MAKS International Aviation and Space Salon

Tuesday 27th August - Sunday 1st September 2019

The Russian equivalent to the Farnborough International Airshow is the Международный авиационно-космический салон, the International Air and Space Salon, better known as MAKS. One of the very few proper airshows in Russia, and by far the biggest, MAKS showcases the latest in Russian military and civilian aerospace technology to the world and is one of the only places you can see modern Russian military aircraft on display. The trip is worthwhile, as the flying routines are some of the best in the world featuring some of the most agile fighter jets ever created and the static is a smorgasbord of Russian equipment on the ground. However, with a focus on trade and a difficult layout for both static and flying it leaves something to be desired for visitor experience.

Sam Wise returned to the Motherland to report on MAKS 2019 for UK Airshow Review. Additional photography by the staff team.

The enthusiast's desire to see Russian/Soviet aircraft is no secret. Fuelled by a rarity in the UK and a very real sense of exoticness compared with Western designs any appearance of a Russian type generates enormous excitement, but with relations between Russia and the West probably at their lowest since the collapse of the Soviet Union the chances of seeing examples actually operated by the home country are close to zero. Indeed, the last UK airshow appearance of a Russian military aircraft was at RIAT 2012 and while Soviet designs have visited the UK with other operators there is very little flying modern Russian equipment likely to visit the UK, a notable exception being India with their Su-30MKIs in recent years.

As with so much else in this hobby, then, you have to travel to see what you want and MAKS is a firm fixture for many. The salon takes place at Zhukovsky International Airport (and indeed routine airline movements punctuate the flying programme) some 37 kilometres or thereabouts from the centre of Moscow, easily accessible by train for those who don't fancy braving the Russian roads to the airfield. Once you get past the half a dozen or so bag searches it takes to get there you're onto the airfield and immediately presented with two long rows of Russian and Soviet aircraft, past and present. Broadly split into sections displaying current industry offerings, Russian military static and historical airframes (mostly but not exclusively related to the based Gromov Flight Research Institute) there is a great deal to see on the ground, albeit not in an especially inspiring layout. It's hard to work out who thought it was a good idea to put a DA-42 in front of the Tu-160, for example...

A particular star of the static this year was the first appearance of the Su-57 (as yet unassigned a NATO reporting name) on the ground, specifically the Su-57E export variant, surrounded by more hoardings and fanfare than other items in the static but considerably less security than 5th gen types at Western shows are subject to. The Russian public availed themselves of the opportunity to see their latest and most advanced fighter up close as large crowds stood in front of the huge machine almost all day. Cockpit tours didn't seem to be on the menu. A quartet of special Il-76s (well, one Il-78M-90A, the Il-76MDK and two Il-76LLs with test engines mounted) as well as a Roscosmos L-39C stood out among the "regular" Russian Air Force and industry offerings, although the Russian Helicopters aircraft in their very questionable Minecraftesque camouflage schemes were certainly noteworthy.

While museum pieces at UK airshows are often derided for their filler nature, MAKS plays host to a handful of unique and fantastic retired airframes including the immaculately kept Tu-144 and (less well cared-for) VM-T Atlant heavy carrier. As well as the returning MiG 1.44 prototype which first "rebroke" cover in 2015 was the totally unannounced appearance of the one-off Su-47 Berkut aircraft in the static. Obviously not a flying aircraft any more, it has nevertheless not been seen for many years and the gigantic forward-swept-wing testbed, which appeared to be in very good condition, was the highlight in the historic section - when the showground map listing it appeared on the evening of the show there was enormous excitement among those attending, as much as for any of the live aircraft in the lineup.

Russia pushes on with its recently lacklustre commercial aviation projects and making its airshow debut in both the flying and static at MAKS 2019 was Irkut's MC-21. Eventually, perhaps, to be known as the Yak-242, the MC-21 is Russia's offering in the 737 MAX and A320NEO market although somewhat held back by sanctions and lack of access to Western components. With 175 orders already on the books, it remains to be seen if the MC-21 will fare better than its smaller cousin the Sukhoi SuperJet 100 which has turned into somewhat of a dismal failure. Three SSJ100s were on display in the static (including two airline examples) and the flying display was quite a punchy demo for the small jet, but it seems unlikely that the type has much of a future ahead of it. Other airliners taking part, and among the few non-Russian participants, were the Embraer E195-E2 in its interesting Profit Hunter guise and the Airbus A350-900 demonstrator which put on a superb flying display routine, and indeed commanded enormous presence on the ground as well through its sheer size.

Of course, most people probably go to MAKS to see the Russian military aircraft since it's about the only place you can see them all at the same time, with many types simply not demonstrated anywhere else. Russian Helicopters displayed their Russian helicopters in one specific segment, opening with a multiship flypast that varied in makeup from day-to-day but always led by the monolithic Mi-26T2V Halo before breaking into individual solo demos. The Ka-52 put on the most agile and aggressive routine but interesting was the appearance of the new Mi-38T military variant for the first time, this variant having flown for the first time in November last year.

Kings, though, forever and always, were the Flankers. The Sukhoi Su-35S demonstration has always been argued as the best solo fast jet display in the world, famous for its thrust-vectoring manoeuvres that utterly, utterly defy all logic and seem to ignore the very laws of physics themselves. As brilliant and outrageous as Ben Stokes' second innings at Headingley it leaves you as equally ecstatic and blown away as the seemingly impossible is performed. And yet, something better came along. We wrote about the French Navy Rafale M pairs routine in 2017, simply one of the best examples of aerial performance ever seen, an airborne waltz of noise and power. Move over, Aeronavale, the Russians are here - the Russian Navy Su-30SM pairs routine is probably the best airshow display you will see on the planet right now, full stop.

