2023 saw possibly the biggest Dubai Airshow to date reflecting the resurgence of the aerospace industry since the lows of the pandemic. Commercial and Business aviation continues to rebound while the new area of eVTOL and Urban mobility is starting to grow rapidly with ever more futuristic projects. However, conflict and the global instability was another reason Dubai was just so important to industry in 2023 with many countries starting to rethink their Defence capabilities for new and emerging threats.
Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author.
Many shows often claim to be hosting their ‘biggest and best’ event to date each year, but in the case of the 2023 Dubai Airshow it may well have been true. The event was incredibly busy with 1400 exhibitors gathered from 95 different countries and 135,000 visitors attending over the five days. That attendance was a 30% increase compared to 2021. The organisers also announced after the event that over $101 billion of deals had been announced during the week.
As well as the traditional flying and static displays, Dubai Airshow also hosted a plethora of conferences in the exhibition hall covering topics such as sustainability, space, advanced aerial mobility, air traffic management, passenger experience and diversity. A new aspect to the show in 2023 was the Advanced Aerial Mobility Pavilion which showcased the latest eVTOL, drone and Unmanned Aerial Systems technology. It was not just the aircraft themselves that were on show, but also the systems being designed to manage them at ‘Vertiports.’
Outside of the exhibition halls, the static display was packed with aircraft, particularly on the opening two days after which aircraft slowly started to drift away. Dubai sees many of the Middle East airlines show off their aircraft and in particular their latest cabin interiors and technology. There was some notable participation from Saudi Arabian airlines Saudia and Riyadh Air both showing new and eye-catching liveries on Boeing 787 Dreamliners. Overall, Boeing had the biggest success at Dubai gaining orders for 295 aircraft from airlines such as Ethiopian, Emirates, FlyDubai, SunExpress, SCAT, Royal Jordanian and Royal Air Maroc. Of note was the commitment from Emirates for 55 additional Boeing 777X-9 airliners as the Dubai based carrier expands and modernises its fleet. The 777X-9 was one of the stars of the flying display with a dramatic demonstration of the huge aircraft’s agility.
Emirates also ordered 15 Airbus A350-900s which also attracted orders from Ethiopian and EgyptAir. In the air Airbus displayed the longer A350-1000 using Sustainable Aviation Fuel throughout the week. Airbus also saw a further order from the smaller A220-200 from Latvian airline AirBaltic, now the largest operator of the type. Embraer added to the narrow body line-up with its ERJ195-E2 wearing a new incarnation of the ‘Profit Hunter’ colour scheme.
Alongside the passenger airlines were several examples of cargo conversions including the Airbus A321-211P2F and A320-232(P2F) – the latter exhibited by VAAYU FZ LLC. However, it was the massive Boeing 777-300ERSF that captured a lot of attention. Developed by AerCAP and Israel Aerospace Industries Group (IAI) the aircraft called The Big Twin has a cavernous cargo hold offer 25% more volume than Boeing’s production 777 freighter. The Big Twin will soon enter service with launch customer Kalitta Air. IAI were also due to represented in the exhibition hall, but their stand remained unmanned due to the conflict in Gaza.
Smaller utility aircraft were also on display with Czech based Aircaft Industries exhibiting the L410NG, Saudi based Mukamalah Aviation showing off their Beech King Air 350, Air Tractor AT-802 and Leonardo AW139 plus Textron showcasing the Cessna Caravan EX and Beech King Air 360.
There were some impressive exhibits from the business and corporate jet world. Beond had a very distinctive Airbus A319-111 luxury airliner on display while Action Aviation and RoyalJet exhibited their Boeing BBJs. Vistajet and Redstar also had examples of the Bombardier Challenger 650, Global 7500 and Embraer Legacy 650 on display. Joining the operators were the aircraft manufacturers showing off their latest offerings. Airbus brought the A220 based ACJ TwoTwenty while Dassault had its Falcon 10X mock-up and 2000LXS on show. Bombardier had a further Global 7500 in the static alongside a Challenger 3500 and were joined by Gulfstream with their G500 and brand new G700. Single aircraft came from Pilatus with their PC-24 and Embraer with the Praetor 600. At the other end of the scale Cirrus displayed their hugely successful SR22 alongside the Diamond DA50 Super Star.
