With an impressive lineup of rare participants, the Dubai Airshow is one of a growing lineup of Middle East trade shows to take place over the course of the year. Paul Dunn reports for GAR.
Taking place during November in alternate years, the Dubai Airshow is one of several major trade shows to take place in the Gulf states. Previously held at Dubai International Airport, since 2013 the show has taken place at a purpose-built facility at Al Maktoum International Airport, situated on the western side of the Dubai Emirate.
The airshow benefits from a large, purpose-built exhibition hall where manufacturers and operators, large and small, shared stands marketing everything from high-tech weaponry and sensors through technical services to aviation memorabilia and photographs. Outside, the single, large ramp held the packed static display, which included some aircraft which would be towed out for the flying demonstration in the afternoon. The flying demo itself changed daily in terms of its content and schedule and took place over the course of around three hours in the afternoon.
The show attracted participation from a diverse selection of companies and organisations from within the region and from further afield. Highlights included a rare appearance outside China for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) display team August 1st, alongside strong participation from Russia, the US and the UAE.
The rare chance to get a look at modern UAE military hardware was a highlight for many visitors. The UAEAF provided examples of its fighter fleet in the form of a Mirage 2000-5 and F-16F in the static display, with further examples of each type performing polished flying displays on most days of the show.
In addition, the Al Fursan display team with its MB-339NAT trainers gave impressive performances, to the noticeable delight of the local audience. The Air Force also exhibited examples of its CH-47C+ and AH-64D Apache helicopters.
The UAE is, of course, home to two major international airlines; Emirates (Dubai) and Etihad (Abu Dhabi). Both carriers took the opportunity to show off their flagship Airbus A380s. In the case of Emirates, the A380 was joined by a Boeing 777-300ER with both aircraft carrying large vinyls commemorating Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founder of the UAE, in the year of the 100th anniversary of his birth. Etihad also exhibited its A320 wifi testbed aircraft and an Embraer Phenom 100E belonging to the Etihad Flight College.
The world’s foremost manufacturers of large airliners both brought their latest, competing twin-engined wide-bodies to the show; Boeing exhibited the impressive 787-10, whilst Airbus showed off the elegant A350XWB. The A350 in particular was displayed very nicely in the hands of a company test pilot, although both aircraft were only present for the first couple of days of the show before heading home to resume their test work.
Emirates Airlines committed to purchase 40 Boeing 787-10s at the airshow in a deal worth around $15.1bn. This was one of several huge deals done by both Airbus and Boeing during the show, with Airbus securing a vast order of 430 A320/321neos from Indigo Partners, a company which controls several airlines worldwide. The majority of these will go to Wizz Air (146) and Frontier (134).
In a nation (and region) noted for its wealth and opulence, it was no surprise that corporate aircraft featured heavily in the static display. Private jets ranged from the diminutive HondaJet through the latest Dassault Falcon 8X and Embraer Legacy 500 to large, luxury jets based on airliners such as a Boeing 787-8.
The US Department of Defense sent a strong delegation, including aircraft from the USAF, US Navy and US Marine Corps. Much of the participation was from aircraft deployed in theatre to support the ongoing battle against the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria, providing an interesting opportunity to glimpse military aircraft in their deployed state. As well as a pair of static F-15E Strike Eagles from the 336th FS, 4th FW, the USAF also supplied a single F-22A Raptor and F-16C Fighting Falcon for the static display, with further examples of each taking part in the flying display.
The F-22A was from the 95th FS which was, at the time, based at Al Dhafra AB, a short flight away within the UAE. The aircraft in the flying display operated from Al Dhafra and its participation was limited to two passes, which only gave a taste of the aircraft’s true ability. The F-16C display, on the other hand, was far more comprehensive and performed by Air Combat Command’s display pilot rather than a Lockheed Martin test pilot.
The Dubai Airshow gave a rare opportunity to compare a wide variety of the latest fighter aircraft from around the world. With the exception of the F-35, most of the current ‘products’ were on display, with the Dassault Rafale and Saab Gripen taking to the sky for display flights and the Eurofighter Typhoon being also represented with a Royal Saudi Air Force aircraft being displayed on the ground.
