(Traveled on September 23, 2016)
When I learned that North Korea would be hosting its first public airshow, the Wonsan Air Festival, I did not spend much time thinking about whether to participate or not. Participating turned out to be the right choice given the photo and flying opportunities the airshow provided. Below is the first part of the report about my trip to North Korea for the airshow, detailing the journey from Beijing to Wonsan.
The Tour Begins: JS152 from Beijing to Pyongyang
The Wonsan Air Festival tour, just like most of other DPRK tours, started in Beijing. The original plan was to take a special Air Koryo charter flight at 1:00PM, however, the plan was later changed to Air Koryo’s scheduled flight, JS152, departing at 12:00PM.
When I, together with Yukihiro and some other group members, arrived at Beijing Capital’s Air Koryo check-in counters around 9:30AM, there was already a large group gathered. The area was bustling with energy and excitement with people wearing Air Koryo T-shirts, taking pictures and sharing their aviation stories.
With a bowl of beef noodles at the sole restaurant in our section of terminal 2 finished, we headed to gate 9 where the flight was about to start boarding shortly.
Just next to our gate, at gate 10, Korean Air flight KE2852 to Seoul Gimpo was boarding. The two flights, JS152 to Pyongyang and KE2852 to Seoul, appear to be regularly parked next to each other, making it one of the very rare occasions where the South and the North meet.
Since JS1515 from Pyongyang had arrived on time, by the time we got to the gate, P-633 – the airline’s sole Tupolev Tu-204-100 – was already there, almost ready for boarding.
Once the boarding commenced, it was just a quick walk down the jetway into…
…Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or at least into an aircraft registered there.
Stepping onboard the aircraft, I was welcomed by Air Koryo flight attendants in their legendary blue miniskirt uniforms, and headed down the aisle to my seat, 25A. I settled into the red leather seat – a window seat with aisle access due to the row in front only having two instead of three seats, and waited for the adventure to begin.
At 12:16PM, the aircraft was pushed back, and five minutes later the engines were started up and we started heading towards runway 36R. It took us over 30 minutes to reach the runway end during which I helped a group of “reg-spotters” read off registrations of aircraft taxiing by.
With the aircraft lined up on the runway and ATC clearance received, the two Soloviev PS90 engines spooled, and at 12:54PM, the aircraft full of enthusiasts heading to North Korea’s first international airshow lifted off.
The inflight service consisted of the infamous Air Koryo burger and a selection of drinks. Unfortunately, I didn’t finish the burger as it wasn’t to my taste, however, many people did. On the other hand, the North Korean berry soda was fairly good.
As the flight was full of like-minded people, it went by very quickly. At 2:38PM Pyongyang time, the crew announced that we would be descending shortly. Less than ten minutes later, the landing gear was lowered, and at 2:49PM we touched down on Pyongyang Sunan airport’s runway 17.
Slowing down on the runway and taxiing to our gate, we got a first glimpse of what was about to be the main attraction of the upcoming days – Soviet aircraft. At 2:53PM, we arrived at gate 2, next to Air Koryo’s Tu-134. It took some minutes until deboarding started, giving us a chance to see an An-148 arrive and the Tu-134 be towed. Once the aircraft door was opened, we stepped off the aircraft into the jetway, into DPRK.
…or at least onto North Korean soil, since still hadn’t cleared customs and immigration…
Pyongyang: The Gateway to DPRK
With ten flights for the day, the departure board at Pyongyang airport was busier than usual. Besides the Air China flight to Beijing, the only non-Air Koryo flight to DPRK, there were three Air Koryo international flights – to Beijing and Taiyuan in China, and Vladivostok in Russia. Finally, there were six flights to Galma – Wonsan Kalma airport.
Four of the flights to Wonsan were ferry flights of the aircraft to be displayed at the airshow, and two were charter flights to take us there.
After our arrival, we were handed boarding passes for the short hop to Wonsan. The three-night tour participants including me received a boarding pass for flight JS6301 operated by a Tupolev Tu-154 and departing at 4:10PM. The seating on the flight was on a “first come, first served” basis, and the name on all of the boarding passes was “WONSANAIRFESTIVAL/TU.” Participants of the longer tours were taking flight JS6201 operated by Ilyushin Il-62 and departing ten minutes before our flight, at 4:00PM.
