Flying in perfect formation, they wheel over the runway before touching down. For now, these pigeons are the only ones making active use of Albania’s Kucova airbase. Not for long, though. Early next year heavy machinery is expected to be moving in to upgrade this otherwise silent airbase into a nato one. Seventy-one rusting and broken Soviet and Chinese planes will be evicted. “The glory days are coming back,” says Viktor Vangjeli, aged 78, a retired MIG pilot.
Communist Albania had a formidable air force, but by 2005 safety concerns and a lack of cash meant that the last of its MIGs were grounded. In Kucova they sit forlorn on flat tyres. Lettering on fuel tanks recalls the 1970s, when engineers from China assembled the MIGs they had shipped here and when men like Mr Vangjeli trained there. Now the Albanian air force flies just helicopters. Kucova plays host only to occasional agricultural planes and a few military visitors. It remains open in case of emergencies.