The air arms of Eastern European states have long attracted Western enthusiasts. However, as more and more of these ex-communist nations become integrated with Europe and NATO, their military equipment tends to follow suit leading to interesting, and often colourful, Soviet types being replaced with grey fighters from the USA. Whilst Romania has indeed ordered F-16s that are due to start deliveries this year, it is still one of the last bastions of the MiG-21 LanceR in Europe. The best place to see these charismatic jets, along with the other aircraft of the Romanian Armed Forces, is the annual Bucharest International Air Show held in July at Baneasa Airport. Michael Lovering reports from a scorching Bucharest for AeroResource.
The 2016 Bucharest International Air Show (BIAS) did not get off to the best start prior to the show: Late participation announcements and a short notice change of date may have put foreign visitors off, but this was certainly not the case for the enthusiastic Romanian public who attended in large numbers over the course of the day, despite the high temperatures. The show is split into two parts: The day show and an evening show with added pyrotechnics, fireworks and flares. Almost all participants therefore displayed twice (or more!) over the course of the day, meaning a relatively small line-up could be stretched out into a fantastic day-long event: Other organisers take note!
The show opened with set pieces from both the civil and military side of aviation: The billed “Slow start” was presented by the Romanian Aeroclub: An organisation with a presence across the country that supports a wide range of general aviation activities from flying training to parachuting, gliding and competition aerobatics. The flypast consisted of eight Zlin 142 training aircraft and an aerobatic section of two Zlin 526s and five Extra 300s. After the Aeroclub formations had landed and taxied in to appreciative applause the Romanian Air Force took centre stage with a formation of eight IAR-330L license-built Pumas entering the hover in front of the crowd. These were overflown by a single MiG-21 which was followed by a formation of six IAR-330L SOCAT attack Pumas. The SOCAT variant, modified in collaboration with Israeli firm Elbit Systems, takes the base helicopter and adds an updated avionics suite, a turret mounted 20mm gun, two 7.62mm machine guns, two X-5 anti tank missile launchers and four NATO 50/70mm rocket launchers. This transforms the medium lift helicopter into a Hind-like gunship, capable of a number of anti tank roles.
Over the course of the day, the Romanian Air Force provided a number of solo displays and set pieces that were extremely popular with the Bucharest crowd. The highlight of the display for Western European enthusiasts was always going to be the MiG-21 LanceR. The Romanian MiG-21s undertook a comprehensive upgrade program with help from Israel bringing them to LanceR standard. This included an updated avionics suite, and the ability to integrate with NATO systems. As such, the RoAF MiG-21s are some of the most capable in the world. This was proven in 2007 when they undertook their first Baltic Air Policing duty in Lithuiania. The RoAF display was very aggressive, with plenty of fast passes and exceedingly quick aileron rolls. The highlight of the display was the ridiculous afterburner, which was fortunately left engaged for the majority of the routine: When full power was selected a 20 foot flame streaked from the back of the engine and the whole airfield reverberated to a visceral roar. There really is something special about 1960s Soviet technology! All flying examples of the Mig-21 at BIAS 2016 were the LanceR-C air defence variant: A shame as the A and B models sport an unusual green and brown camouflage scheme.
The solo display was not the only opportunity to see MiG-21s in the flying programme. Massed formations of six aircraft opened both parts of the show, and a pair of aircraft participated in a short air policing scenario in which they intercepted a RoAF An-30 from the 902nd Transport and Reconnaissance Squadron based from the nearby Otopeni Airport. After a number of fast passes popping flares, the fighters persuaded the Antonov to land, providing a good opportunity to photograph the ageing reconnaissance aircraft. The unit also operate one of the newest aircraft in the RoAF fleet: The C-27 Spartan. The C-27 was presented in its own solo display which, although lacking the aerobatics of the Italian Reparto Sperimentale Volo, contained some lovely low topsides that really showed off the shape and performance of this versatile transport aircraft. Trainers were represented by an aerobatic threeship of Yak-52s and an IAR-99 solo display. The IAR-99 is an indigenous advanced jet trainer that prepares the RoAF pilots for the front line MiG-21s although the aircraft was not successful in the global market, with only 20 being built for the RoAF. In addition to the solo display, a formation of 6 IAR-99s joined the mass flypasts at the show.
