Bulgarian Air Adventure

After we have flown the MD--83, MD-88 and MD-90 (and yes, MD-95 better known as Boeing 717) back in 2019 in the USA, the MD-82 was still missing. That is why we opted for the last chance to fly one in Europe with European Air Charter from Bulgaria. We know that this would even be the last chance to fly any type of MadDog in Europe, which is a sad thought. However, we decided to make it work and went for it. We found a good not too expensive route, with an itinerary that would fit in our working schedules. We will fly the MadDog from Erfurt Weimar airport in the heart of Germany to Burgas in Bulgaria. Now, how do we get to Erfurt and back to Amsterdam? Let’s take the scenic route 😉

Sunday 10 September – Thank you for travelling with Deutsche Bahn

The first part of this trip will consist of a train trip rather than a flying trip. As the intercity to Berlin runs through our hometown daily, we take this train to Osnabrück. The train is not that full – until we get to Bad Bentheim where an entire high school tries to squeeze themselves in the train. Still, we manage to get to Osnabrück on time. However, our 20 minute transfer to the ICE to Hamburg turns out to be a lot longer. We take the time to do some trainspotting, as there is not much more else to do. After more than two hours, our train finally arrives at our platform and we speed to Hamburg. What a beautiful station Hamburg HBF is! So much to see! 

After dropping our stuff at the hotel in Hamburg, we go for a short walk to the beautiful and mesmerizing Miniatur Wunderland. We do not have photos from there, as we wanted to see everything with our own eyes. Besides, you should see this spectacular place for yourself!  A real must-see for every miniature enthusiast. They have trains, villages, cities, rural areas, all corners of the world, and even a realistic and functioning airport. We stay here till late in the evening. What a cool place! After it closes, we go back to our hotel to get some sleep. Tomorrow we have the first train at 4.49AM for our journey to Erfurt!

Monday 11 September - MadDog Day! 

Today is the day what this trip is all about: flying the MadDog for the last time in Europe. Our alarms go early as we need to catch the early ICE train. It is cool that where we had a modern new ICE-4 yesterday, today we travel on the classic ICE-1. With 300 km/h we race through the foggy landscape towards our transfer stop at Göttingen. Here we say goodbye to our private coupé to board a small regional train to Eichenberg. Here we have another connection to an even smaller regional train, a good old Desiro with DB Regional, The old diesel train works its way through the landscape on the way to Erfurt HBF. 

We do have some hours to kill here in Erfurt, so we shop for some groceries as well as a good lunch. Then, we take the tram to Erfurt Weimar Airport. Let's see what is to see over there. 

It appears there is not much to see over there, except for a preserved Ilyushin IL-18 in the vibrant livery of Interflug. And there is Rabe Rudi (Rudi the Raven) on a trolly with some suitcases. We just have to wait here for check-in to open, as we want to be early through security. Our flight to Burgas is  the only flight for today here at Erfurt, so the terminal is deserted. Slowly but surely, the other passengers for our flight show up. The other passengers can best be described as middle-aged till elderly (wo)men/boomers, with short grey or red painted hair, who all can go by the name of Gerda. However, although they are with many, they are not a plane full as far as we can see, which we like. 

As the security check is still closed, we are nervously waiting for it to open. Finally, we see some life from the other side. Now, two questions arise. One: when is Heinrich going to open security so we can get through, and two: what are the chances that this man is actually called Heinrich? 

Eventually, the man opens the door and we are allowed to enter security. When the man asks for our passports, he takes a look at them and says: "Ah, Koninkrijk der Nederlanden! Dat ken ik wel!" in fluent Dutch. The man appears to be a Dutchman as well. What are the odds haha! It takes a few seconds for us to pass security, and we know one answer for sure.. We don't think this man is called Heinrich.. xD

Then, our plane finally comes in sight. McDonnell Douglas MD-82 LZ-LDJ, first delivered in 1995, will take us to Burgas today. Although 28 years old, she looks shiny as new! Fun fact about LZ-LDJ is that her wings are painted grey, whereas most MD-80s have bare metal areas left on them. So she might be not as shiny on her wings, whe is definitely unique! It takes quite some time before the entire plane is deboarded as one passenger needs assistance, wich the airport staff appearantly did not anticipate. Oh well, at least we are treated by an NH-90 passing over the airport. Then finally, it is time to board.  We scan our boarding passes and our MD-80 adventure begins!

