North Korea’s rare Soviet airplanes: Westerner takes flight

Editor’s Note: Commercial pilot Enrique Perrella is publisher and editor-in-chief of Airways Magazine. This is a condensed version of his three-part series about his North Korean aviation adventure, published on Airways Magazine.

Pyongyang, North Korea CNN  — 

This is not a destination that sees a lot of seasoned business travelers. Airline lounges, frequent flier miles, hotel points, car rentals? Not here.

In the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea – aka the DPRK – there’s no collecting miles to redeem for free flights or hotel nights, business class upgrades or two-story hotel suites for the price of a standard room.

The familiar perks of the civilized travel industry are nonexistent, and the regulations would make anyone shiver.

Well, at least they made me shiver.

But I’m also a big aviation enthusiast. I love airplanes.

There are many like me out there: fierce avgeeks who constantly try to jump back in time by flying on airliners that, in developed countries, would have been turned into soda cans more than 20 years ago.

But North Korea doesn’t have the means to turn airplanes into cans.

Amid the sanctions, fuel supply bans and international boycotts, North Korea has to do what it can to stay in the air – even if it’s with Soviet airplane dinosaurs from the 1960s.

Its national airline, Air Koryo, offers aviation that is nearly extinct – and absolutely irresistible to the dedicated avgeek.

A tour group of about 75 aviation enthusiasts lines up to board a rare Air Koryo airliner.

An unforgettable Russian aircraft adventure

So for a little over $2,200 dollars, I reserved joyrides on seven of Air Koryo’s Russian and Ukranian aircraft through a London-based tour organizer called Juche Travel Services (JTS), which specializes in DPRK trips for aviation geeks.

Included in that price: all meals, transportation within North Korea and hotel accommodations plus the opportunity to experience bits and pieces of this mysterious country.

There’s nothing standard about the pre-trip planning for this odyssey.

JTS advised that my insurance provider cover an “emergency flight transfer” from Pyongyang to Beijing in case something went wrong.

A disclaimer letter also warned me to carefully follow the tour guide’s instructions, to not take photos freely and to comply with the country’s beliefs.

It also stated that journalists and South Koreans were not welcome. I’d probably fit the first category.

The tour draws a lot of repeat customers. Most of the 75 aviation enthusiasts who had signed up were not first-timers like me. Only about 30% of us were American.

Australian-born Charles Kennedy, one of our JTS tour guides, sees North Korea and its people through a positive lens; it’s a destination that’s perfect for those who love seeing something that’s decidedly different.

“This is my 14th tour to North Korea,” Kennedy told me at Air Koryo’s Beijing check-in counter before our trip.

“After so many times, I feel somehow responsible to the North Koreans, who get a terrible time in the media, but they are so kind and curious about the outside world,” he said.

Eccentric in-flight propaganda videos were shown during a flight on an Air Koryo Tupolev Tu-204.

Bonus ride: ‘Koryo Burger’ and eccentric in-flight video

Air Koryo’s impeccable cabin crew welcomed us on our flight from Beijing with dry smiles. Skittish, we sat and quietly cherished the flight to Pyongyang.

I was expecting something more robust and loud , but our Air Koryo Tupolev Tu-204 was remarkably and surprisingly silent and stable.

I was flying on Air Koryo’s flagship: my first-ever ride on Russian metal.

Mid-flight, the infamous ‘“Koryo Burger” was served along with choice beverages: water and juice. The burger patty, of questionable meat, was rather tasty.

The timid flight attendants seemed happy to serve us.

Eccentric in-flight propaganda videos, shown on drop-down screens and featuring the “grandiose” accomplishments of North Korea’s leaders and its impetuous army, helped the 1½-hour flight across the Yellow Sea pass rapidly.

Approaching Pyongyang, views of dirt roads, miles of open fields and a handful of rustic housing developments gave way to a brand-new, prodigious airport building.

Though devoid of revenue flights and passengers, Pyongyang’s luxurious international airport is open for business.

“Why an empty airport needs multiple, staffed stores and kiosks, and several functioning restaurants is unclear to me,” said Jamie Baker, a New York-based airline analyst with a taste for Russian planes.

Passport control was a breeze, and our bags were delivered in a heartbeat. But at customs I was ordered to open my iPad, and the guard went straight to my photos and videos. He checked every image, diligently browsed my documents folder – and let me go.

We were constantly watched throughout our stay in North Korea. North Korean tour guides would mingle and pay close attention to our conversations.

Our first dinner at the Koryo Hotel set the bar for all meals to come: vegetable-abundant, protein-deficient, fried dishes. Not inedible, but unappealing at best.

Properly identifying what we were eating was a problem throughout the tour. The food’s slimy, gooey and flavorless characteristics represented a true challenge for any foodie.

Flight 1: ‘Delirious harmonies’ kick off the tour

Our first official day of flying was a crowd-pleaser. We started with Air Koryo’s Ilyushin Il-62, 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 on 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 193 units built at the former Soviet Kazan factory.

It’s kept in pristine condition, though it’s rarely 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,” Kennedy said. “I would say it’s the Boeing 707’s most direct relative and, for me, the pride of Air Koryo’s fleet.”

Upon boarding, most passengers ran to the rear of the cabin for a chance to soak up the engine noise.

“For an aviation enthusiast, the Il-62 creates delirious harmonies, which aren’t just as sweet as music, they are music,” Kennedy explained.

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.”

Once we were safely above Pyongyang and the seatbelt signs were turned off, an in-flight fiesta began.

Passengers stood up and started taking photos of every detail inside the cabin, including its “secret” rear compartment behind the engines where the black boxes are installed.

After landing at rainy Kalma International Airport, in Wonsan – a port city to the east – we ran around the airport’s ramp to get the best shots of the Il-62.

