(Traveled on September 25, 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. The third part of the report looks at the second day of the airshow which included skydiving and RC displays, and most importantly, pleasure flights on a variety of Air Koryo’s classic Soviet airliners.
Air Koryo Planes, Skydiving and RC Planes
On the second day of the airshow, we headed straight to the airport where we had a chance to photograph the Air Koryo aircraft on the ramp before the official beginning of the airshow once again.
This time, even a bus to the distant cargo ramp was arranged so that we could see and photograph the Il-76 up close.
The actual airshow begun a bit later on the other side of the runway with a number of skydiving formations jumping off KPA’s Mil Mi-8 helicopters. The show was opened by a skydiver carrying the North Korean flag followed by another one with a flag of the Korean Worker’s party.
Some more formations, including what was described by the moderator as a “happy parachutist couple with a five-year old daughter – a future gold parachutist,” followed before the skies were handed over to the Pyongyang Air Club.
The members of the club performed an impressive RC aircraft display with a variety of aircraft including an American F-16.
Finally, after the model aircraft, tandem jumps of North Korean jumpers together with a number of brave foreign visitors had the crowd looking into the skies before a move back to the terminal side of the airport.
Korean People’s Army Static Display
Once we crossed the runway, military enthusiasts could jump with joy, as the Korean People’s Army air force aircraft were ready on a static display.
Initially, the guides were mentioning that we could only see the aircraft from a five-meter distance, and the aircraft windows were covered.
As the crowd begun to make their way to the static display area, the air force personnel started to loosen up, and before we knew it, the aircraft windows were uncovered, and people were walking right next to the aircraft, even touching them.
The attention was spread across the displayed types fairly evenly until the “flowers of the sky” made their appearance next to the displayed MiG-21. They were instantly surrounded by tens of photographers and journalist, each of whom wanted to get their best shot of the skilled pilots.
Just as the crowd around the two ladies was starting to disperse, it was time for me to head over to the terminal area to start with my pleasure flights.
Korean People’s Army and Air Koryo Pleasure Flights
A spectacular array of types, majority of which are extremely difficult or impossible to fly on elsewhere, was offered. The aircraft available were the whole Air Koryo classic airliner fleet – An-24, Il-18, Il-62, Il-76, Tu-134, Tu-154; Mi-8, Mi-17 and Y-5 (Chinese version of An-2) of the Koren People’s Army air force; as well as the two light aircraft – P-750 and Alpi Pioneer 400. Participants could choose which flights they wanted to take, and during their off-time, they could wander around the apron and photograph the aircraft movements.
Having never flown on any of the major Soviet types before, I decided to take all of the Air Koryo flights except for the Tu-154 which operated the short hop from Pyongyang to Wonsan. To make things a bit more interesting, I also added the KPA air force Mi-17.
As I was walking towards my first flight of the day, the first Y-5 flight was taxiing for departure.
The first flight of the day for me was the Mi-17 at 11:30AM. Even though my main focus are airliners, it was a great experience to spend some, surprisingly stable, minutes in the “flying tank.”
Once onboard, I chose one of the two swiveling seats next to the table. There were two pairs of ear protectors on the table as well, but that was not why we were there – we were there for the experience which included the noise.
The helicopter took off at 11:22AM directly from its parking spot, and we were back on the ground at 11:49AM – just in time to catch the next flight.
Next was the Il-62 flight with scheduled departure time of 1230hrs. From then on, with the 30 minute flights happening in 50 minute intervals, it was a very busy rest of the day.
Since all of the joyrides were free seating, on the Il-62, I first grabbed a business class seat with a tray table from real wood in the front of the aircraft. Later during the flight, I moved into the back section to be able to enjoy a view of the wing and engines during landing.
The flight left the parking spot six minutes before the scheduled departure time, took off at 12:24PM, and arrived back at the stand at 12:57PM.
As the departure of the next flight, the Il-76, was only 20 minutes away, the people who were “transferring” from the Il-62 were bussed directly to the aircraft.
The Il-76 flight lasting from 1:19PM to 1:46PM was by far my favorite ride of the day. Boarding the windowless plane using a metal ladder, the metal seats along the sides of the aircraft, and the large dance floor-like cabin all made the experience something that one cannot have on a regular passenger flight.
During the flight, the pilot even managed to fly in a way that it felt like climbing stairs when one walked from the back of the aircraft to the front.
With the Il-76 flight over, I finally had some time for a lunch as I was skipping the Tu-154 flight that was up next. The restaurant buffet was closed by then, but luckily our very friendly guide arranged a lunch box for me.
The lunch break was very short, since in about 30 minutes, it was time to board another aircraft, the An-24.
There were about 30 passengers onboard and by the time it was my turn to pick a seat, only a “windowless window” seat was empty. That was not a problem, however, as shortly after the 1458hrs take-off, the passengers started switching seats and everybody had a chance to look out of the window.
Upon our landing at 1525hrs, we were both sad to be leaving the 1975 aircraft, and happy to be leaving the extremely hot cabin and getting some fresh air.
A flight on the oldest of the aircraft, the Il-18 manufactured in 1968, followed. At 3:40PM, engine no. 2 was started up, followed by no. 3, 1, and 4. The whole process took a bit more than five minutes, and at 15:47PM, we taxied out. The flight took off four minutes later.
Upon finishing its loop, the Il-18 flight landed back at 4:17PM and parked in the middle of the taxiway six minutes later. A quick visit to the cockpit followed before being ushered onto a bus to the Tu-134, my last ride of the day, which was scheduled to depart less than 20 minutes later.
As the Tu-134 had to carry domestic tourists back to Pyongyang after our flight, we were rushed onto the plane, and we taxied out at 4:44PM, four minutes past the scheduled departure time.
On the last flight of the day, just like with the rest of the pleasure flights I took, after departure, we headed east over the sea before making a loop and returning to the airport.
At 5:12PM, the Tu-134 touched down, and five minutes later, we arrived at the parking spot being able to enjoy a view of the sunset, the wing, the engine, and an Il-62 parked next to us before bidding the aircraft a farewell.
The End of Wonsan Air Festival 2016
With the last flight of the day done, we watched the Il-76 depart back to Pyongyang before performing the ritual – crossing the runway – to attend the closing ceremony.
Speeches by the festival’s organizer were given once again, and the airshow was over. We crossed the runway one last time, and after a brief night shooting session of the Tu-154 and An-24, we left the airport.
With the airshow over, we headed to the Wonsan central square to see a mass dance. The more confident participants could also join the group of over 1,000 people and dance with the locals. Instead of dancing, together with Yukihiro, we decided to go to the very center of a couple of circles of all the people dancing to get the best possible view – quite an interesting feeling.
After the dance, we had a farewell dinner in a banquet hall before retreating to our beloved hotel, I mean children’s camp, for one last night.