MAKS International Aviation and Space Salon Report

Friday 28th/Sunday 30th August 2015

As per usual, the International Aviation and Space Salon, or MAKS - Russia’s premier airshow - took place once again at the end of August at Zhukovsky, south-east of the nation’s capital. With the East/West political rhetoric at its coolest point since the fall of the iron curtain, eyes in the aerospace industry turned to Moscow as Putin’s armed forces once again staged their might and Russian aerospace sold their wares. It’s been ten years since UKAR has reviewed MAKS, and it’s about time we visited it again.

Tom Jones reports from one trade and one public day at MAKS. Additional photography from Sam Wise.

You would need to have been living under a rock not to have taken note of the frostier and frostier rhetoric between East and West in recent years. When taking previous shows into account the different in participation was stark, and the lack of western aircraft in attendance especially noticeable. Indeed, the only Western machine present of note was the Airbus A350. MAKS is Russia’s answer to Farnborough - held biannually, the emphasis on trade is immediately apparent. Making it through security, (where every single bag is checked) we were immediately faced with one of the finest static displays imagineable. What was lacking in numbers was, unsurprisingly, more than made up for in terms of quality.

Zhukovsky has a long and illustrious history of hosting some of the nation’s most weird and wonderful test and experimental aircraft over the years; many of which are still there. It’s a charm of the airfield that is rarely found elsewhere. One of the first items we reached in the static park was the immaculate MiG Project 1.44 MFI. Designed in the eighties, built as Russia’s answer to the F-22, and marketed as a way of expressing Russia’s break into the stealth game; the cancelled Project 1.44 made its maiden flight in 2000 before being axed in the very same year and has resided at Zhukovsky since. The machine was put on display for the first time in many a year - and credit where it’s due, it looked utterly pristine.

In what appears to be an improvement on recent years, there were no longer five-foot-high fences surrounding the static aircraft, replaced instead with waist-height barriers. Whilst it’s still not quite the ease of cones and ropes seen at many a British show, it made viewing and photographing the static aircraft a much more pleasant experience.

Of course, with the focus being on trade it meant that plenty of new types were on offer also. As an example, the Kamov Ka-52K, designed to operate from the Mistral-Class ships, was on show. Cosmetically, the machine is not too dissimilar to its standard Ka-52 stablemate; however the Naval variant’s coaxial rotors are able to be folded, along with the wing stubs, each of which holds one fewer hard point as a result.

Other rare and exciting machines included the first full-scale mock-up of the less than originally named “Promising High-Speed Helicopter” (PSV), which uses the skeleton of the well-known Mi-24, less one cockpit. Russia plans on spending circa 7 billion roubles on such a machine, designed for high-speed VIP transport, with possibilities of development into patrol and search and rescue. Whilst still in the design stage, it is nonetheless wonderful to see quirky new takes on old designs, and it is something that the Russians appear to excel at.

Throw in a Tu-144, which was open for tours, a Tu-95, a Tu-160 and a Tu-22, and the bizarre Myasishchev VM-T “Atlant”, to say nothing of the many different variants of Sukhoi and MiG fighters and bombers, and, to a Westerner, one has possibly the best static park of the year. It was somewhat frustrating, then, that the smorgasbord of bombers and fighter aircraft were positioned in front of the corporate chalets, portaloos and the endless sea of national flags and loudspeakers. Given that the other side of the narrow taxiway was a background of uncluttered trees and grassland, it seems a shame that the quality items were positioned in such a way that one was shooting into the sun in the morning, whilst struggling to avoid background clutter.

In honesty, though, these are minor bugbears, and to us, the moment one starts making loose criticisms about static aircraft positioning, and little more, then a show is certainly doing something right on the whole; the huge throngs of circa 100,000 members of the public in attendance each day probably confirmed this. Given that the publicly accessible parts of the showground were probably three-quarters the size of Fairford, and subtract that acreage by the immense amount of floorspace taken up by chalets, hospitality tents and exhibition areas commensurate with any trade show, and there was a feeling of being positively squashed in amongst the masses for most of the day. I have never before seen a crowd so deep that the fences on the crowdline were nigh impossible to see.

Speaking of the fences, there are approximately six foot high ones that make up the crowdline parallel to the active runway. Given that one is shooting into the sun all day, the only salvageable photography to be had would be the take-offs and landings. Sadly, this monstrous crowdline fence largely put paid to that idea.

The flying display itself was everything one would expect from Russia’s prime airshow, and more. The silence from Western display teams and aircraft was deafening, but the home team more than made up for the lack of foreign displays. Sukhoi in particular, produced a stellar half hour, including a formation of the Su-34, Su-35, and T-50 before the trio split into breathtaking solo segments.

