The dream of flying took over hearts and minds on the outskirts of Prilep more than 100 years ago. During the Great War, when the battle on the Macedonian Front raged, the first aeroplanes appeared in a dust airfield near Malo Konjari, four kilometres from the city. The airstrip became a proper airfield in Yugoslavia when a local air club converted flying from almost a utopia into a favourite pastime activity.
Dimko Spirkovski, 70 years old, was there when this happened. And has been around during the many stages of the particular life of Malo Konjari airstrip. He was there when he learned to fly in the sixties and the golden years, the “rumbling” seventies. He was also there when everything started crumbling and when the airfield ceased to exist for 20 years.
Thankfully, the story doesn’t end there. Recently, an initiative of local air pioneers, headed by Dimko and Gjorgji Mancheski, an economy professor at the local University, gathered enough resources to fully renovate the airfield.
And now, thanks to the Western Balkans Fund intervention, the Malo Konjari airstrip is becoming a hub of large-scale friendship and reconciliation.
In September, during a 3-days event, 46 participants from Serbia, Kosovo*, Bosnia and Hercegovina, Albania and North Madeconia flew side by side in the framework of the “Bird’s Perspective from Balkan Clean Sky” project. The project was implemented by SkyRiders Prilep in partnership with Fly Dardania, Aero Club Nasa Krila Paracin and Center for Innovation and Development Inos Prilep. Some hundred people also attended the air show.
Mister Spirkovski. Tell us something more about yourself.
Dimko Spirkovski, SkyRiders Prilep – I am a professional pilot and instructor for small aeroplanes and gliders. I have flown over 12 planes since I was very young. Prilep is a small city, but with an unbelievable amount of love for aviation. More than sixty or seventy citizens of Prilep fly regularly.
What is the story behind this strong relations bond between Prilep and the sky?
Several of us were in the army as pilots. At the end of each year, the government gave us for free a ton of gasoline to fly for training. Some of it was used for personal purposes (laughs), but what was left was enough to fly for leisure with small planes and gliders in Malo Konjari. It was a very good time for sports and aviation. On top of that, the state directly funded the air clubs in many other ways.
What kind of military planes did you fly?
Kraguj, a very interesting propeller Yugoslavian-made airplane (Explanation: The Soko J-20 Kraguj (Sparrowhawk) is a light military, single-engine, low-wing single-seat aircraft with a metal airframe, capable of performing close air support, counterinsurgency (COIN), and reconnaissance missions, that was designed by VTI and manufactured by SOKO of Yugoslavia, first flown in 1962).
What happened next?
I moved to Switzerland for 10 years in the eighties, and when I returned back, everything had fallen into disrepair. After independence, in North Macedonia, they (the authorities) closed all the clubs, in total five aero clubs, saying that they required a lot of money to function. Instead, the state tried to form an Academy. In my opinion, the problem is that to have a proper academy, you need to have more than just a school. Flying is something that you learn when you are young. At University, it is already too late. It doesn’t work like any other business.
Is this why some of the participants of this project funded by the Western Balkans Fund are only teenagers?
Exactly. I like what you are doing very much. Imagine 40 young people from all around the Western Balkans are here. And each of them makes flying interesting to many others. In turn, some of them begin to follow our activities or fly, generating even more interest. It is about time for young people to make it interesting for others. In my time, we thought we had it all. When I moved to Switzerland, I realised that what we had was only basic. However, for 30 years, we lost even that. Now, to me, it is so beautiful to see all this bunch of youngsters flying with gliders again.
Can this project have a continuation?
Absolutely yes. It can expand much more. This is only the first good step.
Someone was suggesting creating a proper flying tour. From, let’s say, Prilep to Kumanovo-Vranje-Pristina-Albania or Montenegro…
Absolutely, it will be very nice to do that. When I was young (laughs), I did all of that, reaching Slovenia without GPS or any other device. Only compass and map. Now, it will be much easier.
Do you have a long-term strategy to make this vision work?
It is very important to have an aero club like this in Prilep as a role model. To have small planes and gliders who fly frequently. And we also need to form new pilots because my generation will not be able to fly for decades to come. The youngster should take over, as it is expected in any field.
Last question. How much time It takes to receive the license to fly gliders?
It used to be 40-50 flying cycles. Now, it is more complicated. You have to catch the command and never to do any mistakes. However, I remember I have made many mistakes at first, and here I am (laughs). But, after all, it’s a good thing.
Thank you very much for your time.
Thank you for helping us by supporting this project. The community here is amazed about this air show, and I look forward to taking this work to the next level.
*This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSCR 1244 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo Declaration of Independence.