In Part One of Flying Colors from North Korea: A Unique Aviation Adventure we booked, traveled, and arrived to Pyongyang, North Korea.
Our first flight on board Air Koryo’s Tupolev Tu-204 from Beijing to Pyongyang was quiet and relaxed. But the coerced introduction to North Korean culture was impressive.
In this second installment, we fly all of Air Koryo’s aircraft and offer a detailed insight on our unique experience.
Flying Rampage in North Korea
After an early wake-up call, aided by loud propaganda music emerging from the city center, a very conservative breakfast followed: some of dinner’s remains, plus fried eggs and a few Western choices.
Our convoy then departed from downtown Pyongyang to the airport—a route with which we would become very familiar in the following days—while our guides described the wonders the city has to offer and continuously instructed us about what and what not we could take photos of.
“Our guides described the wonders the city has to offer and continuously instructed us about what and what not we could take photos of.”
The first flying day consisted of four joyrides on Air Koryo’s Ilyushin IL-62 and IL-76, Tupolev Tu-134, and Antonov An-148—glorious Soviet-based technology immaculately kept on North Korean soil.
The second day saw three additional flights on an antique Antonov An-24, the revered Ilyushin Il-18, and the three-engined Tupolev Tu-154.
The Ilyushin Il-62
The Il-62 was one of our group’s favorite Cold War era passenger jets. Its four rear-mounted Soloviev D-30KU turbofan engines, along with its super-tall T-tail make it one of the most interesting airplanes ever built—at least aesthetically. Seeing one up close, and having the opportunity to fly it, was truly an amazing experience.
Our aircraft happened to be the very last Il-62 in passenger operation worldwide. Delivered in 1979, it is one of the 193 units built at the former Soviet Kazan factory, and is kept in pristine condition, despite rarely being in operation as newer Tu-204s and An-148s have taken over Air Koryo’s flights.
“The Il-62 is the flagship of the Soviet era”
“The Il-62 is the flagship of the Soviet era,” Charles Kennedy said. “I would say it’s the Boeing 707’s most direct relative and, for me, the pride of Air Koryo’s fleet.”
Before the flight, Air Koryo boarding passes were distributed, and each passenger was thoroughly screened at the airport—a procedure that would be repeated for every flight we’d take.
A brand new bus took us to a remote stand where the aircraft and crew happily awaited for us, enthusiasts stoked for a unique and very rare flying opportunity.
Upon boarding, most of the passengers ran to the rear end of the cabin—unusual for seasoned travelers who often love to sit up front, where all the nice perks and conveniences are given.
But given the chance to feel the unique sound and vibrations of the four Russian engines, we wanted to sit right next to them.
“For an aviation enthusiast, the Il-62 creates delirious harmonies, which aren’t just as sweet as music, they are music.”
“People love to sit in the back of the house because of the loud characteristic of the aircraft,” Kennedy explained. “For an aviation enthusiast, the Il-62 creates delirious harmonies, which aren’t just as sweet as music, they are music.”
And Italian aviation devotee Paolo Loati couldn’t agree more. “I chose to sit in 27A, right in front of the four engines,” he said. “I was told that, once the Pilots apply full throttle, you’re wrapped in a noise cloud that brings you to ecstasy.”
In fact, when the Il-62’s crew turned the vintage engines on, taxied, and powerfully departed from Pyongyang’s runway to the eastern airport of Wonsan, the sound was akin to some heavenly music that’s nowhere to be found but in North Korea.
“The sound is a mix of loud acutes and basses—mostly acutes—perfectly harmonized in a crescendo symphony,” said Loati, who determinedly filmed all stages of the flight on the -62.
Once the seatbelt signs were turned off, an inflight fiesta began, with all the passengers standing up, taking photos, and sneaking around the different cabins of the 37-year-old airliner.