Having had the benefit of watching the memorable F-22 display when the type last visited UK shores five years ago, a comparison between that and the Su-35 is inevitable - as is my conclusion; the Su-35 wins hands down. The monstrosity and number of laws of physics appearing to be broken by the Su-35 display is something that will live with me for a long time. Our local guide summed up the displays most accurately by saying that it was as if a child had picked up a toy jet, and was playing around with it, as opposed to an actual aircraft with a pilot inside it - pulling some of the most inexplicable manoeuvres I have ever seen in my years of attending airshows.

The T-50 put on an equally manoeuvrable display, and seems to be coming into its own each time it displays for the public; however, the display is still quite high and far away. The Su-34, without the benefit of thrust vectoring; brought an element of grace and poise to the segment - pulling tight, arcing turns and looking beautiful with a complement of dummy weaponry, whilst wearing that most wonderful of colour schemes.

Fans of vintage warbirds were also catered for to some extent, with a pairs display of two DC-3s in stunning silver schemes, commemorating the infamously gruelling Arctic patrols that delivered Lend-Lease aircraft from Alaska to Siberia in the Second World War. Also in the air was an immaculate MiG-3, performing a formation flypast with one of the newest of the MiG stable, the MiG-35. A single straight flypast was all it was, though, and as the MiG-35 rocketed into its display, the MiG-3 came in to land. As strange as it is to say this, the Russians could learn a thing or two from the RAF in this regard; or at the very least give the MiG-3 the time of day with more than just a single "blink and you'll miss it" flypast.

On the topic of short and under-used displays, the Beriev Be-200 is a beautifully charismatic aircraft that retains some of the old Soviet character of its forebears. That machine took off to display each day with an impressive bank away from the airfield, circled, dropped dyed water, and then immediately turned in for landing. The display could not have taken more than three to six minutes - it felt as though it was a bit of a waste. To my mind, if one is going to the costs of getting an aircraft in attendance and flying, one might as well try and get their money’s worth.

Previous years have boasted healthy Western flying participation and, in 2013, the Chinese August 1st Display Team. Consequently, though it was wonderful to a Westerner, I would imagine that 2015 lacked a true “star” flying item to the locals.

However, the main issue with the flying was the disparity in attendance between the public days. It’s understandable that aircraft at a trade show might depart before the traditionally public showdays at the weekend. This has been common practice for many years, and anticipated. What was disappointing, however, was the difference in flying displays between Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with many on Sunday missing out massively. On Friday and Saturday, there was a helicopter display featuring the mightily impressive Mi-26 and manoeuvrable Ka-52, to say nothing of a Ka-226 and a Mi-171 and a myriad of other Kamovs and Mils. Sunday saw none of those items, with no replacements. Friday and Saturday also saw the impressive flying display of the Russian Falcons, which, again, were absent on the Sunday. And the much anticipated Wings of Tavrida Yak-130 team also failed to make an appearance on the Sunday. This and several other missing items must have made the public attending only on the Sunday feel rather short-changed. If the same happened to a two day show in the UK, there would have been uproar at the organisers, and perhaps rightly so.

Also a great shame, considered the amount of hype built on the show’s web page and social media in the weeks prior was the Airbus A350’s departure from the show on the Friday morning, without flying a display.

The flying display each day also seemed to die out in the afternoon, with no clear finale, or ending. The gaps between displays simply got longer and longer. It was the case that the show appeared to be over, only for another formation display team to take-off, twenty or thirty minutes after the previous aircraft had landed.

Introduced this year was a segment involving cars racing with aircraft along the runway. A nice idea, with different classes of car/aircraft, starting with slower prop aircraft, moving through helicopters and jets until finally concluding with a MiG-29, however, again it wasn't clear if this signalled the end of the display or not and in hindsight it probably took too long. Thirty or forty minutes of the same race tracks and circuits taken by cars and aircraft respectively might have strained the attention of all but the most die-hard of enthusiasts and/or petrol heads. A feature such as the car racing, to my mind, would be better suited taking place before the flying officially starts, as a sort of warm-up act before the show proper.

Thus, as far as the flying was concerned, the petering out of the flying display each day, and the vast chasm of difference in flying participants on the public days led me to the conclusion that though the quality was most certainly present, the organisation, or for want of a better word, consistency, of the public days might not have been quite up to par with Western shows. It seems essential that if one goes to the cost of a trip to Moscow, it is worth booking several days at the show to make sure as much is covered as possible.

Thus, plenty of room to improve, but stepping back and considering the show in the round, the sheer quality of participants and displays more than makes up for any bugbears I had about organisation. At a paltry 700 Roubles (circa £7.00) per ticket, with plenty of toilets, reasonably-priced food stalls (lunch of a decent burger, chips and a drink costing circa £4.50), and other facilities, and with little queuing anywhere considering the capacity crowd, MAKS is an absolute must for any aviation enthusiast. The next show is in August 2017 - we hope to see many of you there.