Wonsan Air Festival Report

Saturday 24th September - Sunday 25th September 2016

It's safe to say that when, in February 2016, it was announced that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (otherwise known as North Korea) would be hosting its first ever air show and that it would be open to a select number of foreign guests it was treated with a healthy amount of surprise and scepticism, especially when it came out that the Korean People's Army Air Force were planning to attend with four frontline types. After all, the North Korean military is one of the most secretive in existence, with access to their machines virtually unheard of for foreigners, let alone to display purely for entertainment what might be called the rarest aeroplanes on the planet. Fewer than 200 foreign guests took the plunge, but those who did were treated to what may be the most unprecedented air show in history.

Sam Wise flew in to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's Kalma International Airport to report on the Wonsan Air Festival 2016 for UK Airshow Review. Photography by author.

Given the fact that North Korea has never hosted an event like this previously, nobody who travelled to the show really knew what to expect. Though a full schedule had been released in the weeks prior to those attending, how much of it would actually go ahead, how much of what was promised would be fulfilled was totally up in the air as far as the international guests were concerned - perhaps less so with Air Koryo's well-known classic airliner fleet but when it came to the military participation, there was much doubt as to whether it would materialise. Barring a select few occasions, no Westerners had ever been allowed to photograph Korean military aircraft before. The excitement was therefore palpable when, with the group's connecting flights from Pyongyang Airport touching down at Kalma, the airliners full of aviation enthusiasts taxied past a line of shelters specially built to house 10 MiG and Sukhoi jets, parked up and being prepared for the air show, all perfectly visible and freshly painted in grey camouflage schemes. From that point it was clear that the Koreans had fully committed themselves to a weekend of entertainment, both in the air and on the ground.

Indeed, the air show was but one part of the festival - aside from the air displays and pleasure flights, international guests were promised a theatrical performance at the Wonsan Youth Theatre on the Saturday night and a mass dance the following evening. A Korean beer festival took place on both days - certainly not typical parts of UK airshows, but a sure sign of hosts and organisers keen to impress their foreign visitors. To much general surprise, contrary to the expectation of a full airshow event with fewer than two hundred people present and with people prepared for what would have been a bizarrely small crowd, the night before the show news broke that the international attendees would be joined by over 15,000 North Koreans - Wonsan locals and Pyongyang residents - brought in to take part in the festival. What these factors all amounted to was what can only be described as a highly successful air show and festival, with two very distinct days, simultaneously very familiar and utterly surreal to a western show-goer.

It was apparent that the show would have a full complement of Korean hardware both civil and military, but the big question on the Saturday morning as the crowds and coaches made their way to the airport was what the quality of the flying displays would be. With an international crowd used to the standards of European shows with decades of experience behind them, it would take a high quality of flying to impress beyond the mere presence of the machines. Perhaps surprisingly, the Koreans delivered on this front and more. By far and away the best displays were those flown by the MD500s, that flew both a solo demo that opened the show and a four-ship display that closed the morning segment. These were as good helicopter displays as you could hope to find in the West, highly exciting and showing off the agility of the small aircraft in a highly skilled manner, the team display featuring opposition passes and breaks also.

Of the fast jets, the Su-25 was the strongest display - punchy, fast and agile (for the type) - the pilot throwing it around the sky in a way that would be very well received at any RIAT - and the three-ship display seen in the afternoon was no slouch either. The Fulcrum, however, was flown far more conservatively than other MiG-29 displays seen elsewhere - whether this is due to a lack of 'stick time', fuel limitations or otherwise, it was a fair bit higher and slower than its equivalent from - say - Poland or Slovakia. This does not detract from the fact that this was the first time the type has been recorded flying in the country since 2003, so no-one was disappointed at all - and at the end of the day, a Fulcrum display is a Fulcrum display.

