REVIEW: Gdynia AeroBaltic Airshow 2019

WORDS: ADAM LANDAU & ALEX PRINS | PHOTOS: ALEX PRINS

What is it about the Baltic region that has made it so suitable for the development of new airshows? Earlier this year, we reported from Jurmala in Latvia, where the year-old airshow is already on a path to becoming one of Europe’s best. Then, mere weeks later, we arrived for the third edition of the Gdynia AeroBaltic Airshow, which is easily among the continent’s finest already.

In less than three years, AeroBaltic has grown from a modest flying display on Gdynia City Beach, to an enormous military and civilian festival of flight, spread over two locations on three days, and featuring up to ten hours of daily flying displays.

By splitting AeroBaltic between two venues, the organisers have effectively created two parallel shows, each catering for important, but differing, demographics. Gdynia-Kosokowo Airport hosted the main flying and static displays on Saturday and Sunday – an event pitched squarely at spotters and enthusiasts, with refreshingly few non-aviation features in the showground. A smaller, free-to-attend three hour display, held on Friday and Saturday night at Gdynia City Beach, featured mostly smaller, civilian aircraft. It served not only to promote the main event at the airport, but also to appeal to a much broader audience, with the area packed with funfair rides, activities and other entertainment.

What is truly remarkable about AeroBaltic however, is not its size, but the calibre of aircraft that it was able to attract in only its third year. Perhaps the most impressive contributor to this year’s show was the Ukrainian Air Force, who provided a Sukhoi Su-27P1M Flanker for the flying display, as well as a further Flanker, an Il-76 Candid, and an extremely rare international appearance by an Su-24 Fencer on static display. The Flanker was displayed by Colonel Yuriy Bulavka, who made a very impressive airshow debut at the Royal International Air Tattoo one month previously. In that time, he seems to have grown even more comfortable in his new role, wringing more out of the enormous airframe than we’ve seen from any Ukrainian Flanker display in recent years. A spectacularly lengthy flare dump was a fitting finale to the thunderously powerful display, which proved one of the high points of the weekend.

The second of two headline acts was the Saudi Hawks, selecting Gdynia as their sole European appearance of the year. The Saudi Hawks ultimately proved the less impressive team, beginning their display with several minutes of formation aerobatics, which unfortunately felt quite distant at times. This section also exposed some less-than-perfect formation keeping, and a significant number of “smoke crimes”, with jets failing to engage their smoke system or setting the wrong smoke colour. Unlike many jet teams, the more dynamic second half of the display started not with a spectacular break, but a bizarre separation into two smaller formations conducted well away from the airport – a missed opportunity, perhaps, to grab the crowd’s attention before commencing the much more entertaining second half, which featured some impressive breaks and opposition passes.

Surprisingly, given that AeroBaltic was Poland’s largest airshow this year, the Polish Air Force’s own contribution was fairly modest – limited to just two displays, in fact! Team Orlik made a very welcome appearance, flying with great presence and flair, despite being down to just four PZL-130 Orliks this season. The team also staged an Orlik Memorial Flight, featuring three PZL-130s and two T-6 Harvards. A promising start, with pleasing formation passes, then ran into a lengthy sequence of loosely-choreographed solo manoeuvres which, unfortunately, ran on far too long.

The second Polish Air Force display of the weekend took place only on the Saturday; a single Sukhoi Su-22M-4 Fitter performed a one-off solo demonstration, down from the more usual two-ship tactical display seen at other events in Poland and Austria this year. While not the most aggressive display of the weekend, this was a very in-your-face routine that gave the Su-22 a great presence, and brought it pleasingly close to the crowd at times. The solo featured flypasts in various configurations, from high-speed wings swept passes to “dirty” landing set-up, all interspersed with a great deal of flares, which were released throughout the course of the display. The chance to see a Fitter in the air was surely relished by the show’s foreign visitors, and the aircraft did not disappoint.

The bulk of the flying display came from a huge variety of civilian performers, from classic jets such as the TS-11 Iskra, to the Falcon 2000 ultralight – and almost everything in between. While the civilian displays are too numerous to describe in full, stand-outs include the Zelazny Aerobatic Group, flying an impeccably precise routine with three Zlin Z-50s; the Firebirds Aerobatic Team’s varied performance with two Extra 330LCs and one Extra 330SC; and an interesting display by the the Arctic Eagles with an Ultimate 10-300, Pitts S-1S, Christen Eagle II and Pitts Model 12. While one of the higher displays of the day, the Arctic Eagles’ display included some very imaginative manoeuvres, including a double opposition loop.

