60 years of helicopter unit in Inowrocław – open day at the 56th Air Base

On 20th May 2023, an open door day was held at the 56th Air Base (56. Baza Lotnicza) in Latkowo, in the vicinity of Inowrocław. The event was organized within celebrations related to the 60th anniversary of the Polish armed forces helicopter unit being based there. It also included an air show that featured several military and civilian aircraft from Poland and abroad.

The extensive history of the helicopter unit from Inowrocław dates back to 1963. On 21st March that year, the 56th Helicopter Regiment (56 Pułk Śmigłowców) was formed by order of the Minister of Defence of the then Polish People’s Republic. Nineteen years later, on 22nd April 1982, this time following the order of the Chief of the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces, the unit was transformed into the 56th Combat Helicopter Regiment (56 Pułk Śmigłowców Bojowych).

Over the years, the unit changed its allegiance several times. On 18th July 1995, the Regiment was assigned to the Pomeranian Military District. In September of the next year, the 56th Combat Helicopter Regiment received a new banner and – because of the region of Poland in which it is located – the distinctive name of Kuyavian (Kujawski). Already in December of 1998, the unit was reassigned to the Silesian Military District. Another change came after another three years – in 2001, the Helicopter Regiment from Inowrocław became part of the 2nd Mechanised Corps (2 Korpus Zmechanizowany) of the Polish Army.

The most significant change in the history of the unit occurred almost a decade later. In 2009, further organizational changes in the Polish Armed Forces were announced. They included an Aviation Brigade of the Land Forces to be established by 2011, with air bases in Pruszcz Gdański, Mirosławiec and Inowrocław.

As a result, on 31st December 2011, the 56th Kuyavian Combat Helicopter Regiment was disbanded and the following day, on 1st January 2012, the 56th Air Base was established in Inowrocław. That new unit, existing until today, is continuing traditions of its predecessor units and remain under command of the 1st Aviation Brigade of the Land Forces (1 Brygada Lotnictwa Wojsk Lądowych).

W-3PL Głuszec from the 56th Air Base

During already six decades of its history, the helicopter unit from Inowrocław has used various types of helicopters. The list of operated types includes SM-1 and SM-2, Polish license-built versions of the Soviet Mi-1 rotorcraft, as well as Mi-4 and Mi-8 helicopters. Nowadays, the 56th Air Base is one of only two Polish military aviation units operating Mi-24W attack helicopters. In addition, the unit is equipped with W-3PL Głuszec (eng. capercaillie) medium combat support helicopters and Mi-2 multi-role light rotorcraft.

Every year on 18th May, the day the unit is celebrating its anniversary, the 56th Air Base holds official ceremonies related to the jubilee and, in addition usually opens its gates to general public by organizing the air show. The aforementioned date was not chosen at random – exactly on that day in 1963, the first commander of the then helicopter regiment, Colonel Pilot Bolesław Andrychowski, issued his first order.

The year 2023 was no exception from that tradition, especially that the unit was just celebrating its 60th anniversary. In order to make the open day more accessible to the general public, the air show event was organized on Saturday, 20th May.

As usual, the event was opened by a solemn ceremony. This year, the official part of the commemoration included a service of handing over a new banner to the 56th Air Base.

Although, as mentioned earlier, both civilian and military aircraft participated in the air show event, only the latter were the ones to fly dynamic displays. The first aircraft to perform over Inowroclaw was MiG-29UB from the 23rd Tactical Air Base (23 Baza Lotnictwa Taktycznego) of the Polish Air Force.

Although through many years the Polish Fulcrums have been among frequent participants of domestic air shows, operational service of those fighter jets in the Polish Air Force is slowly coming to an end. In view of their successive retirement and the handover of some Polish MiG-29s to Ukraine, this could be one of the last public displays of this fighter aircraft in the Polish skies.

F-16 Tiger Demo Team, Polish Air Force

Shortly after, an F-16C Jastrząb (´Hawk´ – as those jets in service with the Polish Air Force are officially called) fighter appeared over the air base in Latkowo. The aircraft, assigned to the F-16 Tiger Demo Team Poland of the 31st Tactical Air Base (31. Baza Lotnictwa Taktycznego), was flown by Captain Maciej ‘Slab’ Krakowian. It was his debut public performance at the air show, after he became the new Demo Team leader in April of this year. And it must be admitted here, it was a very good opener of Slab´s career as the demonstration pilot.

The combat jets were followed by marine rescue demonstration, performed by the crew of PZL W-3WARM Anakonda (English: anaconda) helicopter from the Naval Aviation Brigade in Gdynia. With that display the sky over the 56th Air Base was definitely taken over by various types of rotorcraft.

