For the fifth consecutive time we visited the show that always delivers: LIMA at Langkawi. The 2019 edition had some really nice gems again and we were there!
Counting on a rewarding and relaxed week in Malaysia, the group arrived and met at Kuala Lumpur Airport in customary high spirits on Wednesday 20 March. The majority of the group joined land-only, so only three took the KLM flight from Amsterdam to KL. Foretelling the proceedings of the coming weeks, all necessary steps to get us on the road and to our hotel for the night went smoothly. In the end we found ourselves having our first taste of the Malaysian cuisine just around the hotel’s corner in the town of Ipoh.
The 4Aviation tours to Malaysia focus on the days before the official start of the LIMA event at Langkawi, because that is when the best opportunities present themselves. In the past the Malaysian air force have always used the days before the event to practice the formations and air power demo several times. LIMA is really the event where it pays off to be there early! Although it did confuse some people why we were there before the event started and would go home by the time it actually did start. This year too we would prove it was the right way to go! Anyway, on the Thursday (21 March) we weren’t at Langkawi yet, but started our day at Butterworth. In the past most flying activity for LIMA flew from Butterworth, so we were hoping to catch the returning jets after they did their 8 AM practice at Langkawi. However, the early morning turned out to be rather quiet at our spot in the approach, with no returning jets, “only” a few C-130s. Part of our group decided to check the airfield out, hoping to at least get some numbers. They were soon pleasantly surprised when they found 10 Sukhoi Flankers of the Malaysian air force on the transient ramp, plus a handful of helicopters. Impressive, and it looked as they were going to fly after all today! Continuing to drive around the airfield a bunch of local spotters near the other end of the runway were met. This looked like a decent spot for take-off pictures. So, it was decided to pick up the rest of our group and try our luck here. As always, timing is everything, and within the minute we returned to this spot with the whole group, the first jets started taxiing out. Although some were pretty high up already from this location, specially the Flankers, we were treated with all ten Flankers taking off, six Hornets and six Hawks. For us it was back to our original spot in the approach, hoping for the return of the jets. It quickly became obvious that the main purpose of today’s flying was air-to-air photography, with large formations crossing the airfield several times and a S-61 Nuri helicopter hovering at altitude nearby as the photo platform. In due time the jets all returned, complemented by two A400’s and the helicopters. This ended our very successful morning at Butterworth. Back in our cars and off to Alor Setar
By the time we arrived at the training airfield Alor Setar, most flying activity appeared to have ceased for the day, with only one or two EC120 helicopters still airborne. Nevertheless, we spend a good hour here, on the one hand hoping for more flying activity, and on the other hand to allow the number crunchers to do their “stuff”. At one-point base security became interested in our presence and paid us a visit just outside the fence but were very pleased that the curious onlookers at their fence had “only telescopes” and that we were heading off to Langkawi. Big smiles and three rounds of shaking hands later we were left there to do whatever we were doing, and they moved on to undoubtedly report on a very successful intervention with foreigners. After another half hour or so it was clear we might as well head to Langkawi. With Langkawi being an island, a ferry was involved, but not our cars which we left parked near the ferry terminal. There would be two other rental cars waiting for us on the island. The passenger ferry was fully booked and cramped, a good thing the crossing only takes an hour and fifteen minutes. On arrival disembarking went surprisingly smooth (given the number of passengers and the lack of more than one exit). The two “new” rental cars turned out to be somewhat smaller than we had on the mainland and could not take all occupants plus our luggage. Fortunately, the owner had foreseen this and drove a third car to our hotel, only a few minutes from the ferry terminal. That these two cars were of dubious mechanical quality would become obvious in the days to come, but on the plus side: they took us where we needed to be, just not in much comfort! We checked in into our hotel resort for the coming four nights. It was reassuring to see that the central swimming pool was of comfortable size, clean and very much operational, with a small bar area selling beer (not always obvious in a Muslim country such as Malaysia). The next-door Chinese restaurant was a good place to eat, although in the end we got the impression we might have slightly been ripped off by the waitress. We’re talking a handful of Euro’s here, at most, so no big issue, but still. We would therefore walk a few meters more to the next eating place the coming evenings.
