MAKS International Aviation and Space Salon

Wednesday 19th July - Saturday 22nd July 2017

Bored of the same-old, same-old? Desperate for a bit of airshow variety? Yearning for some Soviet hardware? Inexplicably aroused by anything starting with the letters Su? Let's go to MAKS! What is the Russian for 'naughty field', anyway?

Guest writer Gordon Duncan ventured behind the Iron Curtain to report back from MAKS 2017 for UK Airshow Review. All photography by the author.

Situated some 40km outside Moscow, Zhukovsky International Airport (also known as Ramenskoye Airfield) has for many years provided the location for the renowned biennial MAKS (Mezhdunarodnyj aviatsionno-kosmicheskij salon, "International Aviation and Space Show"), which this year was brought forward one month from its traditional late-August slot. Despite well-publicised congestion issues caused by the sheer volume of people who attend (crowds in excess of 300,000 are not unusual on public days), the show has long been a mecca for aviation enthusiasts from all over the globe, thanks primarily to its reputation for showcasing the latest in Russian military hardware. This year was to prove to be no exception.

Actually getting to Zhukovsky presents something of a challenge to the international visitor, not least those who don't speak Russian and who are convinced that the Cyrillic alphabet has been thrown together by an amphetamine-addled dyslexic. Fortunately, signs pointing you to the correct trains for MAKS are plentiful at Moscow's Kazansky rail terminus; thereafter, however, you're pretty much on your own. Attending on-base and on a trade day is easy enough - simply follow the crowds of smartly dressed businesspeople - but if seeking out, ahem, alternate locations a degree of willingness to venture off the beaten track is required (this can also involve comically tortuous negotiations with a baffled Russian taxi driver). The runway at Zhukovsky is due south of the crowdline, meaning that photographers on-base find themselves shooting directly into the sun for the whole day. The best vantage point for photography, therefore, is the far bank of the Moskva River, though be warned: this does naturally involve positioning oneself directly underneath the flying display. By the Saturday this stretch of the riverbank resembled a United Nations of aviation enthusiasts, with photographers from France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Japan and the UK all mingling happily with the many hundreds of Russian locals, every one of whom appeared to have brought a barbecue, a fishing rod, several dozen cans of beer and a sound system.

MAKS is of course predominantly a trade show, and as such provides a platform to manufacturers to showcase their latest wares. This year's big star from the commercial/airliner world was the Airbus A350, which flew a graceful (and astonishingly quiet) demonstration on the trade days. Displays by airliners at an airshow can sometimes feel a little coma-inducing, but the A350, together with the Il-114 and Sukhoi Superjet, pleasingly bucked this trend and provided a welcome contrast to all the fast jet action. The show each day opened with a mass helicopter flypast, with around a dozen different types flying over the airfield in close formation, and a couple then providing solo routines. The standout of these was the mighty Mi-26T2: a modernised variant of the largest helicopter ever to enter production, it's an enormous brute of a machine with rotor blades in excess of 100ft long.

All too often, photographing the static at an airshow can at best feel like a pleasant-enough diversion before the flying starts, and at worst a chore. Not so for the first-time visitor to MAKS, where the 'static-walk' is perhaps more akin to handing a kid an unlimited amount of money and then letting him run amok in Hamley's. Every aircraft was worthy of a second glance, and many were sights previously undreamt-of… it's an Su-34! A Tu-22! A Bear! A Blackjack! A Sturmovik, by God! A… a… what the hell is that thing!? In addition to all the aircraft on display for the show, Ramenskoye also plays permanent host to a large and varied heritage park, and there is good access to many of its exhibits during the MAKS show days. Among the more historically significant types on display were a Myasishchev VM-T Atlant, famous for carrying the Soviet Union's 'Buran' Space Shuttles, and a well-preserved Tu-144Charger (perhaps better known as the 'Concordski'). The higher than usual number of (male) photographers crowding round the latter was presumably nothing to do with the fact that it was surrounded by uniformed Aeroflot stewardesses.

International participation came in the shape of the neat and tidy Baltic Bees, as well as the Al Fursan team from UAE flying their Frecce-inspired display on the MB-339. Western visitors, with perhaps slightly underwhelming memories of Al Fursan's displays at RIAT in 2012 or Kleine Brogel in 2014, were in for a pleasant surprise, as the routine has been significantly enhanced since then: much more dynamic and exciting, and with more emphasis placed on showcasing the capabilities of the 339 itself (the synchronised tailslide performed by two of the team, for example, is a particularly nice touch).

Let's be honest, though: you didn't come here to read about Al Fursan or the A350, did you? No, you want to read about tailsliding Russian superjets popping out flares whilst making an unholy din. Well then, read on…

At times, the 2017 iteration of MAKS felt rather like an in-house trade show for the Sukhoi corporation, with multiple Su-somethings taking to the air in turns to dazzle the crowds. Not to be outdone, however, Mikoyan-Gurevich were very much present and provided a brutal display from a new variant of MiG-29, which may or may not have been the MiG-35 (safe to say, Russian designations can be a bit confusing sometimes!) Though not featuring any of the more outré manoeuvres for which Russian aircraft are famed (and of which more anon), the MiG provided a powerful tactical demonstration, showcasing its superb slow-speed handling characteristics.

