The big day: Flying in the IL-76's cargo hold
On Friday, the birthday of two tour members, the long awaited highlight was finally taking place: Flying on the Il-76 and the An-24. Yipee! And as if this hadn’t been enough, we were blessed with decent weather after two days of rain and overcast clouds. Perfect conditions for an unforgettable day!
Originally, two half-hour sightseeing flights around Pyongyang had been planned. Shortly before our departure for Korea, however, we received the information that the administration had banned such scenic flights without any apparent reason. Our tour operator didn’t just give up and cancel the flights though – he converted them into a round-trip to Sondok and back, at his own cost. This not only left us with more airtime, but also with plenty of good photography opportunities at the more laid-back Sondok airport.
The Il-76 was the means of choice for the outbound leg...
... and sure enough, there she was already waiting for us! Even just to *see* an Il-76 has become a rare highlight in my part of the world. Riding in her belly however is almost unbelievable, and definitely a once in a lifetime experience!
Accordingly excited, the mob stormed the 22-year-young freighter...
...and immediately took every corner of the huge cargo deck under scrutiny!
A quick "clean shot" of the cargo compartment ....
…and then we’re strapped down on the troop seats and get ready to rumble!
On the right, the Load Master can be observed watching his instruments (and our picnic supplies)
Unfortunately, I wasn’t lucky enough to get one of the four window seats, but even without any view of the outside world, the flight was an absolute highlight! The huge empty cargo space increased the engine noise similar to a cathedral, and when the takeoff thrust was set, we had to take care not to slip backwards on our seats. A real experience!
Luckily, one of the guys at the windows was kind enough to share his video with the world: Definitely recommended! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N1hkpo3DSn4
My roommate also took the Il-76 on the way back (while most others rode on the An-24), and was able to obtain the following wing views. Cool!
It didn’t take long till the nose was lowered, we slipped forward on our seats, the landing gear was extended, and after what felt like an eternity, with a loud screech of the 16 main gear tires, we touched down hard. Speeding along the runway was so bumpy that I feared we’d landed on the grass next to it, but finally the reverse thrust kicked in and the howling engines brought us to a halt on the small apron. Here’s a video of mine showing the inside view of the landing.: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ChMMJkgkhY&hd=1
Welcome to Hamhung!
No getting off yet though! First, we embarked on a tour of the maze that is the two-story cockpit. Yes, while the first group in March was lucky just to see the IL76, and the August group was denied visiting the flight deck, we were treated to the full show!
First I went to the lower level - the glass nose, workplace of navigator and observer
And finally, I progressed to the ultimate hotspot!
Then the outside shooting began. My friend immediately darted to a well-located photo puddle, and now there were six of us getting dirty lying at the Ilyushin’s feet. But it was so worth it!
It just looks awesome from every angle!
Wow, wow, wow!
A classical shot for the purists out there...
...and a souvenir shot for me and a Swiss colleague!
Finally we retreated to the VIP room inside the terminal to have our picnic - always observed by the great leaders!
In the afternoon we got ready for the flight home - and finally, I was able to settle my bill with the An-24, which had escaped me on an earlier visit to Cuba. Yay!
Calm before the storm when all the crazy people return…
Even though it was clearly overshadowed by the fantastic IL76-ride, I also looked forward to flying aboard the Antonov workhorse!
Before we boarded however, we were treated with watching the IL76 starting up its four engines only a few meters away, and then see it taxi around us and depart for Pyongyang. What a spectacle! Here’s my shaky attempt at recording the show on video!
While the Ilyushin was still in sight, the first few already began to run toward the Antonov to secure a good window seat. I could at least grab one with a decent view of the gear and engine, and looked forward to the ride to Pyongyang!
The An-24 really surprised me: The seat pitch was unexpectedly generous after all we’d gone through the last week, and the noise level seemed to be almost as low as in an ATR or an older Dash-8. The only thing to complain about would be the lack of an air-condition, which had us madly fanning around with the few remaining safety cards for the whole lengthy flight.
