Bucharest International Air Show

Saturday 3rd September 2022

The Bucharest International Air Show (BIAS) showcases the best of Romanian aviation and is a big draw for foreign enthusiasts given the range of types on offer. Returning after a two year absence due to the pandemic, the show was meant to be the last opportunity to see the Romanian Air Force's MiG-21 LanceRs before their retirement in May 2023 but a fatal crash earlier in the year meant they were not available. Combined with less-than-ideal weather, the show wasn't quite the return to form that had been hoped, but a varied display programme was nevertheless worth the visit.

Geoff Stockle guest reports from Eastern Europe. All photography from the author.

Well, one out three ain't bad I guess! I booked to go to my first BIAS based on three fairly sound assumptions from previous incarnations of the show since its inception in 2009: rare Romanian types that are seldom seen elsewhere, a good weather record and a big send off for the home team MiG-21 LanceRs, before their imminent retirement.

Certainly the former delivered with pretty much the full gamut of Romanian Air Force types both flying and static bolstered by some more familiar foreign interlopers and strong supporting civilian cast - check. Unfortunately, the airshow this year coincided with some very unseasonal and unfavourable East European weather that also affected the Zeltweg Airpower event. The large low pressure system resulting in low cloud and drizzle forecast for the Friday rehearsal/arrival day and the show itself scheduled for Saturday. Such was the certainty of the forecast the organisers took the bold, welcome decision to postpone the show until the Sunday, leaving the Saturday open to visitors braving the rain to have a good mooch around the static, meet the crews and view the extensive hangar displays whilst viewing a couple of bad weather rehearsals. A welcome decision certainly for the likes of me who had a late Sunday flight home allowing a full day at the re-arranged show, not so for many foreign visitors who had a late Saturday or early Sunday flight and so missed out.

Even the mediocre weather couldn't hide the fact that the biggest disappointment came from the Air Force themselves with the complete non-inclusion of a single MiG-21 LanceR, even on static display, let alone the solo and formations seen before at the event. Granted, the type, arguably the most updated of the huge Fishbed/Mongol family have had a high attrition rate, resulting in a complete grounding in March '22 (following a suspected loss to Ukrainian SAMs that also claimed the lives of a Puma crew sent to search for it) that was repealed two months later giving the type a final retirement date of May 2023. Therefore a certain modicum of common sense would point to this event as the last big bash for the stalwart type but when the display line up was released in mid August with no MiGs then frustration, bordering on anger was unleashed on social media. I didn't translate all of the comments but the air minded local populace were definitely not happy and their feelings were made very clear in messages to the organisers.

So with these setbacks aside and following a quick visit to the impressive city Military Museum on the Saturday afternoon (the actual Air Force museum is currently closed for a three year refurbishment- another bit of bad luck for my visit!) I made my way to the airshow site itself just to get a feel for the place in the drizzle. I've never experienced an airshow venue that is so purely geared for the local population using their legs, two wheels or the excellent public transport system and taxis. There is no provision for public car parking and so anyone using their car (and plenty did of course, myself included) has to take a chance and use the local side streets and rather run down area by the busy market to park, nay dump their cars before making a short walk on to site. Free entry, no security checks, ample cheap and cheerful food and drink vendors, ample hardstanding space, zero funfairs and trade shows, limited portaloo numbers that miraculously seemed to hold up to the crowd numbers made that part of the show very welcoming to a visiting Brit.

The venue is the Aurel Vlaicu International Airport or better known as Băneasa Airport or even Bucharest City Airport. This was the original airport located only some five miles from the city centre - you really can't get a more city-centric international air show, that is now open to light and business traffic following the opening of the Henri Coandă International Airport some seven miles further North. This underlines the ease of access to this show - if you're staying for just a night then you just don't need a hire car as the public transport is so convenient; indeed, you could probably do it in a day if the flights are at reasonable times. The 1940s terminal building is a fetching piece of architecture and fits very well with the feel of the place that has been home to Romanian aviation company Romaero in it's various guises since 1920. First flights took place at the site in 1909 and so is one of the five oldest, continuously used airports in the world, the national carrier TAROM only moving it's operations to Henri-Coanda in 2002. Though the light is good and the flying close the backdrop isn't pretty, being the rather large Baneasa Shopping City with a huge Ikea dominating the horizon amongst others - Zeltweg or Old Warden it ain't!

