In August 2012 reports filtered back to the UK that the Hungarian Ministry of Defence and the Hungarian Air Force (HuAF) were organising an air show at Kecskemét for the first time since 2010. Since the previous show had been regarded as one of the best in Europe, and with the promise of Eastern European exotica, thousands of aviation enthusiasts from across Europe descended on Hungary during the first weekend of August. Michael Lovering and Ben Montgomery report from a blistering Kecskemét Airbase.
As the show approached, one thought was on everyone’s mind: Will the Russians turn up? The Russian Knights (or “Russkiye Vityazi”), flying five Sukhoi Su-27 Flankers, rarely appear outside of Russia and are notoriously unreliable at attending shows for which they have confirmed participation. It was therefore a great relief when local Hungarian spotters confirmed their arrival on the Wednesday before the show. This news added to the excitement on Thursday morning as most British enthusiasts travelled to Budapest. Upon disembarking at Ferihegy International Airport, it was impossible to ignore the other memorable element of Kecskemét 2013: the heat. Reaching highs of 38°C during the day with rarely a cloud in the sky, the weather made the whole weekend not only a challenging environment to photograph aircraft, but also to stay hydrated!
Having negotiated the complexities of the Hungarian railway network (where nobody seems to speak English!) and spent the first night in the very basic accommodation, an air conditioned coach took those enthusiasts booked on to the spotter’s package to the airbase. The packages were a new addition to the 2013 show, and provided food, accommodation, bus transfers and the opportunity to access unique viewing points for arrivals and departures. From the main gate, enthusiasts were taken on Soviet era Ural flatbed trucks to the central media hangar where meals and water were provided. This was a great facility over the course of the weekend as somewhere to meet pilots, browse the internet, stock up on water, and sit in the shade. From the central hangar, more Soviet trucks took the waiting enthusiasts to the dedicated photography locations situated at either end of the runway.
For those who did not opt to select the spotters package, there was ample space outside the airfield to view. The approach opened onto fields with (admittedly sparce) patches of shade to shelter from the fierce sun. A welcome change from the UK was the lack of regulation in controlling visitors outside the airfield – everyone was just left to get on with it, and strangely, there were no problems at all! The downside was that as no one was sure of the policy concerning the use of airband scanners in Hungary, it was a case of watching and waiting to see what arrived (which almost resulted in many missing the Su-25, which landed whilst photographers were moving to the other side of the runway to keep the sun at their back).
Arrivals Day + Static Display
The program for the arrivals day was very busy, mixing aircraft arriving for static with display rehearsals. First to arrive was a trio of Sukhoi Su-22 Fitters from the Polish Air Force, including one for the static and a pair for the flying display. This set the mood nicely for the rest of the day as more and more aircraft from around Europe arrived in the overhead, giving those present an opportunity to photograph the static participants in a more dynamic setting. The stars of the static were undoubtedly the Eastern European air arms, whom rarely if ever make the lengthy journey to the United Kingdom. The Bulgarian Air Force brought a smartly camouflaged Sukhoi Su-25UBK Frogfoot operated by the 1st Ground Attack Squadron from Bezmer Air Base, as well as a C27J Spartan as support. Adding to the static was a Ukrainian Air Force Sukhoi Su-27UB Flanker, originally hoped to be flying, but unfortunately relegated to static due to safety concerns. It was disappointing that the Ukrainians’ request to complete a short practice display after their arrival was refused, but that didn’t stop the Flanker pilots completing an aileron role out of a touch and go, before breaking into the circuit. Supporting the Ukrainian fighter was an Antonov An-26 Curl freighter painted in Ukraine’s typical stylish white and blue.
Unusually for Kecskemét – which was previously home to the Hungarian MiG-29 fleet, the only operational MiG-29 Fulcrum on display was a static example from the Slovakian Air Force (albeit a two seater MiG-29UBS in a fetching grey tiger scheme). At the Western end of the airfield 24 HuAF Fulcrums were parked in neat rows waiting to be sold since being replaced by Saab Gripens in 2010. This led to numerous comments during the HuAF role demonstrations about how good the show would have been if the MiGs were still in service! The rest of the fixed wing static was made up of the usual assortment of fighters, trainers and support aircraft that are common at many shows throughout Europe, as well as a number of preserved airframes that had previously served with the HuAF. Of particular note were the Serbian An-26, Bulgarian Su-25UBK (as previously mentioned) and a still operational Hungarian Air Force Yak-52! Unfortunately in an effort to get the spectators as close as possible to the aircraft, the static display was virtually unphotographable. The other negative about the static display was that due to the physical limitations of the airbase, many of the larger static items (including rare support aircraft like the Russian Air Force Il-76) were parked far down the end of the airfield, out of public view.