The UAE itself is home to a burgeoning aerospace, space, security and defence industry. The EDGE Group once again had one of the largest areas in the exhibition hall which attracted plenty of attention. Outside in the static area, aircraft from a broad range of UAE organisations were on show. The Abu Dhabi Police were represented by a very smart looking Bell 429 while Leonardo AW139s were displayed by the National Search and Rescue Centre and the Dubai Police. The UAE is also home to Calidus which has developed the Bader B250 advanced trainer. In the static area both the training and cloud seeding configured versions of their aircraft were on show. The Bader B250 was also featuring in the flying displays performing a short aerobatic sequence. Calidus has also developed the much larger B350 strike aircraft which many have likened to a modern take on the Douglas Skyraider.
The United Arab Emirates Air Force and Joint Air Command led the military contributions to the Dubai Airshow with an impressive static display including the F-16F Block 60 Fighting Falcon, Mirage 2000-9, MB339, SAAB/Bombardier GlobalEye, CASA CN295M, OH-58D Kiowa Warrior, CH-47C/F Chinook, AH-64D Apache and UH-60M Black Hawk. More unusual types in the UAE inventory were also on show with the close air support configured Air Tractor AT-802U Archangel plus the hellfire equipped Cessna Caravan and de Havilland Canada Twin Otter. All these types also featured in Monday’s spectacular opening flypast and were joined by the Airbus Military A330MRTT, AS350 Squirrel, AS565 Panther and the Boeing C-17A Globemaster III. The opening flypast also featured the UAE commercial operators with Emirates leading Fursan Al Emarat with one of their A380-800s, an Emirates Boeing 777-300ER, an Etihad Airbus 350-900, an Airbus A320 from Air Arabia plus a Boeing 737MAX-8 from Flydubai.
The UAEAF also contributed to the daily flying displays with the colourful display from Fursan Al Emarat and solo performances from the F-16E Block 60 Fighting Falcon and the Dassault Mirage 2000-9. The Mirage has long been a standout performer carrying over many of the manoeuvres from previous French Air Force and Dassault test pilot displays. It is however a type due for replacement soon by the Dassault Rafale F4 which will enter service in 2027. The Rafale was represented in the flying displays by the exceptional solo display from Captain Bertrand ‘Bubu’ Butin of the French Air & Space Force.
Though it was not seen in the air this year, Eurofighter was also present at Dubai. The static display saw two Typhoon FGR4s from their Royal Air Force plus a single example from the Kuwaiti Air Force. A further major European defence project was also on show in the static display with two examples of the Airbus A400M Atlas from the Royal Air Force and the Luftwaffe on display. Leonardo had a slightly subdued presence compared to other trade show with just a single AW169 on display in the colours of the Italian Guardia di Finanza.
In the flying displays, Italy provided one of the highlights of the week with three displays from Il Frecce Tricolori. It was the culmination of a long and sometimes difficult year for the team. Dubai was the team’s only international appearance of 2023 as the Frecce concentrated on domestic displays which all marked the centenary of the Italian Air Force. It is however been a year tinged with tragedy. In May, Pony 5 Captain Alessio Ghersi lost his life while flying an ultralight and in September a child was killed with one of the team’s aircraft struck a car after the pilot was forced to eject at an airfield near Turin. Unsurprisingly the team appeared at Dubai with just nine aircraft in the display but it was no less colourful and entertaining.
Embraer also had their KC-390 Millennium air-lifter on show which is fast become a successful venture for the Brazilian aerospace company. It recent months it has chalked up orders from the likes of the Netherlands and Austria as a C-130 replacement. Just weeks before Dubai the first example was handed over to the Portuguese Air Force and several other nations have expressed interest in the type. Beside it in the static display was the EMB-314 Super Tucano demonstrator.
The United States Department of Defense always has a significant presence at trade shows around the world. In the static area, they had their usual ‘corral’ spearheaded by a Lockheed Martin HC-130J Combat King II from the 563rdRescue Group based at Davis Monthan AFB. Davis Monthan was also represented by a Fairchild A-10C Thunderbolt II from 355th Operations Group. A further C-130J Hercules II came the 19th Airlift Wing based at Little Rock AFB and provided the stage for the United States Air Forces Central Band to entertain visitors throughout the week. Adding to the air mobility theme was a Boeing KC-46A Pegasus, one of the newest types in the USAF inventory. The only US Navy contribution to the US DoD display was a Sikorsky MH-60S Knighthawk from HSC-26 ‘Chargers’ from a detachment in the Middle East based in Bahrain.