Despite promises made by the hotel owner the evening before, there was no breakfast waiting for us at the agreed time on Friday 22 March. This was annoying but couldn’t be quickly remedied, we were on a tight schedule (read: we needed to be at Langkawi airfield preferably before 8) so couldn’t wait half an hour for breakfast to appear. Instead we stocked up on food for the day at the nearby petrol station and headed off to the airfield. For today we had decided to start the day at the fence, opposite the show grounds. Langkawi is a fantastic “open” airfield with many spots to suit all photographers and light conditions, and we would have enough opportunities in the days to come to be at several of these. Before we even had arrived, it became obvious that the Malaysian air force was meaning business, with jets taking off at 07:30 for the first practice session scheduled for somewhat after 8. We found our intended spot, with good runway visibility over the fence and much needed shade, with enough spare time to let our camera equipment “acclimatise” to the warm morning humidity. Taking the equipment out of the cool car and out of the bags, it would immediately fog over with moisture and could take up to half an hour before the equipment had taken on the ambient temperature! Anyway, by the time the first practice session was about to start we were all ready to go, just not fully in the know what exactly to expect. What was obvious from the start was that apparently all Flankers and a bunch of Hornets from Butterworth had moved to here and would do all the flying from here as well, contrary to the previous editions of LIMA. On the other hand: the Hawks were not here and would fly from Butterworth. The near supersonic high-speed low pass from right to left by a F-18 got everybody’s attention all right. What a magnificent sight to see (and hear!), with the high humidity condensing in the almost supersonic shock waves and “plume”. But there was no time to contemplate on what had just happened, because the Malaysian air force had put together an energetic and high-paced show, where they display many of their assets in formations, high speed passes from all directions, with flares, and a short air power demonstration. This show only takes a good fifteen minutes, with enough action to make a “normal” airshow proud for half a day or so. It’s hard work for photographers, impossible to get all shots in one go, with so much action overlapping from all directions. Again, we would have ample opportunities to get the shots we wanted, getting to know the choreography a bit, ignoring the obvious shots and go for those missed the first couple of times. In fact, we would get our second chance immediately, because after the first practice run and a short break the clock was reset, and a second practice immediately followed. This time there were some pyrotechnics on the ground, which resulted in a grass fire next to the runway which burned and smouldered on for several hours before the fire brigade finally got it out. Maybe it’s not the best idea to set off big pyrotechnics on a very, very dry patch of grassland…next to an active runway? The resulting smoke bothered us a bit, but not too much fortunately, when the Flankers and Hornets returned and could be brilliantly photographed on the runway. By the time the whole practice had ended, it was still only nine o’clock, and the rest of the morning was spend with several fantastic arrivals for the event (two Indonesian C-130s were the real highlights, one even in the old white and light grey colours with a bright yellow tail, but also the Singaporean Strike Eagle and the Indonesian Jupiter team were very welcome arrivals) and another rehearsal by a couple of Hornets and Flankers. Although the weather was good, we still had a few drops of rain as a surprise, from the dark clouds forming against the island’s mountains. It didn’t bother us at all, and later on the day we would even be wishing we had another couple of drops.
In the early afternoon it was time to move our position, with the sun about to cross the runway. We ended up on (another) great spot mid-runway, with a small mound from where it was possible to photograph on the runway over the fence. The only downside of this spot was that there was no real shade to be found, and it became hot, very hot. Part of our group decided to vacate to another spot in the approach, close to the waterfront and with enough shade and even places to sit and have lunch and drinks. It’s all about personal choices, isn’t it? More aircraft arrived, but it was the eventual arrival of a Indian air force C-130 which heralded the anticipated arrival of two Tejas fighters, which arrived late in the afternoon in gorgeous light from the lowering sun. What a great way to end a spectacular day! On arrival back at the hotel the swimming pool looked very appealing indeed! Together with a cold beer at poolside it finally got our temperatures back to normal. Skipping the Chinese restaurant, we had dinner outside, courtesy of one of several Muslim eating places next-door. The only downside was that they don’t serve alcohol (obviously) or soda’s, so we all got well acquainted with a variety of fruit drinks. What a day it was!