In addition to the fixed wing solos, the RoAF presented its two helicopter types in individual displays. For training purposes the air arm still operates six IAR-316 license-built Aerospatiale Alouettes. These helicopters, once ubiquitous across Europe, are rapidly being retired in favour of more modern offerings from Leonardo and Airbus Helicopters, so it was pleasing to see a smartly choreographed display from two RoAF examples. Pilots graduating from the IAR-316 are destined to join an IAR-330 unit. The Romanian Pumas were also given a solo display slot and provided one of the highlights of the show. It is difficult to do something new with a helicopter display as they often fall into three categories: Gravity defying aerobatics a la German Army Bo-105 and RAF Chinook, in service role demonstration like numerous European Apache and SAR displays, or tedious procession (lets not think of that 2013 RIAT Eurocopter demo!). The Romanian Puma did not perform aerobatics, did not particularly show off its role, and certainly was not tedious! Instead the BIAS crowd were treated to close and low passes in a number of configurations in some of the best light of the day. The pilot really knew how to present an aircraft and many were left thinking it was one of the best displays of the show.
A large proportion of the remainder of the display was filled with civil aerobatic items, many native to Romania. A special mention must be made for the Hawks of Romania: The Aeroclub’s national aerobatic team utilising Extra 300s aircraft. The team flew numerous times throughout the day presenting their full display twice and participating in many of the large set pieces. One of the stand-out formations was with a Boeing 737-700 operated by Tarom, the national airline of Romania. The formation flew two passes and a break, before the 737, painted to celebrate the airline’s 60th anniversary, made a very low fast pass down the runway. The Aeroclub of Romania were present with two more displays to showcase sport aviation in Romania: The Blue Wings and White Wings. The former are a parachute display team who jump from ex-RoAF An-2 transports whereas the latter fly IS-28B2 Gliders which were fitted with pyrotechnics for the evening show. The whole participation of the Aeroclub inspired confidence and local pride that the Romanian civil aviation scene is flourishing, and hopefully inspired more visitors to take up aviation as a sport.
Visiting civilian acts included Lithuanian Aerobatic champion Jurgis Kairys who performed his usual stomach-churning manoeuvres, and his associated Air Bandits team of Yak 52s led by David iacarii, who certainly brought the most impressive pyrotechnics of the evening after the sun had gone down! Red Bull supported the event well with their B-25 Mitchell and F-4U Corsair combination. The display was a mixture of formation passes and solo aerobatics with the standout components being the B-25s curved topsides along the crowdline and Eric Goujon’s fantastic aerobatic sequences in the Corsair. The pair further excelled in the evening show, where the setting sun bathed the bare metal B-25 in a wide range of warm colours.
The BIAS 2016 flying display was also well supported by European air arms, allowing the enthusiastic local crowd their annual opportunity to see some of the fast jet variety on offer around Europe. The Czech Air Force brought a pair of L159 ALCAs and their popular solo Gripen display. Unfortunately the Gripen suffered a technical problem which could not be fixed all weekend and provided the only cancellation of the show. The ALCAs on the other hand performed an unusual role demo, complete with flares and opposition passes. Having only ever seen the solo L159 demonstration in the UK, this made a pleasant and welcome change and would be good to see at a UK show in the future. The Spanish Air Force also brought a front line fighter in their EF-18 Hornet solo display. Having been off the circuit for a number of years it was fantastic to see the Spanish Air Force back supporting European shows with their smartly presented aircraft. The Hornet still managed to pull vapour out of the hot dry air and completed its impressive signature transonic pass to the delight of the crowd. The most anticipated flying participant amongst Romanians and foreign visitors alike was the Ukrainian Air Force’s Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker. Given the scarcity of Sukhoi produced aircraft in Europe it is always a pleasure to see a Flanker display, especially in the Ukrainian Air Force’s digital blue camouflage. Whilst not as agile as the EF-18, or as quick and gutsy as the MiG-21, the Flanker has a serene elegance to it as it cuts through the air. The Ukrainian display certainly exploited this, often gliding down from altitude like a soaring eagle. These moments were broken up by the raw power of the two Saturn AL-31 engines, and the physics defying tailslides and high alpha passes.
