Exotic Wings NO3: Ukraine

Exotic Wings NO3: Ukraine

Gilles Denis experiences Ukraine in a tiring but amazing operational visit.

Last October I joined my first COAP trip. Destination: Ukraine, for a week of intense action photography. Last minute changes by the Ukrainian military authorities saw the trip postponed by two weeks. Due to this, only those who managed to change their off days were able to join the group which was made of only six photographers plus our two COAP gurus, Rich and Steve! As we will experience during the trip, flexibility is the key to success!

We had authorisation to visit operational Ukrainian AF MiG-29, Su-25 and Su-27 units plus a Navy and an Army base, but we didn’t have a fixed itinerary. Flying operations in Ukraine is unpredictable, like the weather, but thanks to our local guides we were able to work around that. It meant that we usually knew each afternoon where we needed to be the next day. Even though this often implied long drives on harsh roads  – mostly at night – it was well worth the trouble!

Monday was a non-flying day so we started the week with a private visit of the State Aviation Museum at Kiev-Zhuliany airport. It contains a large and interesting collection and we had the all museum for ourselves! Tuesday’s target was Myrhorod air base, home of the 831 Guards Tactical Aviation Brigade and its Su-27 ‘Flankers’. When we arrived on base our first view of the Flankers flight-line in the early morning light was quite a sight! This was scheduled as a non-flying day with only one aircraft due to fly just for us but in the end we witnessed six sorties during our stay. The visit ended after a night-shooting session of an Su-27.

No flying again foreseen for Wednesday so we travelled to Nizhyn, north of Kiev. This is an old Tu-22 ‘Blinder’ base that is now occupied by a flying unit of the Ministry of Emergencies. It operates An-26, An-30 and An-32s as well as helicopters. We toured the flight-line and, after lunch with the base commander, we left for our next destination at Mykolaiv, a nine-hour drive! This base is home to the Su-25s of the 299 Tactical Aviation Brigade. The local Navy units were not scheduled to fly so we spent two days photographing the ‘Frogfoots’ which were joined by some deployed MiG-29s and a few L-39s. This resulted in a lot of flying activities, all in glorious weather.

Despite the two non-flying days and considering the past experiences of other photographers in Ukraine we were extremely lucky during our week – extensive access to various spots along runways and taxiways providing varied photographic opportunities, a couple of pre-arranged top-side passes and static shots including two night-shooting sessions. On top of that we enjoyed good weather and a friendly group of photographers! It was a tiring but very rewarding week and we ended up with lots of great shots in the bag.