Interview with the new base commander from spotter perspective

Colonel, we would like to start by thanking you for this opportunity to talk. Let me begin with the usual question – how did you get into flying?

In general, in the 80’s MHSZ (Hungarian Defense Association) recruitment was the way to directly get into flying. It was the case with me. Such a recruitment drive took place in my high school, the III. Béla High School in Baja. A small group from the Őcsény airport visited and tried to convince us to familiarize ourselves with flying through the MHSZ. The Őcsény airport at the time was struggling to become a category “A” airport. At the time, the MHSz (Hungarian Defense Association) allocated powered flight time to category “A” airports. The airport tried to recruit as many medically cleared young men with the desire to fly as possible to receive additional equipment and fuel, so instructors could teach us. As part of the recruitment they showed us, along with other flight related movies, the Hungarian movie “Őrjárat az égen” (Patrol in the sky), and finally asked us the big question – who wants to be a pilot. I signed up and this is how I got into flying during my high school years, and how I met the people working at the Őcsény airport.

The first step was a medical examination at the Szekszárd county hospital for gliders, followed by a 3-day medical fitness test in Kecskemét in 1984. I passed that one as well, and received class I./A qualification, which was basically fighter category.

Following the medical examination I started visiting Őcsény during the winter season. As most others, I had my first flight with the Góbé glider. I performed my first take-off with that glider, and it was followed by the engine-driven Zlin Z-142. In 1985 with about 40 others I participated in the 3-week long Békéscsaba flight camp, which included all the Z-142 planes and instructors from all over the country, and where large-scale flights took place.

After the summer I continued flying at Őcsény. I have to emphasize that at the time a highly qualified, strong team was managing things there, including Vilmos Kóré, who was later commander of the Pér airport and is still involved in flying; Gábor Talabos, the coach of the national aerobatic team; and György Szentgyörgyi, the nephew of the man the base (MH 59. Szentgyögyi Dezső Air Base) was named after.

While still in high school, I continued flying by going to the airfield on Friday and going back home on Sunday. Of course the people at the airfield made sure my homework was always done. So we not only flew, but they helped with the homework as well; of course they helped with math and physics, not literature or history. I continued flying in Őcsény until the summer of 1986 when I was drafted after a successful entrance exam, and in August 1986 I enlisted at the Kilián György Airplane Technical College.

At college I first got into the SU RGV (RGV: pilot training program), which meant a Russian language course and 3-year training in the Soviet Union. In those years we were still going to get the Su-25’s, improving the Hungarian air force, which meant starting parallel classes, from that one was going to study Russian at home, followed by a trip to the Soviet Union; they also started a class that travelled to the Soviet Union immediately – including several of my MHSZ companions – and training in Czechoslovakia started as well. As I mentioned, I got into the SU RGV, which meant studying at home, followed by the trip.

There were 2 openings in the airplane training course in Czechoslovakia and they asked for volunteers. Because one of my good friends was in the Czech RGV, I volunteered and got transferred. We enlisted at the end of August in 1986 and by the first of October we were already in Kassa, starting the 5-year training.

 

 What models have you flown?

I started on the Góbé and the Zlin Z-142, but anyone at the airport also had the opportunity to fly on other models as well, including the Wilga, the PC-6 and the Gawron. While I did not become skilled on these planes, I did become familiar with them but I’d rather call it “using hyena method”. The real opportunity for such flights was getting a job during an event. For example, I was refueling the planes during the Gemenc championship. This way at the age of 17-18 every morning I could fly the weather reconnaissance Gawron; we called this “hyena mode”.

During the Czechoslovakian training my first jet model was the L-29 Delfin. We studied on the Delfin and flew approximately 70 hours in the first year. The next year we flew on the L-39 Albatros.

