A Wing and a Prayer: Google-Earthing Pyongyang’s Airport

The Google Earth gods have bestowed more blessings on us in the form of more high- and medium-resolution images of North Korea.  One place I’ve wanted to see in hi-res is Pyongyang’s Sunan Airport, and I’m happy to report that that’s now possible. 

Even with low resolution, it was possible to see the curious two-runway layout of the airport.  That is probably in part because Sunan is a dual-use airfield, one that hosts military and civilian craft.  (Click images for full size.)

sunan1.jpg

Still, it appears that both military and civilian craft primarily use the south runway, for reasons I’ll show you in  a moment.

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Focusing in on the infrastructure on the south runway, you can see an assortment of aircraft, all of Soviet manufacture.  By the way, if you’re geeky enough to find this interesting, it’s very helpful to have a book like “Jane’s Aircraft Recognition Guide,” which has statistics on the wingspan and length of various aircraft.  I  then  used the Google Earth ruler tool  to verify the dimensions of the aircraft.

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The large aircraft are Ilyushin Il-76’s, NATO code name “candid.”  Although they can be used as civil airliners, most are configured as military or cargo transports.  The smaller twin-prop aircraft are Antonov An-24’s (NATO code name “coke”).  The four-engine turboprops are Ilyushin Il-18’s (NATO code name “coot”).

sunan-il-18-an-24-il-76.jpg

These aircraft are the mainstay of Air Koryo’s long-haul flights.  The larger aircraft are Ilyushin Il-62’s, whose distinctive configuration includes two pairs of tail-mounted turbojets.  The smallest jets are Tupolev Tu-134’s  (the NATO code name, “crusty,” is fitting for this aging plane).  The aircraft in the middle, by both position and dimension, are Tu-154’s (another fitting NATO name, “careless,” as the aircraft’s safety record is checkered).   

sunan-il-62-tu-154-tu-134.jpg

Here’s a picture  of the outside of the terminal (h/t) and  a Google Earth Image of the same building.  You can  match several features in these photos — the “Pyongyang” banner, the obligatory  get-used-to-my-face portrait of Kim Il Sung, and the landscaping.

pyongyang-airport.gifsunan-airport-banners.jpg         pyongyang-airport.jpg

No North Korean airfield would be complete without a long taxiway that disappears under a mountain.  Most of North Korea’s military airfields have similar underground hangars to protect them from air attack.  There’s no way you can  fit a Tupolev or an Ilyushin into one of these, so we can infer that Sunan has a complement of MiG’s, too.  The taxiway to these shelters leads from the south runway, the same one used for civilian traffic.

sunan-ugf1.jpg         sunan-ugf2.jpg         sunan-ugf3.jpg

Along the way, you also pass four helicopters.  These are Soviet-made Mil Mi-8’s, NATO code name “Hip.”

sunan-mi-8.jpg

Those North Koreans really know how to build a parking structure, don’t they?   I wonder how they’ve managed to deal  with the traffic congestion and security concerns that plague air travelers in this age.  Well,  here’s the road leading into Sunan.  If you blink, you could accidentally drive right out onto the airfield, which  might just  get you shot.

sunan-parking1.jpg

The white zone is for passenger loading and unloading … oh, never mind.  Not that busy a day, apparently:

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Air Koryo  flies to several cities in China, Vladavostok, Khabarovsk, and Bangkok (but not Moscow?).   The airline’s  Wikipedia page, like  its  aircraft,  could use some extensive updating and maintenance.  It’s not entirely clear whether Air Koryo has regularly scheduled domestic service, although that appears to depend on the availability of fuel.

For obvious reasons, there are no flights to the United States.  Air Koryo is also banned from flying to Europe because it can’t pass safety inspections.   For some reason, however,  Air Koryo doesn’t seem to have crashed all that oftenPassenger comments on the Air Koryo experience,  while  not uniformly  negative, make for interesting reading.  Some samples:

Was looking forward to meal on my return trip, but none was served, sadly. Attendants friendly but they don’t interact. 

Aircraft was very old-looking and used. I had to work hard at attaching my safety belt. The fabric on the seats was old and frayed. The crew was very perfunctory in their duties, but still polite and civil. The crew was not service oriented, nor did it seem inclined to be. 

Beijing to Pyongyang on Tupolev 154, very old plane, revolutionary marching music played before take off and before landing.  [….]  Return to Shenyang on Ilyushin IL-18 – by far the oldest plane have flown on and was very happy to land! Food was a sandwich containing undentified meat, but quite tasty.   

I think one of the engines may have been inoperative, but otherwise the flight was fine.

All in all I would recommend Koryo to anyone who doesn’t necessarily regard safety as a priority in their air travel.

Overall  rating:  one out of five stars. 

This site has some excellent photographs of Air Koryo’s aircraft. 

4 Comments

  1. Way to deliver on the Google Earth again! I was poking around the area and found some strangely parked aircraft in what looks to my untrained eye to be a subdivision of some sort. What do you make of it? The coordinates are 39°11’5.83″N, 125°39’55.60″E.




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  2. Given the recent improvements of Google Earth’s imagery of NK, would it actually be worthwhile to (re)start of NK prison camp hunt or would you say most camps have already been exposed ? I know most of the camps are in ‘northern’ NK but if my memory serves me correctly, there is also one around Sariwon and possibly between Hamhung and Wonsan.




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  3. I’ve been hunting and will put up a post delineating several of the larger concentration camps. You can see almost the entire perimeter of Camps 16 and 22. I’ve completely delineated Camp 18. I’ve delineated some of the boundaries of Camps 14 and 15.

    The smaller detention/reeducation camps are very hard to identify from the air and are practically impossible to identify without a witness telling you where they are. Still, given that there are no surviving prisoners from some of these camps, it’s plausible that there are more undiscovered ones out there. Although you can identify them by the fence lines and guard posts, you need hi-res, and some of the more likely areas are still either medium or low resolution.




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