The Estonian Air Force held an air show at the Ämari air base Sunday in celebration of its 95th anniversary of its founding. But the four-hour aerial display 45 kilometers southwest of Tallinn - which drew more than 10,000 onlookers and caused a major traffic jam on Highway 17 leading to the base - was as much about giving the Estonian people a glimpse of the present of the Estonian air branch as it was honoring its past.
It was the first time that the public had been allowed on the base in 15 years, and instead of the decrepit Soviet base that existed after Estonia regained its independence in 1991, Ämari has been transformed into a modern, fully functional NATO air base.
"Most Estonian people know what the former Soviet infrastructure looked like," said Colonel Jaak Tarien, commander of the Estonian Air Force. "So they can look around and see if they recognize any of it. This is where the NATO money and the Estonian taxpayer money has been put - to transform the outdated and poorly constructed infrastructure into one of the most modern bases in Europe."
Indeed, all the facilities, aside from a few mostly abandoned storage bunkers scattered around the perimeter of the air strip, seemed brand new.
Four F-16s from Denmark, ensconced in hardened shelters, sat on ready alert as part of NATO's air defense patrol of the Baltic states. During the middle of the air show, all four fighters scrambled and took off within 30 seconds of each other, one after the other, on Ämari's single airstrip.
They joined contingents from nine different nations that took part in the show. The fighter aircraft came from four countries. Belgium added an additional F-16 to the show, and Sweden showed off its homemade JAS-39C Gripen. The British brought a Eurofighter Typhoon, and the Polish air force brought MIG-29s - one of which was open to the public to let people examine the cockpit and take photographs.
Tarien said that the show had been in the planning stages since last September, when they started inviting parties to participate. The Royal Air Force aerobatic team, the Red Arrows, were also invited, but had a conflict with another show, so instead performed over Tallinn Bay last month.
"It's definitely the biggest air show in Estonian history, without a doubt," Tarien said. "We are quite happy have two shows in the same year.
"The air show tradition is that the air show organizer pays all the expenses. We didn't have the budget for it. So all those nations paid for their own fuel, and that's quite a large gift from those nations to the Estonian Air Force and to the Estonian people," he said.
Estonian Air Force public affairs officer Alar Laats said the renovation of Ämari started when Estonia was looking to join the NATO alliance in the early 1990s, and was essentially rebuilt based on a plan created at that time.
The first Estonian air force 95 years ago had 44 planes in its inventory. Now, it flies eight aircraft with a dual mission.
"First, we want to know what is happening in Estonian airspace, which is a function of the Baltic air patrol, which is one of our units," said Laats, referring to the Danish contingent whose fighters and personnel played a high-profile role on Sunday. Beyond the Danish aircraft and its support staff are also a technical team with specialized radar that are tasked with identifying what is happening in Estonian airspace.
"The other function for Ämari is to have this air base be prepared to receive our allies from NATO," Laats said. "At the moment, Estonia is not able to support modern fighters - it is too much for us. But we can receive and work together with our allies."
The Danes will rotate home on September 1, and be replaced with four German aircraft, probably Eurofighters, which will take up the patrol for the next four months. The Baltic air patrol was doubled in strength when Russian annexed Ukrainian Crimea in March; four fighters are also currently stationed at the Šiauliai air base in Lithuania.
The base is limited by having one airstrip, on which all aircraft have to take off and land. The Ämari grounds does have a second unused landing strip dating back to the Soviet era which can received rough-landing aircraft such as the Russian Antonov aircraft, Laats said. But money is the key ingredient to expanding any of Ämari's air operations in the future.
"It's now nearly completed," he said of the base. "There are some small things that we can continue improving, but for the moment, it is mostly done."