WORDS & PHOTOS: ALEX PRINS
Every pastime has its hallowed ground: football has the San Siro and Wembley, theatre has the Bolshoi and Broadway, golf has its 9-hole mini-putter course on Bognor Regis seafront complete with rotating windmill. This report is a love letter to Leszno’s ‘Antidotum Airshow’, and a petition to elevate this intimate grass airfield to a legendary status among airshow venues.
There is something in the water here, a feeling in the air; even Mother Nature appears to hold this place in high regard – in four years there has yet to be significant weather disruption to a flying display, despite huge electrical storms passing within sight of the crowdline this year.
We at This is Flight have been involved with airshows in Leszno since the ‘Antidotum’ was first born out of the darkness of coronavirus in 2020. While we are no longer impartial, our enthusiasm is entirely genuine, and this reporter has yet to meet anyone that has attended an airshow here and not come away enchanted and devoted. One only has to cast an eye over the list of returnees over the past few years to understand that something pulls people back: the Swiss Air Force’s Super Puma made its third appearance in as many years and this year brought its compatriot PC-7 TEAM in tow; the Slovenian PC-9M returned for the second consecutive year; the German Luftwaffe’s first dedicated display pilot for 35 years has described Leszno as a “home away from home” and the team returned in 2023 for one of just two public events they are due to perform at each year, despite competing commitments in their native Germany on the same weekend. And that’s just the military: civilian teams have been coming from as far afield as France and the UK for years now, and Red Bull seems to give it the sort of support it otherwise only reserves for Max Verstappen.
Held once again on a Friday and Saturday, as is now customary for the event, a record audience of 45,000 spectators were welcomed on the 16th and 17th of June – with Saturday’s crowd being a sell-out. As with previous editions, the flying display commenced mid-afternoon and was divided into a ‘daytime’ and ‘evening’ block, separated by a thirty-minute intermission. This year’s break offered its own spectacle: along with the now-traditional mass hot air balloon launch, a tethered balloon at crowd centre was used to suspend Nela Sienica, an aerial silks artist who appeared entirely unphased by finding herself hanging upside down beneath a balloon at a great height.
This year’s flying programme also saw less repetition that previous editions, as most performers that took part in the night show did not fly in the daytime portion of the event at all. Johan Gustafsson, AeroSparx and the Flying Dragons, among others, all dropped their well-regarded daytime displays, such was the bumper seven-hour flying display schedule.
Those attending on the Friday enjoyed even more flying action, with several display participants taking to the air in the morning and early afternoon for display practices (how many airshows give you the chance to see the PC-7 TEAM display twice in one day?!) and an impressive gathering of PZL-104 Wilgas, which performed an entertaining formation flypast shortly before the start of the official flying display.
On both show days the flying commenced with a parachute drop from the Musée Européen de l’Aviation de Chasse (MEAC) OV-10 Bronco. Visiting for the second time from Montélimar in France, the Bronco crew this year helped to facilitate a series of jumps by the Ambassadeurs Parachutistes de l’Armée de l’Air et de l’Espace (AAE) – more conveniently known as Team Phenix. The team usually consists of six special forces paratroopers, however as they jumped from the open rear of MEAC’s Bronco, they were limited to four; as a result, the conventional display of close formation parachuting was adapted to suit. If this felt like a compromise, it was worth it for their second jump of the day, which came as part of a Vietnam-themed role demonstration. This combined display brought together the aforesaid French assets, along with Heli Czech’s AH-1S Cobra and MD-500E Little Bird, and an assortment of musical and pyrotechnic effects, in an engaging and original twenty-minute set piece. The whole scenario of mixed-formation flying, combat manoeuvres from the helicopters, and short-field operations by the Bronco, was fantastically believable considering that only the paratroopers had actual military experience.
The AAE further contributed a solo display on each day by another of their Ambassadeurs: the Équipe de Voltige (EVAA). Friday’s display was perhaps slightly less polished Saturday’s, however this was unsurprising given that the latter show was flown by Florent Oddon, who had won the FAI World Aerobatics Championship in Leszno the previous summer. This is one of the advantages that Leszno’s organising team has – being responsible not just for the airshow, but also for the management of the airfield itself and every other event that is held there, their invitation to Odden and the EVAA was already being finalised before he had touched down to receive his gold medal!