Understandably the Air Koryo airliner displays were fairly limited in their dynamism, being thrown around the sky less than their military fellows. After takeoff, they performed either touch and goes or fast passes - the Tu-134 and -154 both came from behind the crowd at low height, however. The displays were short, but most will agree that any display from a classic airliner is most welcome indeed, especially the Soviet beauties of the Air Koryo stable (and, of course, the Il-76 and Mi-17 which are actually on the military register). No one can say no to a gear-up fast pass from an Il-62, complete with Solovievs screaming and belching out smoke! Added to this was the fact that the Korean hosts were very aware of the photographic requirements of their guests - with Kalma's North-South runway in mind, provision was made for the photographers to move to the terminal side of the runway to keep the sun behind them. While the location for the photographers was initially fixed some distance from the runway, with fences and airliners blocking views either side, after much discussion the organisers relented and moved the short crowd line to the edge of the taxiway - it was made clear that it was the best option if they wanted great photos of their event. In many ways, for the international visitors the event felt more akin to a spotters day with air displays given the flexibility of moving around for photos.

On that subject, what was particularly noticeable to the Western audience were the display lines - or lack thereof. Unlike the familiar 150/230m lines from the crowd, the display line for the military acts was effectively Kalma International Airport, with the Fulcrum display mostly taking place over the assembled crowds; a corresponding lack of display height minima saw the MD500 formation finish with a flypast over the crowd line at no higher than 10m! As exciting as it may have been (and it ultimately meant that the last few morning acts had good light for photography), it was also disconcerting for a Western show-goer, and this is perhaps an area the organisers will note for the next iteration of the show.

If the first day was a recognisable air show, the second day was far more dedicated to the range of pleasure flights at an added (and no small) cost, which were on offer to the international guests. Primarily these were the Air Koryo fleet of airliners, minus the Tu-204s and An-148s but including “their” Il-76, giving people the chance to fly on some of the rarest types in the world. Astonishingly, also on offer were rides in KPAAF Y-5s (An-2s) and Mi-8s, fully painted up in camouflage and roundels - those who took the chance to fly on them can say with some confidence they might be the first Westerners ever to fly on 'official' Korean military aircraft. Before the pleasure flights began, however, were a skydive and model aeroplane display. While some would see these acts as filler items at best, they were notable for featuring the first ever international skydivers in the DPRK - and rarely, if ever, do you see skydivers shooting off fireworks as they glide down, or model aeroplanes shooting off flares. Among other types the model display featured, against all odds, a USAF Thunderbirds-liveried F-16! While perhaps not as exhilarating as the fast jet displays, the standards to which these shows were performed were nonetheless very high, although the model aeroplanes were flown closer to the crowd than was comfortable - especially the scale jets.

Sadly, these diversions in the morning led to some very stretched organisation when it came to the pleasure flights. With such a wide range and large number of flights on offer it seems that the Korean organisers might have bitten off more than they could chew, and on the day several people ended up missing booked flights due to not having enough time between movements to reach their aircraft, or a lack of instruction about where they needed to be. This wasn't helped by the somewhat farcical full security checks and pat-downs in place at the door of every single flight! Very notable for the westerners was that the Korean crowds - or a privileged few, at any rate - were also going on pleasure flights throughout the day, possibly the first time ever on an aircraft for many of them.

In the morning there was an opportunity for the visitors and Korean media to meet the KPAAF pilots who had flown the previous day. By far and away the biggest stars of the show were the two female MiG-21bis pilots. A taster of this was seen the day before when, after their pairs display that closed the show, the entire crowd could be seen to rush forward to the very edge of the runway to greet them as they landed! The reason for this was that these pilots have been given the personal blessing of the Marshal Kim Jong-Un, and as such are as close to mega-celebrities as can be had in the country. And so it was on the Sunday that the Korean media, who had been keeping to the required 5m distance from the aircraft for the Fulcrum and Frogfoot pilots, all but stormed them as the Fishbed pilots were revealed, crowding round the pilots and machines and completely ignoring the calls from the guards to move back, who were as equally surprised by the whole thing as the foreign visitors! It's hard to recall any pilot in the UK ever receiving such a reception...regardless, such open access to the military is almost unheard of in the DPRK and really added to the Air Festival's significance.

It is worth remembering, though, that there was much more to Wonsan Air Festival than just the aircraft. The first feature of the show that the guests were exposed to was the accommodation. To call it interesting would be an understatement - it was all provided by the organisers of course, so the visitors had no say in where they stayed and it was much to everyone's surprise when it transpired that the accommodation arrangements for the 180-odd guests were, in fact, a children's holiday camp. Specifically, the Songdowon International Children's Camp, which has its own aquarium and water park, four to seven child-sized beds (in your choice of pink or blue!) per room (even if only one person was sleeping in it), glow-in-the-dark wallpaper and Disney characters painted on the walls. From what has been gathered, the organisers will be providing alternative arrangements in future.

