Eastern Europe: tasty food, great variety of strong drinks, beautiful places and wonderful people. Budapest is certainly one of those cities that is an excellent destination for a short break with your significant other when you have something to make up for. What more could anyone wish for to go there? An airshow perhaps?
Roughly an hour away from Budapest is Kecskemét, a city with a famous music academy, named after Kecskemét-born composer Zoltán Kodály, and filled with gorgeous Art Nouveau buildings.
After the successful 2007 show, Kecskemét was also once again the scene for an international airshow in 2008, a change from the biennial schedule, celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian airforce. Joining the party were many of the finest displays on the European airshow circuit, a gathering rarely, if ever, seen together anymore.
The run-up to the event saw a number of doubts raised as to the likelihood of certain acts on the programme, doubts strengthened even further by the lack of certain practices on Friday. As it turned out, these worries were unwarranted, with the only major cancellation coming from the Slovak airforce Mig-29s due to technical difficulties. The crowd was in for a treat!
Kecskemét, Hungary's premier fighter base, is not blessed with loads of ramp space, which means there is not much parking available for the static display. Helicopters were therefore parked on the grass, allowing the public 360° viewing of the aircraft, something which is problematic for good pictures. Transport aircraft were parked conveniently however, unlike the fighters which also had barriers and people in the background. Still, the most dramatic part of the static display must have been that dedicated to the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian air force, with aircraft brought over from the museum at Szolnok: no barriers and the public allowed full access to cockpits and cargo bays of the aircraft on display, which included a Mig-23, Mig-21s, Mig-19, Su-22, Mi-2 and a Kamov Ka-26.
The show ground was a little different compared to 2007, particularly with regards to catering. There seemed fewer food stands available, with apparently only larger professional companies offering food and drinks at central catering points. At the previous show, there were many more small concession stands dotted around the public terrain, offering a variety of cheap food and drinks. 2008 saw a significant increase in prices, unfortunately with a decrease in choice. Still, the offering was varied, with something to cater for every taste, even for the most difficult people. Not all progress is positive, though, and some already missed the small concessions from last year. Toilets, while still numerous, were positioned differently as well, which for most people also meant a longer hike to answer nature's call. This was certainly problematic with a programme that doesn't offer much in the way of break time. In Western Europe, we can barely imagine picking a fast jet display for a pitstop, yet here one had little choice.
The fences along most of the crowd line were noticeably lower than in 2007, and most importantly, had their bars farther apart, allowing photographers to stick their lenses through them to get some more interesting angles, a major improvement over previous editions. Also worth mentioning was the absence of speakers along the crowdline. Instead, the PA-system relied on rockfestival-like sound towers at the back of the main public area, blasting the sound across the field, something which photographers should certainly appreciate with a view of achieving unobstructed shots.
Access to the base was easy enough, with no problems getting to the base in the morning either by car or bus, though the traffic jams in the evening were considerable when leaving the base. This was surprising considering the final 90 minutes of the programme consisted of civilian acts by one of the main sponsors, Czech airplane manufacturer Aero Vodochody. This block consisted of demonstrations by their new L-159B, the new two-seat version of the ALCA, a performance by their classic L-29 Delphin, in addition to some civilian sports aircraft. Aero was also well-represented in the static, as was Eurocopter, who even showed a French police helicopter there, albeit still with its German registration.
Kicking off the 10-hour flying display at 8:00 in the morning were other civilian aircraft, such as the Antonov An-2 Colt, Li-2, Mi-2, Red Bull's TAH-1 Cobra and BO-105 with what is undoubtedly the craziest helicopter display in the world, and Goldtimer Foundation's Po-2. Additional warbirds were also courtesy of Red Bull, with their shiny B-25 Mitchell and powerful FU-4 Corsair, thus filling a somewhat small programme gap left last year when there were hardly any warbirds at the show. Full marks to Red Bull for turning up in force and maintaining their terrific fleet of classic aircraft in an age where companies measure everything in carbon footprint. Red Bull also supplied one of the show's aerobatics displays with Peter Besenyei's Edge 540. The 2 other displays, both with Extra 300s, were flown by Slovenian Peter Podlunsek and Hungary's own Veres Zoltan with a spectacular aerobatics demonstration at extremely low level something, which would be unthinkable in Western Europe for safety reasons. The Serbian aeroclub brought along a G2 Galeb jet trainer, a type also seen in the display of the Serbian Stars display team.
Obviously, most people came to see the numerous military displays and this is where Kecskemét really shone!
Opening the military part of the programme was the Hungarian air force with a parade of the types they have in service currently: Yak-52, Mi-8T Hip, Mi-24 Hind, An-26 Curl, L-39 Albatross, Mig-29 Fulcrum and JAS-39 Gripen. This was followed by a combat search and rescue demonstration by the Hip and 2 Hinds. Later on, the Hind, L-39, JAS-39 and Mig-29 would also perform solo demonstrations. Unfortunately, the Mig-29 was prohibited from using its afterburners due to fatigue of the airframes. The demonstration aircraft looked resplendent though with a special colour scheme in honour of the Hungarian air force's 70th anniversary, with a Reggiane Re2000 painted on the top, an aircraft which saw service with the Hungarians during the first part of World War II. This was probably the final chance for most people to see the Hungarian Mig-29 in action, as the type is destined to leave service in January 2009.
