North Korea Aviation Tour 2014 Day 1-3 (Tu-204/IL18)
This trip report can be seen in Youtube video format from below link. It is highly recommended and work as a substitute from reading this trip report.
Flying Air Koryo Tu-204 in Business Class
Flying IL-18 North to Samjiyon and Mount Paektu
Japan’s colonial possessions, including Korea, were divided among the victors of World War 2, creating a US-sponsored South Korea and a Soviet-sponsored communist North Korea, formally the Democratic People’s Republic Of Korea (DPRK).
The Korean War broke out after five years of partition. After three years of battle with major participation by the USA and China and the loss of over two million lives, the only result was a ceasefire back at the 38th Parallel, where the border had been at the start of the war. A peace treaty has never been signed and a state of war continues to exist, over sixty years later.
The politics of this stalemate has made the DPRK one of the least visited and least understood countries in the world. However it is possible to travel there through a small number of tour operators who work in co-operation with the Korean International Travel Company (KITC), the state-owned organisation based in Pyongyang who make all local arrangements and provide guides.
One such tour operator is Juche Travel Services, with offices in London and Beijing; it’s leader, David Thompson-Rowlands, was sufficiently aviation-literate to know that Air Koryo operates hardware unique in the world, and would be of interest to enthusiasts. After months of planning with the KITC, the first aviation-themed tour of the DPRK was announced for May 2012.
The DPRK is now the only country in the world where you can reliably fly on all major Soviet era aircraft in one place. The week-long tour itineraries allow enthusiasts to fly on up to 8 different aircraft types on both scheduled international and internal charter flights. Once is not enough, so I decided to go again. I am curious to see any changes in the country and of course flying the Soviet Classic again. With that ambition I embarked on my 2nd DPRK Aviation Tour in this September.
INTRODUCTION TO AIR KORYO
North Korea’s national airline started life in 1945 as SOKAO (Soviet-North Korean Airline), flying to Vladivostok, Beijing and Chita with Li-2 and An-2. It was taken over by the DPRK’s Ministry Of Communications in 1954 and renamed UKAMPS, adding the Il-12, Il-14 and Il-18 in the 1960s. In 1975 the airline was renamed Chosonminhang, aka CAAK (Civil Aviation Authority of Korea, in the style of China’s CAAC) in time to receive it’s first jetliner, a Tu-154, opening service to Europe for the first time – to Moscow, Prague, and East Berlin with stops in Irkutsk and Novosibirsk.
The first Il-62 was delivered in 1979, opening non-stop service to Moscow and adding Sofia and Belgrade, and Tu-134s joined in the 80s for regional flights. In 1993 the airline was given it’s current name, Air Koryo, and in 2008 received a pair of Tupolev Tu-204s – one -100 and one short body -300 “SP”. Today the airline flies to Beijing and Shenyang in China, Vladivostok in Russia and operates long-haul routes to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, and Kuwait.
MY PREVIOUS TRIP REPORT ON NORTH KOREA (October 2012)
The Grand Aviation Tour Of North Korea Oct 2012 (by N178UA Dec 3 2012 in Trip Reports)
DAY 0 BEIJING BRIEFING
All tour members collected their visa (tourist paper) to DPRK and we enjoyed a great show as usual at Haitunghwa restaurant. Teaming up with Skyshirts, we’ve made a special t-shirt of Air Koryo for the tour and was sold out instantly. http://www.skyshirts.com/koryo-p-643.html
My latest book
DAY 1 BEIJING TO PYONGYANG
Flying Air Koryo Tu-204-100B in Business Class
Business Class Red Carpet Welcome
Long queue but orderly check-in
Air Koryo Business Class customer use Air China lounge in T2.
Station Manager Mr Kim received my latest book
Our plane, reg P-633 await.
Seating at 3F, last row of Business Class. Total 12 seats.
Seat Pitch is 42”. Not bad for a 1.5 hours flight.
Economy Class. Total capacity on the Tu-204-100B is C12Y164 =176
Much anticipated in-flight service started after takeoff. Cabin crew spotted wearing new blue uniform (Old one was red) advised by new leader Marshall Kim. They took their jacket off to start the service.
Korean Cider (Peach Soda)
Beer and Nuts
Sandwich for the main course. Rather disappointing as in 2012 we had a 5 course meal. This sandwich came from Pyongyang, it seems Air Koryo did not load catering from Beijing anymore.
A sandwich is surely not enough, so I asked a Koryo Burger brought up from economy class. The burger maintained consistency in taste from 2 years ago.
