From 12 to 14 September 2014, the 10th Tactical Wing at Kleine-Brogel Air Base opened its doors for the Belgian Air Force Days, a celebration of “A Century plus Air Power in Belgium” and a salute to the 40th Anniversary of the General Dynamics F-16. It had been 15 years since the last airshow at ‘KeeBee’ and both the Belgian public and the aviation enthusiast community were eagerly anticipating the weekend’s events, keen to see the results of the collaboration between the Belgian military and the Sanicole Airshow organising team. Kev Wills reports from the Saturday show with additional photography from Tom Gibbons and Gordon Jones.
From the outset there were high expectations for this airshow and in the preceding months the aviation forums had been alive with news, views and an increasing air of anticipation as participation updates trickled into the public domain. Early announcements were promising and included a welcome return to Europe of the Canadian CF-188 Hornet demonstration and one of the few appearances outside of Greece of the Team Zeus F-16 demo; joining this opening fast jet pair were the Royal Air Force’s Red Arrows and the Swiss Air Force PC-7 Team, in their 50th and 25th years respectively; both would be among a number of international teams to be later confirmed for the display. This was a solid start for the organising team, and the participation list was soon bolstered by the likes of the Austrian SAAB 105 demo, Czech Mi-24 ‘Hind’ and pair of Mi-171 ‘Hips’, SOLOTÜRK F-16, Polish and Slovak MiG-29s, French AF Rafale solo and RAMEX DELTA with their pair of Mirage 2000Ns. Later additions of the French Navy Rafale M pair ‘role demo’, Italian C-27J, EF2000 and Frecce Tricolori added yet more spice to a mix which already had the enthusiast community salivating at the prospect, without even considering what may be on static display. Sadly, despite the efforts of the airshow team there were the inevitable casualties; the withdrawal of the Canadian Hornet and Italian solo contingent, and the French Navy Rafale pair moving from flying to static display, being some of the headline changes. Despite these disappointments it was increasingly clear that this was going to be a lengthy flying display and this was reinforced with the addition of the Joint Fire Power Demonstration from the Belgian Armed Forces, the initial announcement promising international elements of Airbus Military with an example of the Belgian Air Force’s future air lifter, the A400M, the Royal Netherlands Air Force with a KDC-10 and the NATO Airborne Early Warning Force with an E-3A Sentry.
This Belgian Air Force Days show featured a limited Friday public open day with a focus on schools, promotion of aviation and the Belgian Air Force to a cross section of Belgian youngsters throughout the day whilst simultaneously continuing to accept airshow arrivals, interspersed with numerous practice and rehearsal sorties all flown in perfect display flying conditions – blue skies, minimal high cloud and glorious sunshine. Friday public access was afforded from the south-west area of the base to a position at approximately crowd centre, immediately before the VIP chalet area. Aircraft parked further to the north-east – mainly a limited number of aircraft scheduled to take part in the flying display, including the single-seat Slovak MiG-29 – were frustratingly not accessible. Indeed, to the chagrin of many given the fabulous Friday weather, the Belgian F-16 marked to represent one of the development fleet and carrying the USAF serial ‘50745’ was situated, along with a German EF2000, Swiss F/A-18D, Hungarian JAS-39C Gripen and French Rafale C, in a mini ‘fighter park’ directly in front of the chalet area and was tantalisingly just out of reach to the majority of visitors.
Nonetheless the remainder of the static display, predominantly arranged on the taxiway to the immediate front of the crowd line, provided some excellent photo opportunities, although the presence of covers on both the Slovak twin-seat MiG-29 and the Czech ALCA for the whole day was a disappointment for many. The small display of historics near to the technical and hangar displays was nicely presented, and for those who made the effort to go off piste away from the main static line, the area provided some treats for the enthusiast such as three Stampe SV-4B in bright orange Belgian Air Force training markings, a single T-28B Trojan and former Portuguese Air Force Chipmunk. Nearby, the hangar area held a number of resident F-16s in a myriad of different settings; weapons arrayed in front, panels open and engines alongside, which allowed those with a degree of technical curiosity to have a close up look at the F-16 and its associated systems and equipment.
Saturday dawned with contrasting weather conditions as mist and low cloud conspired to dampen the spirits; with an 0900 start scheduled for the flying display, strangely coinciding with the gates being opened for public entry, it was clear that some participants would be flying their low shows, if indeed they managed to fly at all. The Saturday show was scheduled to be opened with a formation of the beautiful T-6G Texan N4109C in Belgian Air Force colours, flown by Danny Cabooter (Chairman of the Stampe & Vertongen Museum at Antwerp) and Kris Vandenbergh in the US Navy marked T-28B N377WW, however it fell to Air Commodore Chris Lorraine in the stunning silver Netherlands Air Force Historic Flight Spitfire LF.IXc MK732 to open the proceedings with a graceful, flowing sequence.