While our tour guides were emphatic about not taking photos during takeoff and landing, the passengers immortalized even the smallest of details of each airplane we flew on: The open-faced overhead bins, vintage window shades, old and worn seatbelt signs, and unique features like the Il-62’s ‘secret’ rear compartment—located behind the engines—where the black boxes are installed.
Our first flight departed from Pyongyang and arrived at rainy Kalma International Airport, in Wonsan—a port city east of the capital Pyongyang.
A group of airport staff, military, and hostesses awaited us as we were free to wander around to take photos of our aircraft, its crew, and the brand-new US$200 million terminal, set to open in November, intended to attract overseas tourists to the nearby ski resort in North Korea’s eastern mountains.
Despite the rain and cold temperature, we aviation fans exuberantly ran around the airport’s ramp to get the best shot of the Il-62.
We took some of the nicest photos from right behind the airliner, which had its auxiliary power unit (APU) turned on. Because the unit’s exhaust pipe was aimed right at the ground, the powerful blast managed to dry the damp floor and heat up any adventurers who dared to stand right below it. Quite a unique opportunity: to be dried up by a powerful Russian turbine.
After our return flight into Pyongyang, it was time to fly an even more unusual aircraft. Not an airliner. Not a military plane. It was the mighty Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane.
The Ilyushin Il-76MD
These days, hitching a ride on a cargo Soviet airplane is something of which most civilians can only dream. Built in 1990, the Il-76 on which we hopped was one of the last ever made.
Also equipped with four loud Soloviev D-30 engines and a loud APU installed in the right landing gear compartment, the thunderous experience began as soon as we reached the airport’s ramp. From there, we could feel the turbine’s strong vibrations in our bones.
Air Koryo’s crew helped each of the passengers climb the removable stairs into the dark, super-large cargo compartment, fitted with unpadded, bench-like seats aligned along the fuselage’s insulation, which acted as a back support for passengers.
One of the most surprising things to see was the loadmaster being strapped to a chair while his assistant stood with no harnesses attached to him.
Once the stairs were unhinged and secured with a seatbelt inside the cargo bay—blocking the emergency exit—the four engines were turned on. The feeling was indeed unique: loud sounds and super strong rumbles.
“The scent in the cabin was reminiscent of old, burned engine oil and dirty tools.”
The behemoth Russian cargo plane began taxiing, although we passengers found it difficult to notice, as there were only four small windows to let sunlight inside the bay. The scent in the cabin was reminiscent of old, burned engine oil and dirty tools—surely something that will be hard to forget.
Lined up with the runway—and everyone anxiously awaiting an odd, yet thrilling, experience—our IL-76 powered up, creating one of the loudest sounds I had ever heard. We roared down the runway and became airborne into choppy air. The expression on everyone’s faces was somehow seducing.
“The -76 is not designed for passengers,” Kennedy said. “There is no nod to human sensitivity, which translates to an ear-shattering volume of the four engines.”
Kennedy compared this airplane to riding on an underground train, “but the noise means you’re on the outside of the carriage.”
After 25 minutes flying around outer Pyongyang, we were allowed to wander inside the cargo bay, though the crew was strongly against our taking photos.
We returned to the airport after performing an eerie approach—engines repeatedly accelerating and decelerating, and high banks and turns—which made the ride even more appealing, although I sensed an overall sentiment of relief among our group once the deafening thrust reversers were deployed to slow the 400,000-pound beast down on terra firma.
The whole experience, which ended with a visit to the aircraft’s large cockpit and navigation deck, was truly staggering. Probably the last time most of us will ride on a 26-year-old Russian cargo jet.
The Tupolev Tu-134
Our next ride was on Air Koryo’s Tupolev Tu-134. Delivered in 1984, this aircraft was the third-last ever produced of its type. Curiously, it was one of Tupolev’s most successful airplanes, and the first to be certified by UK airworthiness rules.
According to Kennedy, this aircraft type was used in Russia to train fighter Pilots. Its high performance and maneuverability made it a perfect trainer for the military.