Here in Hungary we are only familiar with the Albatros types available in the Hungarian Air Force, these are the ones spotters could take pictures of in the last few years. The former Czechoslovakia had many different versions of the L-39 Albatros: the ZA equipped with double-barreled GS23 machine guns; the normal C with only 2 hard-points; the C 0 with 4 hard-points; or the V, the Vlek, which did not have an airtight cockpit or a gun sight device, but had a drum with a 2 kilometer long cable. They used this version to tow targets for the air defense. We flew all of these planes during training in the former Czechoslovakia. My first live bomb run and live fire exercise was on the Albatros as well.

I was in the third Czechoslovakian group. All the previous groups flew MIG-21 F13’s and that is what we received our basic and technical training on. From Kassa we were transferred to Pserov, the base between Olmütz and Ostrava, for MIG-21 training. The Czechs sold all their F13’s that year – if I am not mistaken – to India, and we were the first group to start the MIG-21 training on the MF. I finished the Czech training in 1991 and returned home in November as a MIG-21 pilot, but I still had to fly quite a lot to reach standby duty ability. We did not return home in standby duty state, just as young pilots did not return from the Soviet Union in standby duty state; they just had a little more time on the MIG-21. We needed a little more time for standby duty state.

After returning home we were put aside for a year while the layoffs were happening in Gerecse, so I participated in post-gradual courses in Szolnok, after which I was transferred to Taszár in 1992, along with two others from my class. I was placed into the 2nd squadron, the Turul squadron, under the leadership of lieutenant colonel Sándor Doma, who was later replaced by general Nándor Kilián. The Americans arrived at Taszár in 1995. We shuttled for a year – preparing at Taszár on Monday, travelling to Pápa by bus and other vehicles. Our planes were already there. For one year we flew as Taszár pilots at Pápa. As soon as the MIG-29’s arrived at Kecskemét and the MIG-21 MF’s were flown over to Pápa, I was lucky enough to fly a few takeoffs with the MF in the fall of 1996. On January 1st 1997 I was officially transferred to Pápa under the command of lieutenant colonel József Lanecker in 2nd squadron, the Griphon squadron, where from 1996 we only flew on MIG-21 bis’s. Unfortunately this airport was also shut down in 2000. I took part in the formation flight that bid farewell to the airport and we also bid farewell to the MIG-21 bis’s. I was officially transferred to Kecskemét on January 1st 2001.

 

 How was the readiness service different with the MIG-21 from a modern Gripen?

Due to the plane’s simplicity and features, the starting time was shorter, and we maintained Warsaw Pact like standby duty, not NATO like. In that system there was different standby duty for daytime and nighttime. Today we maintain 24-hour standby duty. Back then we reached standby duty state sooner. As the training progressed and the pilot reached the point where they flew under difficult conditions in the daytime and performed the exam exercises, they were ready for daytime standby duty, which at the time was class 3. pilot level. When the pilot was ready for battle in the nighttime as well, they reached class 1. pilot level and was available for daytime and nighttime readiness.

Today’s trainings get pilots to be ready for deployment at night under any weather conditions. This makes the training program and the time it takes young pilots to reach standby duty state, longer, although, I can say that our pilots reach readiness state rather quickly. The transfer started with joining NATO in 1999. Back then I flew at Pápa and since adopting NATO’s standby duty procedures, we maintained 24-hour standby duty state with the MIG-21’s, just as we do today with the Gripens.

 

 How were flight hours back then and how are they today?

It is not an easy comparison, because the training system and the technology are different. 30-minutes exercise execution was very common with the MIG-21; it was rare to have a single exercise last longer than 30-35 minutes. The fuel we had available was a limiting factor. One could perform several of these short exercises in a day. Still, we flew 100-110 hours, just like today’s Gripen pilots, although with more takeoffs and landings.

Hungary’s airspace is rather tight, so the dead time while the pilot flies out to the airspace and returns is very short, so the comparison with Americans flying 180 hours is not valid, because for them it may take 40 minutes to fly to and back from the exercise airspace, which is basically dead time and usually flown with an auto-pilot. This is why I say that 100 hours of flying is absolutely enough to maintain our air-to-air or air-to-ground abilities and skills.