We say goodbye to the East Coast ...
...enjoy the comparatively long ride (after three jet flights on the same route) by admiring the scenery...
...and are finally being welcomed again by Pyongyang’s northern areas.
Once again, we start our now well-known approach procedure: Quickly wave at the Kyonryong Reservoir lake and then head straight for Rwy 19.
But wait, something's wrong! We are higher than usual, and suddenly a right turn is initiated! Yay, stronger winds from the north make us fly a Visual Circling onto Rwy 01! And I was sitting on the right side to collect the airport view ...
Clearly visible in the front is the active runway runway 19/01 (4'000m), then the loooong taxiway including a bridge over the channelled Taedong River, leading to the old and blocked runway 17/35 (3'500 m), and finally, to the apron and terminals. Admittedly a somewhat strange airport layout but oh well - what isn’t strange in this country?
Advantage number two of the circling: A few extra minutes overhead the pretty colourful parcel rice fields! On the right, the airport can be spotted again as we’re due to turn onto the final approach course.
Aaaaand here we are, touchdown on 01!
And yeah, I did indeed switch sides while on final. But seeing the locals *standing* in the connecting corridor behind the cockpit for the whole landing, I assumed it was safe to do so...
Aaaand even here, a cockpit shot was possible! The deep black of the panel appears quite logical, too, after we could smell the cockpit crew lighting up their cigarettes the minute after we touched down!
Even the small turboprop obviously requires a crew of four, so once more there are stations for the radio operator and flight engineer
Before we headed back to the terminal to re-unite with the IL76 part of our group, the crew quickly posed for a neat picture in front of their aircraft (also take note of the state-of-the-art passenger bus in the back!)
Overjoyed by the experienced, we were transported back to the city, completed some final sightseeing, and enjoyed one last delicious dinner (while many group members couldn’t wait to leave the Korean cuisine behind and sprint into the first McDonalds on their way, I thoroughly enjoyed it and would’ve loved to taste some more – except for the cute domestic animal starting with d... we once tried in a soup maybe [and no, it wasn't donkey]).
The next morning, the group split up: one part was flying directly to Beijing in order to catch the most modern Air Koryo plane, the Tu-204. It featured an attractive, modern cabin including LCD
displays on the ceiling, where a North Korean action movie was shown in a deafening volume. Here are three pictures of my German colleagues – on the large one, Beijing Capital International Airport and its characteristic Terminal 3 can be recognized.
Back to China in the Tu-154
I, however, opted for the "classic" version and was hoping to also get the last missing member of the “old” Air Koryo fleet: the Tu-154. While it is scheduled to carry out the flights to the northern Chinese city of Shenyang just beyond the border, it is quite often replaced with bigger aircraft.
As you can imagine, tensions were rising as we headed to Pyongyang airport for the last time and assembled in the busy departures hall. Which plane would await us on the apron?
Yay, here she is! While we weren’t treated to the Tu-154B (which would have been the oldest flying Tu-154 in the world) but “only" the slightly newer "B-2" version, we were more than happy just to get it!
We got our phones back (finding yours in a heap of shiny black iPhones isn’t the easiest of things, but mine turned out to be the one covered by a myriad of scratches…) and then we were ready for departure. Just the 30-year-old steel rocket (the fastest active civilian aircraft!) needed some time until it was ready and boarding was delayed for 30 minutes.
But then the terminal's sliding doors opened, we boarded the bus, and were brought to the Russian beauty! All hands aboard!
What a great view along the sleek wings, swept back at a 35 degree angle, and our IL
-76 in the background!
Soviet-style cabin covered with the typical wallpapers!
One last time we taxi over the Taedong River to the new runway, and finally take to the North Korean skies…!
While the Tu-154M shares its Soloviev D-30 engines with the IL
-62 and the IL
-76, we were treated to the older and much louder Kuznetsov NK
-8s on our Tu-154-B2. What an unbelievable sound – even a bit better than the other jets on the trip!
