January 13, 1992 Vreme News Digest Agency No 16
The Helicopter Incident
Shooting the Mission
by Aleksandar Ciric & Marisa Crevatin
The pilot of the EC mission helicopter lieutenant Renato Barbafiera was flying 150 metres behind the helicopter of his colleague Enzo Venturini. Some 80 kilometres - a 15 minute flight - separated them from their destination in Zagreb. "I heard a strange sound and felt vibrations. Then I saw Enzo's helicopter falling apart. I brusquely turned left and within 30 seconds I landed", says Barbafiera. It was barely ten minutes past two p.m., a clear day in Varazdin vicinity, near the village of Madzarevo
In the shot down helicopter (Ab 205) all five men were killed. A fifty year old pilot, colonel Enzo Venturini from La Spezia, a Mission volunteer since October last year. Sergeant Marco Matta, co-pilot: he was killed on his 28th birthday, two days before the completion of his military service. A forty year old Silvano Natale, father of two children: "He joined this mission with calm", said his wife in an interview for "La Repubblica". Fiorenzo Ramacci, a mechanic, another Mission member since last October. Apart from four Italians one Frenchman was killed: a thirty-five year old naval lieutenant Jean-Loup Eychenne. Enzo Venturini and Silvano Natale were veterans in dangerous peace operations: they were both involved in UN missions in Lebanon (1988-1989). During the Iran-Iraq war, Jean-Loup Eychenne was on the French aircraft carrier "Clemenceau".
The day after the incident, the Croatian radio announced that a message in Italian was recorded: "Don't shoot, don't shoot!" and that an SOS signal was emitted.
The Eastern part of what used to be Yugoslavia learned of the news four hours after it all happened. It took much less for the Federal Presidency to suspend the aviation commander Zvonko Jurjevic and order an urgent investigation.
At least three commissions were formed: one report is to be made by the Federal Defence Ministry and handed to the Presidency, another one is to be made by the army, by the Croatian authorities and the EC mission members, and the third one is expected from the Federal Government special commission. Although it is, in the past couple of days, being said that the official investigation reports were due "any minute", there has not been any until now (Friday afternoon, January 10). Nor can they be made in such a short time, say the experts: "The investigation in such cases is a complex, protracted and responsible business even in peace time, let alone in war, when the collaboration of the warring sides is necessary". Generals Andreja Raseta and Imre Agotic, after the first continuation of negotiations between the Army and the Croatian forces, gave two "relatively" different statements concerning this matter: "As far as we know, and the information we presently have at our disposal are not a 100% reliable, the flight of the two EC mission helicopters between Kaposvar and Zagreb was not prearranged. That is, the permission was asked for, but the Federal Flight Control (FFC) did not grant it", said Raseta. "I don't at all think it is possible that the flight was not prearranged", said Agotic.
In the meantime, the information published so far, especially the ones given
by the military commentators, allow us to make a rough reconstruction of the sequence of events that preceded the accident.
Two of four EC mission helicopters presently stationed in Yugoslavia were, on January 6 at 17,52 hours, granted the permission from FFC (Federal Flight Control), exactly 18 minutes after it was sought. A flight Kaposvar-Belgrade- Zagreb was prearranged, but only its first part was approved. Although it is still the only one in charge, FFC could not approve the flight Kaposvar-Zagreb, since - considering the presently valid domestic regulations, including the international as well - Zagreb flight control is "dead" ever since the closing of the air space in the "Slovenian-Yugoslav war", i. e. flying over Croatia means, by definition, flying in the zone of war action.
The two EC helicopters left "Surcin" airport (Belgrade) on Tuesday, January 7, at 10,17 hours, and crossed the Hungarian border above Subotica at 11,25. From that moment on, they were under the jurisdiction of the Budapest county flight control.
After taking fuel, the helicopters continued their flight at around 13,30 hours. The county control in Budapest did not notify the Belgrade ground control about the take off (the question is whether it was obliged to do so or not; "before the war" the Zagreb flight control was in charge for all Kaposvar-Zagreb flights). It is certain that the Zagreb authorities were informed about the flight, just as it is very likely that Zagreb failed to notify either the Belgrade or, which is more important, the Bihac (Bosnia) military flight control. The military flight control is of great importance here because it is known that as early as on September 15 last year all civilian flights under 10000 metres in the Croatian air space were suspended.
The army radars detected "the formation x" while the helicopters were still above Hungary, at least 15 minutes before the incident. The routine procedure in such cases includes issuing an order to the military planes in the air to intercept the unidentified aircraft, make a visual contact with it for identification and for possible forced landing and, eventually, if all that fails, for shooting it down. The regulation provides that such operations are carried out in pair; the number of Yugoslav Air force planes that took part in the "Varazdin operation" was not made known. Regardless of that, a "Mig-21" can hardly be described as suitable for interception, visual identification and stopping (without shooting down) of the aircraft that appear in the "Hungarian-Croatian air corridor". Yugoslav Air force pilots have so far mostly had experience with slow and low flying planes and helicopters. "Mig-21" is an interceptor devised at the beginning of the fifties, and it has been produced since 1956. It is a fast plane whose manoeuvering abilities decrease considerably at lower speeds, its "job" is to take off, "intercept" its target (it can be done from a distance of 15 kilometres) and launch a self-guided missile. It seems that it was exactly what the "Mig" pilot above Varazdin did. Even if he had an order to obey the procedure, the visual contact with "the target" was barely possible. If it took only 30 seconds for lieutenant Renato Barbafiera to land, it means that the helicopters were flying very low, more likely at 200-300 than 400 or 500 metres. The "Mig" pilot could hardly spot them being 6 kilometres away (allegedly, the missile was launched from that distance) even if they were not flying above the snow covered ground (white on white). It is not known whether he first fired shots of warning. Belgrade county flight control did not have any news of the helicopters it "saw off" the "Surcin" airport that morning. However, the information was already out. When it contacted the Budapest control, it was told that the helicopters were still (at 17,26 hours) in Kaposvar: the members of their crews, however, were dead for over three hours.
Regardless of all speculations, coincidence and post festum interpretations, none of the Balkan "sides" - excluding the Army which with unexpected swiftness admitted its responsibility for shooting down the helicopters and killing five Europeans - managed to "take advantage" of the incident. The peace operations were not stopped but their pace was not quickened either. If ever the results of the investigation are made publicly known, the question of responsibility of the ones who issued the order for shooting the helicopters down will have to be treated, and not only the responsibility of the scape goats. Taking army practices into account, and neglecting the possibility that the "Mig" pilot acted on his own, the responsibility for the imprudent order "Blow it away, buddy!" should be borne by some operating officer in the colonel rank. Or a general.