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US Air Force jets on Slovak skyline

KUCHYŇA: Life in this sleepy western Slovak village (pop. 1,500) is about to get a whole lot noisier. Inhabitants are bracing for two weeks of training exercises this April by US Air Force F-16 Falcons, manoeuvres which will have jets screaming over the rooftops and citizens crying for financial compensation.
The training exercise was arranged almost a year ago, when Slovak Deputy Defense Minister Jozef Pivarči and the commander of the US Air Force in Europe, John P. Jumper, signed a deal allowing the American military to use the Kuchyňa Air Base for training its pilots. The agreement was hailed as yet another sign of improving relations between the US and Slovak governments.


Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Henry Hugh Shelton (centre) visited Kuchyňa on January 11.
foto: TASR

KUCHYŇA: Life in this sleepy western Slovak village (pop. 1,500) is about to get a whole lot noisier. Inhabitants are bracing for two weeks of training exercises this April by US Air Force F-16 Falcons, manoeuvres which will have jets screaming over the rooftops and citizens crying for financial compensation.

The training exercise was arranged almost a year ago, when Slovak Deputy Defense Minister Jozef Pivarči and the commander of the US Air Force in Europe, John P. Jumper, signed a deal allowing the American military to use the Kuchyňa Air Base for training its pilots. The agreement was hailed as yet another sign of improving relations between the US and Slovak governments.

Kuchyňa's runways are seldom used these days, as the Slovak army has little money to spare for training flights in the country's Soviet-built SU-22 aircraft. But with the visit of 35 American servicemen in the first week of January, Kuchyňa's inhabitants were reminded that the main runway - which lies only 500 metres from the outskirts of the hamlet - would soon burst into life.

Kuchyňa Mayor František Palka produced a map showing the noise levels that would be faced by the town's inhabitants once the F-16's arrived. People living closest to the air base will face noise exceeding 85 decibels - the equivalent of a jackhammer - while two thirds of the village will have to put up with more than 65 decibels.

"As a direct result of this agreement [on joint training exercises], we have launched an initiative to request compensation from the parliament for all villages which are affected by activities at Slovak military bases," Palka said.

Known as 'OK 21,' an acronym for 'Obec Kuchyňa [Kuchyňa village] in the 21st century,' the compensation claim has already won the support of more than 20 municipalities. Palka says he is far from satisfied.

"If we had some private factory here, the municipal budget would get about five million Slovak crowns in taxes, some more money for environment fees, and maybe 200 jobs would be created. But the Army doesn't pay us anything," Palka said. "Anyway, even compensation can't repair people's damaged health. It's like miners who earn a bit more money because they inhale dust."

So far, neither the government nor the parliament has officially responded to the compensation demand. On the contrary, plans are even being finalised for another serveral training exercises in Kuchyňa this year.

Colonel Frederick Shepherd, who led the visiting group of 35 US officers in early January, said at a January 7 press conference that between five and ten F-16 Falcons and 100 soldiers from the US air base in Spangdahlem, Germany would take part in the first, April training. Shepherd said that the pilots would be using live ammunition in their machine guns, but would be dropping only dummy bombs.

In June, Shepherd continued, US pilots flying the older A-10 jets from Spangdahlem would arrive to train in Kuchyna, followed at the beginning of September by F-16's from the US air base in Aviano, Italy.

A high-level Slovak military source told The Slovak Spectator on January 12 that after the three training exercises, the US would decide whether or not to use Kuchyňa as a permanent training facility.

Ministry of Defence spokesman Pavol Vitko said on January 12 that the US Air Force would pay for the building of any infrastructure needed to make Kuchyňa a viable training location for American pilots. If the Americans decided in the end not to return to Kuchyňa, the Slovak side would keep the new equipment without paying compensation, he said.

Palka, for his part, said he didn't expect any tensions between locals and the US servicemen, who will be billeted in a hotel in nearby Malacky instead of bunking down in the Kuchyňa barracks.

"We have had an air base here since 1926," he said. "People are used to it, and we keep very good relations with the military."

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