The Polish-built AT-3 had a strong presence at the show as well. Flying three examples of the type, the 3AT3 team performed not just their own formation display, but also joined up with an Antonov An-2 for some entertaining formation flypasts, and participated in a nine-ship formation of AT-3s on the Saturday.

Special mention must also go to two solo aerobatic pilots: Artur Kielak flew one of the most aggressive and precise aerobatic displays we have ever seen in his XtremeAir XA-41, and Jurgis Kairy’s Su-31 display, which was also immensely accomplished – if noticeably higher than usual thanks to the show’s 100 foot altitude minima for aerobatic manoeuvres.

Perhaps the most keenly awaited civilian displays of the weekend, however, came from the Swedish Air Force Historic Flight. On Saturday, the Flight displayed the J-34 Hunter, followed by their gorgeous two-seat Saab SK-37 Viggen on Sunday. The Viggen’s display, particularly, had plenty of presence, and the short field landing and subsequent take-off mid-way through the routine showed off the jet’s impressive short field performance to good effect. Sadly, however, the layout of the showground, with its short but deep crowd area, meant that only a select few could enjoy this spectacle. Only a very small section of the crowdline was accessible to the general public, as it was mostly blocked by hospitality tents and grandstands. The problem was exacerbated by the position of the speakers, mounted on tall scaffolding towers in front of the crowd, which further limited the view of the general public; surely placing these towers further back into the crowd area would make the speaker coverage even more effective, while at the same time improving the view of those watching the flying displays?

With Saturday afternoon’s flying complete, a break of approximately three hours followed, before the evening flying display began at Gdynia City Beach (although traffic congestion leaving the airport would make it very difficult for spectators to attend both events in full). The beach is both an excellent, and a terrible venue for an airshow; the shape of the coast prevents faster aircraft from getting anywhere near the spectators, thus limiting the display items to small aerobatic aircraft and helicopters. It must be said, however, that the appeal of hosting an airshow right in the city centre, surrounded by rides, funfairs and other attractions, must be an enormous crowd-puller and will have certainly contributed to the 300,000-strong audience.

The sole military aircraft at the beachside element of the show was a Polish Navy W-3RM Anakonda, which was also a part of the day show at the airport. The W-3RM performed a Search and Rescue demonstration at both venues, which saw it deposit a crew member to rescue a downed airman, and then airlift him to safety. It was joined at the beach by 3AT3, the Zelazny Aerobatic Group, Artur Kielak and several pyrotechnic air displays: the TS-11 Iskra (although the firing and timing of the Iksra’s pyrotechnics left much to be desired), Marek Choim in the Extra 330SC, Johan Gustaffson in the Thorp  T-18 and a novel and imaginative performance by the Flying Dragons paramotor team, featuring lights and pyrotechnics synchronised to music. The Aerosparx Display Team closed the show, firing a spectacular array and quantity of pyrotechnics, augmented by further fireworks on pontoons in the bay.

One of the most common criticisms of many European airshows is that the enthusiast experience is being eroded by the organisers’ desires to appeal to a broader audience by any means possible. While this is undeniably important, and has its place, it can so often leave enthusiasts feeling short-changed or forgotten. Gdynia’s greatest asset is its twin-venue system, which allowed the main airshow at the airfield to be completely isolated from the mass-market appeal of the evening displays in the city. The result proves that aviation is still a marketable product in its own right, and while carnivals and live music are all bound to increase the general appeal of many aviation events, it is still perfectly possible to hold a successful, large-scale airfield-based show that is all about the aircraft – and nothing else.

Of course, no airshow is perfect, and the Gdynia-Kosokowo Airport showground could do with a serious redesign to improve viewing of the air displays. That aside, however, the organisers of AeroBaltic seem to have discovered an excellent model that appeals to two key demographics, without letting the two conflict with each other – a concept of which other airshow organisers would be wise to take note. That, coupled with its extraordinary ability to attract some of the rarest and most eagerly anticipated airshow acts around, must surely place Gdynia AeroBaltic in good stead for the future.