Approximately one week ago, the ´Swifts´ (Стрижи, also romanized as Strizhi) aerobatic group of the Russian Aerospace Forces has celebrated its 30th anniversary. The team, currently flying in a formation of nine MiG-29 jet fighters, is one of the most known showpieces of Russian aviation.
Although 6th May 1991 is officially recognized as birthday of the ´Swifts´ group, the roots of the team go back to the mid-80s. At that time, shortly after an introduction of MiG-29 jets into Soviet Air Force, the first idea to create a demonstration team was born. Initially, this had to be just a group of combat pilots being additionally trained for performing flying displays, in order to show the abilities of the new Soviet frontline fighter.
The above mentioned MiG-29 demonstration team was formed on a basis of 234th Guards Proskurovskiy Fighter Aviation Regiment (234-й гвардейский Проскуровский истребительный авиационный полк), located at Kubinka air base, Moscow area. This unit, officially being a follower of the same-named aviation regiments from the World War II years, was established in December of 1950 and since that time played a special role within the Soviet Air Force.
It was exactly the 234th Regiment that was responsible for aviation flypasts and flying displays over Moscow, being organized during national holidays – for the first time on 1st May 1951. Its fighters were the ones to perform an honour escort duty for foreign aircraft that carried official state delegations to Moscow, Soviet heads of state and also the first cosmonauts. Pilots of that regiment had also many years of experience in performing flying displays with combat aircraft – they did it for Soviet authorities, international guests and domestic and foreign military personnel.
The 234th Guards Aviation Regiment was among the first three combat aviation units that received the MiG-29 fighters, already in mid-1983. Three years later, it was also the very one that presented the new Soviet combat aircraft abroad – in September 1986, a formation of six MiG-29 aircraft visited the Finnish air base at Rissala and presented the fighters there.
Therefore it was hardly surprising when the 234th Regiment was chosen to create a demonstration team of MiG-29 fighters. The initial idea was assuming six aircraft to fly in a close formation, with approximately three metres distance between them, and at the same time performing some aerobatics figures.
The first members of the ´Swifts´ team, that performed their initial public display on 6th May 1991, were: Lt. Col. A. Kutuzov (leader), Capt. A. Katashinskyi, Capt. A. Makarenko, Maj. A. Zakharov, Maj. A. Sherstnyov, Maj. V. Galunenko and Maj. V. Yevdokimov.
Yet in October of the same year, the ´Swifts´ performed their first foreign display, when six of their MiG-29s have participated in aviation event being organized at Uppsala air base in Sweden. In May 1992, the team visited France and took part in official celebrations of the 50th anniversary of ´Normandie-Niemen´ squadron.
In 1993, the team participated in the premiere edition of the International Aviation and Space Show at Zhukovsky airfield. According to Russian official sources, in the same year the ´Swifts´ were awarded the title of ´Best aerobatic group in the world´ – however, we were not able to find out who exactly gave the team this award (both official web site of the group and the Russian MoD sources are just mentioning the award, without any further details). Also in 1993, the ´Swifts´ visited air shows in Belgium, Malaysia and Thailand – with their MiG-29s being transported to the latter destination on board of An-124 ´Ruslan´ cargo aircraft, partially disassembled.
During the following years, the ´Swifts´ aerobatic team toured the world and performed its breath-taking aviation displays in Hungary, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, the USA, Vietnam, China, Mongolia, Germany, Kazakhstan, the Czech Republic and the United Arab Emirates. The group has also flown several domestic displays, including all editions of MAKS air show, celebrations of national holidays, commemoration of World War II anniversaries and also participated in various local festivities.
In the beginning of the 2000s, the ´Swifts´ began to perform a display together with other famous aerobatic group of the Russian Aerospace Forces – the ´Russian Knights´. They started from a mixed pair of aircraft and, in 2004, for the first time both teams performed a joint display of five Su-27 and four MiG-29 fighters. Shortly afterwards this formation of nine aircraft of both teams became a standard stunt being a part of aviation display flown during official holidays and was named the ´Kubinka diamond´.
With the raised tensions between Russia and NATO countries that emerged in the late 2000s, the Russian aerobatic teams were no longer invited to participate in aviation events being organized in the Western countries. Since that time, the ´Swifts´ limited their displays to domestic events, with only a few exceptions – as, for example, participation in a military celebrations held at Batajnica air base in Serbia.
Similarly to the ´Russian Knights´, the ´Swifts´ team was under a threat of being disbanded in 2011. Fortunately, such ideas were not finalised and both groups successfully survived the years of military budget reductions.
The ´Swifts´ are flying their displays with both single-seat MiG-29 fighters and two-seat MiG-29UB combat trainers. Although there are usually up to six aircraft seen in the air, the fleet of the team contains ten fighters in total. Initially, the aeroplanes used by the ´Swifts´ for display purposes were painted all-white, with blue stabilizers and blue lightning on fuselage – and a little sign of a swift bird, that gave the team its name (and originates from the time of first presentations of the new MiG fighter). In 2003, with a support from the RSK MiG company, the ´Swifts´ changed the livery of their aircraft for the one that is still being used today. Nevertheless, the latest information from the Russian Aerospace Forces suggest that soon the team should receive modernized MiG-35 aircraft.
During the Victory Parade in Moscow that was organized on 9th May, was the first public event when the spectators could see the ´Swifts´ in the air this year. Obviously, it was the ´Kubinka diamond´ with the ´Russian Knights´ that was performed over the Red Square.
When it comes to full display programme, the ´Swifts´ will participate in this year´s edition of MAKS air show and has a few other events in Russia already scheduled for 2021 season. According to latest releases, the team has completely reworked its flying programme and, for the first time, will perform the entire display in a formation of nine aircraft.