There is something magical about boarding the plane trough glass jetbridges. The exitement of getting closer to your plane and seeing it from this unique perspective is nice. We emailed the airline beforehand about that we would like to take photos and videos during this flight, so the cabin crew was informed about our presence. We are greeted by the staff, and look for our seats. Initially we booked seats 31E and F for this trip, but the entire rear cabin stayed empty, so we had lots of rows to play with during the flight. Okay, it has to be said, two stubborn Gerdas that were seated at the back of the plane (facing the enging, with a window with no visibility outside whatsoever) did not move, so they were also seated in the back. One flight attendant even asks us if we were willing to move to an exit row for more comfort, legroom and less engine noise. We politely decline, as this noise and this view is all we want! 

With that out of the way, boarding was completed and the doors are shut. Time to push back and start our JT8D engines. Then, we taxi out to runway 27 for the departure, to turn right over Erfurt before heading southeastbound. The engines scream and roar as the JT8D can do, which is a sound that never fails to impress and never lets down. When the captain switches off the fasten-seatbelt-sign, we explore the cabin. Next to us is an emergancy exit and a small galley. The cabin itself is the old Alitalia cabin. Even the seatbelt buckles have the Alitalia logo still engraved! 

Some rows in the middle and front of the cabin are still unoccupied as well, so this gives us the chance to experience how quiet the MD-80 is at the front. Besides, it gives a new perspective of the wing view. Onboard service is not that existent to be honest, as the cabin crew rushed through the cabin only once during the flight. They are sleeping at the last row most of the time though. Oh well, we we are not bothered as we have plenty of fun here! There is also a lot of other traffic to be seen outside of the window, so we are having a blast.

Eventually, it is time to descend into Burgas. This means two things. One: nice views of the city, and two: lovely music played by the engines spooling up and down to regulate the thrust on apporach. Both things do not disappoint at all. First, the big Lukoil Neftochim plant comes into view, and with a sharp left turn over the city of Burgas,  we line up for runway 04. The pink/red/brown salt pans are clearly visible. Then, just before landing, the engines spool up once more to almost take off thrust, which gives a special feeling for this landing. After touchdown, the pilots hit the brakes and the reversers, and as we are not that heavy, we can take the first exit to vacate the runway. This stopping distance was just less than a kilometre! Very impressive for this old lady. 

After landing and after we have parked on our stand, we are granted some time to take photos in the cabin and of course, the flight deck. All other passengers are being stowed away in a bus and deported to the immigration and arrivals hall, while we are still having fun in and around our beautiful MadDog. The plane has both airstairs deployed, however we opt to deboard this MD-80 the proper way: via the aft airstairs at the tail. This would not be possible in Europe anymore, unless you get the priviledge to fly on M-STAR, the beautiful privately owned Boeing 727 we saw back in 2022. 

We take our photos around the aircraft, and then we are taken by our guide from the airport itself, who kept an eye on us while we were doing our thing. This man is so kind to take us for a short detour across the apron, meaning that we can take some photos of LZ-LDP as well, which has one engine cowling removed. Eventually, we even get a special treat, as we are taken to the third plane in the row: the Motor Sich Airlines Antonov An-12! 

And here she is, the stunning Antonov An-12 from Ukrainian airline Motor Sich Airlines. The setting sun gives a golden glow over this magnicifent beast. Fantastic beasts and where to find them? Here, in Burgas! A short drive around the Antonov concludes our tour across the apron, and with a final glimpse at the two European Air Charter Maddogs, we make our way to immigration as well.