The Ukrainian Air Force brought a second Flanker for the static park, along with an An-26 as support, both of which were enthusiastically manned allowing visitors to sit in the cockpit and purchase a wide range of squadron ephemera. Alongside the Ukrainians were examples of almost every aircraft in service with the Romanian Air Force, with the opportunity to talk to crews and get up close to the aircraft. The BIAS 2016 static park was one of the best small displays seen at a recent European Airshow consisting of a number of aircraft from neighbouring eastern European countries as well as NATO and USAF support. Local neighbours Bulgaria brought a well worn Sukhoi Su-25 Frogfoot to the show that was also open for the day, allowing a rare look inside the cockpit of this cold war classic, whilst the Hellenic Air Force participated with a rarely seen Mirage 2000-5. NATO provided the biggest attraction on the ground in the form of an E-3A Sentry from Geilenkirchen. This was situated next to a USAF C-130H of the 908th Airlift Wing, based at Maxwell AFB but on detachment to Bucharest Otopeni with a mission to foster stronger ties between USAF and RoAF units. The USAF also presented a pair of F-15Cs, which unusually for a European show were not from the 493 FS at Lakenheath. These two examples had made the short hop from Campia Turzii where the 131st and 194th Fighter Squadrons had deployed as part of Exercise Dacian Eagle 2016 and pleasingly the USAF sent a single jet from each squadron to support the show.
If the full day wasn’t entertainment enough, the evening show provided a stunning backdrop for a repeat of the highlight acts from the day’s flying programme. Unfortunately it had started to cloud over for the performances of the Romanian Aeroclub’s display teams, making conditions very difficult for photography. However, right on cue as the Ukrainian Flanker started its engines for the second time of the day, the sun popped out from behind a cloud bank and bathed Bucharest in stunning golden light. This remained the case for the Spanish Hornet and IAR-330 solo allowing the gathered photographers to capture some unique images. The Solo MiG-21 taxied out just as the sun was dipping below the horizon and performed in a multicoloured sky; the gloom accentuating the powerful afterburner. Unfortunately it did not use flares like in previous years, but was impressive all the same. By the time the LanceR had recovered it was getting very dark, and the show was closed by the Iacarii Air Bandits’ Yak-52s fitted with pyrotechnics. The three-ship performed an energetic beat-up of the airfield accompanied by huge explosions in front of the crowd. The whole show was topped off by a music concert and fireworks display including a C-27 popping a full complement of flares – a true full day of entertainment.
In conclusion it was a pleasure to attend Bucharest International Air Show 2016. The organisers did a superb job of finding interesting and engaging displays from local neighbours and the wider NATO family which combined well with the Romanian components, both civilian and military, to create a truly fantastic free show that was clearly appreciated by the large crowd. Getting in and out was straightforward and, despite the summer Bucharest heat, there was plenty of shade and seating provided. The static display was small, but of great quality, and it was clear that all the crews were enjoying showing enthusiastic visitors their aeroplanes. A small criticism would be the abundance of flags on the already short crowdline, making photography difficult if you wanted to be at the front for taxiing shots, but this could be overcome by stepping back a few metres. Whether or not the Romanian Air Force is still operating LanceRs by next July, a trip to the Bucharest International Airshow should still be considered: the organisation was sublime, the weather is almost guaranteed and you will be sure to see some interesting and rarely seen flying and static aircraft. Furthermore, the Romanian people are as friendly as can be and have a huge interest in aviation. Through further joint participation in NATO exercises and operations we can but hope the RoAF and the Bucharest International Air Show will go from strength to strength in the future.