When he first visited the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 2012, Paul Filmer landed at a couple of military bases while visiting outlying cities on his adventures, but was emphatically advised to not shoot any military aircraft or personnel, or even raise a camera in their direction. Now he takes his second visit to North Korea to report on a historic event.
Four years have passed and the game has dramatically changed, with tourists and journalists alike being invited to attend the DPRK’s first airshow and beer festival being held at the newly rebuilt Wonsan Kalma International Airport. The Wonsan Air Festival, also called the Wonsan International Friendship Air Festival, was the first time that military aircraft have been shown in public both domestically and internationally.
The airport is located in the Kangwon province on the east coast almost directly east of the capital Pyongyang, and we were lucky to fly from the capital in a Tu-154B one way and an Il-62 back.
Approximately ten to fifteen thousand local people from the surrounding area walked to the airport and were led across the runway from the west to the east side, where beer, food and other concession stalls were located.
The airshow opened with a speech by Yun Yong Sok, Vice Director General of the General Bureau for State Economic Development of the Ministry of Foreign Trade, followed by David Thomson-Rowlands of Juche Travel Services which has been providing tourism services to the DPRK since 2011, and was instrumental in opening up aviation enthusiasts trips here from 2012. David is also Honorary Vice-Chairman of the preparatory committee of the festival.
The first aircraft to display were four MD-500 helicopters that flew a close routine, and sometimes pretty close to the ground.
Surprising me next was an Air Koryo Il-18, which took off and proceeded to fly some circuits. I assumed the Air Koryo aircraft present were only here for the pleasure flights, but every one of their aircraft present also took to the air in the flying display.
Air Koryo Tu-134, Tu-154, An-24, Il-62 and Il-76 aircraft flew during the display, with military aircraft from the Korean People’s Army Air Force taking slots in between the airliners. It makes a really nice change to see airliners fly at an airshow, and even more so these classic Soviet examples.
The first military jet to display was the MiG-29, which performed a similar routine to that you would see at any other airshow, followed by a brake-chute landing.
There was no letup in the flying, as one aircraft display landed, the next was already at the runway holding point ready to take off. There was approximately two hours flying in the morning followed by a break for lunch, then a further two hours of flying in the afternoon.
One oddity was a PAC P-750 XSTOL, which had no markings except for the DPRK flag on the tail.
We were allowed to switch sides of the runway to follow the sun, which was a great help as the runway is almost north/south, so in the afternoon we were on the terminal side, opposite to the main spectator area and beer festival.
VIP equipped Mi-17 and Su-25 displays followed with the latter consisting of a three ship formation display, plus a solo after two aircraft broke away.
The distinctive sound of a MiG-21 engine starting-up from the remote shelters then got the 200 aviation enthusiasts craning their necks to get a first glimpse of this classic Soviet fighter.
A pair of them taxied past us, and you could see that both pilots were female. They departed in tandem using afterburners and flew close together for the whole display.
That concluded the flying for the day.
Day two, and again we started the day on the east side, and watched parachutists alight Mi-8 helicopters to display to the expectant crowd. There were at least four helicopter loads dropped, including tandem jumps with tourists.
After the waves of parachutists had landed we walked back to the west terminal side of the airport, as this would be where all the pleasure flights would be departing from.
People could pre-book flights on the Air Koryo fleet of An-24, Il-62, Il-76, Tu-134 and Tu-154. In addition you could fly in military aircraft including Y5 (Chinese built An-2), Mi-17 and Mi-8.
So, not only did we have the unprecedented opportunity to photograph the military hardware, some could even be flown in!
Our hosts had made a small static display of MD-500, MiG-29, Su-25 and MiG-21, which we had been told we would be able to photograph, but had to stay 50 metres away from.
When we were given the all clear to walk over and shoot them, we were then told to stay just five metres away! Handily, if we stayed on the grass next to the short cross runway that the aircraft were parked on, it gave us a clear line to follow and allowed everyone to take their shots.
A few minutes into our shoot, the two women MiG-21 pilots walked down the runway between us and the aircraft and carnage broke out!
Local and Chinese media rushed the women, breaking the five metre rule, to film them walking to their static aircraft, and that signalled everyone else to do the same!
In a few minutes the pilots were surrounded by photographers, and were clearly looking bemused at the attention they were getting, while others walked around the aircraft taking dreaded selfies and posing in front of the aircraft.
To their credit, the security stayed calm and just monitored the situation, clearly deeming there was no issue.
If you think you recognise the female MiG-21 pilots, you would probably be correct, as they are famous for being the first female fighter pilots in the country. You may also remember the images that emerged a few years ago with them being photographed with Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, who named them “Flowers of the Sky”.
They are Jo Kum-hyang “Phoenix” and Rim Sol, who started their jet training on MiG-15UTI before progressing to the supersonic MiG-21.
The only flying on day two would be pleasure flights, but that gave us plenty of chances to shoot those aircraft plus the static exhibits in the ever-changing light.
When the flying stopped and evening approached, we walked back to the east side for the closing ceremony where, once again, David spoke to the crowd via an interpreter.
It’s very difficult to explain the feelings and emotions while being in the DPRK. Everyone was extremely friendly, and although most don’t speak English, the language of humanity has no boundaries and you always find a way to communicate. One group of local men at one of the beer stalls insisted on gifting us beers, which was very humbling considering the economic differences between us.
There were so many firsts on this weekend. First time holding a public airshow, first time allowing photography of military aircraft, and more importantly the first time we’ve been allowed to mingle with local people completely unsupervised.
Each trip like this sees small developments with the country opening up, and hopefully this will be an ongoing trend, as the people are both warm and very curious.
To next year’s event!