Our last tour of 2022 was a visit to the Bahrain International Air Show. As previous editions, it lived up to its expectations!
With the previous editions of the Bahrain International Air Show, a relatively small venue compared to the likes of Le Bourget or Farnborough, having proved to be a great success, it was as usual with great expectations that the 4Aviation group travelled to the Kingdom on Tuesday, 8 November 2022, for a week of fun in the sun. The airline had thrown a spanner in the works at the last moment, cancelling a flight for part of the group, which ultimately resulted in people arriving at Bahrain International Airport on several different flights, well after midnight. After negotiating the Customs, who were apparently missing some documentation for our arrival, and another long wait thanks to the car rental company which refused to hand over one of our three cars, we finally made it to our hotel where proceedings went smooth, and everyone was in their beds halfway through the night. A rather short sleep followed.
From our hotel to Sakhir Air Base, where the bi-annual venue is held nowadays (but not taking place in 2020 for obvious reasons), is less than half an hour drive, even with taking a wrong exit. First thing we noticed on this Wednesday 9 November 2022, were the ever-present police cars positioned next to the motorway every kilometer or so. Also noticeable was that hardly anyone drives up to the speed limit, maybe that has also something to do with the abundance of police, but it can’t be because of the fuel prices (which are ridiculously low, no wonder when the oil comes literally out of the same ground where the petrol station is built on top of). Anyway, the last part to the Air Show entrance was interesting, with a lot of cars blocking the main road exit, most of them contractors and exhibitioner staff trying to get in (too). Today and tomorrow were purely trade days, with the general public only welcome on the Friday afternoon. Our three cars managed to bypass most of the traffic jam. So, we got to the show ground entrance in time after all, we fortunately already had our media passes so no need to wait any longer…. Time for some aircraft!
In a way our group of photographers really stood out from the crowd, but that was all okay and our media passes really gave us “all access”. You want to walk onto the ramp and go lean against a Saudi Typhoon or Emirates F-16? Go right ahead my son. Well, nobody said that, but you get the idea. On one side of the show ground, it was mainly the US contingent, with a rare E-11A as the eye-catcher. But a F-15E from Mountain Home, a Dyess Herk, a MH-53 and F-16’s from Shaw are not all that common either. Also in that group was a brand-new AH-1Z only recently delivered to the Royal Bahraini Air Force, complete with red carpet and a lot of personnel. It would take four days to get a decent photo of that one… At the other far end the RBAF occupied a corner with some of their operational aircraft: an F-5, F-16, Hawk, UH-60 and two recently upgraded “legacy” AH-1 Cobra’s.
The flying display was scheduled to start at one o’clock, beginning with a RBAF flypast together with a Gulf Air Airbus. For decent light you really want to be at the opposite side of the runway, so we reconvened at eleven and headed out of the air base to find a good spot, hoping that the same one the previous groups were able (and allowed) get to was still accessible. Unfortunately, the Bahraini had suddenly introduced a one-way traffic system leading out of the air base, so we were directed in the wrong way. After a failed attempt to shortcut through the everywhere present oil fields we conceded and followed the other cars trying to reach civilization again. Of course, we had more than enough time to spare, and even more fortunate was the joyous fact that our intended spot, on a hilly strip of dirt (it’s just sand and rocks, nothing really grows there) between the runway threshold and the adjoining university grounds, could be reached without any problem. Now all we had to do was to wait, stay a bit low just to be on the safe side, and hoping nobody would come and kick us off.
At one o’clock we were still there, when the flying started. A nice formation of four F-16’s and two Hawks (but no F-5’s unfortunately, which was the only disappointment during the whole trip) got the adrenaline flowing. Take-offs of the displaying aircraft were in either direction but almost all landings from the far side of the runway, which felt unfortunate at first but quickly proved to be not an issue at all. For photography, our spot was near perfect. All jets and display teams would bank in front of us beautifully, and repeatedly. The UAE Mirage 2000 did even better with a take-off towards us, staying really, low, and actually kicking up a desert dust cloud right in front of us when finally rotating up. Brilliant stuff! The only display pilot who could have done a bit better (in our eyes) was the US F-16, which only banked in the wrong direction or just did straight passes. Not everybody is necessarily a big fan of display teams (Al Fursan, Saudi Hawks and Red Arrows being present) but even they were a sight to behold from our spot with superb photo opportunities. By the time the Saudi Hawks were finishing their routine the sun was nearly on the horizon (sunset in Bahrain comes early and fast) but the great photo moments kept on coming. A single dusk fly-by of an US Navy P-8 finished the flying programme for us, and we decided to call it a day…
…But not before a punctured tyre meant we had to extend our stay a bit. It took great effort and unimpeded brute force to get the offending wheel removed, but at least the spare tyre was okay and did the job for the rest of the week. Despite the sun no longer a factor it was still hot and sweaty work, but all that was quickly forgotten in the cool air-conditioning of our cars heading back to our hotel. After a more than welcome shower most of the group headed to a nearby Iranian restaurant someone had spotted earlier. It was a simple but very tasty affair, we just ordered a fair number of dishes, and shared them. Not really a disappointment because you know beforehand it will be the case: no beer. When paying the bill, we had to blink twice, it turned out to be really cheap. After that nobody felt the urge to muck about any much longer and really had only one thing left on their minds: a good long sleep!
