Albania offers collectors its Communist-era airborne glory

If you want to buy a secondhand fighter jet, Albania's the place to go right now.

The 40 obsolete Soviet and Chinese-made aircraft up for sale once roared over what was Europe's most exclusive airspace. The Albanian pilots were members of an exalted military elite that had its own food-tasters and was tasked by Communist Albania's paranoid regime with deterring countless enemies who never did come to this country on the Adriatic Sea.

Now a NATO member, Albania is auctioning off the rusting jets to pay for modernizing its military and to save space in its air bases. The Socialist government says it has received strong interest from aviation collectors and museums abroad — so much that it pushed back the initial auction date and is considering raising the starting bids, first set at 1.1 million to 1.9 million leks ($8,600-14,800).

"It was a surprise for us," Defense Minister Mimi Kodheli told The Associated Press, noting "a rush" of interest from prospective bidders in the United States, Germany, France, Italy and other countries.

In a corner of the Rinasi air base outside the capital of Tirana, 11 decrepit MiG-17 and MiG-19 jets are parked in neat rows, guarded by two military officers. Their silver-grey paint with the distinctive red, black and red roundels is fading, their tires are flat, the guns are rust-flecked and some of their glass canopies are broken.

Former jet mechanic Vasil Jongari, 55, seemed almost ashamed to show the planes to visiting journalists.

"There is nostalgia always," he said, running his fingers over the 32 millimeter gun on a MiG-19. "But they cannot be kept only based on desire. They need money, and money we don't have."

Ilirjan Kola, 61, who flew Albanian air force MiG-15 to MiG-19 jets from 1976 until 1991, said the planes were always so expensive to operate.

"MiGs were so costly," he told The Associated Press. "A twin-engine MiG-19 consumed 52 liters of fuel a minute. With a normal flight of 30-40 minutes, imagine the expense ... Better that they had sold them before."

Albania's air force was founded in 1951 and received MiGs from the Soviet Union until 1962. After Communist leader Enver Hoxha broke with the Russians, the country continued to be supplied with planes and spares from Communist China — until 1977, when Albania also severed ties with the Chinese.

About 160 Albanian pilots graduated from a military academy in southwestern Vlora, and used to clock up about 80 flying hours a year. Only five still serve — and now they all fly helicopters.

"We were privileged at the time, with specially chosen food, shelter, health care and vacations," Kola said. He said the food came from a dedicated farm near the air base, which a doctor tasted for them on a daily basis.

"(It wasn't) different from what they did with the food destined for Hoxha himself," Kola said.

At the collapse of the Communist regime in 1990, the air force had 200 jets and 40 helicopters, as well as four IL14 transport planes, once used for top regime officials, which were sold for scrap five years ago.

Seven MiGs were destroyed and their parts were stolen in 1997, when military bases across the country were looted during an uprising over failed pyramid investment schemes that cost many Albanians their life savings.

Some jet continued to be flown after order was restored, but a deadly accident at this air base in 2004 prompted a rethink. A farewell flight was held in 2005, Jongari said.

Albania joined NATO in 2009, and now its military aviation fleet consists of Western-made helicopters — four French Cougars, three German EC145s and 13 Italian AB205, AB206 and A109 models.

The aircraft up for auction at a yet-undefined date include five types of military jets — Yak-18, MiG-15, MiG-17, MiG-19, and MiG-21 — as well as four Mi-4 transport helicopters. Most date from the 1950s.

"We can use the money to modernize our armed forces," said Kodheli, the defense minister.

The Albanian army has already got rid of its antique Eastern Bloc-era transport vehicles, tanks and armored personal carriers, as well as infantry AK-47 assault rifles and ammunition, most of which was sold for scrap.

Kodheli said the auction will serve as a market test. If it's successful, Albania has more than 100 other aircraft left to be sold some day.