’s stay.
He said he initially shared Milojevic’s feeling of apprehension on meeting his counterparts.
“But all it takes is one person to make a joke and we all realize that we’re about the same type of guys,” he said.
Dimitrijevic said he can still remember his time in the military in the 1980s when Europe was still divided in two by the Cold War.
“I served as a conscript on the Slovenian border and I always looked across the border,” he said. “It’s nice to be on the other side.”