Friday 2nd September - Saturday 3rd September 2022

The Austrian Air Force, the Austrian government municipality area of Steiermark, and Red Bull all banded together again in 2022 to hold another iteration of "AIRPOWER" at the Austrian Air Force base at Zeltweg, in the heart of the Alpine country.

Tom Jones reports from the scenic location. Additional photography from Nick Jennings.

Held roughly every three years, AIRPOWER is hands-down one of the best airshows in Europe. Ask any enthusiast who has been, and they'll tell you that it has all the scenery you'd expect from Axalp, military participation on a par with RIAT, and over-the-top-donked-up-baseline-high-tempo energy of any Red Bull event. All crammed into a medium-sized airfield.

It's an odd thing to have a RIAT-level airshow with all the communication and reliability of the local village fete. AIRPOWER famously has unreliable and sporadic communications prior to the show. Whilst this isn't strictly a problem for the public (as the show is completely free), to those trying to assess if the spotter tickets are worth it (which are up to €250 for the full five day package), it can get a bit awkward. Their participation list, when it was finally made public, listed flying items that never flew, static items that were in the flying display, some items (such as a Serbian Mi-171 and Utva Lasta 95) just never showed up at all, and some items (such as an Italian AMX - more on that later) turned up completely unannounced. Should any of that matter to an airshow that is free to the majority of its attendees? Perhaps not, but it's something for UK enthusiasts to keep in mind when booking travel/accommodation/spotter tickets.

AIRPOWER is jointly organised by three stakeholders - the Austrian tourism authority and local authority of Steiermark, in which Zeltweg is located, the Austrian Air Force, and Red Bull, and the show does a great job of blending those elements (particularly the latter two) together in an odd yet complimentary way.

Unlike most air shows, the event is held over the Friday and Saturday, rather than the traditional Saturday/Sunday. Spotter packages notwithstanding, the airshow itself is free to the public, and so with such a high-energy triennial event, it's no surprise that the show regularly attracts crowds of around 300,000 over the two days.

The show itself opened the flying display with a triplicate display of sorts to mark all three of the organising bodies - the traditional green heart-shaped "Steiermark" balloon was launched, and an Austrian Air Force EF2000, and a Red Bull Alphajet did some choreographed joint flypasts and breaks. It's difficult to argue that it was a "three ship display" but it's rare to see a hot air balloon, a civilian jet trainer, and a military fast jet in the sky together.

Carrying on the flying display, 2023 marks the year when the Austrian Air Force's veteran Alouette IIIs hang up their spurs after around 55 years of service, and AIRPOWER represented the final large-scale event for the public to see the little helicopters in Austrian colours. As such, following the show opening, no less than nine Alouette IIIs, lead by one marked in a retirement special scheme, were launched carrying the flags of all nine of Austria's municipalities, before doing some gentle synchronised hovering in front of the crowd choreographed to music by Austrian composer Tristan Schulze for the display. The Alouettes eventually gave way to a flypast from an Italian Army UH-169B, which represented their replacement. A special note must be made of the UH-169B - the Italian Army are rare enough participants at airshows in Europe, and they sent their entire fleet (two) of UH-169s to Austria, one for static, one for flying. Delivered in July 2020, this may well have been their first ever public airshow appearance on flying or static.

Given Red Bull's hand in organising the show free cans of the stuff were everywhere. Luckily, I enjoy having teeth, so managed to avoid gorging on them too much, but it was quite nice to be able to grab an ice cold can for free after a long day in the sun. As a side note to fizzy drinks, almost the entirety of the legendary Salzburg-based Flying Bulls fleet were in attendance in some form or other. As my first time to AIRPOWER, it was quite enjoyable seeing the randomness of Alphajets launching followed by their Aviat Husky and Cessna Caravan floatplanes, but I can imagine that seeing the Cessna 208 ahead of, say, the Bristol Sycamore, which stayed on the ground all weekend, might have been a bit frustrating for some.

The AIRPOWER display was chock full of some of the most high-quality (if a bit de rigeur) military acts the European continent has to offer - Patrouille Suisse, Krila Oluje (Wings of Storm), and Frecce Tricolori kept the display team end up, and Hungarian/Swedish Gripens, Belgian/Hellenic F-16s, Hungarian Hind, and the Czech Air Force Hind/Hip demo (the former in its psychedelic Xenomorph tiger colours) kept things fresh from the solo display point of view, many with the quite liberal use of flares - it really shows how some European demos these days clearly design their displays around the flares (rather than allow flares to compliment the displays) which explains why, for example, the Belgian A109 Solo feels so much more dynamic at European shows than it does in the UK.

Some excellent rarities also featured in the flying in the form of a very rare solo display from a German Army Tiger UHT and, flying direct from their home base at Zagreb, a Croatian MiG-21UM Mongol B. The fact that both of these types remained serviceable enough to display over the two days was remarkable.

