Some 5,000 locals visited the Kuchyňa airbase on July 22 to meet US pilots and see the A-10 Thunderbolt (pictured above). The A-10, nicknamed 'the warthog' and designed to support ground troops, is far quieter than the F-16s the US troops brought to the base in April.
"Compared to the F-16s, these airplanes sound more like cars," said Martina Bednáriková, a resident of the nearby town of Malacky, who took her children to see the planes and talk to the pilots at an open house on the Kuchyňa base. "You notice the noise, but it's not a big deal. Before with the F-16s, my children were scared because the planes were so loud."
The purpose of the US Air Force's latest visit, officials at the base said, was to strengthen
military ties between Slovakia and America while allowing practice runs for pilots and their support crew. And while a US Embassy spokesperson said that the visit was strictly a bilateral agreement between the US and Slovak governments, and that the NATO military alliance had not been party to the agreement, a Slovak military analyst said that the teamwork could not help but improve Slovakia's chances of joining NATO.
"These training missions do have an effect of Slovakia's ambition to become a NATO member," said Ivo Samson, an analyst at the Slovak Foreign Policy Association. "The American presence creates trust in the Slovak political elite, and increases [pro-NATO] public opinion in the country."
Although not as sleek as the F-16, the A-10 Thunderbolt jet - one of the airforce's slowest planes - is far quieter, and with its heavy armaments provides effective air support for ground troops.
Affectionately nicknamed the warthog, the A-10 was developed in the wake of the Vietnam war, when the military realised the need for a plane designed to support ground troops. Although an airforce plane, the relatively sluggish A-10 (top speed 650 mph/1,000 kph) assists the army in search-and-rescue missions and is also known for its high-powered artillery.
The A-10's defining feature is the gun built into the nose of the aircraft (the largest built-in gun on any plane in the world), which shoots a bullet 30 millimetres in diameter weighing 2.2 pounds (one kilogram). The bullet can pierce six inches of titanium steel, earning the A-10 its more warlike sobriquet - 'the tank killer'.
The fleet of eight A-10s arrived from the 52nd Fighter Wing at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany, and was supported by a group of 200 American military men and women, including 21 pilots. Despite rain and cloudy skies through mid-July, both US and Slovak airforce officials described the mission as a success.
For the US pilots, the Slovak mission allowed them a chance to hone their skills in unfamiliar territory with the A-10's cannon and smoke-charged bombs.
"This visit gives us a different set of targets to work on, and allows us to fine-tune our weapons," said Lt. Col. John Costa. "But what we are working on, really, is just one small piece of the puzzle. We were studying [Slovakia] 10 and 20 years ago [during communism when such a mission would not have been possible]. Anytime you can then come to the country and soak in some of the culture and understand a little more about what's going on, it makes a connection."
The US presence also gave Slovak pilots a chance to get a deeper look into western military operations. Major Vladimír Šimko of the Slovak airforce said that the resources and the specialisation of his American counterparts meant that their training programmes were more sophisticated than the Slovak versions.
"Generally, the American system is better because it's less rushed and the pilots and technicians take more time to practice their skills," Šimko said. "It's different, and I would prefer to subscribe to an American or western European way of training."
Šimko said the mission had proceeded smoothly, and that although no Slovak and American pilots had flown together, cooperation had taken place on other levels such as maintenance and air traffic control.
But perhaps the most significant impact of the mission was the cultural exchange that occured between the US troops and their Slovak civilian and military hosts.
Captain Glen Roberts, spokesman for the 52nd Fighter Wing, said that his troops had enjoyed Slovakia so much in April that competition had been fierce among those wishing to visit Slovakia as a member of the July mission. "People were battling to get on this mission," he said. "Everyone wanted to come and see Slovakia after hearing about the hospitality of the people, the culture, the good food. And those soldiers that came [in April] really loved Bratislava."
July 22 also saw approximately 5,000 people visit the Kuchyňa airbase to look over the planes and talk to air force ground troops and pilots during an open house. The success of this event, Roberts explained, was proof of the strengthening ties between the US and Slovakia.
"The open house went very well and gave evidence of the positive relationship between Slovakia and America - people were very receptive," he said. "It was a chance for us to give a little something back to the people who opened up their country to us."
The residents of Malacky seemed also to have softened their attitudes towards their American visitors since the April flights, which had produced noise levels of up to 85 decibels - similar to that of a jackhammer. One elderly citizen said that although the A-10s had not been music to her ears, she had been better able to handle the roar this time around.
"At my age, any loud noise bothers me. That just comes with being old, but I've got to get used to it, like anything," said Viera Bartošová, adding that she was sure that the presence of the A-10s was important for her country.
The growing affinity between the US troops and the Slovak locals may be sorely tested, however, when the American Air Force returns to Kuchyňa this September with another squadron of F-16s, this time from the Aviano air base in Italy.
Additional reporting by Michala Bieliková
31. Jul 2000 at 0:00 | Keith Miller