All boomers have been put away in touring busses already, so the immigrations hall is empty, except for six officers. So, we make our way to them, and they seem a little suprised as we tell them that we are leaving Bulgaria again tomorrow. After explaining what we do and showing them this website, they are fine with the answer and we are cleared into Bulgaria. First stop: the aviation museum! 

Next to the airport, there is a small aviation museum with some nice preserved airframes. The absolute highlight of the exposition is  Tupolev Tu-154B LZ-BTU from Balkan Bulgarian Airlines. Other nice aircraft are the Antonov An12 and An24 as well as a MiG-21. As the sun is setting, this means that the light goes out. Besides, we are pretty hungry and tired by now, so we look for the bus to the train station. Burgas Airport has two bus stops some hundred meters apart, and by the time we have figured out at which stop our next bus will come, we already missed it by walking to the other stop. Oh well.

Eventually we get in a bus, only to discover that card payment is not accepted here. Instead, a small, grumpy Bulgarian lady-goblin is standing in the middle of the bus selling paper tickets, speaking no English at all. And of course, we did not have any Bulgarian Levs (?) on us, so she already starts shouting and swearing/sighing in Bulgarian. Eventually a friendly fellow traveller pays for our tickets and we quickly take our seats. 

After not that long of a bus ride, we finally arrive at the Burgas train station. Our hotel at the port of Burgas is not that far of a walk away. First, we decide to explore the station, to see where we need to report tomorrow. Having figured everything out, we go to our hotel and get dinner and a good night sleep. 

Tuesday 12 September - Plovdiv, trains, jets and more! 

We wake up with the view of the port of Burgas to the Black Sea. It is really early (not that early like yesterday in Hamburg, but still). We check out at our hotel and make way to the train station. For this four hour train ride, we have first class tickets with reserved seating.  

Although we have a modern Siemens Vectron locomotive, the four coaches are typical Balkan/Slavic with pull-down windows and graffiti everywhere. We are glad we booked first class (for some reason for no extra costs over a second class ticket, but we don't complain here haha!) as trains in Bulgaria are usually for the lower class people. The train manager also makes really sure that no other people without first class ticket are allowed in our coach. We see lots of people who still try literally being kicked out of our carriage. 

Right on time we depart for the four hour long journey up to Plovdiv. We leave the outskirts of Burgas and drive straight through the Lukoil plant. What an amazing country this is! It is so stereotypical Balkan. There are worn-down buildings and vehicles everywhere, and there is also a lot of nothingness. Still, the train driver has found the throttle and we are speeding towards our destination! 

During our trip we come across Bezmer, which is an active air force base. We knew we would drive past it, so we are prepared to take in what can be seen. However, we have no idea what there is to be seen, if there is anything at all. First, we spot the gate guard in the form of a MiG-15. Not long after, we see the real goodness. Several Sukhoi SU-25 and SU-22s are parked around the shelter area. On te main platform, a C-27 Spartan can be seen as well. We are thankful that the train windows could be opened, which meant clear photos are possible. So cool to see these old Soviet fighters still in great condition! 

With this pace, we should arrive in Plovdiv over two hours early. So, we get excited as our transfer from Plovdiv station to the airport would be quite the tight connection. However, we cheered too soon as the train suddenly takes a branchline which leads us back eastbound instead of westbound to Plovdiv. This branchline also means that the speed is being reduced to about 30 km/h for over an hour. Time is passing sooo slow! We do pass a nice tunnel and a small waterfall, and eventually we end up in the city of Dimitrovgrad. Here, our locomotive needs to switch to the other side of the train. This gives us the time to get some fresh air and stretch our legs. There is also a Desiro train, the stretched version of the one we had to Erfurt. 

