The Cold War was a crazy time in the United States. Kids were taught to duck and cover beneath desks in case of nuclear war, NASA was given a near-blank check to get to the moon, and America invested so heavily in defense that the piles of money alone could have served as cover in one hell of a firefight. But if you think the U.S. took the Cold War seriously, you should see how Albania’s Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha prepared his nation.
Although his small European nation boasts roughly the same area as the state of Massachusetts, Hoxha oversaw the construction of more than 170,000 underground bunkers and 7,000 additional large-scale underground facilities. Some of these facilities, like Gjadër Air Base, were built into the sides of mountains, ensuring they could survive just about any conventional, or even nuclear, attack the West may have thrown at it.
Just how big is the Gjadër installation? Big enough to house more than 50 fighter jets that could be rolled out and scrambled at the dictator’s whim. Today, decades after the fall of communism in Albania, those fighters are still there, deep inside 2,000 feet of tunnels bored into the side of a mountain. These aircraft haven’t been maintained in decades, making the cave into a graveyard of sorts for the Russian- and Chinese-sourced fighters.
Among the 50 or so fighters still housed within the sprawling cave complex are Mig-17s and Mig-19s dating back to the Vietnam era, as well as Chinese F-7As—which, much like many of China’s fighters today, were actually based on the Russian Mig-21. Technically, these aircraft have been on sale since 2016, though legislative red-tape has consistently hampered sales. An auction held that same year reportedly raised $485,000 for the full suite of jets, but those sales never came to fruition. Today, most of these aircraft are already spoken for by aviation enthusiasts, flight schools, and museums that were eager to get their names on the waiting list.
The base itself was overrun by looters a bit more than 20 years ago, making what was once a facility capable of storing, refueling, maintaining, and arming these fighters into the decrepit cave it is today. With no effort made to maintain the facilities or the aircraft since, it changed from a capable military installation to an airplane nerd’s favorite kind of haunted house faster than most Americans can find Albania on a map.
Today, there still seems to be little movement on the sales of these aircraft, perhaps in part because the nation—now a NATO ally—isn’t eager to remind the world of their former Soviet ties. Some, however, think the base could find new life under Albania’s current government.
“The base could serve as a museum, but with its modern infrastructure, its tunnel system, it can be functional again and serve NATO,” says the base’s current commander, Fatmir Danaj.
Featured image: TOPSHOT – Albanian military personnel walk next to MIG-19 jet fighters inside the main tunnel of the Gjader Air Base built near the city of Lezhe, on February 5, 2019. – On a barren hillside in northern Albania lies a portal to the country’s communist past: a massive steel door creaks open to reveal a hidden former air base burrowed into the heart of the mountain. Made up of 600 metres (1,980 feet) of tunnels that once teemed with military life, the secret Gjader air base is now a depot for dozens of hulking communist-era MiG jets collecting dust in the darkness. Three decades after shedding communism, Albanian authorities are still trying to sell off the Soviet and Chinese-made aircraft, of which there are dozens more in another nearby air base. (Photo by Gent SHKULLAKU / AFP) (Photo credit should read GENT SHKULLAKU/AFP/Getty Images)