Its auxiliary power unit (APU) was turned on and because the APU’s exhaust pipe was aimed right at the ground, the powerful blast managed to dry the damp surface and heat up any adventurers who dared to stand right below it.

It’s not every day that you get blow dried by a powerful Russian turbine.

The mighty Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane's cockpit

Flight 2: An ear-shattering 400,000-pound beast

After our return flight to the capital, it was time to fly aboard an even more unusual aircraft.

Not an airliner.

Not a military plane.

It was the mighty Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane.

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 we hopped on was one of the last ever made.

Equipped with four loud Soloviev D-30 engines and a loud APU installed in the right landing gear compartment, the thunderous experience began at the airport’s ramp, where we could feel the turbine’s strong vibrations in our bones.

Air Koryo’s crew helped each passenger climb the removable stairs into the dark, super-large cargo compartment.

Inside, it’s fitted with unpadded, bench-like seats aligned along the fuselage’s insulation, which acted as a back support for passengers.

Once the stairs were unhinged and secured with a seatbelt inside the cargo bay – blocking the emergency exit – the four engines started their super-strong rumbles.

It was hard to tell that we were taxiing, 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.

Lined up with the runway, our Il-76 powered up, creating one of the loudest sounds I’d ever heard. We roared down the runway and took off into choppy air.

“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.”

Our return approach to the airport was eerie – high banks and turns and engines repeatedly accelerating and decelerating.

Deafening thrust reversers slowed the 400,000-pound beast when we touched down on terra firma. There was a wave of relief among our group.

Flight 3: Smooth 134

Delivered in 1984, Air Koryo’s Tupolev Tu-134 was the third-to-last ever produced of its type.

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.

The plane we flew on featured a cabin tall enough to stand up in, yet the seat pitch on every row was very tight. Blue curtains worked as the ubiquitous window shades of current aircraft, giving a vintage feel.

Ron Levin, a Boston-based aviation fan on his first visit to the DPRK commented on the 134’s smooth flight characteristics.

“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,” Levin said.

Flight 4: Angering the authorities

Our flight on the newest and most advanced aircraft in Air Koryo’s fleet bumped us four decades ahead to a brand-new Antonov An-148, delivered in 2015.

Able to carry up to 85 passengers, the Ukrainian-made aircraft was certified under European regulations to attract purchases by Western airlines, yet only a few have invested in the aircraft.

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.

Yet thanks to the North Korean authorities, my flight was less than enjoyable.

I’d attached my GoPro to the window and was recording a time-lapse flight video until one of the North Korean escorts sat next to me and started yelling, “This is a GPS!”

He angrily demanded to see all the photos and videos I had taken, and it took the assistance of one of the tour guides to calm the guy down.

One of the most aggravating moments of my life thankfully ended with little more than shivers and a strong headache.

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.

Flight 5: One of the most successful Soviet aircraft of all time

Another day, another flying frenzy – this time on one of the most successful Soviet aircraft 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 kept in pristine condition. Its retro cabin, separated by hardwood bulkheads and hinged doors, harkens 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, and it seamlessly surfed the clouds and handled turbulence very well for a Russian aircraft.

The group broke out in applause when the airport bus dropped us off in front of the majestic Ilyushin Il-18.

Flight 6: Former North Korean Air Force One?

Our 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. This one dates back to the 1960s and it’s the last Il-18 in commercial operation anywhere in the world.

When the airport bus dropped us off in front of the majestic 18, with its imposing blue propellers and impeccably polished fuselage, our group was so excited we burst out in applause.

This aircraft was the reason many of us had come here in the first place.

One of the tour guides told us that the aircraft had been commissioned as the presidential aircraft for the late Kim Il-Sung himself. Today it’s used for regular commercial flights.

The 18’s cabin was wide and comfortable, with seat pitch on every row that 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 that would have been at home in any old-school American diner.

The most attractive features of this superb airliner were its blue Soviet Cold War propeller blades, which were incredibly quiet and stable in flight.

“The Il-18 is a graceful bird where nothing happens in a hurry,” Kennedy said.

The flight deck aboard the Il-18

Flight 7: Avgeeks spellbound and weeping

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.

Boarding, all of us immediately rushed to the back to experience the rumblings of the three large engines mounted on the rear section of the fuselage. There were even arguments as passengers tried to secure the best seat in the house.

We were spellbound to be on a true Soviet success story.

Vigorous vibrations emerged as our aircraft powered down Pyongyang’s runway and the stiff airliner climbed into the sky.

Then some 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.

As our truly memorable airline odyssey ended, a group of Australian enthusiasts started openly crying.

Avgeeks making the most of the flight aboard the Tupolev Tu-154.

Mixed emotions

In addition to the thrilling flights, our visit involved an obligatory three-hour ride through rural North Korea, allowing us to witness vast, muddy fields, where poverty and hard labor are the norm.

Agriculture is practiced without machinery. Highways are paved by hand.

It was heartbreaking to see hundreds of people using their bare hands to pave roads with burning asphalt or trimming grass with scissors and hand tools beside a pristine mosaic of North Korea’s leaders.

We weren’t allowed to take pictures of any of this.

We were required to bow in front of statues or images of North Korea’s leaders seven times throughout the trip, which really put me ill at ease.

It seemed that the North Koreans were trying to humiliate us by making us surrender to their idiosyncrasies.

Truth is, this was one of the most physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging trips I’ve ever been on.

Excitement, frustration, intrigue, anger, perplexity and disbelief were palpable and pervasive, and yet as we reached the airport to board our flight to Beijing, I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic.

Will I return? I doubt it. Not unless the country opens up to the world and the threat of visitors being detained there disappears.

But I have to say, flying on those airplanes made every minute of this trip priceless.