Gidroaviasalon 2006

The annual Gidroaviasalon ("hydro-aviation exhibition") is held in the city of Gelendzhik on the Russian shore of the Black Sea.

Just getting to Gelendzhik is something of an adventure, which might well involve connecting through Moscow on a Soviet era airliner like this Tupolev Tu-134.   The Tu-134, whose NATO codename is "Crusty", entered service in 1967 and there are many still in service around the world, even though Russian and other airlines are rapidly converting to western aircraft.   But while it's still around, it's a thrill for an aviation enthusiast to ride in an airliner which still has the glass navigator's nose of its bomber predecessors.

Unfortunately you probably won't fly directly into Gelendzhik, but rather into Anapa, about 100 kilometers further up the coast.   Connecting between Anapa and Gelendzhik can be an interesting challenge, especially if you arrive at night as I did.   I ended up riding down in a beaten up old Lada with a chain-smoking couple who had showed entrepeneurial flair by turning themselves into a taxi service when they saw the dumb, rich tourist.   However, it's hard to complain because although they did charge way over the official taxi rate, the ride still only cost me $US75, which isn't too bad considering we arrived at the hotel somewhere between one and two in the morning.

Gelendzhik itself is an attractive resort town, located on a nearly circular bay with hills behind.   There's a very nice promenade along the waterfront, two separate ski-lift services to the top of the hills and trails along the top, and you can do harbour cruises and dolphin rides on the Black Sea.   The Beriev facility is just off the left-hand edge of this photo, on the north-west side of the bay.

Here's the Beriev facility along the shoreline on the day after the exhibition, from the top of the hill.   In the top right-hand corner of the photo are earthworks for a large new airport which might make getting here easier in the future, at the top left-hand corner is the small old airport which was used as a staging point for helicopters during the show.

Here's the ramp during the show, with the giant Beriev A-42 seaplane next to the fuel storage tanks, a Beriev Be-200 with a green truck parked alongside, and a trio of six-seat Be-103s just visible in front of the building at the far end of the ramp.   This photo was taken from a hot air balloon which operated each day before the show proper began, charging a few dollars to go up 30 or 40 meters for a tethered flight.   A small crowd near the water at the end of the ramp is watching a display of radio-controlled models of proposed future Beriev designs.

The facilities are noticeably run-down, it's very apparent that Beriev is operating on a shoestring and trying to survive while they market their aircraft to international buyers, which is why there's a strong emphasis on Gidroaviasalon being a trade show, with different manufacturers showing their wares in exhibition halls just beyond the buildings at the top of this photo.  This is also where a large number of food, drink and souvenir vendors operate throughout the show.

The long pier is at the edge of the Beriev facility, then there are a few private beaches and piers for holiday-goers, and a small commercial pier beyond that.   As you can see, in the morning the sun is in your face and unfortunately that's when most of the flying happens.   Gidroaviasalon is the sort of airshow you go to only once, but if I were to go again then I might try going out to the breakwater around the private beach which you can see beyond the crane, the light should be better from that angle and there should be some good angles for the flight displays too.

I did shoot from the long pier for the first two days of the show, but then two large British tour groups turned up and it seems like the security detail became uncomfortable.   Not only did they keep foreigners off the pier, they also kept us off the ramp, and they even stopped taxis from bringing me down the public road you can see in a previous photo, even though I waved my press card at them.

I brought up the matter of The Men in Big Hats in the press center, Beriev's public relations manager was apologetic but clearly felt himself to be impotent, as if the police and the even more dreaded Strelzhi in black uniforms were completely beyond his control.

There seemed to be quite a bit beyond Beriev's control, including the aircraft displaying at the show.   Most of the aircraft on the show's exhibition list were no shows, including a Be-12 "Mail" seaplane, Tu-142 "Bear" and Il-38 "May" maritime patrol aircraft, as well as Ka-32, Ka-52, Mi-6 and Mi-14 helicopters.   I'm not even sure that all of these aircraft are still in service anywhere.   The detailed show scheduled handed out in the press center each morning, timed to the minute, also turned to vapor pretty much as soon as the flying began.

Various other difficulties made life interesting for western visitors, some entirely forgiveable like a near total lack of English and high prices for food and accomodation, others less endearing such as harassment on the road by policemen hungry for a bribe, and an ongoing situation where my hotel repeatedly failed to get my papers stamped by the local police, resulting in me nearly missing my connection when I got back to Moscow, and having to bribe another policeman $US400 in full public view so that I could get out of the country!

Foreigners who I met at the show said that the number of no-shows was normal for this event, and told me their own tales of woe with Russian officialdom.   Travelling with a group instead of independently like myself was no guarantee of an easy life, either; one tour group had been told that they couldn't stay in the hotel they'd booked because it was being used by "Putin's bodyguard" (which turned out to be a concocted tale without substance), and a visit to a Russian airbase which had cost $6000 in "fees" had similarly come to nothing, and with no refund.

Still, it's better to see these situations as part of the adventure, and the regular Russians I interacted with were friendly and tried hard to bridge the gaping communication gap.   In the end I came here to see some extraordinary aircraft, and there were certainly many interesting highlights of the show, things that you won't see anyone else on the planet.

An added bonus was displays on several days of the show by the Russian jet teams "The Russian Knights" flying Su-27 "Flanker" fighters, and "The Swifts" flying the smaller MiG-29 "Fulcrum" fighters.   Apart from flying very cool aircraft, they also did things you won't see any western team doing, like flying together, doing tail-slides and making abundant use of flares both in their formation and solo displays.