With the NATO Days ‘Sky Captains’
With a crack of thunder and a roar that split the sky the jet fighter was over our heads and gone before I had a chance to see what it was.
“What the hell was that,” I shouted over the receding noise of the broken sound barrier.
“That son, was the sound of freedom right there,” one of the American pilots I was standing beside said, referring to the rapidly vanishing F-16, with not the slightest suggestion that he was taking himself too seriously.
I craned my neck skywards once more as another plane screamed overhead and this time I caught a glimpse of a Saab 37 Viggen of the Swedish Air Force Historic Flight, recognisable by its unique profile.
As I gazed in awe at the majestic fly pasts of these warbirds of the skies I thought all my boyhood dreams had come true..and it was about to get even better.
With the Bomber Boys of Louisiana
We were at the NATO Days and 6th Czech Air Force Days show outside the city of Ostrava in the far Eastern part of the Czech Republic.
No, I’d never heard of it before either, but this is one of the biggest ‘security’ shows in Europe, which attracted over 200,000 eager visitors from all over Europe over the two days it was held in late September.
As well as the flying displays, this free event, held at the Ostrava Leos Janacek Airport every year since its inception 15 years ago, included presentations of heavy military hardware, police and rescue equipment, dynamic displays of special forces’ training, and presentations of the armaments, equipment and gear of various units.
Numerous demonstrations featured specialist police units tackling rioters, drug enforcement agency dogs sniffing out contraband and the taking down of terrorists attacking the airport’s control tower.
It was all thrilling but the highlights had to have been the flypasts featuring some of the fastest jet fighters in the world ripping up the skies alongside some real iconic aircraft.
Being shown around the office of the mighty B-52
Thousands gasped at the spectacle of the low-flying fighter jets, aerobatic attack helicopters and spine tingling formation flying by some of the best pilots in the world.
And while all this was going on in the skies above our heads, on the ground a lumbering Russian-built T-72 battle tank rumbled past behind us before it casually crushed a poor old Mini under its massive tracks in a display of powerful violence.
This was not a demonstration for those who feel distinctly uneasy about the glorification of war and the weapons to wage it. This was a full on, balls to the wall, no-holds barred display of military hardware being put through its paces by people who feel the need for speed. And for crushing things.
With the current situation in the Ukraine keeping the Western powers on their tippy toes, I suspect this none-too subtle show of strength by the NATO powers was ramped up to show our Russian friends that the rest of Europe was a force to be reckoned with.
A Russian built T-72 rumbles past…
Under the flags of the 16 participating countries almost 200 individual pieces of aerial and ground equipment were put on display with the motto of the event being ‘Our security is not given and there is no prosperity without security’, leaving no doubt as to the message.
And of course our American cousins were not too far behind in showing they stood together with Europe with a few choice selections on display from their own massive arsenal.
I got talking to some of the US airmen who had flown over to the show from their base in Louisiana in their aging but impressive Boeing B-52 Stratofortress that dwarfed all the other aircraft sitting silently behind its huge bulk.
This old workhorse of the American air force was astonishing to see up close.
The impressive Bolt Tower in Ostrava
It reared up over the concrete tarmac with its huge 52 metre wings spreading from its body like some colossal prehistoric bird.
Just as I thought I’d faint from the thrill of getting up close and personal with this behemoth , one of the crew casually turned around and asked if I’d like to see ‘the office’.
Clambouring up into the belly of the beast was a rare privilege but it was a much tighter squeeze than I could have imagined. Scrambling along on my hands and knees through the crawl space towards the cockpit I could just make out Kelley, the navigator, sitting quietly in the dark.
“Welcome aboard man,” he grinned, with his Tom Cruise ‘Top Gun’ teeth shining out of the gloom
Then I was finally up into the nerve centre of the mighty B-52 which was amazingly tiny compared to the rest of the beast.
About the size of the interior of a small family car, the cockpit was decked out in a dazzling array of controls, lights, switches and dials which all looked like they dated back to 1960s which made sense as this particular aircraft has been flying missions since the time of the Vietnam War.