Here's a video from a friend on the other side of the cabin, Simon de Rudder: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGshjr29cQE&hd=1
Turning left after departure: Bye bye pretty rice fields!
Finally, the flight attendants served the long-awaited Koryo Burger. An apparent contradiction, if you bought propaganda postcards displaying crushed US soldiers just the day before. But only till you remember that it was actually Kim Jong-il who invented the hamburger, and not the evil capitalists!
The short flight was a walk in the park for the fast Tupolev, and before we know it, we are already in the descent towards Shenyang.
Ten minutes later, the Tu-154 is fully established on final approach to runway 06, and we enjoy the last moments aboard this exotic plane before re-entering the ordinary, boring, modern world!
As soon as we had touched down on the runway of Shenyang and the howling reversers had been silenced again, the sound of 160 phones finding a connection and downloading a week’s load of messages instantly brought us back to reality.
Well, what impression remains of North Korea? First and foremost, I was very positively surprised by the openness towards us photographers and enthusiasts.
David, the young owner of Juche Travel Services, has achieved a lot in a very short time, thanks to lots of hard work and tremendous organizational skills. The program was very packed, but this also allowed us to get the most out of our limited time in this fascinating country. More or less everything went as planned, except for the Mi-8 flight which was cancelled as the choppers had obviously been transferred to another company shortly before our visit. Apart from that, our guides were fast to improvise and provide a smooth experience for us even when stuff didn’t go according to plan. But they also did their best to tailor the itinerary to our needs, and didn’t hesitate to throw out some sights so we could take more pictures of our airplanes on sunny days.
Both inside the aircraft as well as elsewhere in the country, I had always felt safe and very well looked after. I can therefore truly recommend the tour to anyone who is interested in old airplanes and not afraid to visit a not so normal destination. Several tours have already been announced for the next year, however there are rumours that the IL
-62 won’t be used on scheduled international flights anymore and would have to be chartered at higher costs instead. I’m sure that as soon as he receives more detailed information, David will publish it on the Juche Travel website, www.juchetravelservices.com
Well, this is of course a double-edged sword. I readily admit that what we got to see of North Korea has positively surprised me and had a lasting impression. It was a fascinating exeperience that I wouldn't wanna miss. And so I come to the conclusion that from a purely and superficially touristic point of view, the country is very well worth the trip: You see attractive landscapes, impressive buildings and immerse yourself in a world that can’t be found anywhere else on the planet, which will definitely broaden your horizon. All this at a pretty high level of comfort and safety, which is why I can definitely recommend the destination to almost anybody out there. Provided of course you are willing to arrange yourself with the special travel conditions for a week (almost no communication with the outside world, continuous monitoring and observation, unorthodox beliefs and opinions, lots of propaganda sites).
That is the one, as I said superficially-tourist side. You will definitely only be seeing what the government wants you to see, and this differs quite a lot from the actual life in the country. And it can’t be disputed that lots of things in the country are going terribly wrong, and the people have to endure unbelievable suffering. This is the other side, which one should never forget.
In the end, you have to ask yourself if you can live with this contradiction. I, for myself, decided that I can. And yes, I would not hesitate to go back to North Korea. In addition to the tour cost, I spent about the equivalent of a North Korean annual salary for attractions, shows and souvenirs alone - not only in the rich Pyongyang area but also in the outlying regions. And even if this money goes to the regime people first – even those rich party members will have to buy groceries at one point, and finally the money does end up with the poor farmers or craftsmen. I am convinced that my visit hasn’t had a negative effect on any of the people, and maybe even a positive one for some. That's all I need. I am also convinced that it can only be conducive to a further opening of the country if more and more tourists get to see North Korea with their own eyes. It will not only help their understanding of the country. It also makes it harder for the regime to keep up its façade, and it also shows the locals that there is actually an outside world of people like you and me, who aren’t so mean after all!