Passengers were eager to board the narrow-body jetliner, and the airline’s crew seemed equally eager to welcome us. Once inside, most of us sat in the rear section of the aircraft to enjoy the quaking engine effects, just as in the IL-62.
Air Koryo’s Tu-134 featured a cabin that was tall enough to stand up in. However, the seat pitch on every row was very tight. Blue curtains worked as the ubiquitous window shades of current aircraft, giving a vintage feel. Even though the airliner was well kept, it showed strong signs of aging.
Our quick flight—again, to Wonsan—took less than 35 minutes.
Ron Levin, a Boston-based aviation fan on his first visit to the DPRK commented on the smooth flight characteristics of the 134. “The engines didn’t roar quite as loudly as the IL-62’s, but it was still every bit as awesome as I’d hoped,” he said. Other enthusiasts were equally enchanted with the airplane, all enjoying the views outside the windows.
The excitement was such that, after landing, a 25-minute line wasn’t enough for all of us to visit the aircraft’s cockpit, which was incredibly well kept, despite its age.
The Antonov An-148: Air Koryo’s “Finest”?
The first day’s final ride bumped us four decades ahead: to a brand-new Antonov An-148 delivered in 2015. The newest and most advanced aircraft in Air Koryo’s fleet is the airline’s latest attempt to modernize its fleet.
Able to carry up to 85 passengers, the Ukrainian-made aircraft was certified under European regulations to attract Western carriers to purchase it. Yet, only few airlines have invested in the aircraft, deeming it a commercial failure.
After being on the venerable Tu-134, boarding Air Koryo’s newest airliner was a striking contrast. This one still smelled new on the inside. Its full-glass cockpit was the antithesis of the superbly analog aircraft we had flown earlier.
LED lights, dropdown screens, a neat 3-2 seat configuration, and closed overhead bins gave away the aircraft’s newness. The engine’s silent performance and the plane’s smooth flying capabilities were characteristic of modern air travel—but the overall opinion of our group wasn’t very positive.
“This aircraft just doesn’t feel right,” said an enthusiast who preferred to remain anonymous. “The seat pitch is really tight, and during takeoff and landing it moves awkwardly.”
Besides that awkward and tight feeling, I had the North Korean authorities to thank for making my flight less than enjoyable. I had attached my GoPro camera to the window to record a time-lapse video of our flight, until one of the escorts sat next to me and started yelling, “This is a GPS!”
After he angrily demanded to see all the photos and videos I had taken, it took the assistance of one of the tour guides to calm the guy down. It was one of the most aggravating moments of my life, which thankfully ended with little more than shivers and a strong headache.
Following this uncomfortable encounter with North Korean hostility, I decided to lay low for the rest of the trip and only take photos that others were taking as well, following the rules to the best of my abilities. Fearing for one’s safety trumps capturing beautiful photos.
Our An-148 joyride lasted 25 minutes, and we returned to Pyongyang to meet those in the group who had remained on the runway taking close-up photos of the aircraft we’d flown—an excellent option for those who were traveling on a more restricted budget, as each joyride cost around $230.
The Antonov An-24: North Korea’s Workhorse
The following day, the flying frenzy continued—this time on one of the most successful Soviet aircrafts of all time.
With a little more than 600 units still in service around the world, the Antonov An-24 is one of the manufacturer’s best aircraft, built to operate in the harshest Soviet conditions: ice, dirt, gravel, anything.
“The -24 is a true workhorse,” said Kennedy, as we walked to the rear door of the aircraft. “It’s capable, simple, reliable, can land and take off anywhere, and a comfortable ride.”
The 50-year-old turboprop aircraft is indeed kept in pristine condition. Its retro cabin, separated by hardwood bulkheads and hinged doors, takes one back to the Soviet era. Windows were fully draped in light-blue curtains, contrasting with the white and beige cabin.
This aircraft surprised everyone for its silent and stable performance. Takeoff was stunningly quiet. During our almost 35-minute flight, the An-24 not only seamlessly surfed the clouds, but handled turbulence very well for a Russian aircraft.