As the immigration and customs were to be handled in Wonsan, we had some time in Pyongyang to photograph aircraft and wander around the modern departure hall. There was even an outdoor observation balcony with great views of the apron and runway!
We watched the Tu-204 that brought us in be towed away, and the Tu-154 that we were about to take be towed in. Since the aircraft was being prepared for the flight at a remote stand before, once it was towed to the gate, the flight was ready for boarding. In the meantime, the Il-62 with the long tour participants pushed back and departed.
Onboard the First Soviet Classic: Tupolev Tu-154B to Wonsan
By the time I was finished taking photos at the balcony, a queue was already formed in front of gate two since the flight was free seating, and everyone wanted to grab the best seats on the plane.
Shortly after I joined the line, boarding started. Once it was my turn, I got my boarding pass stamped by security, and then handed it to the gate agent. With the stub in my hand, I walked down the jetway from an airport opened in 2015 into P-552, a Tupolev Tu-154B made 40 years earlier, in 1976.
I walked down the aisle, enjoying my first glimpses of the 1970’s interior, and settled into 17A – a window seat offering views of the left wing and engine.
With the fairly light load, the boarding was finished quickly, and at 4:01PM – nine minutes before our scheduled time of departure – the aircraft was pushed back. Three minutes later, the three engines Kuznetsov NK-8-2U engines came to life, and our we got the first part of the Soviet engine concert that we were about to witness continually over the following couple of days. Never having flown on a classic Soviet airliner before and having only seen the “B” version of a Tu-154 in a museum, it was a surreal feeling.
With the Il-62 charter gone, and us being the next time, there was no waiting – only a short taxi to the runway, and we were ready to go to Wonsan. While we arrived in Pyongyang on runway 17, our departure to Wonsan was from runway 35, taking off at 4:11PM.
The flight was only 20 minutes long, and as such, there was no service. However, there was enough time to enjoy and explore the cabin. The seat backs that fold forwards, the seat cushions that you can lift to fit a large carry on luggage between the seats, and the thin metal tray tables resembling a MacBook Air more than a table.
At 4:31PM, we landed on Wonsan Kalma airport’s runway 15R. Five minutes later, at 4:35PM, we parked at gate 2, and all the passengers started clapping. On the apron, enthusiasts from the previous flight were already enjoying virtually unrestricted photography.
Walking off the aircraft into the jetway, rather than going straight into the terminal, we took the stairs down onto the apron and enjoyed some photography as well. Besides the Tu-154 that brought us in, we could also photograph the ferry flights arriving from Pyongyang.
Welcome to DPRK: Through Immigration & Customs Into the Children’s Camp
As the darkness started to set in, we brought the photo session to an end, and proceeded into the terminal. It was hard to believe that at that point, with so many memories already made, we have still not “officially” entered the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The immigration was cleared within minutes. The customs, on the other hand, took over an hour, since cameras and phones, among other things, had to be taken out and inspected. Even so, however, the process was very smooth, and the officers very friendly. One of them even started laughing when the person in front of me took out a 500 mm prime out of his bag. Needless to say, the lens entered the country without any issues.
Once through the customs, I found one of my group’s three guides – holding a KN Aviation sign, and so I joined him, and waited for the rest of the group to arrive.
Within minutes, everyone from our group, as our two other guides got all together, and we got onto a bus to Songdowon International Children’s Camp – our hotel for the next three nights.
A brief introduction to the Korean Peninsula and the DPRK and fifteen slightly bumpy minutes later, we arrived at the hotel and were welcomed by statues of the Leaders in front of the hotel.
Inside, we were welcomed by, unexpectedly, Mickey Mouse and his friends that were decorating the lobby walls.
We received our room keys, dropped off our bags, giggled at the room design – it really was designed for children, and shortly afterwards reunited in the lobby with the guides to take a closer look at the statue of the Leaders.
Back inside the hotel, we had a dinner in the hotel cafeteria. I found it hard to find food fitting my taste in the buffet area, however, somehow I managed to get my stomach filled.
After the dinner, we met with our guides one last time for the day, and were offered the possibility to visit the hotel’s aquarium, pool, or one of the other numerous facilities. Since it was after ten already, and we had a 6:30AM start the next day, we politely declined, and headed into our rooms full of expectations about the next day.