Pyongyang Microlighting Club

Thursday 29th September 2016

2016 did not just see the first ever air show to take place in North Korea. In June the newly-formed Mirim Aviation Club opened its doors to budding pilots and curious visitors alike with a whole fleet of Korean-designed and built microlights. In October 2016 the first international tour group visited the Club with some members of the group even taking pleasure flights in the machines with Korean pilots.

Sam Wise took part in this inaugural visit and reports for UK Airshow Review. Aerial photographs by Matthew McDadd.

The group’s visit to the Club was only arranged the night before, after news that the Demilitarised Zone had been closed to tourists and thus our day’s activities were up in the air. Smart thinking and excellent organising by the tour managers meant that the following morning we got off our coach at the Mirim Aviation Club in Sadong District, Pyongyang to visit the newest aviation activity in the DPRK. The Club, and its hugely impressive airstrip building (you’ll struggle to find such a grand edifice at many equivalent aerodromes in the UK!), only opened on the 28th of July that year after the country’s leader Kim Jong-Un had given instruction to form the club. Its aim, according to the club’s vice-manager who accompanied the tour group with great interest, is to recruit people to be pilots and teach them to fly, and it hopes to achieve this with the country’s first ever microlight. Designed entirely by North Korean aircraft engineers and constructed in the country, the Kulbeol (Honeybee) microlight can carry a pilot and up to two (light) passengers. The vice-manager commented that the all-Korean nature of the aircraft is an expression of the country’s self-reliance and the locals were entertained by the reply that “it is the microlight of the Juche Idea”!

Those passengers that do take the plunge are offered a range of different sightseeing tours across the city and surrounding countryside, taking in many of the epic landmarks dotted around Pyongyang, lasting around thirty to forty minutes - or for a cheaper option a five-minute circuit flight is available. While our tour group was, naturally, the centre of attention for the staff, it was not just the foreign visitors taking flights; in fact at least two Korean and guests visited and flew at the club while we were there, and quite a few locals came and went throughout the visit, being shown the aircraft and operations or simply watching affairs. The staff informed us that the Club sees around 10 flights or so a day, using their fleet of around thirty aircraft. If interest is strong enough they are very open to building more of the microlights - especially if foreign tourists are keen. In fact, the importance of the group's visit was obvious as those that had flown were asked to sign the visitors geustbook.

The impressive terminal-style building was visibly very new, and was perhaps surprisingly large for what was a fairly small-scale operation, but true to aviation fashion included a fully-stocked bar and café area, and even a gift shop selling remote control MiG-29 toys! The facilities inside for the pilots and passengers were very modern, with all those taking to the air having to put on an...interesting shell suit as well as a helmet. Furthermore, visitors not taking a flight were able to use the building’s viewing platform to watch the airfield operations with a drink or two. Initially the Koreans had been against any kind of recording for those going up in the microlights - the reason was immediately obvious as there were military installations right next to the airstrip - but eventually relented and allowed the passengers to bring their smartphones up on their flights to photograph and video the experience. In doing so, they might just have become the very first westerners to take images from the skies above the North Korean capital, and came away with some of the most astonishing experiences to be had.

They reported that the flights were extremely comfortable - helped no doubt by the superb weather on the day - and that the pilots came across as highly competent with their craft. Those that went on the city tour also flew in formation for the duration of the flight - weight limitations meant that they had to travel in separate aircraft though it is able to take two. Feedback from the group led to the vice-manager suggesting the possibility of a new design for the future that might be able to carry more weight, with the North Koreans tending to be smaller and lighter than the average westerner. For those intrigued by the idea and wishing to take a flight themselves, the Club seem confident that they will participate at Wonsan International Air Festival 2017, offering flights to the tourists there too.