The flying displays also saw a significant USAF presence. A regular performer at Dubai is the Pacific Air Forces F-16 Demonstration Team which hail from the 35th Fighter Wing, Misawa Air Base, Japan. For their displays at Dubai, they flew F-16C Fighting Falcons borrowed from the 177th Fighter Wing based at Atlantic City Airport, New Jersey. A significant addition to the flying was the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II. The type last appeared in Dubai in 2019 when a pair of aircraft deployed the region gave some fly-bys. However, this time USAF sent the F-35A Demonstration Team led by Major Kristen ‘Beo’ Wolfe for the types first full aerobatic display in the region. Despite some concerns over links to Russia and China, the sale of F-35s to the UAE is still on the table as a future replacement for the F-16E. After four years displaying the F-35, Dubai was Beo’s final show before handing over the reins to a new pilot ahead of the 2024 season.
The only USAF ‘flyover’ of the week occurred on the opening day with a couple of flypasts from a Rockwell B-1B Lancer. The aircraft was one of two deployed to RAF Fairford in the UK. As well as exercises within Europe, the B-1 deployment also demonstrated the US’s ability to rapidly project air power into the Central Command area on at least three occasions during the deployment. The flypasts at Dubai came during one of those long range missions from the UK.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the 2023 Dubai Airshow was participation from Russia. The UAE has maintained relations with Russia despite the invasion and subsequent conflict in Ukraine. The Dubai Airshow organisers were though sensitive to the involvement of Russian participants most of which were not advertised in advance. Only the participation of Roscosmos was advertised as part of the main Space exhibition. No other major Russian companies were to be found in the main exhibition area. Instead there were also located in a separate pavilion at the end of the line of chalets.
In the static area, the most noticeable Russian aircraft was the Ilyushin Il-76MD-90A ‘Candid.’ This modernised variant of the ubiquitous military transport aircraft features a redesigned wing, more efficient PS-90A-76 turbofan bypass engines and modern avionics. The Russian Helicopters group also has a significant presence in the static displays with the Kamov Ka-32A11M Firefighting helicopter, the Kazan ANSAT utility helicopters and the Mil Mi-171A3 which is designed to support offshore oil and gas operations. In the flying displays Russian Helicopters participated with the Kamov Ka-52E battlefield scout and attack helicopter. This is the export version of the Ka-52 and already is in service with the Egyptian Air Force. It perhaps was not the most dramatic of helicopter displays though it did highlight some of the advantages of the co-axial rotor design performing some very rapid pirouettes!
The Russian Air Force was represented in the flying displays by the Russian Knights flying six Sukhoi Su-35S ‘Flanker-E’ multirole fighters. The first part of their display consisted of a series of formation loops and passes and frankly did drag on a bit. It was not until four of the aircraft landed that the display really came alive with a pair of aircraft making full use of the thrust-vectoring capabilities of the Su-35 with formation tailslides and rapid low speed changes of direction. Like the rest of the Russian participation, the Russian Knights did not appear in any pre-event publicity unlike the other major display teams gathered for the show.
Some notable military flying displays came from Asian nations. Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) presented two of its helicopter projects derived from French designs. The KAI KUH-1E Surion was developed jointly with Eurocopter in the early 2000s and has its origins in the Super Puma. While the fuselage looks similar it sits on a totally different undercarriage design. Initially it was built for Korean military as a medium transport helicopter but has also been developed for naval roles and civilian applications. The E-model is the export model and can be tailored for a number of different tasks. It gave perhaps the most dramatic of the helicopter displays at Dubai with very aggressive vertical pedal turns. Alongside the KUH-1E was the KAI LAH. This helicopter has its originals in a Eurocopter design, this time the EC155 Dauphin. Unlike the Dauphin though, this is a dedicated attack helicopter with a chin-mounted 20mm cannon and small stub-wings able to carry missiles and rockets. The LAH is due to enter service with the South Korean armed forces in 2024.
Further rotary displays came from the Indian Air Force’s Sarang Helicopter Display Team. One of two major display teams fielded by Indian Air Force, they fly four Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Dhruv light utility helicopters. Sarang translates to Peacock which is the national bird of India and the aircraft wear a very attractive peacock inspired scheme.