Also showing off the MiG-29, six of them this time, were the Russian Swifts; a real treat for the foreign visitor, as they are almost never seen outside of their home country. Compared to the rather more glamorous, high-octane Russian Knights, the Swifts routine is a lot less dynamic and consists mainly of formation passes of all six aircraft. It's not actually that good a display… and then you remember that we're still talking about six MiG-29s in close formation belching out smoke and noise, and that any criticism can only sound utterly ridiculous. Trust me, a few days at MAKS can start to play havoc with your 'discernment of what is good' threshold…

Joining in the fun, and at the opposite end of the fast-jet spectrum, Yakovlev provided a lovely demonstration by a pair of Yak-130 trainer aircraft, one standard grey and one done up in a very fetching red colour scheme, the former very familiar to UK enthusiasts following displays at RIAT in 2012. The type has entered service with the Russian Air Force to provide advanced flying training for its next generation of fast-jet pilots, and has also been offered to the export market where it has achieved notable early successes. Adding to the jet-trainer theme, and comfortably winning the award for 'Most Bizarre Participant at the Show' (a new category for the RIAT awards, perhaps?) was the tiny KB SAT SR-10, with its unique forward-swept wing configuration. "Like someone has stuck the wings on back-to-front", opined someone in our group, and it was hard not to disagree. Still, and despite the wonderful Su-47 'Berkut' being consigned to the history books, Russia maintains an interest in this rather esoteric aeronautical design, and it was a delight to watch the SR-10 in action. Even though it would struggle to fill the frame of your DSLR if you happened to be standing next to it.

One of the joys of this hobby, and particularly from a photographic perspective, is watching aircraft in different display configurations: from the multiple aircraft of the great aerobatic teams, to pairs displays, to solo fast-jet routines. However it is unusual indeed (outside of the warbird community, perhaps) to witness a formation of four aircraft, and rarer still to witness a display by four front-line fast jets. What a treat, therefore, to witness four Su-35s belting in at low-level to shatter the early Friday morning tranquillity, and then proceed to tear up and down the airfield in a demonstration of raw power and agility. Not so much a display, more a tac-demo/airfield attack, this was mightily impressive stuff, and the tail-chase sequence in particular was breathtaking. This apparently is a recognised Russian display team, known as the Falcons, and they provided one of the highlights of the week. What a pity that they didn't return to display on the Saturday.

Sukhoi fairly dominated the flying display agenda (no-one complained, as I recall) and, in addition to a quite brilliant pairs display by two navalised Su-30s, the main Sukhoi segment consisted of a glorious four-ship: two PAK FA T-50s , Su-34 Fullback and Su-35 Flanker. The latter two provided solo demonstrations, whilst the two T-50s (which will be known as the Su-57 upon entering front-line service) flew an exciting tail-chase sequence. Up close the T-50 is an absolutely beautiful aircraft, flatter and neater than its near-counterpart the F-22, and whilst the display at MAKS '17 was limited to 'standard' aerobatics it is clearly an immensely capable platform. You got the impression that the pilots were just itching to kick loose and start flinging it around. Speaking of which…

It might seem perverse, given so many goodies on offer, to pick out a clear highlight, however the solo routine by the Su-35 (NATO codename 'Flanker-E') left even seasoned airshow-goers gobsmacked with an astonishing demonstration of thrust-vectoring supermanoeuvrability. Video footage of these displays has been posted to social media and online aviation forums, UKAR included, and has elicited such comments as 'Russian black magic', 'best solo jet display of all time…' and this is no empty hyperbole. Though externally almost indistinguishable from its fabled predecessor, the Su-27, the Su-35 is a completely different beast 'under the hood' and these displays at MAKS proved it. At times the aircraft appeared to defy the laws of physics as it hung in the sky on the power of its huge Saturn 117S engines, twisting and turning with no discernible forward momentum, and all whilst making a noise loud enough to open up a portal to another dimension. We are used to seeing similar 'tricks' from small propeller-powered unrestricted aerobatic types, such as the Extra 300 or Su-26, but to see the same manoeuvres performed by a large, growling, afterburning, front-line fighter jet is nothing short of extraordinary.

Russian combat aircraft have long held a reputation as spectacular airshow performers - European crowds from the late 80s onwards have been wowed by such manoeuvres as the tailslide and Pugachev's cobra - but it's fair to say that the Su-35 has taken this to a whole new level. What a pity that current relations with Russia almost certainly preclude seeing this marvellous machine at a venue closer to home.

The Russian Knights were granted top-billing on each of the public days and were tasked with bringing the show to a dramatic finale. They more than obliged, with their flare-tastic demonstration of close-formation flying in conjunction with a short solo routine by the leader. Having recently transitioned from their traditional Su-27 mount onto the Su-30, the display if anything is now even more punchy and spectacular, and the Knights were justifiably rapturously welcomed by their countrymen on each day they flew.

For the novice, and moreover the foreign novice, MAKS does present some fairly unique logistical challenges, not least the fact that a visitor from the UK needs a visa just to enter the country. However, and if it has been on your 'aviation bucket-list' for some time, rest assured that with a little planning and forethought (and suitably clued-up travelling companions), it is comfortably doable under your own steam. And the pay-off, in terms of flying displays and photographic opportunities, is simply unsurpassed. Even Friday's fairly epic thunderstorm, which blew a one-hour hole in the flying programme and sent the massed crowds diving for cover, failed to put much of a dampener on proceedings. See you on the riverbank in a couple of years.

Oh, and it's Непослушное поле, apparently… Спасибо, Google Translate.