Russian Federation Air Force 100th Anniversary Display Report

Friday 10th August - Sunday 12th August 2012

Following the excellent Air Show Türkiye held at İzmir-Çiğli last year celebrating 100 years of the Turkish Air Force, this years 'must do' event on the airshow calendar had to be the Russian Federation Air Force (VVS) 100th Anniversary display at Zhukovsky outside Moscow. Could it live up to the high expectations?

Ian Matthews reports from Zhukovsky. Photos by the author and Mark Meades.

As the August show date got nearer it was still unclear whether the event would actually be open to the public. Two weeks before the display a website appeared requiring visitors to register in order to obtain an invitation. The registration page didn't accept foreign passport numbers! Panic ensued on the UKAR forum as members who'd already booked flights worried about obtaining the necessary invitations but luckily an email link for overseas visitors appeared which remedied the situation.

The celebratory event itself was actually three days in duration. The Friday was a rehearsals day, Saturday a VIP event behind closed doors and Sunday was the main public day. The police tolerated the general public and photographers outside the base on Saturday which afforded good viewing opportunities with the sun behind you. Apart from a few showers on the Saturday, the show days were blessed with warm sunny weather and light cloud cover.

On clearing a security check at the entrance to Zhukovsky airfield, there was a static display of current types in the VVS inventory Il-76, A-50, Tu-95, Tu-160 and An-140 represented the larger types whilst Yak-130, Su-25, Su-27, Su-30, Su-34, Su-35, MiG-29 and MiG-31 completed the fighter line-up. The helicopter park was equally impressive; Ansat, Mi-8, Mi-26, Mi-35, Mi-28 and Ka-52 all looking very smart in their dark grey schemes. A MiG-3 and Po-2 added some historical contrast but the 5ft fence around all the parked aircraft sadly hampered any decent photographic opportunities.

The flying display started at 10.45am with parachutists descending upon Zhukovsky displaying the Russian Federation flag, those of the Russian Defense Ministry and the flags of the Air Force. In a fantastic tribute to 100 years of the VVS, six Su-25s trailing white, blue and red smoke displayed the national colours of the Russian Federation followed closely behind by five Su-27s, eight MiG-29s and eight Su-25s which swept across the airfield in an immaculate '100' formation. The crowd proudly rose to their feet in appreciation of this masterpiece of aerial choreography - this was just a taste of things to come.

The next section of the display was named 'World Legends of Aviation' and contained various historic types such as Bleriot, Tummelisa, Po-2, TBM Avenger, F-4U Corsair, Catalina, C-47, Yak-3, Yak-9, Yak-11, MiG-3, Polikarpov I-15, Hurricane, B-25 Mitchell, Harvard, P-40 Kittyhawk and P-51 Mustang. Most of these examples had flown in from collections in Europe, with the most noteworthy being a sprightly routine by a silver MiG-15UTI. This line-up of flying legends varied for each of the show days.

The purr of vintage engines was shattered by the sound of afterburners as the awesome Su-35 from the Sukhoi OKB took off and pulled straight into a vertical climb. Resplendent in its unique lizard splinter scheme, the super 'Flanker' put on a dazzling exhibition of unrivalled manoeuvrability thanks to its NPO Saturn 117S thrust-vectoring engines. The controlled spiral decent in a 'flat spin' being particularly impressive.

The crowd were treated to aerobatics by solo Su-31, 'Team Russ' flying the L-39 Albatros jet trainer and the only Russian professional piston (Yak-52/54) aerobatic team 'First Flight'. Visiting display acts included The Red Arrows, the Finnish Midnight Hawks, Polish Team Iskra and the Frecce Tricolori from Italy. The Reds flew with a unique line-up of only six aircraft as one of their team members had to return to the UK due to family illness. Scampton's finest went down a storm with the crowd due to their ability to reverse the normal order of their smoke colours to form the white, blue and red of the Russian flag.

At Zhukovsky, the 20th Anniversary of another unique outfit, the Berkut (Golden Eagles) helicopter display team was being celebrated. Having previously flown the Mi-24V Hind-E gunship, the team had recently converted to the fearsome Mi-28N two-seat anti-armour attack helicopter as their display mount. The display comprised of a six ship formation which then split into a diamond of four helicopters for some dynamic manoeuvres. The 'Havoc' display was later matched by solo Mi-2 and Ka-52 routines. The distinctive coaxial rotor design of the Kamov 'Alligator' proved particularly agile even with its side-mounted cannon and six wing-mounted hard points.