It was good to see a return gesture from the UK after the Hungarian Gripen flew at RIAT 2013, in the shape of two 100 Squadron Hawk T.1s and Tornado GR.4 “MacRoberts Reply” from XV Squadron at Lossiemouth. A special mention must also be made for the crew of the Belgian C-130H who made the most of the cool evenings by setting up a disco under the wing of their aircraft!
For helicopter fans the static contained a good assortment of rotorcraft from around Europe. Highlights included a search and rescue Mi-17 Hip from Slovakia and a civilian Mi-8 from the Ukraine. These were supplemented by a Romanian Air Force IAR-330L Puma and Slovenian Air Force Bell-412. Perhaps the most striking aircraft in the helicopter static was a German Navy Seaking Mk.41 (89+55) painted in a special scheme to mark the hundredth anniversary of the German Navy Air Arm.
The flying display was scheduled to be identical on both show days, but a number of changes were made on Sunday to reduce the long gaps that marred the display on Saturday. Pleasingly for photographers, this led to the Russian knights performing at two different times of day allowing photos to be taken in very different lighting conditions. The display began at 8AM each day with a selection of local light aircraft including flypasts from a Diamond DA40, a DA42 and a Cirrus SR22. The first jet action came in the form of a beautifully restored Soko G2 Galeb and the stunning SBLim-2 (Polish built MiG-15) operated by the Polish Eagles. While both displays were technically good, they did not benefit from the morning sun position. Furthermore, the combination of a small jet and a relatively distant display meant that the routine was not fully appreciated.
Following the slow start, after 9AM the focus switched to European military displays. It was particularly good to see a Slovenian Air Force Pilatus PC-9 in the program and the display turned out to be a very tight routine making good use of the aircraft’s impressive handling qualities. Following the PC-9, the Italian Air Force took to the air in a red and white Coast Guard Search and Rescue (SAR) AgustaWestland AW139 for a short demonstration, complete with siren. This was not to be the last item from Italy, who were great supporters of the show. Later in the day, the Alenia C-27J Spartan from Reparto Sperimentale Volo (RSV) was up to its usual aerobatic tricks, as were the always stunning Frecce Tricolori, whose late afternoon display slot resulted in some lovely photographic opportunities.
The Frecce were one of a number of display teams present at Kecskemét 2013, including some that rarely visit Western Europe. The Spanish Patrulla Aguila were present in their sleek silver and red Casa C101s and although often maligned, performed an entertaining and tidy routine. However, they were comfortably eclipsed by the Croatian Air Force ‘Wings of Storm’ flying six Pilatus PC-9s. The Croatian display was a masterclass of formation flying, and included unique figures such as a three aircraft synchronised tail-slide. The final six aircraft mirror pass was also an exceptional display of professionalism from one of Europe’s younger teams. UK display organisers should certainly look to attract this unit next year! More formations came courtesy of the bright and cheerful, but unfortunately not particularly enthralling Baltic Bees (flying Aero Vodochody L-39s) and the Turkish Stars’ six Northrop F-5As that adapted very well to the venue. The opposition passes were followed by tight turns over the crowd that added excitement to a frequently seen display – one of the highlights of which was the inverted low pass over the crowd. Of course the start act from the display teams on offer was always going to be the Russian Knights- who were initially billed to display near the end of flying on both days.
As well as the multitude of display teams, fast jet solo displays were in abundance over the weekend. The familiar impressive F16 displays from Belgium and the Netherlands went down very well with the crowd, especially the abundance of flares that were released at every opportunity. These were complemented by two very different Saab Gripen displays from the Czech and Hungarian Air Forces. The former was graceful and showed off the aircraft very well, whereas the latter was loud and aggressive. Unfortunately, despite the huge volume of fuel dumped on both days, the Hungarian Gripen didn’t manage to solidly perform its ‘dump and burn’ party piece on either day despite dumping the fuel to do so (Sunday saw a “blink and you’ll miss it” burn, but nothing like the levels of combustion seen at other displays).
The solo displays weren’t the only opportunities to see SAAB Gripens in the Kecskemét 2013 flying display. The HuAF produced two set piece role demonstrations to show off their air to air and air to ground capabilities. Both utilised five Gripens, an An-26 Curl and a Mi-17 Hip. The initial air defence routine began with a scramble and interception of a rogue aircraft and resulted in some photogenic formations as the Gripens guided the An-26 to a landing. This was followed by a three ship tail-chase with plenty of flares before a final flypast of all the fighters. The second demo also included a pleasant surprise addition in the form of a C17 Globemaster from the NATO Strategic Airlift Capability based at Papa AB in Hungary (which had been removed from the list prior to the show). The unit operate three C17s that can be utilised by smaller NATO Air Forces for whom it is uneconomical to procure a dedicated Airlift capability. The role of the C17 was to bring in ground support once the airfield had been captured by soldiers airlifted in by Mi-17. The ground forces were supported by four Gripens laying down machine gun fire and bombs. This resulted in some spectacular pyrotechnics and was very well received by the predominantly Hungarian crowd. Indeed, the pyrotechnics were so capable that they succeeded in setting the airfield aflame on Sunday – and it took some considerable effort from the fire service to extinguish the flames.
