BAHRAIN International Airshow 2016
A journey to Bahrain International Airshow 2016,
A large regional airshow in the Gulf,
Bahrain International Airshow 2016 was held from January 21st to 23rd. From a european point of view, this was an awesome place to go. With temperature nearing 1°C before my departure from Roissy CDG airport, having a gorgeous opportunity to fly to a sandy and desertic country with 21°C 24 hours later, looked rather surreal to an aviation photographer who hates January climate in the old continent. So no matters who was to display there, the airline ticket rate was fully justified to be paid, to take profit of guaranteed sun rays, so as to fill my Nikon cameras with that fantastic desert light that has no equal anywhere else. Just to take an example of this, where else did I photograph the RAF Typhoon display so perfectly before I could do that one in Bahrain last week. I must confess I had never obtained such perfect Typhoon or EU jets close up shots on display in Europe, before here …
Bahrain International Airshow ? So what are we talking about ? Bahrain happens every two years in January on Sakhir Air Force Base, about 40 kms south of Manama capital. The base has shelters surrounded with a somewhat modern fort designed with walls and towers. The King and Prince fly from and to Sakhir station, and local equipments including a small palace are dedicated to their personal use. Obviously, most westerners are familiar with Dubai airshow. Compared to events in the UAE, Bahrain is a « kid » as an airshow event. First launched in 2010, by the Kingdom’s Minister of Transportation and Communications, with expertise from Farnborough International, 2016 was the fourth edition of the kingdom’s event only. It recorded no more than US$9bn contracts, but though smaller than Dubai’s for international business, this year’s more than tripled the Bahrain 2014 contracts records. According to some Farnborough officials I had met at the Paris Airshow in June 2015, Bahrain reaches its goals as it is aimed as a regional airshow event mainly, rather as a truly international and global one. But it is true that Gulf Cooperation Council airlines representatives shop in Bahrain. Aircraft orders were recorded on business days for Gulf Air Airline, and latest types of airliners such as a Qatar Airways A350, an Emirates A380 were shown on static. On first show day a Kuwait Airways A330 was in the flying display. Airport infrastructures are also on shelves, such as complete refurbishment of Manama (Bahrain capital) international airport, to name a few events. Obviously Bahrain 2016 was a bit more a showcase for civil aviation, as 59 delegations from 24 countries were visiting, while only 33 military visitors from 19 countries only were there.
Historically speaking, Bahrain is linked to the United Kingdom, and so it was appropriate that 200 years of cooperation between both countries were celebrated there. So RAF Museum took that opportunity to display a Spifire there, though it would have been nice if it could have been part of the flying line up …
The daily flying display was opened with the Bahrain Air Force F-16s and F-5s flyby. Bahrain still has to opt for a choice to upgrade its air defense assets and airplanes. It rather looked as if western - and to less extent russian - defense companies were not much keen on displaying their latest hardware this year, apart from a USAF Boeing F-22 Raptor ridiculous daily flyby, but on a more spetacular touch, was the mighty RAF Solo Typhoon display. It is true that BAE and Alenia eye market opportunities in Bahrain, as Typhoon is in service with Oman, Saudi Arabia, while Kuwait’s Air Force Chief of Staff declared there at the show, that the so-called order for 24 of the type has not been reached yet, and as a matter of facts competition against Boeing Super Hornet to supply Kuwait is still going on. In the meantime it was announced that Bahrain F-16s - one of which was lost in Yemen a few weeks before - , should be upgraded to the F-16V variant.
Truly, real star who stole the show was LCA Tejas. Two of these Indian Air Force pre-series jets flown from Bangalore were attending. One was flying daily. It was the first time ever, LCA Tejas were publicly flying anywhere, apart from their home show in Bangalore. We should have seen Pakistan Air Force JF-17 Thunders, but unfortunately Pakistani staff found that the event should not become an arena to feature a frontal competition between Indian and Pakistan combat aircraft, in the flying program. So the Thunders were indeed missed to experts eyes.
United Arab Emirates Air Force display role looks central with airshows in the Gulf. A UAE F-16 Block 60 was flying, and more than one french expert could have been gasped by the UAE mirage 2000-9 display. It reminded gone times when the French Air Force was - at the time - the only service doing it …, but nowadays the emirates, having been coached by the french, are doing it as fine. With a contract for a possible Rafale purchase by the UAE AF in the near future, I found myself dreaming of a UAE Rafale being displayed under those perfect desertic sunlit conditions for photography, in the few years, here in Bahrain. It is not forbidden to dream a while.
Obviously the Royal Saudi Air Force « Saudi Hawks » performed a program very much close to the Red Arrows one. So did the UAE « Al Fursan » national team, flying very MB339s very much up to Frecce Tricoloris standard. These are the first high class military teams born in the Gulf. More are under projects with other nations in this part of the world. Just remind that Croatian Air Force « Krila Oluje » was bought by Qatar, and we can imagine more participations in future airshows from other Forces in the Gulf. There is no doubt though, that british who coached the Saudis, and Frecces who coached Fursans did a good job. So Croatian will do as well. Rather on their own personal touch at Bahrain, were Indian Air Force Sarang team flying four HAL Dhruv helos. The least I would say is that those peacocks colours adorning those airframes and rotors were the most interesting part of the show, from a photographic point of view.
It should be fair to say that in the context of international crisis, flying display participation was poorer than 2012 and 2014 Bahrain airshows. It was no luck at all for a « first time » long flight traveller there. Not only the JF-17 withdrew because of the indian presence here. But worse was the Russian Knights case. The Russian Knights have been flying in all previous Bahrain airshows. Big publicity was produced about their participation at the show this year, many months before the date, but quite more in russian media, that in Bahrain news. But it happened the team flew from their Kubinka home base to Astrakhan, south of Russia, a few days before the launching of the event. It transpired, according to russian media, the team could not take off from the russian field and overfly Iran. Did this happen, because Iranian Government did not want the team to fly there to please Bahrain’s Government who had fired away from Manama the ambassador of Iran a few days before the show ? Possibly, but how unlucky we were ! Or was it because some paperworks to « fly over », were not filled correctly in time according to correct delays, in line with some of the russian or iranian bureaucracies ? Reasons remain bleak. It must be pointed out how much frustrating that is for so many travelers flying from all the world over to have their dream come true, having one of the most spectacular teams to see anywhere still cancelling. But bloody too much rare does it become to shoot these guys in a show with my cameras in those days. (*)
All in all, given the amazing conditions under I could shoot anything flying (or not) there, I will come back to this magic place. Bahrain is becoming a growing event, and as a clever decision, authorities closed the 2016 show announcing next one is scheduled in november 2018. As Dubai will take place in november 2017, and 2019, Dubai and Bahrain will share the best of the world market opportunities. Would there be a place for one additional big airshow in the Middle East ?
(*) It should be bloody time that Russian Air Force does send the Knights back to a few more airshows abroad from Russia, reflecting their clever policy to delevop russian « Soft Power » in the world, as much as their government already practice so well with the « Choirs of the Red Army » ….