The leg between Dimitrovgrad and Plovdiv is a lot more comfortable as the train driver once again had discovered how the throttle works. Eventually we find ourselfs in the outskirts of Plovdiv and several overgrown old brown freight rail wagons later we finally arrive at the station of Plovdiv. From here, the train continues to the Bulgarian capital Sofia. We on the other hand leave the train and with a last glance on our first class coach, we leave the station and get a taxi to the airport. 

After a short side-quest to find a working ATM to pay our taxi driver (yep, no card payments accepted here either..) we finally are on our way to Plovdiv Airport. This airport is a semi-military airfield and when entering the main road we could see some active Bulgarian MiG-29s! At the airport some Let 410s are stored here as well. On the other side of the airport is a nice large aviation museum, but it is closed on Tuesdays and we did not have time for it anyways. Oh well, that is a reason to come back here, isn't it? :) 

Only three commercial flights are planned for today here, with our flight to Stansted as the middle one. We breeze through security and enter airside. Here is not much to do, except for a small snack store. However, we could see the MiG-29s parked on the far side of the field. Straight across the field we could see the museum, and there also is some action of the interesting and vintage looking ground equipment here.

As a Corendon Boeing 737 is coming in we see it all in action. No brutal looking follow-me car here, but a white Lada. For airport tugs they use a small yellow Charlatte and even a tiny agricultural tractor. The potable water truck here is a classic Soviet UAZ Bukhanka. At the military platform we see even some old Soviet trucks as well. We do not get bored here!

Eventually, our third ride for this afternoon comes taxiing in, Ryanairs EI-DHE which will take us to London Stansted Airport. During boarding Lars chooses to board via the rear stairs, eventhough our seats are at row 6. However, those rear stairs provide a better overview of the museum and the military platform. From our seat we also get a glimpse of the many parked operational helicopters here. Then, it is boarding completed and due to too busy traffic over German airspace, we push back 20 minutes late for departure from runway 30.

During our pushback, we see two emergancy response vehicles speeding to the runway as well. We taxi to the threshold and hold short for the runway. We know something is coming in, but as there are no scheduled flights for the next seven hours, it could be anything. A medical diversion, a medevac flight, an emergancy landing of some sort, we do not know. So, we are patiently waiting with the camera ready for action. 

And there the action was! Suddenly, a MiG-29 comes into view for landing! That is epic! I managed to get it on camera as well! Then I realise, a MiG-29 is never alone. And I am right as not long after, a second MiG-29 shoots through my lens for landing. After the second jet has landed we turn onto the runway and perpare for our take off roll. On take off, we see the platform with now five MiG-29s and all the vehicles next to them. Then, we fly over the city of Plovdiv and we see the train station where we arrived earlier today. This was a really cool departure and we are happy that we were 20 minutes delayed! We would have missed those fighters otherwise!

The flight to Stansted is pretty uneventful. It even gets cloudy over central Europe, with the skies opening again over Maastricht (yes, the airport was visible). Eventually we end up at STN where we disembark our Ryanair and walk half a marathon to get back through security and back airside. As we still have some hours to kill, we decide to take the train to one of the terminals to get a nice vantage point. We end up spotting here and seeing a private 767 and Ryanairs only 737-700 which we only saw earlier at East Midlands earlier this year. She is now registered as SP-RUM. 

It turns out, the train at STN is a one-way train and you end up stuck at the wrong terminal if you take it when you don't have to. So, with no gate information whatsoever and our EasyJet flight back to Amsterdam being delayed, we end up harassing some airport worker to help us back to the gate where we should be. Thanks for your help madam! We know we are stupid and stubborn! However, spending four hours at the central waiting area with no apron views would kill us mentally, so we have no regrets :p . 

Eventually our EasyJet A320NEO OE-LSK turns up and with a quick turnaround and a nearly empty flight we take a short but comfortable (exit row babyyy) flight back home. Tomorrow morning we need to be back at work early again.. It was a short trip but we have seen sooo many cool and authentic things, we feel like we have been away for a week! Thanks to European Air Charter and Fraport Burgas for making this trip possible and upgrading our MD-80 experience to a next level!