Monday, 31 March 2014

North Korea's forgotten aircraft: The Yak-18/CJ-5

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

Apart from the relatively modern MiG-29 and Su-25, the Korean People's Army Air Force (KPAF) also relies on dated and sometimes outright strange aircraft to fulfill their duties. In this new series these severely under-reported aircraft will be put in the spotlight, starting with the Yak-18 and its Chinese copy; the CJ-5.

The Yak-18 represents one of the first weapon deliveries to the newly born KPAF by the Soviet Union. The Yak-18s were supplemented by a batch of Chinese Yak-18s, also known as CJ-5s, ten years later.[1]

Originally delivered as a trainer aircraft by the Soviet Union, North Korea quickly found a secondary role for these piston-engined aircraft: The Yak-18s were to become night bombers.  

Inspired by the Po-2s success in World War 2 and in the early phases of the Korean War, the Yak-18s supplemented the first in flying night-time attacks against airbases and fuel and munition depots. The Yak-18's biggest success was the bombing of a massive fuel depot near Inchon, resulting in its destruction.

CJ-5s taking off from Kangdong. Also note the bomb racks under the fuselage.

One might think: While formidably successful for their time, these aircraft are now horribly obsolete and surely long since decommissioned. Yet, even though the training role has been taken over by the more modern Yak-18As and CJ-6s, it appears Air and Anti-Air Force unit 2620 (based out of Kandong airbase, near Pyongyang) still operates the last of the surviving Yak-18s and CJ-5s in a  bombing role.

Satellite imagery would suggest two other airfields near Chongjin also still operate Yaks and Nanchangs, but considering the layout and location of these airfields it is likely these are (trainer) Yak-18As and CJ-6s.

The Yak-18s and CJ-5s were the KPAF's primary training aircraft for over twenty years. Every pilot flew these planes before progressing to MiG-15UTIs or FT-5's in fighter squadrons, or Il-28s/H-5s in bomber squadrons, or An-2s/Y-5s in transport squadrons or Mi-2s in helicopter squadrons.

In preparation of International Women's Day, which was on March the 8th, Kim Jong-un, like Kim Jong-il did before, paid a visit to KPA Air and Anti-Air Force Unit 2620 on the 7th of March 2014. The unit is fully manned by women, with only the leadership being men. Unit 2620 is assumed to be the only KPAF unit accepting women.

It is believed that in case of war, the Yak-18s and CJ-5s will be dispersed over North Korea. The country has many broad highway strips and tiny unpaved airfields specifically designed to house KPAF aircraft in case of war, making them incredibly hard to find and to destroy.

The use of the ancient aircraft is highly debatable. While effective in the Korean War, a modern day conflict would not see many uses for them aside from outright suicidal missions. Considering this fact, another plausible explanation for the Yak-18/CJ-5's survival is simply to keep the massive conscripted forces of the Korean People's Air Force (counting over 100.000 personnel) occupied.

Kangdong's airfield training facilities also appear to have been recently upgraded. As can be seen in the image below, flight simulator software and a Yak-18 cockpit have been added to provide a method of training without risking the aircraft and using unnecessary amounts of fuel.

A female KPAF pilot testing the flight simulator software. Also note the rudimentary Yak-18 based simulator in the back.

Kim Jong-un having a go at the flight simulator himself.

Next in the series: The Su-7

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