Further excitement in the flying display was provided by the Eastern European solo jets. The Polish Air Force Su22 pair displayed the character of the aircraft excellently, and it was therefore disappointing when one of the aircraft had a technical fault on the Sunday. However, the highlight of the solo jets was the rarely seen MiG-21 LanceR of the Romanian Air Force. The short and stubby MiG-21 with its small delta wings was a mainstay of Soviet Bloc air arms but the majority have now been retired. The Romanian example carries a stunning green and brown camouflage scheme and a dark blue underside and the display showed this off perfectly.
Russkiye Vityazi – The Russian Knights
By 6PM on Saturday there was a degree of nervousness amongst the crowd (especially the photographers and international visitors!), most of whom had, by that point, spent 12 hours on base in the extreme heat. The light was fading, and the time slot for the Russian display had come and gone. The Czech Mil Mi-35 Hind that had preceded the Frecce Tricolori had caused the runway to close for 20 minutes as debris was cleaned and there was anxiety that the Russians wouldn’t get to fly at all. Fortunately this anxiety was replaced by elation as the unmistakeable (and quite deafening) rumble of 10 Saturn AL31 engines dissipated across the crowd line. One by one, the Su-27s made their way onto the runway as the sun was starting to set. The display that followed exceeded all expectations. Initially all five jets flew a series of close formation passes including plenty of arcing topsides. A solo aircraft then split from the formation and proceeded to complete a well choreographed aerobatic routine interspersed with four ship passes from the remaining aircraft.
The group of four then split into two pairs and the dynamic part of the display was underway. The opposition and mirror passes were the closest and most precisely flown of the weekend, made even more remarkable by the size of the Flanker. Something certainly not to be seen under UK safety regulations were the passes in which a single Flanker broke off the display line at high speed on full afterburner to roll over the crowd at a considerably low altitude. One of the highlights of the display followed the final crossover: The two aircraft proceeded to perform synchronised tail-slides at either end of the display line whilst releasing a barrage of flares. The solo then reappeared for a series of fast passes in full burner before the finale: A formation of four aircraft pulled up at crowd centre and completed a vertical break whilst releasing the remainder of their flares. As the roar of the engines disappeared into the distance, the smoke from the flares left a towering winged figure in the sky. It’s hard to give an objective account as to “how good” the Knights were in comparison to other teams. When looking back to the likes of the ROKAF Black Eagles at RIAT 2012, it would be unfair to say the Knights eclipsed their display. On the other hand, their sheer power and physical presence of the Flanker means that as a team they surely stand in their own category, and cannot be easily compared to other jet demonstration teams. No matter what kind of enthusiast you are – this team will not disappoint!
The showground at Kecskemet lacked the ‘entertainment’ favoured by British shows, but this didn’t seem to affect the attendance of families and non-enthusiasts. On the ground, apart from the static aircraft, there was an impressive display of military vehicles, and a variety of stalls selling aviation related goods. The food was delicious and inexpensive, and plenty of drinking water was provided by both water tanks and HuAF water ration packs. Throughout the showground there were also water sprinklers to help visitors cool off in the heat – without which the number of visitors who received medical care for heat (an impressive 244) would likely have been even higher.
Kecskemét 2013 lived up to the hype. Despite disappointments such as the cancellation of the Ukrainian SU-27 display and Slovakian MiG-29 display, it was still one of the best shows in Europe this year for enthusiasts wishing to see Russian hardware. There were only a few criticisms: The flying display was probably somwhat too long. This was not helped by the frequent long gaps in the program. Whilst some of these could not be avoided, it would have been possible to reorganise the display timings when this happened. There were a number of small civilian acts that, whilst displaying an important segment of Hungarian aviation, did not work at such a large venue and were lost amongst the brilliance of the majority of the display (although as this is Hungary’s only major airshow – it would be rude to deny them the opportunity to showcase themselves). Having said this, it was the first display put on by new organisers and overall they did a very good job. Who knows what 2015 will bring, but after this year’s experience, it certainly won’t be one to miss. The only real issue with Kecskemét is that, after attending a show of that quality, how will the rest of the UK airshow season compare for those enthusiasts who made the trip.
Whilst many chose to purchase the spotters package and source accomodation through that, others chose to visit using one of the tour group trips on offer. Our friends over at 4Aviation.nl offered such a tour, and we’d like to take this opportunity to thank them for this – and to encourage you to visit their site and see what other interesting visits they have lined up!