Lotos Gdynia Aerobaltic 2021: A Redemption?

Aerobaltic 2021
The Solo Turk was among the highlights of Aerobaltic 2021. (All images: Author)

Last weekend we have attended the LOTOS Gdynia Aerobaltic 2021 Airshow. Here’s our report.

The LOTOS Gdynia Aerobaltic Airshow took place between Aug. 20 and Aug. 22, 2021, in Gdynia, at the Babie Doły (EPOK) airfield. The first edition of the airshow was organized in 2017, and it has grown over time: from a small, night/evening show has expanded, to become a full, international event.

The first airshow only took place at the beach, while later it evolved, with the day portion being held at the Babie Doły airfield, and the night show scheduled to take place over water, with free admission guaranteed to all citizens and those willing to participate. This year the show made a twist, since it took only place at the Babie Doły airbase (with tickets for the attendees).

The avgeeks have been somewhat hungry, for a show full of jet noise, following the COVID-19 pandemic. Hence the high hopes associated with the Gdynia event. One should remember, Aerobaltic has been criticized in the past, for its overtly commercial nature – with banners of sponsors hanging everywhere. The fact that this year’s show was ticketed, and only the airfield show was taking place (probably in the light of pandemic-related worry, to gather masses at the beach in Gdynia, with limited space), did not create too high expectations.

The 2021 show program was interesting, at least on paper.

One of the selling points was the participation of the RAF Red Arrows aerobatic team, flying the Hawk jets. The Hawks are also flown by the Finnish Air Force display team, the Midnight Hawks – who also participated in the event in Gdynia. Another highlight was the participation of the Polish Team Iskry. Lotos Gdynia Aerobaltic is probably one of the last public appearances the team would be making since the Iskra trainer no longer remains operational with the Polish Air Force (being replaced by the M-346 Master). Thus, this made the event even more special.

Solo Turk, French Rafale solo display, Naval and SAR helicopters, as well as the only flying MiG-15 jet in existence in Europe (Polish Lim-2, with SBLim-2 trainer), made the event far more special altogether. All in all, the show’s program was quite appealing, and despite the uncertainty associated with a post-pandemic event, it was worth giving it a shot.

We arrived in Gdynia on Thursday and decided to have a look at the rehearsals before the event.

This is when a minor incident occurred. The Team Iskry was positioned at the end of the runway when the nosewheel on one of the aircraft collapsed. Three jets were supposed to be flying that weekend. Sadly, however, only two took part in the displays during the show. The aircraft, flying a beautiful farewell program, displayed in a two-ship formation, did several interesting flypasts and break. 

Aerobaltic 2021
Nose gear collapse for a Team Iskry jet.

Another major vintage aircraft highlight was the display of the only European single-seater example of the MiG-15 (Polish license-built Lim-2), which did its display with SBLim-2 – the trainer variant. The program presented by those aircraft was interesting, with beautiful formation flypasts done by two vintage Cold War jets. It may only be hoped that the Polish MiG-15 would make it to the European airshow arena since it is a unique sight to behold. There were, actually, two Lim/MiG displays on the show’s schedule – the second one was done jointly with Artur Kielak, flying barrel rolls and forming up alongside the two historical aircraft, flying his XA-41. It also needs to be said that the SBLim/MiG duo is a perfect airshow export material, being so unique on the European air show scene.

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MiG-15 duo.

The usual, piston-driven aerobatic aircraft acts were the solo displays by Kielak, Łukasz Czepiela (Zivko Edge in Red Bull Colors), and GA Żelazny display team, flying the Zlins. They were, however, overshadowed by the heavy metal, and acted rather as placeholders – unfortunately. Three unlimited aerobatic displays, in one show, may be found boring by some of the audience members – for people who are not really into aviation, three Extra solo displays may be perceived as a single act, regardless of how good the display is.

When it comes to warbirds, privately owned Yak-3 was representing its species, with an interesting display, nonetheless flown in a quite conservative manner, with broad safety margins. It would be a major omission, however, to leave it out of our report.

Another super interesting highlight of the show were the helicopter displays. Three of these were included in the program. The first one was very unique – it was the Polish Navy’s SH-2G Super Seasprite display. Very good flying skills were exhibited by the crew, even though the Kaman was not doing much display flying in recent years. Furthermore, only two remain in service, with the crews already participating in conversion training, to fly the AW-101, soon to be procured by the Polish Navy’s Air Arm (the Kaman crews are soon expected to engage in a type conversion training, so the replacement seems imminent). The second helicopter display was flown by the Czech Air Force W-3 SAR helicopter. Here, we could witness masterful flying with steep angles and dynamic repositioning of the airframe. The third display was a very good SAR demo (but it was rather a role demo display than a full, dynamic display), flown by the Polish Navy’s W-3 WARM Anakonda platform. All three helicopter demos should be considered to be a highlight of their own. Finally, we could also witness a demo by the Czech Mi-24 and Mi-171 – appearing in the sky in an act that could be compared to a beautiful ballet of two deadly machines – some interesting elements of that display include a vertical climb with the helicopters facing one another, and climbing in rotating motion, which has been a display of masterful airframe control.

Polish Navy’s SH-2G Super Seasprite.

When it comes to the team displays, the Midnight Hawks have also put up an interesting show, with their thick, white smoke and poetic flying. Notably, one of the jets was painted in the 40th anniversary livery for the Finnish Air Force, which made the formation much more interesting. The ‘blue’ Hawk was also flying a solo act, without the team.

Midnight Hawks.

