Poland joined NATO on March 12, 1999. However, fighter pilots celebrate the anniversary a little later.
“Everyone knows that Poland joined NATO on March 12. Formally, that’s true, but for us, fighter pilots, it happened exactly five days later. Our adventure with NATO began on March 17, 1999. On that day, Poland had its first in the history of the Polish army combat duty within the Air Policing mission,” emphasizes Capt (Res) Andrzej Rogucki, the MiG-29 pilot. He adds that it was also the first NATO test of our pilots’ level of training. Seven years ago he returned to civilian life after 26 years of service. He had served, among others, at the 1st “Warszawa” Fighter Regiment and the 23rd Tactical Aviation Base. He had spent almost 2,200 hours in the air, and piloted various types of fighters: the MiG-15, the MiG-17, the MiG-21, the MiG-29. He had been one of the first six Polish Air Force pilots to train according to NATO procedures.
Intercept the intruder
One of the phases that Poland had to go through to join the Alliance was a test in the air. Apart from signing documents confirming the accession to NATO, it was necessary to conduct the so-called accession exercise, required of all new members of the Alliance by the North Atlantic Council. At that time they were Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary.
Pilots knew the assumptions of the Air Policing mission very well, because they had executed similar tasks already during the Warsaw Pact period, but on the MiG-21 aircraft. “We had been preparing for the accession exercise for quite some time. We had taken various exams, including theoretical ones on NATO tactics and manner of operation. We were to prove our practical skills on March 17,” recalls Col Rogucki. The preparations to join the Alliance covered both people and equipment. The priority was to modify fighters to meet International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards. We had to install, among other things, appropriate anti-collision lights or transponders that could be seen by civil aircraft. Aviators began preparatory training in 1997. From then on, training teams came to Poland (mainly Germans, who piloted the MiG-29s in Luftwaffe), in order to conduct NATO Air Policing training. Most importantly, pilots had to get familiar with NATO regulations and procedures.
Six best and most experienced pilots, with knowledge of English, were chosen to execute the accession exercise in March 1999. “At the time, it was not as obvious as today. During the Warsaw Pact era, speaking in English was frowned on by the authorities,” adds Col Rogucki with a smile. Out of the mentioned six pilots, the leadership chose two officers to take the first combat duty shift within the NATO Integrated Air Defense System – the commander of the 1st Squadron, Maj Ryszard Grzeliński, and his then deputy, Capt Andrzej Rogucki, who had the most extensive experience in foreign military aviation exercises.
The pilots were to be on duty for 24 hours. The emergency services and technicians working with them at the airport were to quickly prepare the MiG-29s for take-off in the event of an alarm. They all knew that the machines could be put in the air at any time upon order received from Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC 2) at Kalkar. The Alfa Scramble alert was to begin the accession exercise. However, not everything went according to plan. By mistake, the two pilots on duty were scrambled too early, which significantly complicated the mission.
“We knew the general direction of the flight and the airport to which we were to guide the intruder, we were familiar with the procedures. The weather was beautiful, machines in perfect technical condition, we thought the job would be easy. We were to be scrambled when the target was about 80 km from our western border, yet the order came much too early. The target was still far from the border when we were already in the air,” says Col Rogucki, who played the role of a wingman at the time. The pilots had to make a decision very fast. They could return to the airport and take off again in half an hour, or climb to the altitude of 11,000 m and wait for their target. “It was risky. If in the meantime the scenario of our task had been altered, we could have run out of petrol, and the NATO exam would have been a failure,” adds Col Rogucki.
Fortunately, everything ended well. The two pilots on duty skillfully intercepted the intruder, the C-9 Nightingale, coming from Ramstein with two NATO officers on board. It happened about 150 km from Warsaw at the altitude of 8,000 m. According to NATO procedures, the flight leader approached the hostile aircraft from the left, and the wingman took position behind the machine, at a distance enabling him to immediately fire at the intruder in the event of failed negotiations with its pilot. Then, the two MiGs and the C-9 lowered their flight and all prepared to land at the emergency airport in Mińsk Mazowiecki. There, as the pilots recall, crowds of spectators were waiting for them. The NATO test was observed by the most important officers of all branches of the armed forces, politicians, as well as guests from abroad, such as military attachés.
What did the pilots feel during the NATO test? They say that emotions need to be left on land. There is no place or time for them in the air, because the pilots must always focus on the task. “We weren’t afraid, we didn’t have any jitters or anything like that. We were sure of our abilities, had vast experience in flying, we knew the aircraft and the procedures perfectly,” say the pilots.
Only when they landed did they start analyzing and thinking if everything went well and according to the superiors’ orders. After the exercise was over, the pilots were approached by the regiment commander, who had learned about the MiGs’ premature scramble and the confusion accompanying the interception. However, there was no reprimand. The commander hugged the pilots and thanked them for executing the task well.
The pilots admit that in March 1999, when Poland officially joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, they were relieved. “We knew that NATO would open the door to the West, that we would be able to take part in foreign trainings and courses, have access to education at western military academies, as well as participate in the TLP [Tactical Leadership Program], to which countries from outside NATO have limited or forbidden access,” enumerates Col Andrzej Rogucki. The officer points out that even before joining NATO, Polish fighters had already taken part in exercises within the Partnership for Peace program. Then, pilots had not been allowed to join the maneuvers in their full extent and could only execute tasks determined by the organizers; and when briefings had been organized after the flights in order to discuss the tasks in reference to NATO procedures, Poles had been shown the door – like second-class participants.
“Aviators had been waiting for a long time to be accepted into NATO structures. For us, there were only good sides of the new situation: we could train anywhere in the world, learn from the best, we had more money for petrol, so we spent a lot of time in the air – all because we successfully passed the accession exercise on March 17, 1999. For me, it’s something to be proud of and a great privilege. I am happy I was given a chance to fly the MiG into NATO,” admits years later Col Rogucki.
autor zdjęć: arch. Andrzeja Roguckiego