After landing, the cockpit was opened for photography. It was great to note how this was the only aircraft we’d seen that had a black instrument panel, as other Soviet airliners had turquoise-colored ones, a common setup that would reduce eye strain during instrument flights back in the Soviet days.
The Ilyushin Il-18
The next aircraft was perhaps the most sought-after. Deemed the Soviet Union’s first long-haul airliner, the Ilyushin Il-18 is one of Air Koryo’s jewels. It allowed the Korean airline to open the important direct route to Moscow and, today, it’s the last Il-18 in commercial operation anywhere in the world.
Our group applauded out of excitement when the airport’s bus dropped us off in front of the majestic ‘18’, with its imposing blue propellers and impeccably polished fuselage.
The impressive, four-engined -18 waited on the ramp for yet another round-trip to Wonsan. The excitement of everyone on our tour was palpable, as this aircraft was the reason that many had come to the DPRK in the first place.
One of the tour guides told us that the aircraft had been commissioned as the Presidential aircraft for Kim Il Sung. But today it is used for regular commercial flights within North Korea.
The -18’s cabin was not only wide and comfortable, but the seat pitch on every row was more than generous. The main cabin was separated from the front end by an enormous galley, which, curiously, was fitted with a vintage refrigerator. It would have been at home in any 1980s-themed American diner.
The most attractive features of this superb airliner were its blue Soviet Cold War propeller blades. During flight, they were incredibly quiet and stable.
“The Il-18 is a graceful bird where nothing happens in a hurry,” Kennedy said. All of the passengers rejoiced as the aircraft smoothly carved the North Korean skies.
After landing in Wonsan, I had the opportunity to chat with the Captain, who, unfortunately, didn’t speak any English. Our tour guide was kind enough to translate, and I managed to ask Pilot-to-Pilot questions that made him smile. Sadly, though, he didn’t know any of the American-made planes I fly back home: Cessnas and Beechcrafts. Still, having the chance to speak to a highly regarded fly-man from North Korea was a big highlight of my trip.
Once back on solid ground, all the crew posed in front of their immaculate airliner for photos. Then all of us on the tour were invited to join in, and a wonderful photo marked the end of one of the most anticipated flights.
The Tupolev Tu-154
Photo: Rebekah Michaels
And so came the tour’s last flight—and the one we’d anticipated with the most excitement.
The Tupolev Tu-154 is a three-engined, T-tail aircraft that took off for the first time in 1968. It became one of the most successful Soviet and Russian airliners ever produced—and Air Koryo’s first jetliner.
Upon boarding, all of us immediately rushed to the back of the aircraft to experience the rumblings of the three large engines mounted on the rear section of the fuselage.
The cabin, smelling of fuel and oil, was not in the same unspoiled condition as those of the other airliners in Air Koryo’s fleet. But we were spellbound to be on a true Soviet success story. Some passengers even got into arguments, trying to secure the best seat in the house.
As the engines turned on, the perplexity among all passengers was incontestable. Vigorous vibrations emerged as our aircraft powered down Pyongyang’s runway and the stiff airliner climbed into the skies.
Although no photos were allowed outside the windows, many of us got busy taking photos of every inch of the cabin. Others fell asleep next to the loud engines—testimony that aviation enthusiasm goes beyond sound frontiers.
Ash trays, old coffee pots, vintage thermometers, and a super-tight leg pitch in every seat made the 154 a time machine that took us 40 years back.
Even though the boisterous engines made for an amusing ride, a real, long-haul trip would definitely be fatiguing.
Upon landing back in Pyongyang, a group of Australian enthusiasts started openly crying because the experience had come to an end. It was an event, we all felt, that would rarely happen again.
Part Three: Hyangsan, Pyongyang’s Subway, and Final Remarks
In part three of this exclusive review, we visit the northern city of Hyangsan and its International Friendship Exhibition, ride Pyongyang’s spectacular subway, and provide some deep final remarks.