REPORT: Langkawi International Maritime & Aerospace Exhibition 2017

First things first, this is not a conventional show report.  I was at LIMA in a video-making capacity, rather than photography, so I don’t possess a single still image of the event. However, due to public interest, I have decided to review the show regardless, using my videos from throughout the week. In due course, we’ll also be publishing a longer video covering all the flying displays as well as cockpit footage and behind-the-scenes access to bring you the real story of this event, but now for my impartial critical analysis instead.

We’ll start off with the flying displays, which began with the opening ceremony early on Tuesday morning. I’ll cut to the chase: having been to airshows around the world, LIMA’s opening ceremony, comprising aircraft from the Royal Malysian Air Force (TUDM) stands out as by far the most amazing performance I have ever witnessed. It began with a single F/A-18D Hornet firing a salvo of flares, with another two Hornets rushing in from crowd rear simultaneously. Next came two Su-30MKM Flankers, breaking away from the front, followed immediately by five examples of the Hawk 108/208 breaking this time from crowd rear. Next, two EC-725 helicopters approached from the rear. A further  EC-725 then proceeded to beat up the airfield with mock ordinance. Seven PC-7 Mk.IIs with coloured smoke generators came past next, followed by a trio of A400M Atlas transport aircraft, one of which broke away for a belly-up pass. As a finale, a formation of five Hawks, two Hornets and two Flankers, followed behind by the seven PC-7s approached the crowd from the front, meeting above our heads with a single Hornet flying in the opposite direction, with pyrotechnics going off by the runway. It really was a masterclass in choreographing an exciting, dynamic multi-aircraft set piece, which other air forces would to well to use as an example.

There were three aerobatic teams at LIMA this year: the Russian Knights made headlines with their debut on the new Su-30SM (albeit only four, rather than the usual five jets). The Russian Knights’ display format is somewhat unusual, with aircraft peeling off to land as the display progresses. For almost the first 15 minutes, the four-ship perform bends and reversals, invariably in simple box formation, which unfortunately caused the crowd’s attention to wan. While impressive to see such heavy jets maneuvering in formation, it did become rather repetitive and dull, with much of the crowd turning away to look at their phones. Luckily, the team then split and some dynamic two-ship crosses followed, succeeded finally by an impressive solo display for the last few minutes. This really was the redeeming factor for what was otherwise a display that didn’t live up to the hype.

The Jupiter Aerobatic Team provided a fun and entertaining routine which included plenty of crowd overflights. While their display is lacking in precision and polish, the Jupiters are an incredibly enthusiastic and personable group of pilots, and this somehow comes across in their display, which I enjoyed tremendously. On the fourth day, the Jupiters joined together with the Black Eagles (for most, the stars of the show) for an enjoyable “friendship flypast”.  The Eagles never fail to disappoint, and performed dynamic routines for the duration of the show – although it must be said that their “rolling” display for when low cloud is present seems a little bitty and doesn’t flow nearly as well as their full show.

In terms of solo fast jets, there were four displays throughout the week. The home team provided the TUDM Su-30MKM Flanker and TUDM F/A-18D Hornet. The Hornet display was a joy to watch; tight, graceful and flowing, capped off with a lovely flare drop as the finale. The same cannot, sadly, be said for the TUDM Flanker, which I listed as the world’s top fast jet display last year. This year, the impressive tailslides and spins have remained, but the closer, lower, high-G manoeuvres have been omitted. The result is a very high and distant display which, while an extraordinary technical achievement, left me feeling rather cold. It was certainly well and truly eclipsed by the Russian Knights’ solo on the same aircraft type.

Topping the bill for foreign fast jets was the AdlA Rafale C from France. France’s Rafale display is easily one of Europe’s top jet demonstrations, known for plentiful afterburner, a high roll-rate and insufferable levels of G-force. This, combined with Langkawi’s humid climate, lead to copious amounts of vapour, much to the photographers’ delight! The final aircraft on show was the RTAF  JAS-39C Gripen. Credit where it’s due, I hadn’t expected much of note from this display, so it certainly exceeded expectations with a polished and very credible show which would fit in nicely at any international airshow.