Aside from the buffet lunch provided on each day (imagine that! No £10 burgers at Kalma International Airport), the beers available at the aforementioned festival really were quite good and most affordable at that. Given the prevalence of the beers, it's no wonder that the locals proved to be very friendly and indeed chatty with the international visitors - in an utterly unprecedented move for the country, the guests could move around and interact with the local Koreans completely unguided and unaccompanied, and vice versa of course. The Koreans were even openly buying and selling luxury goods and souvenirs in front of everyone; again, a real rarity for the country - but of big interest to them was the stall selling handmade and hand painted models of the Air Koryo and KPAAF aircraft to the gathered international guests! It must have been the first time they'd seen Westerners buying goods as there was a large crowd around the stand for the entire duration that occasionally clapped and cheered for a large purchase.

In the evenings, after leaving the show by coach, the visitors were taken to the evening entertainment laid on just for them, including a six thousand person mass dance on the last night. A sight unlike any other, this dance was in perfect unison and set to Korean music in Wonsan's central square, with an even larger number of locals gathered round the periphery to watch the event unfold. As the coaches left with the visitors on board, every single dancer in the square was turned to the road and applauding. Hard to imagine scenes of that nature taking place in Fairford village, to say the least.

There's no doubt that the Air Festival was the biggest event taking place in the DPRK that weekend. In the following days the televised and printed media was full of pictures and video of the festival, with much being made of the international presence. After all, nothing of the kind has ever taken place in the country before, and the concept is by and large totally alien to the North Koreans. For those in the crowd, it's easy to imagine that it was their very first time viewing an aircraft so closely, let alone seeing a full-blown air display - and, of course, their first times seeing foreigners in such large numbers, if at all. The city of Wonsan was totally taken over by the event all weekend, and ultimately it was all done for the benefit of the foreign tourists. Many who had been to the country before, even as recently as one year ago, commented that the access to the Koreans, the reaction from them and the openness and friendliness was completely new.

As an event, Wonsan Air Festival has an historic significance in seeing the most opening up of the country than ever before; and while the cooperation and input of the Wonsan authorities was hugely important, the entire event is the brainchild of one man, David Thompson, owner of Juche Travel Services who oversaw the publicity and access to the event for all international visitors, who has been pushing for an airshow in the DPRK for over three years. UKAR caught up with him after the event and he had this to say:

"It's been kind of a dripping tap over the years. As much as people enjoyed the airliner tours, over the years people increasingly approached me about the military aviation in the country as well as looking towards a display type of event rather than just pleasure flights. Even as early as 2013 we were beginning to press for an air show. The Wonsan-Mount Kumgang Tourism Zone Development Committee were very confident that securing military participation wouldn't be a problem; they've absolutely stuck to their word, and what they've said they would deliver they've delivered and more. For me, the expectation that was totally amazing was the level of local involvement and interaction between the festival and the local area. It was an area we'd touched on but I didn't expect the scale or the number of invited Korean guests as well as foreign enthusiasts. I didn't know about that until a few days before!

"You put so many hours into it and late, sleepless nights trying to organise this kind of event and with a jurisdiction like this you never really know what's going to happen until you're stood there watching it; just to be there with my feet on the ground witnessing it was very emotional. I'm so happy with the success of the show, and I feel this year's Air Festival will be a great foundation for future editions. We have big plans for next year!"

The festival organising committee are already setting the dates for the 2017 iteration of the show. By all accounts they are very keen to improve on the show, with feedback being sought immediately after the event, genuine interest in the thoughts of the visitors both good and bad, and JTS are confident that next year's show will be even better than 2016's already successful event. High on the priority agenda is increasing the number of military types in participation - top of the list is undoubtedly the KPAAF Il-28 Beagle! As welcome as any new aircraft would be, the types in attendance this year made for a mouth-watering combination of Soviet and classic types that surely cannot be replicated anywhere else on the planet. While international participation from the country's two northern neighbours might seem like a dream, most would have considered an air show in the country an impossibility to begin with - with this in mind, the future seems ripe with potential for the Wonsan Air Festival.