Walking around in the drizzle and it became abundantly clear that had the show gone ahead as planned then flying would have been rather lacking, if at all. The huge Romaero hangars were put to good use for shelter resulting in the extensive displays gaining much, deserved attention. There's little doubt that general aviation is alive and well in Romania with the sizeable Romanian aeroclub and various importers and manufacturers displaying their wares and services. The bewildering plethora of brand new traditional and electric homebuilt and microlight types such as Pipistrelles, Ikarus, Cirrus and Stings were tempered by some home grown types of a much more vintage era such as a 1930s licence built Schneider-Grunau Baby sailplane and IAR-823 former military trainer. I was hoping to see a few more '823s, particularly a military marked one but of the 78 produced very few remain in their native country, most now reside in the USA. Other home grown types on show included a few IAR-46 motorised T-tailed gliders, IAR IS82 pure gliders and the exotically named Aerostar Festival, Aerostar of course more famed for their MiG-21 upgrades, license building of Yak-52s and UAVs.

Representing the very genesis of Romanian aviation, three modern replicas of pioneer Aurel Vlaicu's earliest machines were on view - namely the Vlaicu I, II & III dating from 1909-1914. A rather more influential Romanian aviation entrepreneur was represented by a replica of his most famous design from 1910; Henri Coandă lent his surname to the phenomenon of a jet of fluid producing low pressure and therefore lift over a curved surface. This has gone on to be applied to aviation via high lift devices using boundary layer control blowing and NOTAR amongst others. His 1910 sesquiplane utilising a rotary compressor (effectively the first ducted fan) propulsion system was represented by a circa 2010 replica with a standard jet engine in the static display - I've seen no evidence to suggest that this has ever flown (perhaps for the best!)

The external static display featured even more light aviation types and the bulk of the home team types and military participants from seven foreign countries. These consisted of a rarely seen, rather well-worn RCAF CF-18 from 425Sqn (though wearing a 433Sqn Porcupine fin marking) sporting some 44 mission markings; one of six deployed to Mihail Kogălniceanu air base on NATO air policing duties. A rather more familiar German Tornado, Hungarian twin stick Gripen, Slovak L.410, Slovenian PC-9 and US Army UH-60M completed the international static. The home team fielded the bulk of it's full inventory (did I mention there were no MiGs?!) the highlights being no fewer than three gloriously camouflaged Pumas in medevac, standard and armed SOCAT configurations, an armed IAR-99C Soim (Hawk) and a "brand new" C-130H making poor work of hiding the markings of it's former owners - the USAF's Montana Air National Guard. Interesting to see a static BAC 1-11, this particular machine being grounded at the airport and is former Mali Government owned sporting Romaero 100 years markings. The 1-11 of course was licence built in Romania as the Rombac 1-11 but due to many reasons, only nine ended up being produced. A rather newer airliner in the form of a TAROM ATR-72 was also shown on the ground underlining the airport's important servicing and maintenance work. Most of the static aircraft were opened up to the public so clear shots were very much at a premium, especially annoying when the sun did make some welcome appearances.

Though the Sunday weather was much better than Saturday's, it was still a very cloudy affair with odd pockets of blue passing through erratically adding to the frustrations of the weekend. The display was a mammoth ten or so hours in length opened by an impressive vic of five Pumas at 10am and concluding with a night time section of flare popping and pyros from the local aerobatic types, F-16s and a final C-27 Spartan lighting up the sky at 8.15 pm. Unfortunately due to catching my flight home I missed the very last section of this impressive spectacle. Most of the displays were repeated during the day and so you have a good chance of shooting most things if you miss it earlier or if the weather has improved. A large portion of the flying was given over to the aforementioned Romanian Aeroclub who enthusiastically displayed a plethora of light and aerobatic types, not least the very proficient "Hawks of Romania" consisting of various numbers of Extra 300Ls and 330SCs. To be honest, it felt as though every other display was a variation of them - solos, 4, 5, 6 ship formations, a bit like death by Extra but perhaps that was just me!

I preferred the appearance of three Zlin 526 Treners, a type I recall from my earliest airshow days in the '70s and one that is increasingly rare in the UK now. One was painted up in fake Luftwaffe markings much akin to the similar finished Pilatus P2 of the '80s, and another wore a very believable Romanian scheme though the type never entered home military service. Watching three of them rather ungainly growling round the sky bursting balloons certainly put a smile on my face. The aeroclub also fielded the "Icarii acrobati" or "Aerobatic Yakkers" team of three Yak-52s, one of which was a licence built Aerostar example, the "White Wings" IAR IS82 Glider pair, solo Fox glider, Antonov An-2 "Blue Wings"para drop and sedate formation passes by three-ships of IAR-46 motor gliders, Savannah microlights and Zlin 242s. Perhaps the liveliest of the aerobatic performers was provided by the legend that is Jurgis Kairys in his Sukhoi Su-31M; his gravity and physics defying contortions belying his 70 years of age but demonstrating the fruits of some 40 years of competition aerobatics mastery. He was of course instrumental in the design of the later series of Russian aerobatic machines such as the Su-26, 29 and 31 and he still flies them to their absolute limits.