 

 What are the differences between Warsaw Pact and NATO procedures?

Obviously there were differences, but physics affecting the planes is the same, and the tactical procedures are very similar. When we came face-to-face with the new NATO tactical procedures, they felt completely different, but looking back the basic tactics were the same or similar to Warsaw Pact procedures. For example, we did not always fly the exercises with the MIG-21 in pairs, but changed to pairs with the MIG-29; daily life was different, but we flew similarly, had similar dogfights, bomb drops and machine gun fights. Beyond visual range aerial fight was something new, but that was weapon dependent. The MIG-21 had R3R radar guided missiles, but they had such short range I would not call them beyond visual range weapons. The R-27 missile was first introduced as part of the MIG-29 weaponry, allowing the use of beyond visual range tactics. The MIG-21 had no such weapons.

 

 Let us get back to the story’s timeline. You mentioned the shutdown of Pápa in 2000 and being transferred to Kecskemét in 2001.

Yes, in the fall of 2000 we started the MIG-29 training and as soon as good flying conditions set in in January, we started retraining, and if I remember correctly, in August I maintained standby duty with the MIG-29 and the first retraining group. We joined NATO in March of 1999 while I was still at Pápa, and in the meantime, in the summer of 1999 the Kosovo crisis erupted. When we joined NATO, a standby duty system was established such that Kecskemét and Pápa alternately maintained readiness – Kecskemét with MIG-29’s for 2 weeks, and Pápa with MIG-21’s for 1 week, and training flights in-between. There were 10 of us at Pápa participating in the NATO standby duty. This number was assigned to maintain 1 week of readiness every 3 weeks. During the Kosovo crisis our superiors have decided to intensify standby duty and we maintained full-time readiness with the 10 men during a 3-month period. I am not saying we were not overburdened, performing this task with 10 men. I do not think any of us went on vacation that year.

 

 How did joining NATO affect the air force?

We switched to NATO procedures and assumed the proper NATO documents. Among other things they specified our position within the NATO chain of command, the Wing Operation Center had to be established converted to a command post, and the CRC in Veszprém was connected to the NATO headquarters in Poggio Renatico in Italy. These measures served the completely new formation, NATO compliant unification, and the design of the NATO image. The Link-1 communications system was established in Veszprém, which allowed the on-time sharing of the unified aerial situation with NATO.

They set the rules that applied for standby duty and which we had to master, not to mention switching to the use of the English language. These seem like minor details now, but back then they completely restructured our everyday lives; for example, we completely switched to English language radio communications. Following a preparation period, NATO classified us with a readiness verification procedure, which resulted in a statement that we are a fully prepared member of NATO.

Back then it was Pápa and Kecskemét, today Kecskemét is one of the bases in Hungary that is under NATO subordination as a domestic base, performing military missions even in times of peace. We are at home at the Kecskemét base, but we maintain NATO subordinated standby duty. So in the past we received take-off orders from the NATO headquarters in Poggio Renatico in Italy, but after the headquarters were moved, we now receive take-off orders from Torrejon in Spain.

Basically, because we maintain NATO subordinated standby duty, NATO documents control our activities, and there are only one or two Hungarian orders and instructions issued by the Chief of Staff or the ÖHP (Joint Force Command). The fact that our Gripens maintain standby duty with loaded machine guns and live rockets indicates that even in times of peace we perform military missions at a domestic base.

 

 What differences have you experienced between the NFTC and Warsaw Pact training system?

I participated in a condensed version of the NFTC training in 2002. Those of us, who travelled abroad and participated in training in the former Czechoslovakia or Soviet Union as part of the first two groups, were qualified fighter pilots. When we first travelled to NFTC training, we were told that this system is completely different.

The “Russian” training is college training – the young student comes out of school at the age of 18, a very impressionable age if I think back to myself. In the Russian training they destroy all buds that deviate the student from disciplined execution and rebuild a man, a fighter pilot.

