Latvian Air Arms / Latvijas Gaisa Spéki
By Marijn van der Burgt
Latvia is the middle of the three Baltic States, both in geography and in area. With the outbreak of the Second World War the independence of Latvia ended abrupt when the Soviets invaded in 1940. One year later the Germans captured the country, but were defeated in 1944 by the Soviets that stayed in Latvia until 1991. At 21 August 1991 it finally declared independence again, which was recognised by the West immediately, followed by the Soviet Union on 6 September 1991. On 2 April 2004 Latvia entered NATO along with the other Baltic States.
Latvijas Gaisa Spéki (Air Force)
The Air Force was first founded long before the Soviet occupation. At 7 June 1919 an Air Group was formed with three aircraft. In the years to follow a lot of other aircraft were added to the inventory and the Air Group was eventually renamed to Aviation Regiment. The Soviet invasion ended the activities of the Air Force. At that time there were almost 130 aircraft on strength.
More than 50 years later the Gaisa Spéki (Air Force) was re-established on 24 February 1992. Operations started at the airfield of Riga-Spilve with ex-civilian An-2 and Mi-2. More than twenty (ex agricultural) An-2s were aquired by the Ministry of Defence, of which about ten were almost immediately passed to the National Guard and a another ten were sold abrought to raise funds. The primary mission for the two An-2s is Para dropping for the Special Forces and Reconnaissance Battalion and transport flights. Eight Mi-2 were bought on the civilian market, and were used primarily for search and rescue (SAR) and pilot training. During the last years only two of them remained airworthy. Probably at this time no more Mi-2s are in use and their tasks are now fulfilled by the Hips. In 1993 two ex East German AF L-410UVP Turbolet transport aircraft were donated by the German government to help Latvia building up the Air Force. Unfortunately one of the two L-410s was lost in a tragic accident on 7 June 1995.
Riga-Spilve was a good airfield to launch the Air Force from, but soon a more suitable air base was needed. In 1994 the Latvians took charge of the former Soviet air base Lielvarde, from where MiG-27 Floggers of 899 IBAP were based. Lielvarde is situated about 50km east of Riga. In the future the Air Force might move to the Riga-Skulte international airport in order to save costs.
In the beginning of the new century two new and more powerful Mi-8MTV Hip helicopters were bought. Both helicopters are fitted with SAR equipment, but are also used for transportation of troops, medevac and support of the Special Forces. In 2004 the Ministry of Defence bought two more Mi-8MTV's at the Russian Ulan Ude helicopter (rework) factory. One Mi-8MTV is normally at SAR stand-by on Riga-Skulte, which is closer to the sea than Lielvarde.
Latvijas Zemessardze (National Guard)
The Latvian National Guard was formed as a self-defence organisation on 23 August 1991, immediately after the Soviet occupation. Main tasks of the National Guard five Brigades are border patrol, emergency relief and support to the police to ensure internal security. The tasks of the units equips with aircraft do contain more, like transportation, (coastal) patrol flights, parachute jumping flights and during summer flights to encourage youngsters to start flying or Para jumping. Twelve An-2, five PZL-104 Wilga and about 38 gliders (most L-13 Blanik, but also Jantar Standard III and LAK-12) are in use. Two Mi-2 helicopters were also acquired, but have never been taken on charge and remain stored in bad condition at Riga-Spilve.
Six different airfields spread over the country were used by the Zemessardze: Limbazi, Daugavpils, Rëzekne, Cesis, Riga-Splive and Ikškile. There were plans to establish another four flying units in the western part of the country, for example at Talsi before the end of 1998, but this probably never happened. Since the beginning of 2000 the flying part of the Latvijas Republikas Zemessardze has been integrated within the Air Force. As part of the re-organisation programme, the airfields at Riga-Spilve, Cesis and Limbazi are no longer used by the Air Force, and the former National Guard flying equipment has been concentrated at Rezekne and Daugavpils. All gliders have been given to civil flying clubs, together with a pair of An-2s. The remaining ten An-2s and five PZL-104s constituted two transport flights within the Air Force, mainly tasked with border patrol, light transport, aerial reconnaissance and parajumping. Now all aircraft have been transferred to the sole active military airbase Lielvarde.