Earlier this year Sonya and I started to see mention on the internet of the Wonsan Air Festival, the first ever air show to be held in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), otherwise known as North Korea. Needless to say, both of us were intrigued and we decided to take a leap of faith and sign up for a trip to the DPRK with 4Aviation, an aviation tour group based in the Netherlands. The thought of seeing ultra-rare and ultra-shy DPRK military hardware, as well as the Air Koryo fleet, not to mention having the opportunity to fly in some of these types, was too good an opportunity to miss.
Air Koryo Ilyushin Il-62M, our ride from Pyongyang to Wonsan
Moving forward to Friday 23rd September, the day before the Air Festival, where we find ourselves touching down at Wonsan Kalma International Airport, taxying to the terminal in our classic Soviet-era Ilyushin Il-62 jetliner with our faces glued to the windows as we pass the shelters containing Korean People's Army Air Force (KPAAF) MiG-29 Fulcrums, Su-25 Frogfoots & MiG-21 Fishbeds... We're here, and so are the aircraft... this show is really going to happen.
Unexpectedly, the action started as soon as we get to our parking stand as we were allowed to disembark the aircraft straight on to the ramp and photograph the various Air Koryo aircraft that were arriving after us. Never before have we been allowed to get straight off a commercial flight at an international airport and be allowed to move freely on the ramp taking pictures... Things were certainly looking promising for the air show proper.
The Wonsan Air Festival was run over a weekend, with Saturday being the day for air displays by both Air Koryo and KPAAF aircraft, while Sunday was a day for pleasure flying in various aircraft from the Air Koryo fleet (all types apart from the An-148 and Tu-204 were present), along with flights in the Mil-8, Mil-17 & An-2 aircraft of the KPAAF.
Approximately fifteen thousand local people, along with roughly 200 foreigners, attended the show on both days, and just like at any air show around the world, beer, food and other concession stalls were available. Both groups were allowed to mix freely, we interacted as best we could given the language barrier, with numerous mixed group photos and selfies being taken.
The airshow opened on Saturday with a speech by Yun Yong Sok, Vice Director General of the General Bureau for State Economic Development of the Ministry of Foreign Trade, followed by David Thomson-Rowlands of Juche Travel Services (JTS), David is also Honorary Vice-Chairman of the Preparatory Committee of the festival. JTS have been organising aviation enthusiast's trips to the DPRK since 2012, and since making their initial suggestion, it has taken David, JTS and their DPRK partners three years to get this Air Festival up and running.
Highlight of the morning flying display, a KPAAF MiG-29
The flying display was split into two sessions, morning and afternoon, with a break in between for lunch. For the morning session we were located on the East side of the roughly North / South runway as this is where the main crowd area & concessions were located, but after lunch, if we wished, we could go to the West side (the terminal side) of the runway to follow the sun. I can't recall being at any air show where we were allowed to cross the runway to follow the sun, this was another first.
The morning flying display was an alternating military / civil one, a solo KPAAF MD-500 opened the show, followed by the sole Air Koryo Il-18, which was followed in succession by a MiG-29, Tu-134, Su-25, and Tu-154, with a formation of four MD-500's bringing the morning session to a close. While the Air Koryo types flew wide orbits, the KPAAF displays weren't too shy about flying close to, and at times, over the crowd.
While it was nice to see, and hear, the Tu-134, Tu-154 and Il-18 of Air Koryo flying, the most significant aspect of the morning session was the first ever public appearance of the KPAAF MD-500, MiG-29 and Su-25 in a flying display, never mind being on static display. Once the MD-500's landed it was time for lunch, but more importantly, it was also time to follow the sun and swap sides of the runway.
The afternoon session kicked off with a pair of light aircraft flypasts, including a PAC P-750 XSTOL which had no markings except for the DPRK flag on its tail. The next few items flying were the IL-62, An-24 and Il-76 of Air Koryo, along with a VIP configured Mil-17 of the KPAAF. As the afternoon displays didn't consist of alternating civil-military flights like the morning displays did, we were starting to get a bit anxious that MiG-21's still hadn't put in an appearance, but then, jet noise from the direction of the shelters where the fighters were parked got everyone twitching, and after a few minutes three Su-25's taxied out... Things were starting to shape up.
KPAAF Su-25 taxis for its display
The Su-25's departed and flew a formation display, and it was during their display that someone shouted "the MiG's are coming". Cue much excitement amongst the assembled photographers, but then a problem arose: What do you photograph, is it the first ever public formation display by three KPAAF Su-25's, or the pair of KPAAF MiG-21's that were about to taxi past? As it turned out, we shot both, thanks to the Su-25s giving us a few minutes alone with the MiGs while they taxied past.
The Su-25s landed, cleared the runway, and then it was the turn of the MiG-21s... they lined up, ready to launch.
While Sonya and I have seen MiG-29s and Su-25s flying before, live MiG-21s from any nation have been pretty rare sight in front of our cameras, so it was nice to see a pair lining up for their display, the cherry on the cake being the fact that they're KPAAF jets and this is their first ever public air display.
An interesting aspect regarding the MiG-21 display is that both aircraft were flown by female pilots. Jo Kum Hyang "Phoenix" and Rim Sol, are the KPAAF's first female fighter jet pilots, and were described by Kim Jong-un during a previous base visit as "Heroes of Korea" and "Flowers of the Sky", and he gave Jo the nickname "Phoenix" on account of her flying skills.
While the MiG-21 display didn't involve much in the way of aerobatics, it was still nice to see a pair of these sleek jets zipping through the sky in front of our cameras, something that I think we all weren't really sure would happen, but happen it did. Day 1 of the Wonsan Air Festival was brought to a close when the MiG-21s landed, after that it was time for food, followed by a Song and Dance show performed by Kangwon Province Art Troupe.
Video - KCTV report on the Wonsan Air Festival, we put in a cameo appearance at 1:14
Sunday, Day 2 of the festival, would consist solely of pleasure flights in the Air Koryo aircraft (An-24, Il-18, Il-62, Il-76, Tu-134 & Tu-154), as well as the KPAAF An-2, Mil-8 & Mil-17. Full access was given to the west side of the airfield to photograph these aircraft as they came and went, the opportunity was also given to photograph one example of the MiG-21, MiG-29, Su-25 & MD-500 that were pulled close to the terminal and put on static display.
Once all the flying finished we crossed the runway to the east side for the closing ceremony. While we waited for the ceremony to start, we had one more opportunity to visit the stalls and mix with the locals. Everyone was very friendly, lots of waves and smiles, with more than a few selfies being taken along the way, at the request of the locals I might add. While language was a barrier, there is always a way around it, a smile and a nod still goes a long way.
There were so many firsts this weekend. This was the first time for the DPRK to hold a public air show, it was their first time to allow photography of military aircraft, and according to fellow travellers who have been here before, this was the first time foreigners have been allowed to mix with local people completely unsupervised.
A big Thank You goes to... Juche Travel Services, who worked tirelessly with their DPRK partners to make this air festival a reality, as well as 4Aviation, one of the official travel partners for the event, who got us there and back in one piece.