Assignment No29: Fitters, Haze and Industry (‘Hey, all right lads?!’)

Assignment No29: Fitters, Haze and Industry (‘Hey, all right lads?!’)

Tim Beach goes ‘up close and operational’ with the Polish AF and Polish Navy, and nearly with a Polish colleague!

The biggest obstacle for me personally in attending more COAP assignments is getting time off work, which, despite working in IT, is more problematical than the picture often painted of your typical IT work force, the dedicated and professional bunch that we are!

In addition to the inaugural workshop, I’ve been on two previous COAP assignments to RAF Marham and RAF Lakenheath. These have been immensely enjoyable, well run, good value bearing in mind the opportunities they deliver and all with a great social atmosphere, comradeship and not forgetting the essential ingredient of a good dose of banter!

This was my first COAP trip on foreign soil but the organisation was slick and in keeping with the previous APC format (for those that remember the days that Rich ran the Aviation Photo Club during his tenure as Editor of Aircraft Illustrated and Combat Aircraft in the 2000s). Those who know me well appreciate that I like ‘a beer or three’ so I think COAP asking me to ‘volunteer’ as an additional driver during the trip was either a case of caring for my general health or encouraging me to lose weight. However, this just highlighted another great aspect of COAP trips in the appreciation of all contributions – I had to turn down the offer of quite a few beers from others in return for driving each day to not risk being over the limit for the next one!

As for the itinerary, on arrival on the Monday we visited the WZL-2 plant at Bydogszsz that included amongst other types the chance to inspect Su-22s and MiG-29s in various states of maintenance and/or upgrade – an amazing ‘pinch yourself’ opportunity. The weather was grim but, as we were inside the facility most of the time, that wasn’t an issue.

The next day was the first of two full days at Swidwin to take in operations of the based Su-22s. The weather was kind and we made use of some great photo opportunities around the dispersals, taxiways and at various points on both sides of the operational runway.

Much more changeable weather greeted us during our second day on base but this just added to the challenge of obtaining shots whilst in the true operating environment of the jets. We certainly seemed to cope with the cold and damp much better than our host, whose enthusiasm did start to wane a little despite our continued encouragement! At the end of these two days, some fantastic shots in the bag from a good variety of situations and ‘job done’.

Our final full day was one of those occasions where expectations start low and then build as the day progresses. The day dawned with low cloud and drizzle with a biting north wind as we made our way to the Polish Navy air base at Darlowo. This took in some very dodgy roadworks along the way that Mr Comber driving the other vehicle struggled to cope with at times - much to the amusement of those in ours as he nearly beached it in a pile of sand!

On arrival at the base, things didn’t look good and being near the sea, the weather was even more inclement. We noted that all the helicopters on the ground were well-wrapped and the prospect of any flying didn’t seem great.

Our host was friendly but not optimistic, although he did mention the possibility later of the arrival of two of the based and now extremely rare Mil Mi-14PL ‘Haze-A’ ASW helicopters. Initially, he seemed to imply that he wouldn’t be able to host us until then and we’d have to be off base before anyway. At this point, a bit of magical ‘COAP diplomacy’ managed to persuade him otherwise and he agreed to show us around the hangar in the interim.

From this point, you didn’t want to be out in it for too long but there was a marginal improvement in the weather that allowed us some good photographic opportunities of the helicopters both in the air and running on the ground. We also saw the two examples of the even rarer Mil Mi-14PS ‘Haze-C’ SAR variant although not in operation as their limited use is largely now restricted to emergency operational needs. One of the major highlights was to witness the loading of dumb bombs onto an ASW ‘Haze’ for a release exercise over the Baltic Sea. Talk about ‘up close and operational’! At the end of the day, we left with huge smiles and a sense of deliverance versus how the day could have panned out.

Our final day turned out to be very different but also memorable. To break up the journey back to Gdansk airport for our return to the UK and make it more interesting, it was decided to stop off at the derelict former Soviet AF base at Kołobrzeg-Bagicz and then take in the collection of former Soviet types at Slupsk. During the rummage around the former and whilst we were inside one of the old Hardened Aircraft Shelters, a rustling noise suddenly became apparent as an ‘arrival’ dropped in on the scene from above with a greeting in a strong Mancunian accent of ‘Hey, alright lads?!’. You had to be there to fully appreciate it but those who were will remember that for many years to come. I just wish I hadn’t turned off my video camera literally seconds before it happened as it would’ve gone viral – here’s to you Pawel!