Thursday 10 November 2022 was imagined as a repeat of the day before…but with a twist. In Bahrain it helps to always expect the unexpected. We departed our hotel earlier than the day before, and with no other traffic worth mentioning we were back at the show almost an hour earlier. Again, we decided to reconvene at eleven for those who wanted to head out to the opposite side of the runway. A few of the group decided to stay air side (and in the air-conditioned and well catered media centre) which was not a problem at all, of course, also because the rest of the group intended to get back on the air base after the show, for some night-time photography. With less urge to be in the sun all the time for more photos of “the same”, the media centre became more and more the place to hang out. And of course, never underestimate the lure of free Wi-Fi. This time there was no one-way traffic system and we returned to our spot in good time. Had there been a few Bahraini at our spot during yesterday afternoon, today we would see more and more locals arriving to witness the air show and have a picnic, preferably by driving their cars (regardless if these were really capable of doing so) up onto the top of the small hill and park up there in the most random fashion imaginable. Anyway, by then we knew this spectacle could not last forever, until the authorities intervened, but at least it would not be today. If you think it was a crowded at our spot, in the distance, under the (wrong) approach literally hundreds of cars were parked in the desert with people having a picnic. It’s a national hobby, apparently.
Us arriving at our spot early paid off unexpectedly, with the arrival of an UAE Royal Flight Boeing 777 and 787, the former even approaching from our end. Obviously, a couple of high ranking dignitaries from Abu Dhabi had arrived, and the show organisers felt obliged to shuffle the display program a bit and let all the UAE jets fly first. Which we did not object to because it meant that some of the jets would be flying (again brilliantly) under different light conditions. The only other difference was that there would be no P-8 flyby today. And we did not have another flat tyre. After most of the interesting jets had flown, we decided to head back to the show grounds, intending to wait in the media centre until dusk and then try to do some night photography.
As said earlier: expect the unexpected. The road was absolutely jammed with cars. It was….interesting for sure. And admittedly we also did our share of off-roading until the next ditch forced us back onto the road, together with all the other cars trying to do the same and the oncoming traffic trying to force their way through. No public access today? Yes, there was, at least tonight. We concluded that it would take a bit more patience than expected to get those nighttime photos. Which we did in the end, the floodlights illuminating the ramp helping a lot. There was no need to hurry anyway, with the roads as they were, of course everybody who eventually managed to get in also would try to get out again. It must be said, despite the crowds it was a nice atmosphere, with most men in their white robes and head scarves, and women in fancy colourful weekend niqab (Thursday evening is of course the start of the Muslim weekend). If one was still in doubt if this was the Gulf, then they would not need to look any further. Although the prospect of another local restaurant near our hotel was tempting, we decided our time would be better spent to try to eat something on base while we had to wait anyway, and so we did. A couple of food trucks catered for the hungry, with (I kid you not) a McDonald’s in a caravan serving anything you ordered at long as it was a chicken hamburger with fries, another entrepreneur specialising in Austrian cuisine (as you do, in the Gulf), mega size beef burgers, and a couple more. That will do. After seven in the evening the traffic appeared to clear somewhat and thus it was time to head back to the hotel. One car was in dire need of petrol, having not refuelled the night before because the petrol station next to our hotel only accepted cash payment. But this seems to be normal in Bahrain, oddly enough, as every petrol station attendant was seen walking about with a large stack of bank notes in one hand and enthusiastically shaking his head with a “no” when asked to be paid with credit card. So…in the end we paid with cash too, not a big deal anyway given how cheap fuel is (20 Euro for a full tank). Once back at the hotel, with no bar in striking distance for a cool beer or two, everybody wisely decided to call it a day.
Today, Friday 11 November 2022 was to be the public air show day, but the gates for the common people would not open before noon, and it would be another gate anyway, and thus we could leisurely cruise from the hotel to the air base again and chill a bit in the media centre. Another attempt was made to get some clarification whether we would be allowed on base on Saturday, for the departing aircraft, but again no clear answer was given, merely hinting to “no, probably not…dangerous…health and safety…we’ll ask…but probably not”. The Saudi’s had moved both their Typhoons on to the ramp and were busy with removing and mounting wing tanks. The demo aircraft of the past couple of days was being readied for the flight home, whilst the static aircraft was being prepared for this afternoon’s flying display. No idea why but the prospect of the other Typhoon flying the display was welcomed by us. The Saudi ground crew at first ignored us completely when we walked (unescorted, of course, as it goes in Bahrain…) onto the ramp up to their jets, but soon became quite friendly when we showed particular interest in their Typhoons. They removed some stuff littering the view around the “new” display aircraft, just for our photographic pleasure. The obligatory 4A group photo (one member unfortunately missing) was done for all posterity with an UAE F-16 as the backdrop.