The philosophy behind the Russian training method is to destroy, then rebuild a new man.

They said the Canadian training would be different, but this is not entirely true. The NFTC training also destroys and tries to rebuild the person, but they operate with better efficiency. As I remember the Russian training, 20 of us started the class and only 9 of us finished it, while the NFTC operates with a nearly 90% completion rate. I must add that college graduates, more mature people enter the NFTC who know what they are doing. The Russian training is very leading – studying, exams; in contrast, the Canadian training provides the location of the information that needs to be mastered, and it must be learned through self-education. They are dealing with more mature people in Canada; it is more adult education with the method of acquiring the necessary knowledge left up to the individual. In the Russian system we started the training on the jet; in Canada we started on the turbo prop, which was easier to handle and we had more available flight time. In the Russian system we started flying on the L-29 Delfin, which was not a modern plane even in 1986, but I still liked it. I have never flown such a positively gentle plane, a real training plane that could do everything but land by itself. In the Russian system the student is moved to the model they will be flying, in this case the fighter. Because we enter the system at the age of 18, this perfectly solved the utilization of human resources. The pilot comes home at the age of 22-23 and quickly finds themselves at the southern borderlands at standby duty. Our superiors can utilize us shortly after training.

Pilots trained today typically reach readiness state when they are past the age of 30. After completing college, they participate in additional training back home before moving on to the NFTC training. After returning home again, they move to Sweden to train on the specific fighter plane, and even afterwards there is at least another year of training back home. Time really passes before qualified pilots are ready for service, while in the Russian system we came home and after a year’s training we were maintaining standby duty.

During the NFTC training I have come to interpret a lot of things I have learned during the Russian training but was unable to understand at the time. This training opened my eyes; their approach was different to allow a person to use their own skills, abilities and knowledge. For example, they explained the whys – why we must fly in pairs, they taught point-to-point navigation with the TACAN. In the Russian system we had the similar RSBN (radio system for short navigation) that could have been used, but they never explained it to us.

 

 After the detours let us return to Kecskemét in 2001.

To sum things up, from August of 2001 I was maintaining standby duty with the MIG-29, then in March of 2002 I went to Canada for the NFTC and returned home in April of 2003 and I continued to fly with the MIG-29 until 2006. At the end of July of 2006 I went to Sweden for the Gripen retraining with the second group.

At Kecskemét I was first assigned to the Gege’s Puma squadron as pair commander. After joining NATO the organization here adapted as well. Pilots and planes from other NATO countries visited us, and cooperation with them went beyond flying “just for fun”, but also allowed for improvements in structural and organizational subjects as well. This new experience resulted in the redesigning of the base staff structure, the regiment staff structure, and the plane squadrons. We were not using the former deputy company commander, air gunner, reconnaissance, and similar arrangement, but rather had to create the so-called operations officer function, which merged the previous ones and was responsible for training as well. Flight safety was important in the past, but it was not a separate, independent task. In the new organization there is an option to be a flight safety officer. The squadron structure changed. In the Gege’s squadron I had the operational role due to my experiences in Canada. When these things were sorted at the squadron level, the leadership of the entire wing changed. Instead of chief air gunner or some other chief officer, the relating ops positions had to be created and had to include the sections that could support this role, this function. I received the operational section head position in the wing staff from 2007-2010. When the chief of flight operations was transferred to another position, I received the chief of the entire flight operations directorate position as well from 2010. I was promoted to deputy base commander position for a short while on September 1st 2012, and in May of this year I was promoted to base commander. This was a very fast move from chief operations position.

 

 How did these positions get you ready for the base commander tasks?

When you are chief of flight operations, you are a one-trick pony; flying being the one trick. Your job is ensuring proper training procedures, appropriate standby duty, participation in the exercises, proper personnel training, and the adoption of new weapon systems.

I was dealing with flights, I was flying with the other pilots. I cooperated with the plane mechanics battalion, because we had to work close together concerning Gripen operations. I provided the requirements, they provided the planes. We cross-checked the annual plans – how they planned theirs, how we planned ours, when we planned exercises, the human resources aspects, vacation times, etc. If we want to talk numbers, currently there are about 1100 people on the base; when I was chief of operations, I had to manage about 60 people. As deputy base commander, I had to deal with other matters as well, including feeding the guard dogs, standby duty alerts, training, so it was a rather big change. It is a cliché, but one is never too old to learn, and always finds new challenges.

 

 What were your goals as base commander?

We operate the most modern weapons system in Hungary. Nobody, not operations, nor land forces question the fact that this is one weapons system that operates well and is also one of the most modern. There are still challenges. In 2006 we started using the weapons system and that took a while. In layman’s terms, you do not use a sports car to go to the market, meaning we had to acknowledge that this is a weapons system. During the transfer the goal was to assume armed standby duty with the Gripen, but this is only one part of the JAS39’s abilities, just as the first letters of the Swedish words that provide its name: Jaktplan (fighter), Angrepp (attack), and Spaning (reconnaisance). If we only use the fighter part, we are missing out on 2 very important abilities. My predecessor has realized the utilization of the fighter ability and we took over armed standby duty state when we removed the MIG-29’s from service in 2010. Since then only the Gripen maintains standby duty. We have achieved the proper air-to-air part; however it would be a waste to utilize only the air-to-air capabilities of this airplane. The next part is air-to-ground, cooperation with ground forces. We have to show ground forces that we can support them and they have to get to know our weapons system, so they know how we can cooperate with them. The next goal, a great task, is creating cooperation with ground troops. Of course we have the weapons necessary to perform air-to-ground tasks – the Maverick missile and the machine gun. We dare to hope that we can keep up with the times and will receive the small caliber bombs necessary for closer air support; after all, we cannot drop a one-ton bomb to support the ground forces. We will utilize everything the country can afford, and until then we continue practicing such tasks.

Currently the air-to-ground ability is the primary objective, but we have already started utilizing the “S” ability as well. We have the Litening III targeting pod and limited reconnaissance container, and the Gripen radar is capable of limited reconnaissance. We have already utilized these abilities this year during the cooperation with the ground forces. We have performed reconnaissance with the LDP and radio detection with the radar. We have trained several young pilots for air-to-ground tasks, so we are moving forward. Our task for the next few years is the utilization of all aspects of the JAS39 Gripen weapons system. So far it looks like everything we know about the air-to-air abilities have removed all obstacles from performing the airspace defense of Slovenia, and will take over this task on January 1st as part of the NATO defense program. We will perform the Slovenian airspace defense from Kecskemét, and the minister has stated that we will maintain the air policing of the Baltic countries as well for 4 months starting in September of 2015. This is another step in performing the same air-to-air tasks we perform domestically, in the rest of the world.

 

 What is your opinion about the future of Kecskemét?

Basically, because the Gripen contract has been extended until 2026, this base must remain operational. The way I see it, the investments that made it possible for the base to receive the planes of several squadrons from other countries, have also laid the foundations for its future.

 

 Let us turn to another topic relating to spotters. How do you rate this year’s Kecskemét Air Show as an insider?

There are always things to improve, nothing is ever 100%. You mentioned spotters. We travel the world and see how others relate to spotters. For example, at an RIAT event they received the best seats so they can take good pictures. I think for the first time in Hungary, we tried to organize for spotters the best places to take pictures from, and to not have to stand near the fences. I am sure there are things to improve in this area as well, for example how we could get them into even better positions, but this was the first step and we tried to make it more comfortable for them – toilets, water, supplies, and access to the action. I feel this was a big step at this year’s show, which was a substantial change compared to the past.

A lot of formations participated, which made the program a little cluttered. It is possible that there will not be as many formations at future shows. However, one thing we are proud of is that the Russian Knights were here, because they are rarely seen in the skies of Central- and Western-Europe. The other formations, including the Turkish Stars and the Croatian formation have performed outstanding programs as well.

