Polish Su-22 Drops Photo Flash Flares In Rare Nighttime Display

If safety regulations permit it, the spectacle of an airshow routine can, without doubt, be significantly elevated by a military aircraft punching out flares in a dramatic display of pyrotechnics. Now, the Polish Air Force has gone one step further, with a nighttime display involving something altogether more explosive — photo-flash flares, normally used for illuminating the ground to help aircraft gather reconnaissance imagery.

Videos have recently emerged of the display sequence flown by a Polish Su-22M4 Fitter swing-wing ground-attack fighter at the Radom Airshow in east-central Poland, which took place over the weekend, August 26-27.

What made this altogether unusual was not just that the routine was flown in darkness, but that the Polish Air Force took advantage of that to show off its photo-flash flares. As well as the spectacle of illumination, the photo-flash flares also emit a satisfying explosive crack, unlike the ‘silent fireworks’ effect of normal countermeasures flares.

As far as we know, this may very well be the first time that photo-flash flares have been used in a mainstream airshow and, not surprisingly, the videos have captured a lot of people’s attention.

While the Su-22M4 is best known as a ‘mud-mover,’ flying ground-attack missions, it can also be equipped for reconnaissance duties. In this case, it carries one of the big KKR series sensor pods under the centerline station, below the fuselage.

A Polish Su-20 Fitter-C, one of the predecessors of the Su-22M4, photographed in August 1991, with a KKR-series pod under the fuselage. Rob Schleiffert/Wikimedia Commons

Developed, like the Su-22, during the Cold War by the Soviet Union, the KKR-1, for example, is divided into three separate compartments. At the front, there is a set of optical sensors, with an A-39 camera, a PA-1 panoramic camera, and a UA-47 camera for night photography.

At the rear of the pod is an electronic intelligence (ELINT) payload, in the form of the SRS-13 Tangazh, used to determine the location of hostile radio-frequency transmitters.

A KKR-1T reconnaissance pod mounted on a Hungarian Su-22 preserved in a museum. VargaA/Wikimedia Commons

However, it’s the middle section of the pod that was apparently used in the Radom air display. This contains multiple cartridges for photo-flash flares. These are normally used in conjunction with the UA-47 camera, to illuminate the ground below the aircraft, something that is very obvious from the videos.

Sadly, with the Su-22M4 fast approaching its retirement from the Polish Air Force, this might well have been the last chance for the public to catch this kind of display.

Another Polish Su-22M4 airshow display, this time involving standard countermeasures flares:

As well as the impending demise of Poland’s Su-22s — the last of their kind still operating in Europe — only a nighttime display really makes full use of a photo-run of this kind. While night displays are becoming more common for airshows, with some exceptions, they don’t tend to involve fast jets or other military aircraft. Other videos from Radom show a Polish C-130 cargo plane dropping countermeasures flares, as well as a night parachutists’ display, again lit up with flares.

Then there are the safety concerns. Even in the case of normal infrared countermeasures flares, which are frequently seen in European air displays, each country has a different set of regulations concerning when and where they can be used. For example, most airbases need to have appropriate parking for aircraft loaded with flares, due to the potential fire hazard. Dry vegetation on or near the airfield can also lead to limits on dropping flares.

While these sorts of countermeasures flares are one thing, there will very likely be an altogether different set of rules and regulations about dropping photo-flash flares, which will carry a different kind of pyrotechnic material and probably also a lot more of it.

With that in mind, it’s less likely that you’ll see pyrotechnics of this kind at an airshow near you. Thankfully, the lucky spectators at Radom Airshow over the weekend took plenty of videos to record what was a truly memorable performance.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com

Update, August 31: Photographer Micha Lievers, who attended the Radom Airshow, has shared one of his captures of the Su-22M4 display, showing the jet illuminated by its own photo-flash flares. The photo also provides us with a detailed look at the KKR pod under the jet, including the four banks of dispensers in the center of the store, containing the flares themselves. The various cameras at the front of the pod are also shown to good effect.

Micha Lievers
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Thomas Newdick

Staff Writer

Thomas is a defense writer and editor with over 20 years of experience covering military aerospace topics and conflicts. He’s written a number of books, edited many more, and has contributed to many of the world’s leading aviation publications. Before joining The War Zone in 2020, he was the editor of AirForces Monthly.