The Saturday (23 March) was sort of a copy of the day before, with again the promised breakfast not materialising and the Malaysian air force up early for another two practice sessions. Part of our group decided to go to the same spot as where we started the day before, but the rest of us much rather tried another spot: a bit further to the back but up a hill with great overview of the airfield and hopefully a better view of the practice sessions. Our hopes were more than met! A good thing we had a reasonable idea what to expect, and so the opening by the transonic Hornet was anticipated and fairly easy to photograph, and so were the rest of the practice sessions. It was already pretty crowded up the hill, but not as crowded as it would be the day after or let alone the days after that. Somewhat after noon it became apparent that the Indian air force Il-76 transport, which had apparently arrived late Friday evening, was preparing for departure. This might be a good time to reposition ourselves to the same location we were yesterday afternoon. So, we did, and the Ilyushin indeed soon after departed. The Russian Knights team with their Flankers had not arrived, and there were rumours they had been held up during a refuelling stop in Vietnam due to bad weather. In the end they arrived in the afternoon, accompanied by a Russian Il-76. There was more flying activity of course but suffice it to say we were not bored! But it was hot, again, and every bit of shade that could be found was cherished. Of course, the guys who decided to go to the approach and enjoying a nice meal and cool drink in the shade…had it in that respect better.
Returning to the hotel, the lead car started to make funny noises, unmistakeably a wheel bearing giving up. The other car didn’t fare much better, but with the knowledge we would only be using the two cars for short distances the coming two days, we hoped for the best. Again, the swimming pool was greatly appreciated, and so were the floating play things in the pool to fool around with. Boys will always be boys…
Surprisingly, there was some breakfast on Sunday 24 March, although the lady setting this up wasn’t even yet finished by the time we headed off to another (F)Lan(g)kawi day. It was much more crowded up on the hill this morning, but everyone still had a good spot for photography. Unfortunately, due to a broken-down Flanker the practice session was postponed, with all aircraft already airborne waiting for a replacement Flanker to get ready and join them, so in the end there only was one practice session. Not a big problem for us: this was now our fifth practice session, and by now we had a good idea what to expect and on which parts to focus. More aircraft followed with practising their shows, including the Jupiter team, a Tejas and the Russian Yak 130 trainer. Unfortunately, by the time the Russian Knights started their practice, the weather had turned foul with a big downpour scrambling everyone for cover. During the last part of their show it was dry again, the weather here sure changes with the blink of an eye. For us it was a good moment to try to collect our access passes for the press event on Monday. Access to the LIMA event area proved to be easy (zero security) but the flight-line might have been more difficult to enter, had we tried which we didn’t feel the need to. For one it was cloudy at that moment, and we would be allowed access the day after anyway.
There’s more to LIMA than “just” the event at the airport, there is also the maritime exhibition nearby which attracts a lot of (military) ships and helicopters. Unfortunately, there was no CL-415 seaplane demo this year, but nevertheless the stunning location provided more than enough great photography opportunities. We arrived at the “Resort World” in the early afternoon for a relaxed and fun afternoon. There was a small static show (two helicopters) and with no-one around but for a couple of sailors it was easy to get them digitalised. Apparently, there was a training session with helicopters scheduled later that afternoon, worthwhile to wait for, so we settled in the bar area for a well-deserved beer or two, in the meantime enjoying the stunning view of blue lagoons and picturesque tropical islands. We also had an interesting talk with an Indian air force Jaguar fighter pilot who happened to have arrived with the Tejas delegation the day before. Despite his enthusiasm it is unclear whether our plea to bring the Jaguars back to European airshows will have any affect… Anyway, by now the demo rehearsal was about to start, kicking off with a group of modern pirates taking hostages right in front of our noses and trying to escape in a small boat. Of course, this was eventually prevented by the special forces of the different assembled Malaysian security forces, arriving by boat and helicopter. To everyone’s relief in the end the hostages were liberated, and the pirates were never to be heard off again! With the helicopters buzzing over the audience and the action literally taking place right in front of us, it sure was a nice spectacle. In the afternoon the weather had been great again, but later in the evening massive thunderstorms presented themselves with impressive lightning shows and downpours.