The performance of the Anakonda was then followed by PZL SW-4 Puszczyk (English: tawny owl) from the 41st Training Air Base (41. Baza Lotnictwa Szkolnego). Puszczyk is a light helicopter that was developed in Poland in the 1990s as a successor to the Mi-2 rotorcraft. The Polish Air Force is the sole military operator of the SW-4 and uses that rotorcraft to train combat helicopter pilots.

The next to arrive over the 56th Air Base were Mi-8 and Mi-17 transport helicopters, assisted by pair of PZL W-3 Sokół (English: falcon) rotorcraft from the 25th Air Cavalry Brigade (25. Brygada Kawalerii Powietrznej). The helicopter group performed a scenario focused on combat tactical operation that included a troop landing.

The flight demonstrations ended with the only foreign attendee to be seen in the air – Boeing AH-64E Apache Guardian helicopter assigned to the 3rd Squadron of the 17th Cavalry Regiment of the US Army.

Regrettably, this year visitors to Latkowo air base did not have the chance to hear the characteristic sound of the Mi-24 attack helicopter, nor admire its distinctive silhouette in the air.

Boeing AH-64E Apache Guardian, US Army

The reason may be related to an accident that occured on 6th March 2023 near Biała Podlaska and involved one of the Polish Mi-24W rotorcraft. Fortunately, that incident caused neither fatalities nor injures, nevertheless, the landing gear and right wing of the helicopter were damaged. The case was still opened at the time of the event and being currently investigated by the State Commission for the Investigation of Aviation Accidents.

However, the Polish Hind could be seen up close on the ground, as part of static display that included one of the Mi-24W helicopter assigned to the 56th Air Base. And, exactly as in the Fulcrum case, it could be one of last public appearances of the Hind in Poland. For several years, plans regarding retirement of the Mi-24 from the Polish armed forces were repeated many times. And now, according to recent information from the Polish MoD, their fate was already sealed.

Last year, Polish authorities expressed interest in acquiring ninety-six helicopters of the Apache family from the United States. The new rotorcraft would have to succeed the Hinds, following the current modernization of the Polish Armed Forces inventory.

On 5th May 2023, the Polish MoD announced that the US authorities just had decided to supply Poland with eight Boeing AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, in order to initiate the training process for their Polish crews. Therefore, it seems that the process of the Mi-24 retirement has already gained momentum and their withdrawal from active service is near.

With regard to the aforementioned facts, it was no surprise that the latest variant of the iconic US Army attack helicopterfrom the previously mentioned US Army unit not only performed the flying display at the event but was also available at the static exhibition.

Prototype of the JK-3 Juan and JK-2 Nano gyroplanes

Apart from the mentioned Mi-24 and AH-64E Apache Guardian, the static display included another US helicopter, the UH-60M Black Hawk from the same Cavalry unit, and the broad range of rotorcraft operated by the Polish armed forces – SW-4, W-3, Mi-2, Mi-17 of the Army Air Force, Mi-14PŁ of the Polish Navy and Sikorsky S-70i of the GROM special forces unit.

In addition, the static display during the 60th anniversary of the helicopter unit in Inowrocław featured also some civilian aircraft. Namely, Robinson R44 Raven II and Guimbal Cabri G2 helicopters, operated by the Polish Air Force Academy, as well as two Polish ultralight gyroplanes made by FusionCopter.

The first of those gyroplanes was JK-2 Nano – a small single-seater that had its public premiere at the end of 2019, went into series production a year later and since then has been gaining an increasing domestic and international popularity, due to its very small size and the fact that it is the gyroplane of UL-115 class, what means it does not require a licence to fly it.

The second gyroplane from that Polish manufacturer was JK-3 Juan, or more precisely the prototype of that aircraft. The JK-3 Juan, according to its name, is inspired by Cierva C.30, the famous British reconnaissance gyroplane of the early 1930s developed by Juan de la Cierva. The Juan prototype is still in its flight-testing phase, therefore the JK-3 visit to the 56th Air Base was one of the first public opportunities to get familiar with this aircraft.

In conclusion, it should be said that, apart from the aircraft exhibition, the visitors to the 60th jubilee event at the 56th Air Base could also enjoy several other displays on the ground. They included stands of several military and civilian organizations and also an exhibition of modern military equipment and vehicles. Among them, two newest Polish acquirements were the ones to attract public attention – K2PL main battle tank and K9 self-propelled howitzer, both made in the Republic of Korea and recently delivered to Poland.

More images from the open door day at the 56th Air Base: