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.
Flying Tu-154, IL-62, IL-18, An-24 and Tu-134
During our visit to Wonsan Air Festival, we were given special opportunities to sample Air Koryo's well maintained and look aftered soviet aircraft fleet.
After landing in Pyongyang, our group continue on to Wonsan on either a IL-62M or a Tupolev-154B.
Here you can see our arrival aircraft Tu-204 and the IL-62M at the gate while the Tu-154B is being prepared at the background.
You probably can guess the type we're flying to Wonsan Kalma Airport from the T-shirt I am wearing 🙂
We boarded the Tu-154 via a brand new glass jetbridge!
Tu-154B, year 1976, Reg P-552
Everyone enjoying the flight!
Toilet facility on the Tu-154B.
Approaching Kalma Airport
Business Class section on the Tupolev-154B, feature 16 arm chair seats with wooden fold down table.
The Tu-154B is the only non-M version flying passengers in the world, and combines the old school charm of a spinster aunt’s apartment, and the 1970s Russian version of the Jet Age. Although the Il-62 tends to steal the show, with it’s four engines and massive wing, the 154 is an underrated gem and many tour participants come away with a new favourite type.
Brand new Kalma Airport arrival hall
Our group arriving at Wonsan
Follow by an amazing day of air show display at the Wonsan Air Festival, the next day Air Koryo conducted no less than 17 pleasure flights with all aircraft model across the whole fleet.
The paper below shows 17 pleasure flights has been planned.
Aircraft type participated in joy flight:
An-2, Mil-8, Mil-17, An-24, IL-18, IL-62, IL-76, Tu-134, Tu-154 and Piper Matrix.
The An-2 is something new that previous Aviation Tour does not offer.
They can take 8 passengers and in a camouflage livery with Air Force registration.
Flying IL-62M, P-885
Departure 12:18, Airborne 12:25, touchdown 12:50, arrival 12:57
Total 30 passengers onboard.
JTS Boss David, Charles and me in front of the mighty IL-62.
The imposing T tail look of the IL-62 when you climb up the stairs...
IL-62 cabin received refurbishment. It looks very clean.
View from the second last row, Row 27 window.
The seats can fold down to create more room onboard!
Next flight is IL-76, Reg: P-913
Departure 13:20 Arrival 13:50
Total 51 passengers onboard.
Photography is banned onboard this cargo plane. I managed to snap a few secretly!
One current type that is almost impossible to fly on, that has become a staple of North Korean aviation tours, however, is the Ilyushin Il-76. This four-engined hulk is intended to fly heavy cargo, military materiel, and sometimes soldiers. It is not normally a people-mover, so boarding is up an awkward set of steps while clutching a leather strap; once onboard, bench seating is provided down each side of a cavernous interior that could not be more designed for function no matter how hard the Ilyushin boys tried.
Cargo nets, cranes, reservoirs of hydraulic fluid and other pieces of machinery needed for either loading or safe flight are plainly on view. Only four portholes, one ahead of the high wing and one behind, on each side of the cabin, provide a view outside or allow any natural light to enter.
At the front of the cabin is a workstation for the loadmaster, who has his own instrument panel that gives a readout of the essentials – speed, altitude, vertical speed, cabin pressure, and other data. Even the obvious stuff is hard to interpret as it is displayed in metres and kilometres, not feet, miles or knots.
During taxi, takeoff and flight, the noise is thrillingly loud. Alas there is no admission to the glass nose while airborne, but tour participants are invited to visit after landing. Another fantastic addition to any aviation enthusiast’s flight log.
Deplane via backdoor
Tu-154B Pleasure flight, P-552
Departure 14:10 Arrival 14:40
Total 16 passengers onboard.
4 rows of Business Class seat in forward cabin with fold down table.
As an aviation geek, my instinct took me past the business class all the way to the very back!
The escape slide is in front of me.
Note the air intake on the engine during takeoff.
We have just 16 passengers to enjoy the entire Tu-154!
Playing Tu-154 Tetris!
Next flight is Antonov-24, P-537.
She is the oldest plane of all, made in 1966 making her 50 years old this year!
Departure 14:55, Airborne 14:57, touchdown 15:24, arrival 15:28
Total 28 passengers onboard.
The twin-prop Antonov An-24 is the oldest machine to be included in the tour. The An-24B, P-537 (c/n 67302408), delivered from the factory in Kiev in 1966 is usually the frame used. It is obvious from the unglamourous but comfortable and solid ride why this is such a successful machine, with hundreds of the 1,367 built still flying.
The cabin is divided into 2, with 3 rows in the second cabin.
Cargo Hold of the An-24
Our next flight is the IL-18, P-835
Departure 15:47, Airborne 15:51, touchdown 16:16, arrival 16:23
Total 64 passengers onboard.
The immaculate Il-18 four-engined propliner, built in 1969 and registered P-835 (c/n 185008601) is always a highlight. I trust there are not many places in the world where you can still fly a IL-18.
Take off is in classic turboprop style, with a shallow but sure climb. The cabin crew, no doubt unused to passengers walking around in-flight taking pictures, did their best to work around camera-toting enthusiasts.
The Ivechenko AI-20M engine sounds are like music to the ear!
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!’
My last pleasure flight is the Tupolev-134B, P814
Departure 16:44, Airborne 16:47, touchdown 17:12, arrival 17:17
Total 47 passengers onboard.
At the other end of the performance spectrum is the Russian rocket, the Tupolev Tu-134B delivered in 1984.
The narrow cabin, large round portholes, open hat-rack, and seats in pairs are signatures of the Cold War-style interior of the Tu-134. So is the whine of the two rear-mounted Soloviev D-30 engines – identical to the powerplants on the Ilyushin Il-62M – especially when they wind up to a screech and the rocket sprints down the runway and leaps into the sky. The landing gear, visible from the cabin, snaps up fighter-jock style as the machine rolls into a left turn at the start of the joy flight.
We have to climb up the door via laddar as there's only one staircase at Wonsan.
In flight a visit to the rear toilet is essential for a view through the famous skylight window, a portion of the rear stabiliser and stinger antenna visible. The other toilet compartment is stripped of plumbing and is used to store the two giant red engine covers.
Bottom Line on Air Koryo
The vintage Soviet fleet are immaculately maintained by Air Koryo. Most have interior refurbished with new seats installed. I personally feel very safe on all of the flights. Since 2012, more than 15 aviation tours have been conducted with zero incident. Onboard any of them is like onboard a time machine, it is definitely an unique aviation experience!
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