Back in July, we told you about plans for North Korea’s first airshow. Now it’s time to report how the Wonsan Air Festival 2016 turned out!

Kalma International Airport in Wonsan, North Korea was the scene of North Korea’s first international airshow, dubbed the Wonsan International Friendship Air Festival 2016. In an effort to promote tourism to the hermit kingdom, the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) held the two day festival from September 24-25th. North Korea opened its country to international aviation enthusiasts with several travel agencies providing airshow packages to the event.

The Wonsan area, on the east coast of North Korea, has been targeted as an economic improvement zone and tourism area. Curiously, there are currently no international flights in and out of Kalma International Airport. Tourist flights instead arrived via Pyongyang via Beijing.

North Korea has called the festival “a non-political event organized to bring together aviation and air sports enthusiasts from around the world to share in their passion.”

The airshow consisted mainly of commercial aircraft performing straight and level flybys with military aircraft interspersed between demonstrating basic rolls and maneuvers. Aircraft spotted included the Russian built Air Koryo IL-18, the Air Koryo IL-62M and the massive Air Koryo IL-76TD. Air Koryo is the official state airline of the DPRK.

MiG-29 (Sam Chui)
DPRK MiG-29 (Sam Chui)

Military aircraft performances included a MiG-29 performing a vertical climb on takeoff. The MiG-29 made several passes in front of the crowd line performing turns and an inverted pass. Additionally,  a light division of SU-25’s performed a three plane flyby as well as a section of MiG-21’s performing a section takeoff. The MiG-21 was flown by the country’s first female fighter pilot.

“This plane is faster than other airplanes and can maneuver quickly, so there is little time to think, you must make fast decisions,” said Rim Sol, standing beside her MiG-21 on the tarmac.  Taking the opportunity for North Korean MiG-21 pilots to practice landings might also help with getting ahead of the jet (See video at 9:40 for a sporty landing).

While the military aircraft were impressive, none of the fighters carried ordnance (a common airshow practice). Based off what was seen at the airshow, determining DPRK’s ability to conduct real world missions would be difficult. Getting aircraft airborne and flying is only one step. Having a fighter or bomber aircraft shoot or drop real ordnance on actual targets is performing a much larger step.

However, the North Koreans did appear to put on an excellent show, complete with parachutists, a concurrent beer festival, and even a miniature version of a USAF F-16 flying around and popping off fireworks.

A remote-controlled F-16 fighter jet lands in front of an Air Koryo commercial airplane at the Kalma Airport after a flight demonstration on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016, in Wonsan, North Korea. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
A remote-controlled F-16 fighter jet lands in front of an Air Koryo commercial airplane at the Kalma Airport after a flight demonstration on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016, in Wonsan, North Korea. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

Charles Kennedy and Sam Chui noted in their travel report that the show had a great tempo. “Add in the excitement of the crowd and flags and bunting fluttering in a breeze that carried with it the distant thump of popular music and the whiff of frying snacks and beer, you could be at any airshow in the world, and the international group had to remind itself constantly – we’re in North Korea.”

But there was at least one surprise that Western visitors were not expecting. A four ship flyby of U.S. made MD-500 helicopters. The helicopters seen during the North Korean show were most likely units smuggled into North Korea in the past, a Seoul-based expert explained.

MD-500's at the Wonsan Air Show (
MD-500’s at the Wonsan Air Show (

“Back in the 80s, the North bribed Americans who helped to smuggle 85 units of MD-500s into the country until 1985,” Kim Min-seok, senior researcher at the Korea Defense and Security Forum told NK News. 

Made by the now defunct Hughes aircraft corporation, some of DPRK’s MD-500’s have been modified to carry Soviet anti-tank weaponry. For 30 years, the helicopters were basically a myth until they were revealed during North Korea’s traditional flying parade in 2013.

Curiously, one lingering question remains about the MD-500’s. It is not known if T.C., from Magnum PI fame, was helping to pilot one of the Island Hopper look alikes during the airshow.

You can read Sam Chui’s personal account on the airshow here.

YouTube video from Sam Chui

Top Photo: A Mig-21 aircraft is displayed during an international air show in Wonsan, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), on Sept. 25, 2016, the second day of the international air show. (Xinhua/Lu Rui)