In addition to these better known types, there was a chance to see some of the more exotic fighters that are currently on offer to the world’s air arms. The JF-17 Thunder was probably the rarest of these, with a pair of aircraft from the Pakistan Air Force’s 14 Sqn ‘Tail Choppers’ in attendance, and giving an impressive demonstration in the flying display. Pakistan currently has 48 of these aircraft in its inventory, with more than 150 planned. The aircraft was developed jointly with China and has been ordered by the Myanmar and Nigerian Air Forces.
More well known, but not often seen at European airshows, the Sukhoi Su-35S Flanker is the most advanced version in the long running Flanker family. This impressive machine retains the lines of the early single-seat Su-27s and dispenses with the canard configuration which has featured on most of the advanced versions. However, it retains the vectored thrust capability and is certainly capable of some mind-blowing post-stall manoeuvres; it’s impressive display was notably graceful and flowing.
The Su-35S was just part of a strong Russian contingent at the show. The Russian Knights display team with their Su-30SMs put on a precise and enjoyable four-ship display, the team having recently re-equipped with the most advanced two seat Flanker variant and gained a slightly revised colour scheme.
Also putting on an impressive performance was the Beriev Be200ES amphibian. Wearing the smart colours of the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations, the aircraft demonstrated its primary role of fire-fighting with an impressive water drop before showing off its impressive manoeuvrability and smooth flying.
As well as the Russian delegation, there was considerable participation from Ukraine, with the Motor Sich company sending a pair of upgraded Soviet era helicopters in the form of a Mil Mi-2 and Mi-8. Antonov also exhibited a pair of interesting aircraft in the form of the An-70 and An-132. The former is a large turboprop transport, roughly comparable with the A400M, that Antonov has been marketing in various forms for nearly two decades, with little or no success so far, although the aircraft on display is much upgraded from the original product and has seen limited service with the Ukrainian Air Force. The An-132 is the latest version of the ubiquitous An-32 series and it was announced during the show that it will be built in Saudi Arabia. The aircraft in attendance flew a surprisingly nimble display, culminating in a steep tactical approach to landing.
Perhaps the most notable contribution of all to the show came from China, with the PLAAF display team, known as August 1st in honour of the date of the PLAAF’s founding, performing a rare display outside China. The team is equipped with the Chengdu J-10AY fighter, one of the PLAAF’s most advanced types in current service. The team’s display was enjoyable and well flown, but really didn’t hint at the true capabilities of the J-10 in an operational setting; that said, a chance to see any J-10s flying is most welcome and the Chinese team was a popular addition to the show lineup.
Away from the headline military participation, there was a chance to see some of the more niche products on offer, particularly to governments and air arms in the Persian Gulf region. Experience in Iraq and elsewhere has shown the benefits of smaller, slower moving but heavy hitting turboprop types, equipped with the latest precision weapons and sensors. One option is to base such machines on what would normally be considered agricultural aircraft, with the IOMAX Archangel being based on the Thrush S2R airframe and the Air Tractor AT-802 Longsword being based on that manufacturer’s AT-802. Both were on show, with the Archangel boasting a huge Wescam MX-15 sensor package, more normally associated with maritime patrol aircraft. Both aircraft were tooled up with an impressive selection of munitions and appeared to generate great interest.
Another popular option for this type of warfare is the gunship concept based on a transport aircraft. Airbus Military is now offering a gunship conversion of its successful C295 transport. The company brought its demonstrator to Dubai, equipped with a cannon firing through the paratroop door on the rear left hand side, and also exhibited a selection of ordnance (interestingly mainly Turkish built) which it intends to incorporate on the aircraft. The gunship demonstrator was accompanied by a smart C295 surveillance aircraft which will shortly be delivered to the Saudi paramilitary General Security Aviation Command.
With the Middle East remaining a turbulent but lucrative market for aircraft of all kinds, the Dubai Airshow will continue to provide a showcase for the latest technology in the years to come, with the next show scheduled take place in 2019.