Monday 25 March; Lo and behold, we had proper breakfast this morning! It only took four attempts… In the early morning hours, the weather was still recovering from the thunderstorms with dark clouds hugging the mountains and even higher humidity. For the press day and media walkabout scheduled for later in the morning there was again zero security when entering the show grounds, so a good thing that nobody was interested in blowing up their expensive camera gear! We have come to be so used to the necessary security measures at any event by now, that it is strange and even a little bit disconcerting that in some places they don’t really bother, regardless if it is rightly so or not. Anyway, the media was welcomed by a couple of high-ranking officials and assured that the media was super important to the event organisers and there would be no barriers. Which were slightly hollow words only fifteen minutes later when the (escorted) media was about to enter the flight line and the security forces were panicking and refusing all access! As if it was the first time the event was organised… An Admiral had to intervene before we were granted access…sort of, because we couldn’t walk the on the platform itself, only on the road next to it. On the plus side, the sun had come out to play again, and the one helicopter we still needed good photos of, an army Augusta 109 which had only arrived this morning, had been towed to a favourable spot. Another option tried by several of our group was a high observation tower which had been opened for the media. It was a long climb and not to be attempted with a fear of heights, but worthwhile.
In the early afternoon it was time to say our goodbyes to LIMA and Langkawi, for we had the ferry back to the mainland to catch. But first we went back to the maritime exhibition area to check if more vessels (with helicopters) had arrived. We managed to spot an US Navy ship with two Seahawks, but it was too far away to be of any good. Better was the police helicopter which was about to take off from a small field of grass next to where we were about to park our cars. Nice bonus! With some relief our two cars made it back to the hotel were the car’s owner would assist us with getting everyone with their luggage to the ferry terminal. On hearing that both cars had developed mechanical issues, he didn’t look really surprised, he was probably just as happy as we were that both cars had survived… This time the ferry was a bit more comfortable, with reasonable space to sit and stow our luggage. The only “problem” we had was that it was raining like mad upon disembarking, but the rain soon stopped, and we could walk to our waiting cars without getting wet. It was good to sit in these much more spacious cars again, without the fear of them falling apart at any moment
We spent the night in a hotel not too far from Butterworth, so it was logical to go there first thing in the morning (Tuesday 26 March), despite the realisation that contrary to what was expected earlier there wouldn’t be much flying from there, with the Hornets and Flankers now flying from Langkawi itself. Regardless, we did note some nice helicopters on the platform, and we were allowed to take photos of the F-5 guarding the gate. In the mean time we did manage to miss the Hawks returning from Langkawi, but that wasn’t a big deal really. We had decided to try our luck at Alor Setar again, despite this being a good hour drive back up north. Flying activity there was fairly tame unfortunately (the Malaysian air force clearly focussing on LIMA) but the number crunchers had a good day again, and there were even a few PC-7’s returning from a training flight. Too bad that, after spending a couple of hours in the scorching sun without much shade, clouds spoiled it somewhat when these PC-7’s were on approach… Driving to our next night stop in the town of Ipoh, we first paid another visit to Butterworth for a couple of quick shots at the helicopters on the platform. Next stop was a museum with a single Sabre jet, where we arrived just minutes in time before the museum closed. The guard outside sure was surprised to see two cars at the car park entrance racing in when he was just about to close the gate! Anyway, we only needed a couple of minutes for the Sabre, and the guard was quite amused and very friendly. After another stop for a Skyhawk we arrived at our last hotel of the trip, a familiar place as it was the same hotel as our first night in Malaysia.
There are, of course, many things to do In Kuala Lumpur, both aircraft-wise and touristic. So, we had many options how to spend the main part of the Wednesday (27 March), before we had to head down to the international airport and finish off the tour. There is the military/civil airfield Subang, the former military airfield Simpang with the closed aircraft museum, and several w&r locations in the city. In the end, we stayed at Subang for the day, simply because there was more than enough happening there, and the group was more than happy to “take it a bit easy” this last day in country. There was shade to be found near our spot at the fence, and even a shop with food, drinks and ice cream. Most of the Malaysian military transport and VIP aircraft are based here, plus fire brigade helicopters and other stuff, and we were well entertained. In the afternoon massive thunderstorm clouds were building up, eventually culminating in another huge downpour and quite close by lightning strikes. Of course, by then we had retreated to our cars! Typical for the region the weather improved afterwards just as fast as it had turned sour, only with even higher humidity. But it was time to call it a day. On the road again, it took some time to negotiate the road passing Subang, thanks to a lorry which had struck an overhead bridge with its over height cargo, but at least it allowed us to pass some aircraft platforms and hangars very slowly! The rest of the drive was uneventful, and it was time to say goodbye to the members of our group who had booked their own flights or stayed in the country for a bit longer. Another great week under the belt, what a blast Langkawi was! Now let’s go home…