Marek Choim also flew an extremely pleasing daytime display in his Extra 330SC, which is distinguished in Europe for using a multitude of additional pyrotechnic firing points to fire up to four individual colours of smoke during any given manoeuvre. As a regular participant at Leszno, it was perhaps no surprise that he was roped into supporting a further unique set-piece, laid on by the organisers. As Marek began his take off role, an errant car was driven across the runway and parked obnoxiously. “Janusz” then disembarked, as a number of marshals made comedic attempts to remove him and his car. After a few moments, a radio call was broadcast over the public address system, announcing that the security team had come up with an ingenious solution to the roadblock. Cue novelty music, as Helipoland’s AS350 Squirrel was deployed to make use of its underslung attachment loadpoints. Janusz could only make a vain pursuit by bike as his car was carried away to show centre and dropped, before “exploding”.
This is Flight caught up with the one and only Janusz later on in the evening: in reality he is one of the airshow’s core management staff, and his only regret was just how far he had to cycle in order to retrieve his flaming car… Only in Leszno would such an original concept be dreamt up, tested at length, and then executed so well (and, indeed, by one of the show’s key staff).
Complimenting the earlier solo Extra aerobatics, Antidotum 2023 was also supported by a stalwart of the European airshow scene: the Royal Jordanian Falcons. In a heavily weather-affected European tour, the Falcons’ display over Leszno was impeccably flown in clear skies and was well-suited to the size of the venue. Those in the UK who deride the team’s appearances at larger venues such as Fairford would do well to venture further afield to enjoy them in a more intimate setting; although it may be a familiar display routine, it feels like watching a wholly different team.
The team was returning to Leszno for the first time in over a decade, and the continued rise of Leszno’s new format was reflected by another national display team at this year’s event, with the Swiss Air Force’s PC-7 TEAM. Astonishingly, given the PC-7 TEAM is now in its 34th season, Leszno was their Polish debut. The Swiss military was the first international air arm to support the rebranded Antidotum Airshow in 2021, when it first provided its Super Puma solo display, and support for the event has clearly grown. While the Puma is the least expensive and logistically challenging to allocate and deploy, the PC-7 TEAM of nine Pilatus turboprop trainers is a vastly more substantial effort, so to receive both display teams in 2023 was noteworthy.
Due to logistical constraints and tyre-related runway requirements, the PC-7 TEAM operated from nearby Poznań-Krzesiny air base, but was joined in their opening flypast by the Super Puma, operating from Leszno itself. Flying in gorgeous early evening conditions, the team’s thirty-minute display was a truly standout moment in the flying programme, and the routine was flown with all of the precision one would expect from the national display team of the Swiss Air Force. Again, they are a team well worth seeking out at a smaller venue – especially in 2023, with their substantially re-worked display routine, which includes a multitude of new, very attractive manoeuvres.
A contrasting Pilatus display was also provided by the Slovenian Air Force, whose PC-9M Hudournik solo display offers a completely different spectacle in an otherwise similar aircraft. While the PC-7 might appear visually similar to the PC-9, in reality the two airframes have very little in common, and the latter is a vastly upgraded mount that is used by the Slovenian Air Force in the combat role. In an era of shrinking inventories and dwindling international airshow support, it is commendable that the Slovenian Air Force continues to maintain a flying display at all, especially considering its modest fleet of only nine PC-9s and 400 personnel is one of the smallest in Europe. Yet, Captain Andrej Fiorelli’s solo display punches above its weight, and has rightfully won numerous plaudits at events across Europe in recent years. The routine demonstrates both the grace and combat capability of the PC-9M, with a combination of high-energy turns and rolls with flowing aerobatics and aggressive negative-G flying that showcased some of finest individual flying of the weekend.
Against such a benchmark, it felt cruel for Team Orlik to be reduced to a similar solo display due to bureaucratic shenanigans within the Polish Air Force. While the solo benefitted from the team’s dedicated smoke system, and the Orlik is undoubtedly a different machine to its Pilatus equivalent, an adapted routine by a display team’s solo pilot will never be of the same standard as a bespoke demonstration – especially one of the Fiorelli’s calibre – although both displays nonetheless proved an enjoyable watch.
Some of the remaining civilian displays in the daytime block of the programme do well to reflect the eclectic range of flying that is commonplace at the Antidotum Airshow. For the third year running an L-29 Delfin was present at the show and operated from the grass, this year’s being the airframe adorned in Czech Air Force roundels and fitted with a smoke system. In comparison with last year’s machine from an alternative operator, which lacked any smoke, this display was eminently more enjoyable, as the huge vertical manoeuvres which are commonplace in a Delfin display hold much more presence when combined with a thick smoke trail.