The other civilian displays were two very polished airliner performances - a Boeing 737-700 of flag carrier TAROM still wearing it's 2019 66 years retro scheme and a rather more typically finished Airbus A320-200, one of four operated by Moldovian airline HiSky. Both opened their displays in formation - the A320 with a pair of Yak-52s and Kairys' Sukhoi and the '737 with four rather more potent F-16s, a little bizarre but some impressive, crowd pleasing flying none the less.

The military contingent was very impressive, even sans MiGs. The (hard to say this really) "new" F-16s made themselves felt by some fast, noisy beat ups and missed approaches and a bit of mock dogfighting in pairs and a four-ship. Third hand, well used 30 year old jets they may be but they still put on a show and the Romanian three tone scheme is rather fetching. Even with no MiGs (I did mention that didn't I?!) the home team presented just about every service type in one way or another with only Hercules and An-30 not represented in the flying. It was great to see the last An-26 "Curl" in active service performing a flypast, as did three of it's replacement - the C-27 Spartan, one of which also flew a solo and performed the finale flare drop. Four venerable Yak-52s of the Scoala de Aplicatie a pentru ForteleAeriene (Romanian Air Force flight training school) based at Boboc flew some nice formation and opposition manoeuvres. Noteworthy that the Yak -52 (albeit in the form of Aerostar produced IAK-52 variants) are relatively new to the inventory, 12 replacing much younger but problematic home-made IAR 823s in the mid-90s. Highlights for me included a very neat (if a tad low by UK standards) solo IAR-99C Soim and a three-ship display and further solo by IAR-99As. Not the prettiest of advanced jet trainers but the rarity value and interesting scheme made them very watchable. The first home grown jet design, the IAR-99 replaced the L-29 and L-39 in the late '80s and some 20 remain in service; the C variant having had an Elbit avionics upgrade to match the LanceR.

Always good to see Alouete IIIs whirring around and three examples of the IAR 316B licence built variant put on a display of opposition and formation passes with great gusto. IAR built 250 and some 20 still serve with the Scoala de Aplicatie a pentru ForteleAeriene on rotary training and liaison duties. It was also quite the experience to be buzzed by a Police IAR-316 on my long road journey to Constanța, it keeping pace only 10 metres or so above me, the high pitched Artouste turboshaft quite audible in the car for many kilometres! The final home team contribution consisted of some IAR-330 Pumas in five-ship formation and two solo displays. IAR have produced some 160 over a long production run from 1975 of which around 100 entered Romanian Air Force and Navy service and the remainder to seven other countries. The basic Puma plays an important tactical support and medevac role whilst the IAR330L SOCAT (Sistem Optronic de Cercetare și Anti-Tanc) offers a substantial anti-armour capability with a chin mounted 20mm cannon, rocket launchers, RAFAEL missiles and gun pods. The modernised IAR-330M features NATO standard avionics including FLIR and optical sensors capability. 56 Pumas are still in service including 25 SOCATs. The solo displays by a medevac standard machine and a SOCAT were a joy to watch - close, low, noisy, very much in your face, topped by two impressive "angels wings" flare releases during the later afternoon show. A real highlight for me to see one of my favourite choppers so energetically thrown around again.

The Ministry of the Interior facilitate the SMURD (Serviciul Mobil de Urgenta, Reanimare si Descarcerare) that operates the airborne elements of the emergency services, special Forces as well as mapping, information etc from various locations with a diverse fleet of fixed and rotary wing types. Though several stored Mil-8 and 17s were seen stored far side, the unit offered a pair of EC-135s on static and a rescue demo.

The foreign flyers at the event presented the more familiar solos displays - the ever excellent Slovenian PC-9 and RSV trio of Tifone, Master and Spartan. The Spartan in particular receiving (quite rightly) very appreciative response from the crowd following it's aerobatics. An addition to the published flying list (which admittedly was incredibly accurate considering it was produced over a month prior) was a second US Army UH-60M Blackhawk that flew an impromptu close and very low sequence that was enthralling not only for the crowd but also the large number of "freeloaders" out on the main road who were on the receiving end of several hair-parting passes. The presence of the Blackhawks from 3-227 Assault Helicopter Battalion, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, normally based at Fort Hood, Texas was due to their European deployment as part of Atlantic resolve. Based Romaero also have a Sikorsky support unit for European based UH-60s/S-70s.

And so as the sun began to set I had to leave the event for the short drive to Henri-Coanda airport for my late evening flight to Birmingham and a 20 minute drive home - all very convenient.

A very worthwhile, different event that I personally came away from a little disappointed due to the factors mentioned earlier; looking at previous show reports it wasn't the best of the series in regard to participation even without LanceRs and the poor weather added to that. Definitely one to return to as it's so cheap and accessible and the city itself and country are very pleasant. Part of me was also very saddened though at the quite visible wretched plight of the stray, feral dogs (and cats too to be fair even though I'm not a fan) that are unfortunately abundant - I certainly gave our Romanian rescue dog an extra treat when I got home.