An air crash, land mines and Russian sensitivities combined to make the upgrading of war-torn Pristina airport less than straightforward. Claire Symes reports
Kosovo’s battle scars are nowhere more evident than at the airport in its principal city, Pristina where damage was hindering vital aid activity and the movement of refugees. Last autumn, work began to ‘winterise’ Pristina airport to ensure essential civilian flights could continue through the harsh Balkan winter.
Britain’s Department for International Development provided 4.8M) in funds and commissioned consultant Scott Wilson as project manager. Project team member Niel Robinson says that ingenuity and the ability to engineer on the hoof helped keep work on programme.
Staff from the consultant first visited the airport in September last year to assess the work required and the costs involved. Robinson says: ‘The bomb damage sustained by the airport had left craters in the taxiways and hardstandings and destroyed the control tower, navigational aids and airport ground lighting (AGL).
‘Without these facilities the airport could only operate during daylight hours and to military standards.’
A scope of works was drawn up by Scott Wilson’s pavement specialists and PCR, an air traffic control engineering consultancy.
Following an accelerated tendering process, contracts for the navaids and AGL were awarded respectively to Racal Avionics and Alstrom Drives and Controls. Scott Wilson was appointed to undertake the project management, procurement and civil engineering aspects of the project. Specification and installation of the navaids was managed by PCR.
The project initially appeared relatively straightforward. Essential navigation aids - navaids - and AGL were bought and an Ilyushin 76 air freighter booked to fly the equipment direct from Manston in Britain to Pristina on 25 November.
‘All our plans were thrown out of the window when civilian flights into the airport were banned on 21 November following the crash of a UN aid flight, sadly killing all 23 people on board, ’ says Robinson.
After a period of frantic negotiations, the RAF was persuaded to deliver the majority of the freight on 25 November direct to Pristina from Lyneham in Wiltshire. The remainder was flown by the Russian freighters into Skopje in Macedonia and then transferred, under KFOR guard, by road for the 90km journey to Pristina.
‘If it hadn’t been for the armed guard the programme could have been delayed by several weeks. The closure of Pristina Airport to all but military aircraft had resulted in increased traffic at the border crossing and commercial vehicles often had to wait for over 10 days to have documents processed, ’ Robinson explains.
‘The armed guard meant that the freight could go straight through the border control and we actually ended up losing very little time.’
But a further delay then brought a new frustration. ‘We lost more time through President Clinton’s visit to Pristina because of the tight security his entourage insisted on. What was even more frustrating was that before the President arrived, the US Air Force flew in a complete portable navaid and AGL system.
‘The USAF spent two days and nights setting it up, then dismantled it the day after the visit and took it away to the President’s next destination.’
Visits by project team members to Pristina became more difficult as the civilian flight moratorium ruled out direct flights from Rome. And the consequent increase in the number of flights into Skopje airport caused severe delays there.
Roads in Kosovo are narrow and in poor condition and transfer to Pristina could take anything from three to six hours even if there were no delays at the border crossing. Robinson and his colleagues passed many burnt out and damaged houses along the route.
‘Security in Pristina during daylight was no problem and we could move freely, probably because of the heavy police presence. But we could hear gunfire echoing around at night, ’ says Robinson.
‘We only needed an armed escort once during my four visits to Kosovo, while we visited an outer marker transmitter at Oberleck 10km to the north of Pristina. The village is ethnically mixed and the atmosphere is far less relaxed than in Pristina, the people appeared more withdrawn.’ The escort was provided by the RAF.
During the airport project the team stayed at the Grand Hotel in Pristina - grand in name only after the looting and damage suffered during the war. The hotel is packed with aid workers from all over the world, a reflection of the sheer scale of the problems in Kosovo.
Power cuts and water shortages have become part of every day life in Pristina. Most of the telephone lines have not yet been repaired and the mobile network is overloaded, so the only means of communication for Scott Wilson’s team was by satellite telephone.
Work at the airport was slowed by the need to clear large areas of land mines before the navaid positions could be accessed. ‘The land mines were a particular problem when a herd of cattle wandered onto the airfield. They could not be rounded up, so helicopters were used to clear the animals, ’ Robinson recalls.
Pristina Airport is operated by the RAF but the Russian military initially took control during liberation and still maintains a presence in the form of tank enclaves to defend the airport. Several of the antenna or routes to the antenna were within these enclaves and tactful negotiation by KFOR was required to gain access to the sites.
‘The Russians were generally cooperative once they understood what we were trying to do. However, it was still unnerving to have them watching you at work from behind their machine guns - even though we were all on the same side, ’ says Robinson.
Local contractors and equipment are in short supply due to the enormous amount of construction work currently in progress. However, contractors were keen to be involved in such an important project.
‘The workers told us much about their lives during the war. For many life in Pristina carried on without much change during the bombing. They still went out in the evenings but avoided sensitive areas that were likely to be bombing targets, ’ says Robinson Lack of suitable equipment was also a problem for the Scott Wilson team.
The only concrete mixers available were ‘B&Q- style DIY mixers’ and the Russian crane supplied for erecting the glide path antenna proved not to have the capacity to lift it.
The RAF came to the rescue and helped erect the antenna by helicopter, flying under UN colours. Replacement cables for the antenna also had to be flown out by the RAF after the originals were stolen overnight from a supposedly secure area.
Despite all the problems, the navaids were in place and operational by the December deadline. Calibration of the instruments then followed. The airport’s restored operational capability impressed the French air crash investigation team sufficiently for it to remove the moratorium, and civilian flights were resumed on 10 January this year.
Installation of ground lighting was scheduled for completion by the end of February.
‘The future is still unclear. The infrastructure is slowly being rebuilt and efforts are being made to achieve democracy, ’ says Robinson. But seemingly below the surface nothing has changed. ‘Albanian refugees flock back to Pristina while many Serbians and other ethnic minorities flee the city. The roles are just reversed.’