Located in the far northeast of the Czech Republic, close to the border with Poland is the city of Ostrava. Since 2001 the NATO Days air show, one of the Czech Republic’s biggest military events, has taken place at Ostrava’s civilian airport of Leos Janácek. One special thing about the NATO Days show is the wide variety of demonstrations performed both on the ground and in the air. Apart from the impressive ground displays presented by the Czech Armed Forces, including main battle tanks and other types of military equipment (as well as lots of pyrotechnics), visitors also get to see demonstrations by regional fire brigades, police and special forces. Military aircraft demonstrations have now evolved from solely Czech Air Force CzAF (Vzdusné síly Armády Ceské Republiky) participation into a truly internationally show for which the name NATO Days does not really do it justice. While in 2013, the list of aircraft participating, especially when compared to that of previous years was relatively low, there were still plenty of highlights on show that made the weekend of the 21st/22nd September very special for everybody who attended. As a civilian non-profit organization, the Jagello 2000 Association is the organiser of the NATO Days show. This organisation operates in full cooperation with the Czech armed forces, the Moravian-Silesian fire brigades, the Czech police, rescue services and the Leos Janácek Airport.
While the term NATO Days implies all participating aircraft come exclusively from NATO members, any visiting guests are of course a most welcome addition. Two of the highlights at this years show came from the non-NATO countries of Austria and Sweden. The southern most neighbour, impressed all with a short but very comprehensive display of a Eurofighter EF-2000 of the Ueberwachungsgeschwader from Zeltweg-Hinterstoisser AB. But some more interesting visitors were from the North in the form of a SAAB AJS-37 VIGGEN and SAAB Sk60 of the Swedish Air Force Historical Flight. Instead of the SAAB Sk60 a SAAB J-29 TUNNAN was originally scheduled to perform, however due to technical problems the SAAB AJS-37 VIGGEN was sent together with a SAAB Sk60. The relatively strong Swedish presence (including a Lockheed KC-130 HERCULES) was of course not only a gesture of good-will but also had a lot to do with the fact that the CzAF is currently leasing 14 SAAB JAS 39 GRIPEN’s from Sweden and this agreement is due to expire in 2015. According to recent reports, the current Czech government plans to extend this contract for another 12 years, however the final decision will be made after the Czech Republic’s parliamentary elections on 25th/26th October 2013). All Czech air force GRIPEN’s are based at Cáslav where they are subordinated to the 21st Tactical Air Force (21 Základna Taktického letectva). This base also hosts 19 Aero L-159 ALCA (Advanced Light Combat Aircraft), a modern development of the Aero L-39/59. Currently, the CzAF is still the sole operator of the L-159 despite intensive efforts by the Czech’s to market the aircraft to other nations. Aero Vodochody, the official name of the manufacturer, has hoped in recent years that Austria may be interested in a number of second-hand aircraft of this type as a possible replacement for their now out-dated SAAB 105's, however this option seems to be now off the table. An agreement to supply Iraq with 28 L-159 aircraft for the sum of 770 million euros has not yet been ratified either. The CzAF originally received 72 aircraft of this type of which only 24 currently remain in active service, the remainder have been put into storage.
Helicopter demonstrations at the 2013 NATO Days were also very impressive, especially in relation to tactical scenarios involving two Mil Mi-171Sh and two Mil Mi-24V helicopters. While visually quite similar to the well-known Mi-8 (NATO codename: HIP), the Mi-171 is in fact a much more modern helicopter, equipped with colour multifunction displays, integrated NVG (Night Vision Goggles) system, a laser navigation system and the efficient AMPS (Airborne Missile Protection System). A striking external feature is the attached Kevlar protective panels that minimize the risk to the crew from ground fire. The Czech Mi-171Sh fleet is currently undergoing another upgrade program that includes the fitting of a FLIR Star SAFIRE III electro-optical system and the Rockwell-Collins TWR-850 weather radar. The Mi-171Sh is an export version of the Ulan-Ude built Mi-8AMTSh. Apart from the CzAF the type is also in service with Croatia, Bangladesh, Peru and since January 2013, Ghana. The Mi-171Sh is powered by two Klimov TV3-117VM turbines rated at 1,641 kW and is capable of carrying up to 4,000 kg payload at a speed of 250 km/h, range is nearly 600km without additional fuel tanks. The CzAF currently operates 16 aircraft of this type divided between two squadrons (No. 231 Helicopter Squadron in Prerov and No. 243 Helicopter Squadron in Kbely). The Prerov base will be closed later this year and the squadron will be relocated to Námest , home base of Mil Mi-24V 221 gunship squadron.
Civilian flight demonstrations are often the exception at NATO Days, and while fitting into the overall concept of the show, it would have been quite easy to overlook the Bell AH-1S HUEY COBRA with civilian registration that was in attendance. This particular aircraft is owned and operated by local helicopter company (HeliCzech sro) and was displayed in the US Army colour scheme of monotone olive drab and came complete with a very impressively painted shark's mouth. The solo display of the AH-1S was extremely dynamic and clearly demonstrated this aircraft, at least in terms of manoeuvrability, does not belong on the scrap heap just yet. Other guests came in the form of the Spanish Patrulla ASPA, the helicopter display team of the Spanish Air Force (Ejército del Aire) operating the Eurocopter EC 120B COLIBRI. This team was only recently established in September 2003 and is stationed at Base Aérea de Armilla. The TURKISH STARS executed the grand finale of the flying program with a very precise display being flown.
Verdict: NATO Days once again proved to be a great success. This magnificent event is definitely THE show for all types of military enthusiasts and not only for those with an interest in military aviation but also for those interested in all kinds of military equipment including armour and military vehicles. Unfortunately for the many photographers in attendance, if you want to photograph the flying displays you have to be outside of the showgrounds, in the southern area (this is due to the poor lighting conditions throughout the entire day), but from there you can only follow the spectacular ground displays acoustically - C'est la vie!
Robert Kysela / CHK6
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