Further vintage aviation was provided by the Warbird Display Team, who flew an engaging routine of opposing passes and loose tail-chase formation. The WDT remains a little confusing simply because its Yak-3UPW is in the colours of the French Normandie-Niemen, which served on the Eastern Front as part of the Free French Forces, while the replica Boomerang represents a type operated exclusively by the Royal Australian Air Force. Whatever the logic, it was something different and never seen in Poland, featuring some extremely well-coordinated crossovers during a high-energy tailchase – though at nearly fifteen minutes long, the display could benefit from being shortened.
Lastly, pre-war aviation was represented by Christoph Zahn, who flew an impeccable aerobatic display in his replica DFS Habicht, complete with a low-level steep topside around Leszno’s dogleg crowdline, while waving energetically from the glider’s open cockpit.
Red Bull have of course been staunch supporters of airshows in Leszno for several years now, and this year was no different. Their most unusual contribution was Luke Czepiela’s highly-modified Carbon Cub, which had been used four months earlier to land on the helipad of the Burj Al Arab in Dubai. An overnight sensation, both in the aviation world and Poland as a whole, Luke’s feat of daring flying, ingenuity, and teamwork, could obviously not be repeated on a grass gliding field in central Poland. In one of only two public appearances in Europe for the aircraft, Czepiela instead simply demonstrated the incredible Short Take Off and Landing (STOL) capabilities of his specially modified Cub, and he and well-known engineer Mike Patey appeared on stage across both days to chat about their endeavours in the Middle East.
Czepiela also flew his Edge 540 on both show days, joining up with the Red Bull Bolkow Bo.105 on Saturday for something akin to the American ‘Red Bull Air Force’ mixed-type formation. The formation itself was very loose however, and it would be interesting to see if the concept could be tightened and repeated next season; indeed, one would not be surprised if Leszno was the site of such an attempt! The Red Bull Bolkow’s pilot was none other than Felix Baumgartner, famous for his stratospheric skydive in 2012, and who also attended a Q&A and autograph session on stage. Incidentally, his display this year was much improved in comparison with the Bulls’ Bolkow routine from last year, as Baumgartner put the helicopter through a hugely impressive aerobatic routine.
Along with Luke Czepiela and the Bo.105, the Austrian outfit sent their Chance Vought F4U Corsair, along with the ever-immaculate Flying Bulls Aerobatic Team, whose combinations of negative- and positive-G formation aerobatics remain some of the most impressive anywhere in the world. The Antidotum Airshow’s clash with the Italian centenary celebrations in Rome, along with a couple of technical issues, actually meant that this deployment was a reduced selection from the original plans; we remain optimistic that the Bulls will return en masse in 2024.
Finally, Red Bull also provided their Blanix Team of two L-13 Blanik gliders, who displayed during the most golden of hours, as the sun set over Leszno. In reviewing the 2020 Antidotum Airshow, Blanix’s display and accompanying live orchestral ensemble was described as “one of the most perfect single moments at an airshow that the authors have ever been fortunate enough to enjoy.” Time has done nothing to diminish this opinion, nor indeed did their performance this year, which was once again a flawless example of formation glider aerobatics, turns, and inverted flying.
One of Leszno’s more underrated yet no less excellent features is its continued support of The Cellos, a group of musicians from the local area. The gorgeous combination of string instruments, a perfect sunset backdrop, and the two silvered Blanix aircraft emblazoned by their own pyrotechnics, coalesced to become the most unadulterated example of the natural beauty and wonder of flight. The two gliders landed in formation before a hushed audience, and in that moment I felt moved beyond words.
This year, many of the show’s highest-profile participants flew as part of the night show. That included a full dedicated solo display by a Polish Air Force’s C-130H Hercules – seven manoeuvres, up from three last year, complete with an additional flare drops. The display was both energetic and aggressive, demonstrating some steep angles and surprising pitch and roll rates. Following that, the aircraft loitered menacingly on the horizon for two hours and returned in the pitch dark to turn night into day with a spectacular flare drop.
