Trip Report: Chasing Classic Airplanes To North Korea.

This is a trip report by Martijn Hoebee, who has kindly agreed to share with us his recent trip to the DPRK.

A trip to elusive North-Korea, and the opportunity to fly on a variety of classic Russian aircraft? That sounded too good to be true! I wasn’t dreaming though, it was an actual aviation tour of North-Korea organized by Juche Travel Services. As an airplane enthusiast, I love few things more then to fly on as many different airplane types as possible. Naturally I wasn’t going to let this rare opportunity pass, and I quickly decided to book myself on the July North-Korea Aviation Tour.

What would be on the agenda? First off, an extensive tour of the fascinating country, visiting several cities, landmarks and other places of interest. The added bonus, a total of 9 flights on a variety of airplane types operated by North-Korea’s national airline, Air Koryo! Air Koryo’s fleet is extremely interesting, consisting of mostly classic Russian airplanes. Most of these airplane types aren’t operated in commercial service anymore with any other airline, apart from government operators and cargo airlines. The following plane types were offered; Antonov 24, Ilyushin 18, Ilyushin 62, Ilyushin 76 (!), Mil 8, Tupolev 134 and Tupolev 154 or Tupolev 204 (depending on whether you opted to fly to Shenyang on the -154, or to Beijing on the -204).

The trip would start in Beijing, from where our tour group would take a scheduled Air Koryo flight from Beijing to Pyongyang. After spending a few days of sightseeing in Beijing, it was time for me to head to Beijing Capital airport to board my flight towards Pyongyang (FNJ). After meeting the other tour group members, consisting mainly of other airplane fanatics, we headed towards our gate where the distinct shape of the Ilyushin 62 (IL-62M) tail was already visible. Our flight today would be operated by P-881, which rolled off the Kazan-based assembly line in 1986.

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Most of us plane spotters were seated in the very aft of the cabin, close to the action of the 4 Soloviev engines. The remainder of the seats were filled by other passengers making their way to Pyongyang. The aircraft featured a great retro-interior, and had condensation coming from the air-conditioning outlets, filling the cabin with a thin mist. After everyone had boarded, we pushed back on time and the engines were fired up. The sound of these engines is absolutely gorgeous, and not like anything you’ll hear on other airplane types. On take-off the 4 massive Soloviev D-30-KU’s produced a fantastic howl which made conversation almost impossible in the cabin.

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As soon as we reached a safe altitude, the flight attendants came into action and offered newspapers, as well as a cold lunch and drinks to all the passengers. The flight was over way too soon however, and after about an hour in cruise we started to descend into Pyongyang. The gear was lowered at an unusually high altitude apparently for air-brake purposes. After a smooth touchdown the two outboard engines went into maximum reverse-thrust creating an ear deafening thundering noise. After landing there was the opportunity to visit the flight deck and to make pictures on the ramp.

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After getting familiarized with Pyongyang, as well as visiting the demilitarized zone on the border with South-Korea, it was time for 3 pleasure flights. These would be operated by the Ilyushin 76 (IL-76TD) freighter, the Antonov 24 and Mil 8 helicopter. The -76 did not have your average passenger seats as it is a cargo airplane. Instead it had folding jumpseats lined along the fuselage. All of us sat in the cargo hold during the flight which made for a fantastic experience! This 1990 Tashkent-built airplane was registered P-914.

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After little under half an hour in the air, the -76 touched down hard and taxied back to the stand. The next airplane, the Antonov 24 (AN-24RV), was already waiting for us on the adjacent stand.

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This classic turboprop was manufactured at the Aviant factory in Kiev in 1975. Her entire flying career has been with Air Koryo, as P-532. As all Air Koryo planes she was in immaculate condition. A normal passenger cabin on this airplane, however with the classic open-overhead bins, or hat-racks as they were called back in the day! The cabin was once again filled with mist as seems common on these classic airplanes. The noisy turboprop powered by two Ivchenko AI-24 turboprops took us to the sky for another 30 minute flight around the Pyongyang area.

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After arriving on the stand, the group was split in two 10-person parties, and the first boarded a bus which took us to our next pleasure flight, on the Mil 8 (MI-8T) helicopter. This example which is registed 108 (Note that there is no P- prefix as she never leaves the country) is quite a mystery chopper and there is no available data about it’s building year. She was however manufactured by Kazan Helicopters in Russia.

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108 features a 10-seat VIP cabin, complete with a couch and 4-seat booth with a table in between the seats. The noise-isolation was fantastic and the sound-level inside was the lowest of all the airplanes we flew on. The steady hand of the pilot maneuvered us over the platform to a take-off position, and took us for a quick ride circling Pyongyang airport. After landing the engines and rotor were kept running in order to board group two as fast as possible. Not before a quick cockpit visit though!

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After a great day with 3 fantastic flights, and some more sightseeing around the city, we went back to the hotel. The following 2 days we visited the very North part of the country, near the Chinese border where the sacred Mt. Paektu is located. Our airplane of choice for the 2 flights to and from Samjiyon (YJS) was P-814, a 1984 built Tupolev 134 (TU-134B3) which was manufactured in Kharkov.

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The flights were very smooth and the -134 is a joy to fly on. The cabin noise-level is rather low, and the cabin itself is spacious and comfortable. Cockpit visits as well as a walk-around on the ramp for picture opportunities were no problem in Samjiyon!

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The second to last flight of this already once in a lifetime trip, was a specially charted Ilyushin 18 (IL-18D) flight to Sondok (DSO) on the east coast. The airplane for today was P-835, a 1969 built example manufactured in Moscow. For it’s age, the airplane was in absolutely fantastic condition! The heavy turboprop wasn’t as noisy as expected and rotated quite fast on take-off.

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Again after landing in Sondok, cockpit visits as well as a walk-around were made possible by Air Koryo and the local authorities. One of the doors were opened which allowed for some great views of the massive Ivchenko AI-20 engines.

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The next day the 7-day tour was already coming to an end, and the group was divided into two parties once more. One party would board the flight back to Beijing, operated by the Tupolev 204, and the others would fly to Shenyang (SHE) on the Ilyushin 62 (IL-62M). Unfortunately for us, the Shenyang flight was very full today and the planned Tupolev 154 was “upgraded” to an Ilyushin 62. It didn’t ruin much of the fun however, as today’s flight was operated by P-885, the second -62 in Air Koryo’s fleet. P-885 is older then her sister P-881, and was constructed in Kazan in 1979.

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This short flight to Shenyang was indeed completely full, with only a few open seats available. The flight time was around 45 minutes. Take-off was once again spectacular as the cabin was filled with the howl of the engines. During the short cruise the crew served sandwiches and drinks. Again the landing gear was lowered at a high altitude while on approach to smoggy Shenyang airport. The airplane took up the entire runway for the landing roll!

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After thanking the crew we disembarked onto buses and were driven to the terminal. It was here that the remainder of the group split up and continued to their respective onward destinations. I think I can speak for everyone on the tour when I say that it was an immense success! Air Koryo and Juche Travel Services have been very accommodating to our (sometimes weird) requests, and did everything in their power to make sure that we had a good time. I can highly recommend visiting North-Korea. It is a fascinating country which is well worth a visit, even without the airplanes.

I hope you liked-reading this short trip report, and I will be happy to address any of your questions or remarks.

Martijn