The second Hawk team was the RAF Red Arrows. Apart from flying the iconic formations and opposition passes (hammerhead break. swan, Big Vixen Roll), the team also made a sort of dedication pass, painting a Polish flag, with the white and red Polish national colors in the sky. This must have been, probably, the first time, the Reds did that. Maybe, if the organizers invited the Saudi Hawks, we would have been dealing with a true Hawks Meet. Nonetheless, both teams flying the BAE Hawks have tackled the tough challenge of keeping the eyes of the Polish crowd pointed into the sky. Noteworthy, this has been the first time since 2009, for the Reds to appear in the sky over Poland.

Red Arrows

When it comes to fast jet displays, two stood out in the program.

The first one was the Solo Turk F-16 display team from Turkey – which is almost most certainly, one of the best F-16 displays around. The Greek or the Polish F-16 display teams have their routines not too different from the USAF’s Viper Team East.

The Solo Turk display is an entirely different animal, altogether. The routine is dynamic, full of high-G maneuvers, and also audience interaction. During all of the flypasts – low- or high-speed passes – the pilot kept waving his hand at the audience. Furthermore, and this is unusual, the team’s announcer provided his commentary in Polish, pleasing the crowd, already entertained by the quite spectacular flying.

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Solo Turk

The Swedish Gripen solo display was different when compared to the European (Hungarian, or Czech) Gripen acts.

Major Peter Fällén showcased this jet’s short-field capability well, taking off at a very short distance, and stopping the aircraft to zero also quickly – putting the canards to work and using them as a massive airbrake. The flying has also been quite interesting, and different from what we are used to seeing in the case of the solo Gripen displays. Noteworthy – Fällén has flown his last ever solo display in Gripen in Gdynia. The organizers decided to help him celebrate that, preparing a water salute – a classy act.

JAS-39 Gripen.

However, it was not a good decision to put Gripen, in the show schedule, behind the next, major highlight: the French Air Force’s Rafale Solo Display.

The Rafale is a sight to behold.

Its thrust-to-weight ratio and the turn rate make this jet simply spectacular – it is insanely overpowered, so the display is violent, spectacular, and leaves the audience in awe. Interestingly, apart from wearing a special, blueish livery, the French fighter also wore new markings: French Air and Space Force (AAE) (FrenchArmée de l’Air et de l’Espace). It was on July. 13 2019, when President Macron announced the creation of a Space Command within the French Air Force and the transformation of the French Air Force, into the French Air and Space Force. The renaming was officially done last year on Jul. 24. 2020. The new logo, meanwhile, was unveiled on Sep. 11. 2020. In our opinion the Rafale solo display has to be one of the best fast jet displays around – only the Russian Air Force Su-35 can compete with the French routine. The display is fluid, intense, and has numerous, smooth transitions between all maneuvers.

French Rafale.

An interesting surprise stunned the audience on Sunday, when the Malbork-based MiG-29 Fulcrums (QRA ones), made a couple of passes over the airfield in Gdynia, where the airshow was held. With the Polish Air Force having currently no actively flying display teams, this also pleased the audience very much, also adding to the attractiveness of the show for the foreign attendees. The Fulcrum is one of the most famous Polish airshow export goods, and it is always appreciated abroad. Now, given the ‘airshow hunger’ that could be felt among the Polish spotters’ community, a couple of passes, with a roar of afterburners, evoked nothing but enthusiastic reactions.

Polish MiG-29.

Interestingly, the organizers also decided to do a live stream of the event, free of charge – which is a novelty, especially considering the fact that the western air shows charge you for access to a live stream. They claim, that they have gathered audience of 50,000 people, globally. Well done!

One weird thing was the media process. The accreditation/media passes could have been retrieved at the Gdynian Galeria Szperk shopping mall, but not on the showground. This could have been quite troublesome for people who had no means of transport of their own, and, generally, it would be better to handle the media passes at the showgrounds entrance. The spotters’ area and the media area were separated (with no stand for the photographers arranged in the media area), but the media were allowed to take photos from the spotters’ stand. It was a bit confusing at first.

Team Iskry

Some of the display acts were performed twice – probably to fill in the timeframe envisaged for the air show – from 10 AM until 5.30 PM. As this could have been appreciated by the spotters and enthusiasts (as they got to see some of the aircraft twice and get more opportunities to take good shots), for an average airshow attendee this might have been boring. Maybe, instead of trying to fill in the space, the organizers could have made a compromise: let the people hang out at the airfield until six, even with the dynamic displays finished. There were plenty of aircraft to see in the static display anyway (including, for instance, a German Navy P-3 Orion, German Eurofighter, Polish MiG-29 and Su-22, Polish Navy helicopters, and so on). The static was not nearly as impressive as the static display at RIAT, or in Ostrava, but this has not been the main focus of the Gdynian event.

Overall, this year’s Aerobaltic lived up to the high expectations of the hungry aviation geeks. The claim the biggest air show in Poland might have been true for this year’s season. We will see, whether it remains that way in the future. Nonetheless, we need to admit that Aerobaltic has finally gained some well-defined personality, and it has been a quite decent event – well organized, with interesting highlights, a good venue, and with a high entertainment value. We do hope it would stay that way. One could risk a statement, that the changed formula, without the evening portion at the beach, might have (surprisingly) done the show some good.

During the show, we were working together with Sam Wise of UKAR. Make sure you check out his review as well.

About Jacek Siminski
Standing contributor for TheAviationist. Aviation photojournalist. Co-Founder of DefensePhoto.com. Expert in linguistics, Cold War discourse, Cold War history and policy and media communications.