An unidentified airfield in North Korea during descend. We have a mid air scare onboard the Tu-204. Throughout the flight, we can feel many manual turning and follow by correction like a fighter jet, perhaps it was a training flight? At one instance the plane start to fall to the right and we can feel it is falling out of horizon, the next second a steep left correction came in resulted in some dramatic cabin movements. It was very bad but luckily that was the last turn. To this day, I still felt the trauma of those large steep turns. That was the hot topic on the dinner table that night but nobody knew what the exact cause was and what happened inside the cockpit.
Arriving at Pyongyang Sunan Airport recovering from a bad bumpy landing (very un-Air Koryo, usually their landing is perfect)
The airport main apron is undergoing construction so active Air Koryo planes are parked on the taxiway.
I am glad to set foot in North Korea again, hoping things will be better and for good this time.
The service was polite and attentive on Air Koryo Business Class. Seat was fine for 1.5 hour flight. The only disappointment was there wasn’t much food for an international flight. Two years ago, a full multi course lunch was served on fine bone China. They have cut down the food now perhaps in line with US carriers
Our hotel: Koryo Hotel (4 star standard)
Very clean bathroom
Nice room (minus the carpet) with LCD TV
DAY 2 Visit DMZ
This is the only non-aviation day out of our 8 days schedule. Our group split into three went South to the 38th parallel line (border of North and South Korea) call DMZ (Demilitarized Zone).
Our KITC guide Ms Peng Un Mee
Bumpy roads enroute to DMZ through a series of tunnels on straight road. Perhaps the military tank can also use these roads.
Yours Truly wearing an oversized Soviet cap.
South Korea is just opposite and Seoul is within an hour of reach.
Viva Iran Air at DMZ
You can take photo with North Korean soldier.
Royal lunch (Korean cuisine)
Beautiful colours of field enroute.
This is how do you take photos of the scenery fighting with bumpy roads.
So few traffic we can lay on the roads!
With my friend CK at the Reunification Monument on our way back to Pyongyang.
DAY 3 FLYING IL-18 UP NORTH TO SAMJIYON, VISITING MT PAEKTU
Highly recommended video:
The immaculate Il-18 four-engined propliner, built in 1969 and registered P-835 (c/n 185008601) is always a highlight, usually flying up to Samjiyon (YJS), near Mount Paektu, considered a sacred mountain and the place of Korea’s ancestral origin, from the kingdom of Gojoseon (2,300 BC) to the present day – it is even said that Kim Jong-Il was born there under a double rainbow. On the late 2012 trip, Mount Paektu was inaccessible due to snowfall, so Samjiyon was replaced by Orang (Chongjin) in the Northeast of DPRK where few foreigners have ever set foot.
On one tour, an American tour group shared our IL-18 ride and gave the group a good laugh when one member was overheard observing, ‘Gee – this is a really smooth flight!’ Their neighbour replied, ‘Honey – we haven’t taken off yet!’
Take off is in classic turboprop style, with a shallow but sure climb. The cabin crew, no doubt unused to passengers walking around inflight taking pictures, did their best to work around camera-toting enthusiasts to serve refreshing local Taedonggang beer.
Two charter flights (one IL-18 and one An-24) operate to Samjiyon that morning.
Takeoff and landing video:
No pollution, literally no houses but just pure nature, wood. The weather was gorgeous and improved greatly from Pyongyang.
After landing, the group were allowed to look around the cabin, cockpit and take as many photos as one would like.
Crowd gather for An-24 arrival photo/video.
After disembarking, the group is given delicious picnic lunches to enjoy while photographing P-835 from every angle on the otherwise deserted ramp. The gold standard for aviation photography is loading doors closed and steps off, and local ramp crew are happy to oblige – indeed, the steps are free for anyone who wants to use them to get a better vantage point.
I presented my latest book
There are no scheduled domestic flights in North Korea and hence no need for terminals at their provincial airports but provincial airports have a small reception facility for VIP flights and tourist charters that occasionally fly in, where it is possible to enjoy a Q&A with the crew, always hosted by the Il-18’s radio operator, who speaks excellent English, before leaving in a flotilla of old buses. Even after flying to Samjiyon, to visit the summit of Mount Paektu, on occasion the translation of it’s name, “ever-white”, is sometimes all too accurate, as a ice and snow even as late as May can block the route, resulting in an early turnback for the hotel. The view of the massive lake in the crater of the volcano is worth the trip when conditions allow
Unfortunately, the power has been cut so we have to walk up (and down) to the peak of Mount Paektu. This took more than an hour on the way up.
Crater Lake at the top.
Walking down the cable car track to the base.
Amazing view of the plain.
We also visited Rimyongsu waterfall.
We reached hotel pitch dark due to power shortage. Later on the light came back at 8pm. For many, this was their first time using candle to walk to their room.
Simple 3 star accommodation with good floor heating.
Great Leaders over Mt Paektu, sacred mountain where Kim Jong Il was born.
TO BE CONTINUED
Comments and Feedback are always welcome.