It's impossible to explain how good this display is. It begins with a formation takeoff that leads straight into a formation tailslide. A very close formation tailside. Seriously. The duo then go through more formation manoeuvres before breaking off into a dogfighting section making total use of the Flanker's famous agility with very, very liberal application of the Su-30's thrust-vectoring ability. The two beautiful 18 tonne jets pirouette around each other like ballet dancers wielding sabres, two prima ballerinas battling it out at the Bolshoi, tracing circles around and inside each other while the orchestra of afterburner provides a monstrous symphony. The duel concluded, they break off to then run through individual solo demonstrations, themselves also showing the flat spins, manoeuvrability and high-alpha performance afforded by the modern Flanker's design to great effect. Eventually it all had to end, and you genuinely felt a coming down from the excitement of what you just saw. Fortunately, they went up twice a day over the weekend - the Russians knew they had something world-class on their hands, and they weren't going to waste it.

If there's one party trick Russian pilots love to show it's the tailslide, or the bell as it's known natively. It seemed like most of the military jets featured it in their routines, from the Su-57 (which also performed, gratifyingly, a classic and authentic Pugachev's Cobra) to the diminutive Yak-130. Hell, even the piston-powered Yak-152 did one. In fact, it felt like the only Russian type that didn't was the Beriev Be-200 waterbomber, but that was no slouch otherwise. After its opening water-dump in the colours of the Russian flag it flew into a high-energy routine with hard turns and wingovers aplenty, the look of the aircraft absolutely belying its performance.

Other military offerings included the various display teams with the Russian Knights now reduced to just four Su-30SMs, and their routine is strangely nearly identical to that of the Su-35S equipped Falcons. Disappointingly, however, the Su-34 Fullback didn't make an appearance on any of the public days. On the civilian side of things, one of the highlights for any visitor was the Wings of Victory operated Il-2 Shturmovik, one of the very few warbirds flown in Russia but incredibly significant given the type's iconic status. In a programme featuring Flankers, Halos and A350s it seems odd to give kudos to a GA/aerobatic equipped team but the Russian First Flight team, flying on a PA-23, four Yak-52s and a Yak-54, really did stand out for the quality and technical skill of their display, as well as their fairly smart paint schemes.

One option to view and photograph all of this for the enthusiast at MAKS is the show's Media Platform, an area on the opposite side of the runway from the main showground with the sun (ostensibly) behind you. Priced at an eye-watering €140 per day in advance (and even more if you buy on the day), the platform offers advantages and alternatives but is not close to worth that amount of money. Though it undoubtedly provides the perfect - indeed, only real - location for shooting the helicopters and historic types and the potential for decent take-off shots, for much of the rest of the display you aren't afforded much advantage at all. The platform was more or less directly under the display line for the fast jets so the platform's position with the sun to the rear was pretty much nullified, and as good as the experience of having Flankers roaring directly above you is, it's not worth €140 for the privilege.

Worse still was the organisation for transporting people to the platform. After initially gathering at showground centre, you're then walked down to one end of the ground to board buses for a five minute or so drive to the platform. People were allowed on the buses in small numbers meaning that many had to wait an extraordinary amount of time before reaching the platform - in cases where the helicopter display segment was early in the morning, significant numbers missed it entirely (and in doing so missed the most worthwhile aspect of the platform). The affair was borderline farcical and unless you were on the first lot of buses you would have felt very shortchanged. At least water and lunch was provided.

To be honest, the best place to see the flying display is the riverbank opposite the airfield tower. For the price of whatever transport you get there, you're in a prime position to photograph and watch the routines in the air above you, fighter jets and airliners circling your head in a full 360 degree viewing arena. The atmosphere is so reminiscent of the long-gone "naughty fields" of the UK scene - families rocking up in cars and caravans, foreign and local enthusiasts alike filling the bank, river cruise boats parking up and spilling out their passengers. People dig pits for barbeques, share beers around and generally the feel is jovial, pleasant and friendly. You won't get to see everything from this spot - anything slow is too far away over the airfield - but the experience is fantastic and a must-do for those travelling to Moscow for the show.

Having described all of that in enraptured terms, it must be stated that, objectively speaking, MAKS isn't really that good a show. After all, it's a trade show. The static is awfully laid out (though, to be fair, there aren't any ferris wheels), the participants aren't announced until a few days before the show opens, the crowdline faces the sun all day and the display distances are enormously far from the showground - watching some of the small aircraft displaying even behind the media platform you realise that from the inside of the show they would've appeared as mere dots in the sky. The sizes of the crowds on the public days are like nothing you've experienced in the UK, with over 578,000 people in attendance across the week (most of whom would visit at the weekend), and in terms of aircraft, very little international diversity compared with most large European shows - especially this year with no foreign military participants at all.

When it was announced that China was to be an Official Partner of the show for the first time, rumours and hopes abounded of Chinese military participation. That came to naught, and if you'd organised a trip to Russia on that prospect only to find out the fact one day beforehand you might have been slightly downbeat. If a show of similar scale were held in the UK but featured only British aircraft most of us wouldn't give it a second thought. But the reason we go to MAKS, of course, is that we won't see most of it anywhere else. For us it's exotic, rare, tantalising. Russian hardware at its finest being put through some of the genuinely best routines in the airshow world is worth travelling for.