Politics couldn’t be left aside at this year’s Slovak International Air Fest (SIAF) at Malacky-Kuchyna airbase in Western Slovakia. The country shares a border with Ukraine, a country under war that suffers from Russia’s invasion since more than six months. The two main highlights of the show, the decommissioning of Slovak’s MiG-29 Fulcrum as well as the visit of two USAF F-22A Raptors can be closely linked to the war in Ukraine.
Where? Malacky, Slovakia
Chances to see the flying MiG-29s have always been few and rare, and are even more so nowadays. Put into service in 1983, the iconic Soviet design is a clear child of the Cold War. For years the airshows in Slovakia have been a safe bet to see them flying, especially when the airshow was hosted their homebase Sliac in central Slovakia.
But their numbers have also been dwindling down in recent years. As part of the division of Czechoslovakia and the unblocking of Russian debt, a total of 24 single and two-seater MiG-29 became part of the Slovak Air Force in the 1990s. Half of them underwent a partial modernization between 2004 and 2006, converting them to MiG-29AS / UBS. This comprised an upgrade of communication and navigation systems to make them compatible with NATO standards.
Despite this upgrade, Slovak MiGs have clearly been showing their age. Already in 2018 Slovakia inked a contract for 14 F-16V Bl.70/72 Fighting Falcons as a replacement. Scheduled delivery time was between 2022 and 2023, however delays in production shifted this date to not earlier than 2024. Even though Slovak’s Ministry of Defence cited “the technical service life of the 11 MiG-29 aircraft currently in service with the Slovak Armed Forces ends between 2029 and 2035”, a surprise announcement appeared about two weeks before the show: “…on August 27 and 28 you will see them at the SIAF, where they will officially say goodbye”.
SIAF 2022 was set as the farewell event to Slovakia’s MiG-29s!
After the show, three days of service were left until the official retirement. Their fate is still unsure. Obvious rumors are that the jets will be transferred to Ukraine, but Slovakia’s Department of Defense states that it still “continues to negotiate with allies on how to effectively use the decommissioned MiG-29 fighters”. In the meantime, the protection of the airspace of the Slovak Republic will be ensured by the Czech and Polish air forces from September 1, 2022 to December 31, 2023. This declaration was signed on location at Malacky - Kuchyňa Air Base on the Saturday during SIAF 2022.
After just one MiG-29 arrived for the static display at Malacky on Thursday, and only one participated in Friday’s rehearsal of the fly-by, I somehow doubted about the farewell event during the show. Words were furthermore that Slovakia only had four flyable MiGs and only three current pilots left. Fortunately by then, my minimum expectation was already fulfilled. I came to see the MiG-29 flying, and trailing its distinctive black smoke trails, coming out of the Klimov RD-33 engines.
Then also heavy thunderstorms severly delayed the departure of the MiGs from Sliac to Malacky and spoiled the timing for the Slovak-Czech-Polish QRA contract signature and the planned formation fly-by of a Czech Gripen and Polish F-16. Expectations for a Fulcrum fest at Malacky were low by then… but I should be so wrong!
FOUR MiG-29s appeared from the North, laying a distinctive black curtain of smoke over the Lower Tatra mountains. With the first fly-by at the airfield, two jets broke away, clearing the airspace for a formation display routine of the other two aircraft. This was not the best one to photograph, but it was between 10-15 minutes of joy see them turning circles, flying up and down, doing their passes. Once those two made their way to Sliac again, another came in to land. With the distinctive ‘plop’ it’s breaking chute opened, and it slowed down on the runway. Taxiing past the spectators, the MiG-29 also received a water salute. The particular aircraft was 0921, in its distinctive pixel, or digital camouflage scheme. I could not help but think that this must be the best looking Slovak MiG-29 remaining and has been specifically chosen for this part of the program. For sure some of the spectators must also have had tears in their eyes. MiG-29s have formed the basis of the supersonic tactical aviation of the Slovak Republic since the establishment of the independent Slovak Republic until today. As such, these iconic jets are related to the Slovak Air Force as no other aircraft, generations have served with them, they have protected the Slovak airspace for over 30 years, and Slovak pilots flew with them for more than 20.240 hours.
Gladly this MiG-29 was also scheduled to depart after the show. Its pilot clearly knew how to impress the crowd and please the photographers. Lifting of from the runway, he stayed low in full afterburner, and only pulled up at the end of the runway. Seeing this and getting those photos was another one from the bucket list for that weekend.
F-22 Show of Force - and a clear message further East
A show of force has also been the visit of two F-22 Raptors. They belong to the twelve jets of the 90th Fighter Squadron, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, which are forward deployed to the 32nd Tactical Air Base at Łask, Poland. Not only is their deployment an unmistakable show of force towards Russia, their arrival was also quite spectacular. Before their final landing, the two pilots performed several low fly-bys, pulling up their jets hard at the end of the runway. After a short downpour in the morning and the following high humidity, this resulted in a spectacular ‘vapor fest’ during each of the aggressive pull-ups!
The historically close relation between the Slovak Republic and Poland has also been highlighted during the commentary of the Polish Air Force’s F-16 “Tiger Demo Team” flight demonstration. The speaker did not refrain mentioning that the Polish AF will stand as an ally to Slovakia with the QRA and even explained to the visitors that Slovakia is about to receive an even more modern version of the F-16 Fighting Falcon than the one that is currently flying in front of their eyes.
Other than that, Solo Türk was present at SIAF 2022 as a second F-16 display as well as the Hungarian Gripen Solo Demo. However, my highlight of the jet presentation was the fairly new “Fundacja Eskadra / Squadron Foundation”, flying a pair of single- and twin-seater MiG-15 / Lim-2. Seeing them in front of Malacky’s Cold War style control tower was a real travel back in time, let alone hearing the very distinctive sound of their early jet engines as well as the perfect formation flying of the silver-blinking jets.
Joining the Farewell...
Additionally to that two more farewell presentations have also been present: the Czech Mil Mi-24V Hind demo and the British RAF C-130J Hercules as the transport aircraft for the Red Falcons parachute display teams. Both types will be put of of service by their respective Air Forces during next year.
The Static Display
I might be a bit biased for the static display, but the German Luftwaffe showed up strongly with a CH-53, H145M LUH SOF, Tornado IDS and an A400M. The latter clearly dominated the static display due its size. Italy also provided two Eurofighters, the Polish Navy M-28 Bryza was a type that you do not see very often as well, and the Slovaks obviously showed of their C-27J Spartan, Let 410, UH-60 Blackhawk, L-39 and a MiG-29.
SIAF 2022 Airshow Verdict
This year’s SIAF was a bit more quiet than in recent years. Efforts were very well made organizers to continue with the airshow during those post-pandemic times, which already led to the cancellation of many similar events. Even though it was not possible to attract a major European display team this year, the variety has once again been great as well as bringing in the two Raptors on the Saturday. And aircraft and helicopters of nine participating nations also made up a well arranged static display and flightline.
But for sure SIAF 2022 will be remembered as the Farewell Event for the Slovak MiG-29, whose smoketrails will sorely be missed at Slovakia’s upcoming airshows!