The Indian Air Force also showcased the HAL Tejas light combat aircraft in both the static and flying displays. Tejas (Radiance) was designed as small lightweight multi-role fighter to replace the large fleet of MiG-21s operated by the Indian Air Force. A naval variant has also been developed to operate from India’s aircraft carrier alongside the MiG-29K. It was announced during the show that the Emirati EDGE group would work with HAL to integrate various weapon systems on the Tejas. The static display aircraft was displayed with a selection of Emirati weapons to highlight the deal as well as a slight unusual banner proclaiming ‘I ♥ Tejas.’
The flying displays offered the first chance for the HAL Tejas to be seen in the same flying display as its rival from the Pakistan Air Force; the JF-17 Thunder. On the Tuesday they even flew one after the other! In the event, there was little in either display to provide any sort of useful comparison with the Tejas perhaps slightly better presented with smokewinders on the wings and its darker colour scheme. It was far from the ‘showdown’ some social media observers thought it would be and both displays were outshone by the F-16 solos.
The JF-17 is jointly developed by the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex and the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation in China. The flying display aircraft were JF-17A Thunder Block IIs drawn from 14 ‘Tail Choppers’ Squadron from Minhas. JF-17s have been involved in a number of operations since they were introduced into service including the downing of Iranian drone in 2017 and Indian MiG-21 in 2019. In the static display, PAC debuted the JF-17C Thunder Block III from 16 ‘Black Panthers’ Squadron also from Minhas. The JF-17 has already had some export success entering service with the air forces of Myanmar and Nigeria and has garnered interest from several other nations in Asia, Africa and South America. PAC also had the MFI-17 Super Mushshak on display in the static display which is an enhanced development of the SAAB Safari/Supporter basic trainer.
As ever there was a great deal of Chinese technology on show. Significantly for the UAE, the China National Aero Technology Import and Export Corporation (CATIC) had example of the Hongdu L-15A Falcon advanced jet trainer in the flying and static display. Both of the jets brought to Dubai wore a brightly coloured display schemes, though were rather anonymous with no serial numbers or national markings. In 2022 it was announced the UAE would be purchasing a fleet of 12 L-15As with an option for 36 more. The contract for the first 12 aircraft was confirmed during the airshow. Interestingly this contract specifically identified the first 12 aircraft for ‘air display roles’ indicating they will replace the MB339NATs of Al Fursan in the near future. The L-15A gave quite a spritely aerobatic performance in the flying display and would suggest the future Al Fursan display will look and sound very different.
Supporting the Chinese presence in the air were the Ba Yi (August 1st) Aerobatic Team from the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). The name of the team come from the founding of the PLA on the 1st August 1927. Originally founded in 1962, the team have only performed outside their homeland a handful of times in Russia, Pakistan, Malaysia, Singapore and the UAE. 2023 was their second visit to Dubai and only their sixth known international display. The team fly the Chengdu J-10CY/S Vigorous Dragon also known as ‘Firebird’ in the NATO reporting system. It has been a very successful design recently marking in 25th Anniversary and also gaining its first export order for Pakistan. The display by Ba Yi is perhaps closer related to that of the Thunderbirds but lacks some of the American team’s more aggressive and dynamic flying. They do however make use of a very colourful smoke system leaving trails of red, yellow and blue in the sky which was very effective in the evening Arabian skies.
It was however Boeing which presented the star flying display with the F-15QA Ababil produced for the Qatari Emiri Air Force. This variant of the F-15 Eagle was developed from the advanced version developed for Saudi Arabia and subsequently was the basis for the USAF’s F-15EX. While superficially it looks like legacy variants of the F-15, it is a very different aircraft with fly-by-wire controls and benefiting from digital engineering and advanced manufacturing. The aircraft was demonstrated throughout the week by Boeing flight test crew Jason “Mongoose” Dotter and Mike “Houdini” Quintini. Their very tight display highlighted a new level of care-free handing for the F-15 which some very impressive high angle of attack manoeuvres including two consecutive cobra-like pitches. The finale to their display was a full tailslide before a tight circuit to land.
With all previous records beaten it was an incredibly successful week for the Dubai Airshow organisers. The Dubai Airshow returns in 2025 from 17th-21st November.