Look beyond the flying display, however, and things start to fall apart. I was at LIMA for all five days, and during the trade days, organisation was generally slick and effective, but that all goes to pot on the public weekend. Firstly, let’s talk about the static display: while the aircraft selection was good, including a US Navy P-8RSAF F-15SG and RAAF C-17, among others, the placement of the aircraft was woefully poor, with the tails of the planes protruding beyond the crowdline and thus blocking the view both left and right, wherever you chose to stand. Many of these aircraft also had their APUs running or were connected to noisy GPUs, which meant what was left of the view was obscured by heat haze emanating from the aircraft’s tails and any sound was drowned out by an irritating constant whining noise. Furthermore, there was no commentary provided here, even though it was the main viewing area for the flying display (although given the little I did hear of the commentary, I take this to be a blessing, as it was honestly the worst I have heard at any event, of any kind, at any time, in any place – more an irksome and ill-formulated shout-fest than an informative and measured narration).

The transition from trade expo to public event isn’t one which the organisers have made well, and public visitors are required to queue to register, even on the public days. Quite why this is necessary is beyond me, but selling advanced tickets would be a huge bonus and cut down massively on entry queues. Security was blissfully efficient, but the static display area is separate from the rest of the exhibition site and is only accessible through two small gates in an utterly pointless and thoroughly disruptive fence, which means there’s a 15 minute queue to get to the static display for most of the day! To add insult to injury, water is confiscated at the front of the queue (ironically, as mine was taken away, the commentator was reminding everyone to drink plenty), which means that tens of thousands of people are forced to stay for over two hours in the tropical sun with nothing to drink! I do not consider myself to be a fan of the nanny-state, but that is genuinely dangerous and should be illegal – a point nicely illustrated by the young boy who collapsed from heatstroke next to me about an hour later. When the flying display finally does end, the ludicrous organisation does not: because of that stupid fence I mentioned earlier, there is insufficient space for visitors to head straight back to the main show site, so you need to walk round the apron and through a carpark to the main road, past the registration hall and then back through security again in what is perhaps the single worst-thought-through crowd control arrangement in airshow history.

A further issue for the organisers to address is the lack of information pre-show. To take one example, the aircraft list (or “aircrafts” list, as they wrongly called it) was frequently out of date or downright incorrect and no daily schedule of performers made available to the public except through unofficial channels. A larger issue was the poor communication of the shuttlebus system, which allegedly ran between the show site and “major hotels and the town area”, but it was never mentioned how often these buses would run or where they actually pick people up from, rendering the entire system totally useless.

On the final day, I decided to visit the maritime displays at Resort World, and – well… I thought the commentator at the airport had been shockingly bad, but as they say, “you ain’t seen nothing yet”. The dual language commentary at the maritime displays was not only shouted in a thoroughly pointless way, but was also both inaccurate (factually and grammatically) and so full of filler that the important points and cues often came several seconds after the moment had passed. The display itself kicked off with what can only be described as “a couple of boats driving in circles for half an hour”. The same manoeuvres (or “formations”, as the commentators incorrectly called them), were demonstrated again, and again, and again, almost to the point that you’d think the boat’s rudders had simply jammed hard left with the throttle half-open. Just when we got to the point I was considering ending it all by jumping into the water to meet death’s cold embrace, two helicopters arrived… and also flew in circles! Then there was a CL-145 waterbomber, which demonstrated a water landing that was unfortunately performed beyond the breakwater, so all we could see was the aircraft’s tail gradually slowing down. The whole show only redeemed itself in the final few minutes, with an impressive waterbombing run and a lovely, close formation pass of the CL-145 and both helicopters, bathed in a lovely warm evening light.

And that just about sums up LIMA: a brilliant event for the enthusiast if you go on the trade days, but utterly abysmal on the public days thanks to a couple of fundamental and blindingly obvious flaws. And what can be done to rectify that problem? Well, I’ll tell you the main thing that ruined the public days of LIMA for me: that blasted fence!

Adam Landau is a Singapore-based student and avid filmmaker from the UK. He is also the founder and editor of This is Flight.