The L-39 and Mi-24 solo-displays were performed with the special paint aircraft already seen last year, but still looking lovely. The finale of the Mi-24 display never ceases to please photographers. 2 pairs of Mi-8s conducted paradrops on each day, one low-level, the other medium-level. The parachutists themselves sported Hungarian, EU and NATO flags, while 3 of them even connected in mid-air to form a Hungarian flag with their parachutes, disconnecting mere seconds before touching the ground.
Neighbouring Austria took part in the flying display with a PC-6 Turboporter performing a fire-fighting demonstration. A second Pilatus came from the Slovenian air force with their PC9 solo display. Without the hardpoints under the wings, their aircraft did not look as aggressive as at previous shows, but it remains a fine routine. Belgium sent along its A109 display, its pilots needing the better part of a day to fly from their Bierset base to Kecskemét. Undoubtedly the biggest aircraft in the programme belonged to the USAF: the C-17 Globemaster III, an aircraft that will become a common sight in Hungary when NATO's C-17s start operating from Papa air force base in the future.
While other organizers might have been content with the Croatian Wings of Storm and the Turkish Stars performing at their shows, the Hungarian air force spared no effort to add another big name to the programme and eventually managed to attract the Italian Frecce Tricolori to come to Kecskemét. Obviously, the aim was to have a famous team, not a good one. This time around, their commentator was even struggling with the colours of the Italian flag, not getting them quite right. Still, this was nothing compared to the poor show of one of the wingmen, who failed to stay anywhere near his position in the main formation for a large part of the display.
Earlier in the day, on the opposite side of the spectrum of distance in formation flying, the Turkish Stars had already determined how close 2 aircraft in mirror formation can approach each other without achieving physical contact. Rather than a commentator, the Serbian Stars supported their display with loud metal music, which, while faultless, did not succeed in announcing upcoming manoeuvres.
The Croatian Wings of Storm, or Krila Oluje, are without a doubt a welcome addition to the international display scene and are much underappreciated, even more so when considering the limited number of flying hours of the team members. The addition of some display smoke would certainly add to their appeal, though their flying ability speaks for itself.
Where this show clearly stood out, however, was the number of jet displays. Perhaps the most surprising was the RAF's participant, a Harrier Gr9, as this was the only RAF Harrier display of 2008. How the organization managed this coup, much to the astonishment and dismay of the British public, remains a mystery. Still the sight of a hovering, side-slipping, backward flying Harrier was most welcome.
And what to think of this list of jet displays? Czech L-159 ALCA, Serbian G4 Super Galeb and Orao, both in special liveries, Belgian and Dutch F-16s, French Mirage 2000, Finnish F-18C, Swedish Gripen, Spanish Typhoon and a Romanian Mig-21 LanceR? From the loud bangs produced by the Orao's and LanceR's afterburners to the flares thrown out of the F-16s and F-18, Kecskemét managed to squeeze more star acts into one hour than most shows can present in a whole day.
Belgium's display ace Mickey Artiges was in superb form again wowing the crowds with his tight action-packed routine with flares for extra effect.
The Dutch F-16 demonstration pilot found himself flying a regular F-16, rather than his bling bling. J-055 had to stay behind in the Netherlands due to some technical issues. Interestingly, J-055 never performed a public display at Kecskemét, something of a disappointment to Hungarian aircraft enthusiasts. The Finnish F-18 display seems to grow better every year, while the Romanian Mig-21 pilot did his utmost to hold his own among the modern day fighters. The Spanish, on the other hand, still have some work ahead of them to breathe life into their Typhoon display, which is very sedate for a new fighter. Shorter and in a more compact airspace would be a good start. The Swedish Gripen display, while not bad, comes nowhere near the Hungarian display in the same aircraft and the Serbian Orao , even in its hideous special colourscheme, remained impressive to watch, thanks to its tight display and amazingly low pass at the end.
The enthusiastic waves and cheers from the crowd as pilots taxied past prior to or after their displays certainly helped motivate the display pilots, as did the after-show atmosphere at downtown Kecskemét which also hosted a wine festival during the same weekend, keeping everyone in a festive mood even after the show had finished. It was a giant celebration of aviation, and no one was to leave disappointed. Those who couldn't make it to Hungary that weekend could watch the show from the comfort of their homes via live internet streaming, though the atmosphere is something that would be impossible to stream. Warm, mostly sunny weather was also a nice change from the dreary grey summer which airshows all over Western Europe suffered from in 2008. The 41° during the Friday arrivals was a bit much to stomach, but the weather during the 2 showdays was certainly very agreeable. While Saturday started off grey, the clouds quickly cleared leaving a wonderful blue backdrop, which was to stay until Sunday afternoon when high clouds covered the base.
Small wonder then that this show received so many positive reactions from enthusiasts. It was without doubt the biggest European airshow of 2008, after RIAT's cancellation, and certainly the best, thanks to a superb organizational effort, well-rounded programme, the number of display items, extensive supporting facilities, the welcoming atmosphere and the positive vibes at the show. It is unlikely a show like this will be seen again, also as some types like the Hungarian Mig-29 and Serbian Orao will soon leave service, but mainly because the programme was of such rare quality.
The airshow season may not be over yet, but one can safely say Kecskemét was thé show of the 2008 European airshow year, and will probably remain unrivalled in quality for many moons to come.
by Chris Janssens Special thanks to 'Bazsi', Patrick Visser and Fabrice Henneghien
Lay-out and content by Chris Janssens, 2005 - present