Classic jets and warbirds also put in a decent showing, too. The SwAFHF Draken performed a solo flying display in a nod to the Austrian Air Force's previous fast jet mounts, and then joined a bizarre formation with the Serbian-based G-2 Galeb (recently repainted into its 1960s era SOKO marketing colours). It was difficult to follow along with the German commentary, but it's believed that the formation represented the fact that the two types had operated in such close proximity for years, and yet neither attempted to shoot the other down (I've got no idea, either). Other classic jet displays came from the replica Me262, and the Polish-based PZL Lim-2 (MiG-15).

The Austrian Air Force were peppered throughout the display, too. In addition to the Alouettes, we saw their PC-6 Turbo Porters dropping red/white water, the excellent QRA demonstration, and an EF2000 solo display, and PC-7 solo display. It's also noted that EF2000 "7D-WC" is marked up with an attractive "Austrian Tigers" special scheme, to mark the unit's ascension into the NATO Tigers Association. To mark the occasion, the show concluded the flying display with a "mini-tiger meet", and featured the Hungarian Gripen, German Tornado/EF2000, Red Bull's tiger Alphajet, and the said Austrian EF2000 (alongside the Czech Mi-24 keeping the crowd occupied whilst the fast jets formed up).

The flying display was, really, almost everything you'd expect to see - lots of "home team" stuff, some European stalwarts, some rarities, and overall, something for everyone. The only real thing missing was the Austrian helicopters (OH-58s, Bell 212s and UH-60Ms), but for a discreet flypast on Saturday evening of a UH-60 and a pair of Bell 212s to say thank you for the emergency services on standby, they did not feature in the flying display at all, where they had done in previous years. In a way, it felt like a Yeovilton Air Day without the Commando Assault - some great stuff, but really missing that last final cherry on the cake.

As for the static display/area itself, it was hugely claustrophobic - to put it into context for a UK audience, it was a RIAT level crowd at an RAF Cosford sized venue. Add to this some bizarre static positioning with lots of perpendicular lines of static aircraft, and you had a lot of pinch-points. Particularly near the crowdline at midday, it almost felt like you could swim through the crowd, rather than walk through it.

The static display itself was of a diversity and quality that mirrored the flying display. Expected static items included almost all Austrian Air Force types except, oddly, no EF2000 despite it being an EF2000 base. The public had to put up with a plastic mockup Eurofighter instead. These were complimented by European based warbirds and modern military, and the likes of a Belgian F-16, German Tornado, Italian Typhoon, and one apiece of Polish & Turkish F-16s. These were supplemented by some slightly rarer items, such as a Polish Su-22, Turkish F-4, and Slovak L-39, and some industry items such as the Diamond Dart and the debut of the CEA Design P01, as well as a CASA CN295, and an L-39NG.

Notice how I refer to these only in the singular - one of the most bizarre elements of the static was that, where pairs of aircraft turned up, no matter their rarity (such as a pair of Turkish F-4s) only one was placed on static. The second of any pair was parked well out of public view for the whole show. It was bizarre, and probably frustrating to some of the weekend enthusiasts, to knew that there was a second Turkish F-4, or a second operational/squadron-marked Turkish F-16 parked where no one could see it. As for that Italian AMX that turned up unannounced? It arrived after the show on Friday, and spent Saturday parked on a non-public area before flying home on the Sunday. You'd be forgiven for asking what on earth the point of its attendance was. Could you imagine the same thing happening at RIAT? Of course, Zeltweg doesn't have anywhere near the amount of tarmac and hard standing as RAF Fairford has, and the venue was packed as it was, but was there really no space at all whatsoever for that second Turkish F-4 and Italian AMX?

It's impossible to talk about the static without mentioning probably one of the highlights of the year in the European airshow calendar. Not long before the show, the organisers announced that a Xi'an Y-20 "Kunpeng", a Chinese indigenous strategic airlifter, from the Peoples Liberation Army Air Force would be attending on static - its first attendance at a Western/European airshow, and the type's second ever visit to Europe. Sure enough, the "Chubby Girl", flying on Il-76 Solovyev engines appeared on long finals on Tuesday, and was towed into static for the weekend, and manned by polite and engaging crew members. There's not a lot one can say to do the moment justice, but to those attending, it really felt like a small but significant slice of aviation history, possibly akin to the Russians attending Farnborough in the 1990s - it represented a type that many enthusiasts sitting there looking at it probably assumed they would only ever read about and see pictures of it in magazines/online.

It's difficult to conclude a review into a show like AIRPOWER - somehow there's so much left to write, and yet so little else to say - the criticisms of poor communications, or static aircraft parked out of sight are mere flicked bogeys to an otherwise utterly solid core of an airshow. I feel confident in speaking on behalf of all enthusiasts who did make the journey in saying it was a sensational event. Were it not for the exceptionally high-quality Air Tattoo this year, which AIRPOWER is on a par with, it would have been hands-down the best European aviation event of 2022.

If funds and commitments permit, AIRPOWER is recommended above almost all other airshows in the European calendar. A true bucket list event for any UK enthusiast who has the means to attend.