The Polish Air Force also once again provided their F-16 Tiger Demo team, and this year’s display pilot “Slab” flew a much-improved routine, which felt far more like a traditional Belgian or Dutch Fighting Falcon display than the staccato American-style programme of old. To further up the patriotic ante, during the break in which Slab repositioned for the finale dedication pass, the Bo105.pl Bolkow team flew the length of the runway above the Kamena Rally Team’s Polaris RZR all-terrain vehicle, each releasing a coloured smoke trail to paint a colossal Polish flag across the airfield. The F-16’s dedication pass took place over the top of this billowing flag, and was accompanied by a salvo of ground-launched fireworks.
Of note, the organisers had made arrangements for the F-16 to start its display with a crowd-rear arrival – previously somewhat taboo on the Polish airshow circuit. This permission was then extended to include some of the other visiting teams, with the German Eurofighter and Polish C-130 also arriving over the top of the crowd on the Saturday.
The final Polish Air Force display of the evening was to be its W-3W SAR Sokól helicopter, with a demonstration of the aircraft’s Search and Rescue (SAR) capabilities. The crew flew a simulated casualty recovery against a picture-perfect setting sun, though the backdrop perhaps supplemented an otherwise-forgettable role demo.
Other military participation also included the aforementioned Swiss Super Puma team, whose sunset demonstration and flare-drop finale remains a Leszno highlight, no matter how much the Antidotum Airshow grows. Earlier, the German Luftwaffe’s ‘Bavarian Tiger’ Eurofighter EF2000 solo display had also returned for a second consecutive year, with an expanded display that included plenty more afterburner and high-G; ‘Noble’ is in his second season as display pilot, and the squadron intend to maintain a demonstration team for the foreseeable future, so there is reason to believe that this display could yet evolve into one of Europe’s premier fast jet solos.
The period immediately following sunset is traditionally the most compact of the show, as a vast number of displays are squeezed in to perform short pyrotechnic displays before the official end of daytime meteorological conditions 30 minutes after sundown. This block included a notable debut by a trio of the ORLEN Grupa Akrobacyjna Żelazny, who flew with mounted pyrotechnics for the first time at a public airshow. The team’s routine was clearly also a prototype, as a sparing amount of fireworks were triggered across various aircraft at any one time – likely to pad out a limited amount of firepower. It almost exclusively features precise but genteel formation loops and rolls, rather than the energetic synchronised spins, splits and crossovers seen in their day show. Further Leszno debuts included The Acrobats from France, flying a combined aerobatic routine with an Extra 260 and a Pitts S-2S, and Johan Gustafsson in his SZD-59 “ACRO” glider. Unsurprisingly, given his World Glider Aerobatic Championships credentials, Gustafsson’s show was an outstanding display of graceful conservation of energy, and his carefully choreographed deployment of various pyrotechnic effects was outstanding.
Returning to the night show for the second consecutive year was the Bo105.pl Bolkow team, with an ever-improving pyrotechnic helicopter display; in their third year of night display flying, Maciej Dominiak and his team are evolving and diversifying their routine, and this year’s was vastly improved, with some very energetic, borderline-aerobatic night time flying, accompanied by copious amounts of pyrotechnics. The BushCat Demo Team and Obornickie Motolotnie also each offered pyrotechnic displays with their light homebuilt and microlight aircraft respectively, flying above a smattering of ground-launched fireworks. Marek Choim also flew his usual aerobatic display and pyrotechnic slalom, which this year featured pyrotechnic drones in addition to ground-launched pyrotechnics. Unfortunately, the half-dozen drones were obscured by the much larger ground pyro and felt largely ineffectual.
In terms of the quantity and quality of firework displays, these routines served as something of an amuse-bouche to the traditional Leszno finale, comprising of the Flying Dragons and AeroSparx Display Team. The Dragons this year have a more advanced, highly sophisticated LED system, and though there were occasional hiccups the improvement was marked. AeroSparx then closed the Antidotum Airshow for 2023 with their customary world-leading display of night-time formation aerobatics with fireworks. It felt noticeable this year though that the ground fireworks were a little reduced over the whole event, and when combined with a few misfires during the daytime ‘kaboom’ detonations, the overall spectacle felt… imperfect. In conversation with the organisers after the show, they disclosed that, given the importance of night displays as the core of Leszno airshows, ground-launched pyrotechnics will be a primary focus for the 2024 Antidotum event. Given that previous focused developments have demonstrably transformed aspects of the event, we are optimistic that next year’s airshow will be dramatically improved in this aspect.
A number of other themes, spectacles and display items for 2024’s show have already been discussed in confidence, and should any these come to pass, this already stellar event will take a further step towards becoming the pinnacle of European airshows.