Once again relocating to our spot opposite the runway, we found that the one-way traffic system had returned and so it was another detour through the oil fields. At one point we noticed a huge column of black smoke billowing up from behind a hill, we came to the quick conclusion that someone had lit up a cigarette near an oil well, but we did not see any panic so it was probably a common occurrence. As usual we were the first to arrive at the spot, but we would not be alone for long. Friday is the day off for most people…and they came…in hordes. If we thought that yesterday was crazy with cars trying to get on top of the small hill and parking everywhere…that was nothing compared with today. So we were quite sure this could not possibly last. But first…the flying display. To our surprise Gulf Air had decided not to join the opening fly past today, so it was “just” the four RBAF F-16’s and two Hawks this time, flying a bit lower but certainly faster. Unfortunately, it were again the same six jets as yesterday and the day before. Ah well. After an hour or so, just when the UAE Mirage 2000 had done his bit, the military police arrived and started to send everybody off. From the willingness of the people to indeed quickly gather their stuff and move, we reckoned it is probably not a good idea in this country to start protesting and declining to leave. We watched the ensuing chaos for a bit, secretly hoping they would leave us alone as “distinguished foreign media persons”. They did not, probably because we don’t look distinguished enough. It was not a bad time anyway to try to get back on base, so we did not protest either and left the scene before the chaos became problematic. Of course, with the general public now trying to get on base, it was traffic jams all over again, but at least the one-way traffic system was now official and less chaotic, so although progress was slow, we did reach the first air base gate after an hour or so. We were not supposed to take this gate, but we got in anyway. By now we figured our media passes must be made of gold.
It was, as expected, crowded at the show, but still there was plenty of room left for some sunset photos on the flight-lines, and since we were not in a hurry at all, again some night-time shots as well. We again had our dinner from one of the food trucks and waited for the outbound traffic to somewhat subside before we headed back to our hotel for the last full night of sleep.
Saturday 12 November 2022 was departure day, both for a good part of the aircraft on show, as well as for ourselves. However, we still had a full day left in Bahrain before most of our group would be flying home the next night. Our last inquiries whether we would be allowed on base for the departures had come up with nothing, but we would try anyway. First, we had a look if the spot opposite the runway was still accessible, however a freshly placed row of rather large rocks prevented access this time, at least by car but we guessed then it would also be frowned upon if we proceeded by foot. We would try to get on base anyway but at least we now knew this option as an alternative was no longer there. With hardly any traffic on the road we reached the first gate blocking the road to the airbase in no time, but there was nobody there to check the incoming traffic, so we just followed some other cars in front of us. It is probably usually open anyway when there is nothing special going on. For the air base itself only the last gate was open, specifically meant for all contractor staff who had started to dismantle the show ground. We just showed up, calmly waved our golden media passes, and the guy at the gate let us in without any hesitation. Okay, now what, are we supposed to be here, and for how long will they let us on? We parked our cars next to the media centre and walked on as a group. In the end, we found that nobody cared that we were there, and we were free to roam the whole area and even on the active ramp if we stayed sensible. We had, yet another, fantastic day! Not only with clear shots of the departing aircraft, but also a constant stream of arriving transports from Pakistan, Saudi-Arabia and the US kept is busy. Unfortunately, but as expected, the Bahraini aircraft did not move and would probably not do so until the next day or even Monday. As a sort of compensation for this, our last “action” on base was us removing all stuff surrounding the AH-1Z ourselves and after four days finally had good photos of this beauty! It was again a hot day, but at least the podium we confiscated for ourselves did not only offer some shade but also was left intact by the builders/demolishers while all around us the exhibits and chalets were quite thoroughly being torn down. The media centre was of course abandoned as well but was still open and even the Wi-Fi was still up!
Completely satisfied with the day’s proceedings, we passed under the “See you in 2024” signs for the final time and had our last drive back to the hotel. For the “last supper” as a group we choose a seemingly classy restaurant not too far from the hotel, where we were escorted to the back door and into a private dining room. The food was excellent, and the service was quick. Against our better judgement there was some hope of ordering an actual beer…but alas. Still, a good closure of an excellent four days in Bahrain, and time to say goodbye to the two members of the group who had an extra day in town for some sight-seeing. Most of the others took the opportunity to get a couple of hours of sleep before checking out of our hotel and heading out to the airport, at around eleven in the evening. Of course, getting out of the country was almost as eventful as getting in, for instance the rental car return car park was not very clear signed and our three cars even got separated at one time, thanks to the intervention of some “helpful” locals and the fact that most cars in the whole of Bahrain are all white… But as always in the end everything worked out fine and we got on our flights with plenty of time to spare. Regardless of any hassles encountered this week, this trip was worth every bit of it. See you in 2024, indeed!