Having fun at the Science Museum
But although it looked complicated, Kelley said some of the only systems that had been updated since it first flew in 1961 was its radar as all the rest of it had been built to last.
And the US air force was getting its money worth as the airmen told us the B-52 is not due out of service for another few decades.
After thanking the Louisiana boys for their hospitality I had assumed that the day could not get much better but the nice folk at the Czech Republic tourist board still had one more surprise up their sleeves. Arriving at the helicopter display area we were ushered aboard a Robinson R44 four-seat light helicopter and whisked into the skies for a quick five-minute jaunt around the airfield.
As we skipped gracefully over hedges and fields I could now see why those Celtic Tiger cubs chose this way to travel to the races when the good times rolled.
Back on the ground there was just time to sprint down the static displays snapping pictures of all the iconic aircraft including a Mig 29, a Eurofighter Typhoon, a couple of Mirages and my own personal favourite, the RAF Tornado, before it was time to head back to Ostrava to check out the town.
Now, to be honest, I hadn’t paid that much attention to the city when we had first arrived as, at a glance, it appeared to be another forgotten indusial backwater that had seen better days but a tour around the place really opened my eyes.
The city centre itself is a fascinating mix of the old and new as the clever Czechs transformed what was a dull, grey Stalinist sprawl into a modern and fascinating city.
From the top of the New City Hall Viewing Tower, the highest vantage point in the Czech Republic, you can admire the greenery that survived, despite its industrial past.
And what was all the more remarkable was that they managed to retain a sense of history , of an industrial age that not too long ago had already faded into the history books.
But in 1994, the last coal was dug up out of the ground and the industrial coalmines scarring the skyline were shut down.
But instead of tearing down the old works and flattening the sites, the Czechs saved them and transformed them into unique words of art that attract visitors from all over the world.
A trip out to the ‘Bolt Tower’ is a must for more amazing views from the 25-metre glazed spiral roof tower that was built on top of an old blast furnace.
Once a heaving, smoke choked industrial complex, it is now a protected heritage area that was called after the famous Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt when he performed in the 200-metre run at the Golden Spike international athletic meet in Ostrava in May.
Right beside the Bolt Tower there is the Science and Technology Centre located in perfect juxtaposition between the old and the new with the beautiful bright and airy showrooms looking out onto the rusted gantries of the old works.
From the futuristic displays in the ‘World of Discovery’ we were brought out into the countryside where we went further back in time when we visited the Wallachian Open Air Museum in Rožnov pod Radhoštěm.
Dotted around the countryside are hundreds of timber structures, replicas of houses, pubs and churches from the 17th century. In an impressive attempt to revive forgotten crafts and folk art as well as recreate traditional life in the Wallach area they have created one of the largest and oldest open-air museums in central Europe. Visitors are encouraged to sample local food and try their hand at old forgotten trades as the lowing of cattle on the hills adds to the bucolic scene.
And with the usual Czech flair for preserving the past while celebrating the present we stopped off at the Prosper Golf Resort, located close to the picturesque village of Celadna in the heart of the tallest peaks of the scenic Beskydy mountains.
Here we were given a chance to perfect our swing on the driving range of the eighteen hole golf course that hosted the PGA European Tour in 2009, 2010 and 2011, the Moravia Silesia Open 2009 and the Czech Open in 2010 and 2011.
It was all a far cry from the roar and noise of the 21st century airpower dominating the skies only a few kilometres away and made for a fascinating, if quieter introduction to a fascinating city.
For one of these more off the beaten track city breaks Ostrava is well worth it; we ate in a former chateau (www.zamek-zabreh.cz) that had been converted into a brewery with rooms decked out with boars’ heads, ate fantastic pizza at Victoria Restaurant & Pizzeria http://www.restaurace-viktoria.cz) and stayed in the top class Imperial Hotel Ostrava (www.imperialhotelostrava.com) right in the city centre. For up to the minute information check out www.czechtourism.com
It’s easy to get there on Ryanair from Dublin with a connecting flight through Stanstead.