(Traveled on September 24, 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. In the second part of the report, I take a close look at the second day of the tour, the first day of the airshow.
A Quick Visit to Wonsan’s Central Square
Since the plan was to leave the hotel at 7:00AM, the alarm rang at 6:15AM. Still half asleep we went down into the hotel cafeteria to grab a quick breakfast. Unfortunately, once again, the food didn’t fit my preferences too well, and so after 10 minutes, I was done with the meal.
The KN Aviation group of 16 people met up in the lobby with the three guides that were taking care of us throughout the trip, and we were driven to Wonsan’s central square.
After all the groups arrived, we gathered and walked over to the statue of the Leaders where flowers were presented by the festival organizers before heading back to the buses and driving over to the airport.
Morning on the Ramp
Once we cleared the airport security, the fun could begin.
In the morning, all the Air Koryo aircraft except for the Ilyushin Il-76 were on static display in front of the terminal where we could see them up close, photograph them freely, and even touch them.
After about 30 minutes of photography, we walked across the runways to the other side of the airfield, the official location of the airshow. Simultaneously, thousands of local people started arriving. In fact, reports say there were over 15,000 local people, making it one of the largest events in the DPRK ever where the locals could mingle with foreigners.
The Airshow Officially Begins
With everyone ready on the east side of the airport, the airshow could officially begin. At 10AM, the opening ceremony started with a speech from Yun Yong Sok, the First Vice-Chairman of the Wonsan Air Festival preparatory committee. It was followed by a couple of words from David Thomson-Rowlands, the president of Juche Travel Services and an Honorary Vice-Charman of the preparatory committee.
Once the speeches were over, the crowd was ready for some aviation action. The first aircraft to awe the spectators was a Hughes 500 helicopter of the North Korean army performing a spectacular aerobatics display.
In the meantime, the civil aviation enthusiasts were getting excited as the four Ivchenko AI-20 engines of Air Koryo’s Ilyushin Il-18 (P-835) were coming to life, one after another. The Il-18 took off at 10:25AM, and from there on, it was flying display after flying display filling the entire morning.
The displays were happening at just the right pace, with an aircraft taxiing for departure while another one was performing, and taking off right after the previous display’s end. With altering between civil and military displays, the organizers ensured that the program was well-balanced and that both sides of the enthusiasts’ spectrum were kept busy throughout the day.
After the fifteen-minute-long display by the Il-18, it was time for a Mig-29 of the North Korean air force to perform a breathtaking display. Performing a number of passes, including passes over the audience, the excitement grew as the enthusiasts were enjoying displays that would not be allowed in many other countries.
The next aircraft to perform was Air Koryo’s Tupolev Tu-134B-3 (P-814). In a bit less than fifteen minutes, the aircraft performed a loop around the airport and landed back on the dusty runway.
With the Tu-134 back on the ground, it was the military’s turn again. This time, a Sukhoi Su-25 performed a ten-minutes solo display before landing back at the airport and slowing down using a parachute.
The final airliner display of the morning followed when Air Koryo’s Tupolev Tu-154B (P-552) took off at 11:53AM. After doing a fairly low pass over the crowd, it landed, giving space for the last flying display of the morning.
Four Hughes 500 helicopters and their breathtaking aerobatics had the honor of being the last performers of the first part of the day. Even though I am not a big helicopter and military fan, some of the stunts were mesmerizing – especially when two pairs of helicopters passed each other head on at full speed.
Once the performance was over and the runway cleared, we crossed it on foot once again to have a lunch in the terminal restaurant. The local people stayed on the east side, enjoying food and drinks from the stalls at the airshow.
The Afternoon Displays
After the fairly tasty and filling lunch buffet, rather than returning to the east side where the rest of the attendees was, we were allowed to stay on the west side to photograph aircraft with the sun behind us. What a great understanding of our hobby by the authorities and organizers.
While some people wandered around the apron, large number of us sat down on the grass next to the taxiway, and waited for the afternoon displays to begin.
The first aircraft to do a couple of fly-pasts was PAC P-750 XSTOL aircraft wearing an all-white livery, carrying the North Korean flag on its tail, and not having any registration. It was followed by another “mysterious,” unmarked light aircraft – Alpi Pioneer 400.
After the New Zealand and Italian light aircraft, it was time for Soviet heavy metal again. With the two Tupolevs and the Il-18 having flown already in the morning, next up was the Ilyushin Il-62 (P-885).
After performing a low pass over the runway, the Il-62 gave space to the next aircraft, the Antonov An-24 (P-537).
Next up was Mil-17 of the North Korean air force, before the last airliner of the line-up – Ilyushin Il-76 (P-913) took-off for its low pass.
The flying displays were concluded with two formation displays – firstly by three Su-25s, followed by a pair of Mig-21s.
Once the Mig-21 engines started roaring as the aircraft taxied for take-off, the military enthusiasts chatter and excitement grew louder. Without a doubt it was the highlight for a large percentage of them. …and rightfully so, since the two female pilots dubbed the “flowers of the sky” by Kim Jong-Un performed a spectacular show.
With the “flowers of the sky” on the ground again, and the flying displays over, we crossed the runway once again to attend the charity raffle and to mingle among the locals a bit more before meeting up with our guides and heading back into the bus.
Kangwon Province Art Troupe’s Performance
By the time the airshow was finished, it was already dinner time. As such, we drove directly to a local seafood restaurant where we enjoyed a fairly tasty course meal.
After the meal, being very tired, we reluctantly went to a live performance. However, the performance by Kangwon Province Art Troupe was so impressive that have we not gone there, we would have missed out on one of the best parts of the festival! Performance after performance of fine North Korean art, each one better than the previous one.
The performance lasted until about half past ten, and as such, after getting to the hotel, it was almost time to sleep. Another early morning, and a day full of flying was awaiting us!