Spectators gather to watch NATO warplanes taking off

Italy's Aviano air base a tourist attraction, a worry for residents

April 27, 1999|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

AVIANO, Italy -- Standing along a fence outside the Italian air base in this town, Jernej Jung and Vida Petrovcic listen for the rumble of a fighter taxiing down the runway. They crane their necks for a glimpse of the gray plane and then toss their heads back as it zooms into the sky on its bombing mission to Yugoslavia.

In this northwestern Italian town at the foot of Mount Cavallo, the NATO air war in the Balkans has become something of a tourist attraction and a topic of debate.

Day and night, the curious and the carefree gather along the fenced perimeter of the sprawling air base to watch the fire-tailed jets launching from the runways. A solitary figure, a trio of friends, a couple seated in a car, they come and go. And come again.

Jung, Petrovcic and her two sons are on vacation. Aviano was their first stop after leaving their home in Lubiana, the capital of Slovenia, less than a three-hour drive away. They lean against a wooden fence at a field that lies across a main road from the fenced perimeter of the base.

At the other end of the wooden fence stands an Italian mechanical designer, his telephoto lens in hand. Two cyclists, poised on their bikes, admire the aeronautics. Farther down the road, a man in a baseball cap stands on a chair with binoculars to his eyes.

"Watch, please watch," Jung says in his native Slovenian to Petrovcic's two sons. "Look! Look!"

Jung, a 52-year-old salesman, gasps as he videotapes an airplane streaking through the cloud-dappled sky. "I think it's an F-16," shouts 15-year-old Simon Petrovcic as the American jet banks slightly and then roars over the Italian countryside.

"We admire airplanes and we want to see them up close," explains the teen's mother, Vida, a television journalist in Slovenia, a former part of Yugoslavia that broke away in 1991 and suffered some retaliation from Belgrade.

The boys were eager to come because, as Simon put it, "We want to see the stealth." He is referring to the American F-117 Nighthawk. The sleek, bat-like Nighthawk is able to fly at low altitudes, evading enemy radar.

On this sunny Saturday afternoon, Simon and his 10-year-old brother Theodore -- and adults Jernej and Vida -- have to be content with F-16s; radar-busting, bubble-nosed Prowlers; and whatever else flies over.

They aren't disappointed.

"Two at once," Simon exclaims, as a pair of F-16s streak overhead, the air reverberating with the ear-shattering roar of the jets.

But the commentary at the fence isn't only about planes. Of the daily bombing runs over Yugoslavia, Jung says the Serbs deserve what they're getting.

"We understand Serbs," said Jung. "You must know all the Serbs are the same. They are all [President Slobodan] Milosovic."

Adds Vida Petrovcic: "We regard [this campaign] as a war for democracy. We support democracy and we think democracy should come to Serbia as well."

Ermano LoPreiato is at the fence for the second time; he forgot his camera last week. He and a co-worker, both fans of Italy's aerial acrobatic team, Frecce Tricolori, drove about 20 miles to watch the day's flights.

Now he has his 35-millimeter camera poised for a picture. "Is this a Prowler?" he asks his friend as a jet looms overhead.

Like the Petrovcics and Jung, LoPreiato loves airplanes. Unlike them, he has no interest in the Balkans war.

"I like airplanes. Only airplanes," says the 29-year-old designer. "No bombs."

Walter Panigati, on vacation with his wife, Elena, and 13-year-old son, Luca, supports the NATO strikes.

"Mr. Milosovic can't force his people out. It's not just. It's OK for the Americans to be the police of the world," said the 60-year-old retiree from Milan.

The daily pounding of Yugoslavia by NATO jets has required the American military to increase its presence in this mountain town.

The local hotels are filled with Air Force and Navy crews attached to the mission. A huge tent city has been built on the base to house the overflow. Rental cars are at a premium.

Owned by the Italians, the air base dates to 1911. Italian aviators flew from the base during World War I. In World War II, the Italians and planes of the German Luftwaffe flew from the base.

The allies' bombs devastated the base. It took several years to refurbish it. In 1954, the United States and Italy signed an agreement that designated Aviano as a NATO base. The first Americans moved here in March 1955.

Aviano's economy relies on the American military presence at the base. But the increased activity of the past month -- deafening jets roaring overhead day and night -- has rattled some residents and inconvenienced others.

For security reasons, the main road that connects the town of Aviano to the base has been closed to civilian traffic. In the initial days of the strikes, longtime political opponents of the American presence staged protests.

A handful of peace activists maintain a vigil outside the main gate of the base. Their handmade signs read, "Stop All The Massacres."

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