The long range bomber flypast from the bases at Engels and Chaikovka was one of the most eagerly anticipated parts of the centenary celebration. The unique formation of three Tu-22s, three Tu-95s and three Tu-160s was truly a sight to behold amplified by the wonderful sound of the twelve Kuznetsov NK-12M turboprops of the 'Bear' bombers. The transport aircraft flypast was also exceptional, comprising three An-2s, An-26, An-140, An-12, An-22 and a familiar sight in UK skies, an An-124.

The only visiting modern fighter aircraft in the flying display was a French Air Force Rafale C which made a nice change from all the noisy, smokey MiGs ! The Rafale had only just touched down when the next flypast formation was seen in the distance. More Russan transport assets from the nearby base at Chkalovsky performed their tribute; Let-410, Tu-134UBK, three Il-76s plus an ultra rare Il-80VKP airborne command & control aircraft leading a Beriev A-50 AWACS.

One of my personal highlights of the show was the opportunity to see a flying MiG-31 'Foxhound'. I was not to be disappointed by the next group of flypast participants. From their bases at Borisoglebsk, Lipetsk, Savasleyka and Voronezh respectively were four Yak-130s, four Su-24s, four MiG-31s and four Su-34s. All those 'Fencers', 'Foxhounds' and 'Fullbacks' sure put a smile on my face and really made the trip from the UK worthwhile.

There was barely enough time to catch my breath before the sound of rotors could be heard. An enormous Mi-26 heavy transport helicopter appeared flanked by four Mi-8s. A pair of Mi-35s then led three Kazan Ansat utility helicopters used for military flying training. Suddenly the silence was broken by the arrival of four MiG-29s from Astrachan intent on a dogfight. Flying the 'Fulcrum-A' variant of this air superiority fighter, they promptly split into pairs and performed a mock air battle in front of the audience.

More black smoke on the horizon heralded the approach of another fighter formation. This time it was the turn of the Lipetsk wing to amaze the crowd. Four Su-27s, four Su-34s and two MiG-29s made their formation arrival before splitting into individual type displays. The 'Fulcrums' proceeded to perform a very tight pairs routine whilst ejecting flares at timed intervals. They handed over to the four Su-34s to break in front of the crowd allowing a solo 'Fullback' to demonstrate the power and agility of Russia's new heavy strike fighter. Last but not least, the group of Su-27s returned for some formation aerobatics before climbing skyward leaving a trail of flares behind.

We'd seen the current types of the VVS but now we were afforded a glimpse of the future. Making numerous passes in formation with a two-seat MiG-29M2 'Fulcrum-E' was the latest addition to the Russian inventory, the Sukhoi PAK FA T-50 fifth generation fighter. Sporting a three tone grey splinter scheme, the 'Prospective Airborne Complex of Frontline Aviation' (sic) showed off its stealthy lines much to the delight of the gathered air force dignitaries.

For the show finale it was left to the stars from Kubinka, namely the Strizhi (Swifts) and the Russkiye Vityazi (Russian Knights) to perform a master class in precision flying. The joint Su-27 and MiG-29 formation initially flew together and then split into individual team displays with a copious use of flares throughout. Amongst the amazing manoeuvres was an opposition pass by two 'Flankers' which then pulled up into individual tail slides, literally burning the sky with flares in the descent.

With the crowd still applauding as the Knights and Swifts departed, the icing on the birthday cake was the return of the Lipetsk 'Frogfoots' rolling in once more trailing the colours of the Russian flag followed close behind by the MiG-29s, Su-27s and Su-25s from Kursk, Krymsk and Buddenovsk in their trademark '100' formation. This marked the end of a long but awe-inspiring day, certainly one that those present will always remember.

The air display at Zhukovsky gave an opportunity to experience a mouthwatering array of aircraft rarely seen outside the Russian Federation. It really was a stunning event and a fitting tribute to the 100th Anniversary of the Russian Air Force.