 

 A subjective question: did the Knights really fly their display flight as dangerously as the foreign spotters felt?

There are strict rules concerning the displays. In Hungary, government regulations specify the mandatory rules. Remember Ramstein, these rules were written in blood. The Russian party has received these rules and we made sure they understood them. We did not see dangerous maneuvers during the training if display flight, although this happened on Wednesday before the cordons were placed and there were no spectators. However, they did receive a yellow card on Saturday, because certain maneuvers did not meet the rules, some maneuvers were performed flying towards the spectators. We had to decide on the course of action, since they were one of the stars of the show, many people came just to see them, so the events of Saturday were the subject of the assessment, and they received severe warnings. They promised it would not happen again, so they were allowed to fly their program on Sunday as well.

 

 Can you tell the spotters when they can expect another Airshow at Kecskemét?

 Not yet, we are just closing this year’s airshow.

 

 How do you rate the participation of the Hungarian display pilots at foreign airshows?

I have to break this down into two questions. If we want to have other air forces participate at our airshows, we also have to participate with our programs; this is customary. How can I expect, for example, the Italians to participate in our airshows, if I do not send participants to their airshows?

The other very important part is the participation of and the country’s representation abroad by the Hungarian Army. With a few exceptions – the RIAT, a Belgian or Dutch airshows where we must participate – we generally participate in neighboring countries. Neighboring countries are a segment where we try to create strong relationships – the Czechs also operate Gripens; Slovakia will hopefully be operating Gripens; and Croatia is also hopeful. We also have to cooperate with the Italians in the defense of Slovenian airspace. So we have to participate in the airshows of these countries. Although Romania has cancelled this year’s airshows for budget reasons, we would have participated there as well. They are our neighbors, so we have to participate, and the presence of the Hungarian “uniform” is important for these relationships.

 

 Another question from the spotters’ aspect: are we correct in assuming that there is a very positive change here at Kecskemét concerning spotters?

This did not depend only on the base. I could say that “this is just something we had to do” and be done with it, but we are very happy to have press and PR colleagues who greatly support this part of my job. Even our superiors have recognized that this is a very effective “advertisement” for the Army. This task really is a full-time job, requiring a man with organizational skills, someone who organizes events and keeps me informed. I am fortunate because my press colleague, Lieutenant Róbert Tóth, handles civilian and military contacts very well.

We are open to show what we have, up to a certain point. You, the spotters, have also changed by not necessarily wanting to see what you are not allowed to see. I have a feeling that if we invite you and explain what we can show and what we cannot show due to rules and regulations, you will accept it. We are glad to show you everything we can and we are at your disposal.

Again, I have to say how much my colleagues – who participate in the management of permits, the organization of events, and our superiors who approve these – are to be appreciated. My motto, which is very important, is that we have to show the tax payers how we spend their taxes. This was the most important motto of the Kecskemét airshow from my aspect.

Obviously spotters want to take pictures of things others cannot, and I can understand this as a civilian, but this is exactly why we have press days. On such days we can offer an insight into our work under secure and controlled conditions, and they can take pictures and meet the staff. It is true that during an interview I provide the answers, as the base commander, but I rely on a number of people who help me prepare and provide me with the necessary background information. Meeting the pilots, you only see the tip of the iceberg. A lot of people work in the background for this to happen, everyone from guard dogs to base commanders, technical personnel, mechanics who fuel the planes, technicians in the tower, people who prepare press material. This is a machine that limps along if a part breaks down, but only runs smoothly when all the pieces are in place and fully operational. It is very nice for me to stand out here, but I rely on them.

 

Thank you very much for your time. As spotters, we promise to do our best to follow the rules and only take pictures of what we are allowed to.

 

Csaba M. Király

Aviationspotters.net Team

 You can find the images taken on the training day in the database by the date 16th Oct. 2013 and on our Facebook site in the Spotter Life album.

 

 
 
December 10, 2013
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