There should have been a leap to the opposite end of the performance spectrum for the next display item, but sadly Captain Sotirios Stralis and the Hellenic Air Forces’ Team Zeus F-16 demo was denied the honour of opening the show’s fast jet account, the accolade being taken by the Dutch Stichting Hunter F.6A ‘N-294’ in the hands of the 1997/98 Dutch F-16 demo pilot Patrick Tuit, with a display that was quite simply a joy to behold (the image below was taken on the Friday in superb conditions). This was a masterclass in classic jet display flying, graceful sweeping turns and rolls accompanied by blue note after blue note emanating from the aircraft whether in a fast pass or whilst the aircraft was rolling through the gloom over KB; glorious stuff indeed. Sadly another fast jet no-show was the Slovak MiG-29; again hampered by the persistent low cloud which certainly wasn’t co-operating and not even permitting seven-time Swiss National Aerobatic champion Pierre Marmy in the Breitling-sponsored Sukhoi Su-26 the luxury of a full show.
Despite the weather clearing as the morning progressed it was disappointing that neither of the early fast jet demos was rescheduled for a later slot and many who were visiting KB for the Saturday only missed out. The contrast to Friday’s weather was striking, and with the Joint Fire Power demonstration underway by 1030 it was clear that the flare popping antics of the F-16s would not be repeated due to the low cloud. The ground forces’ firefight at crowd centre was seemingly never ending, with the smoke effects contributing to the deterioration of the already poor visibility.
A single IAI B-Hunter UAV flew through and transmitted imagery to the large screens situated along the crowd line whilst pairs of F-16s performed fast and low passes, simulating shows of force, close air support and JTAC operations with plenty of afterburner engaged. The rotary force was represented by a single NH90 TTH and Agusta 109BA delivering troops using fast rope insertion, whilst a single Czech Mi-24 performed top cover. Next up was a run through and Khe-San style arrival and troop insertion from a single C-130H Hercules, which then rapidly reversed on the runway for an impressive tactical short take-off. The demo was brought to an end with the Hercules flying through in company with four F-16s followed by a NATO E-3 Sentry AWACS and its accompanying F-16s – impressive stuff that would have been simply stunning had conditions been kinder; nonetheless, a very welcome addition to the flying display and an effective illustration of Belgian air power.
It was clear that some thought had been given to mounting a number of formations and, with the weather beginning to break and patches of blue appearing, a formation of seven Belgian Alpha Jets from the joint training squadron at Cazaux, France, performed two arcing passes along the display line patriotically trailing the yellow, red and black of the Belgian national flag. With the display now gaining momentum, the flamboyant Frecce Tricolori delivered another of their trademark displays full of colour and Italian verve. The Czech Hind took to the air once again, this time for its solo demonstration in the hands of Captain Miroslav Šajban who performed a superb routine demonstrating this menacing helicopter to full effect.
As Team Zeus had been unable to perform earlier it fell to SOLOTÜRK to open the F-16 account for the day, and this was the first of many displays to feature the use of flares, as the weather had by now improved dramatically. The SOLOTÜRK display has improved immeasurably since formation in 2010 and has matured into a powerful, dynamic routine on a par with the more established programmes from the likes of Belgium and The Netherlands; smokewinders, flares and a superbly-marked display aircraft, coupled with the by-now blue skies over Kleine-Brogel, resulted in a display to remember from the Turkish Air Force. The seemingly ever-present Royal Jordanian Falcons followed, and, despite their usual pin point accuracy and flowing display, the three aircraft unfortunately appeared rather lost in the Kleine Brogel skies; the diminutive Belgian Agusta 109 could also have suffered the same fate, however, the surprisingly entertaining display was enhanced immeasurably by the use of flares with salvo after salvo spewing from the helicopter’s magazines, each accompanied by the staccato notes of thousands of camera shutters.
The next item could only have been described as hugely ambitious and it was really no surprise that it didn’t really come together as the organisers would have planned. Mounting a flypast of a Blériot XI and F-16 was a programme item that was maybe a step too far; Mikael Carlson got airborne in the Blériot, closely followed by Senior Captain Avi Renaud “Grat” Thys in the Belgian Demo Team F-16 who gamely attempted to formate on the Blériot. It really wasn’t a surprise when, after three attempts, Grat abandoned his high alpha passes and broke away to land and possibly reflect on what the plan would be for Sunday.
The Swiss PC-7 Team opened their display with a formation flypast in company with the display Super Puma before each went into their own routines in what is a momentous year for Swiss military aviation. The PC-7 Team were, as always, precision personified whilst the Super Puma, and the company-owned PC-21 displayed slightly later, respectively offered a look at rotary wing operations and the future of Swiss flying training. By early afternoon there was still much to come from a packed flying programme, with the specially-marked ‘Tiger’ SAAB J105OE from the Austrian Air Force and solo Black Cat Lynx HMA.8 from the Royal Navy’s 702 Naval Air Squadron preceding Saturday’s RAMEX DELTA display. For many, RAMEX were the undoubted stars of the day’s activities and the team have been a huge hit for a few years, with no sign of their popularity diminishing, and with their close formation work, liberal use of afterburner and the sheer energy of their ten-minute performance, it is easy to see why. This was again a display that left people grinning from ear to ear and wanting more.
The Breitling Jet Team has had a predominantly European-based season following the 2013 tour of Asia, and they were their usual precise selves with a lovely display capped with an upward bomb burst and release of flares, which may have caught one or two photographers off guard. With a North American tour looming in 2015, this may have been a last European opportunity to catch this popular team for quite some time. The RAF has taken a bit of criticism as regards its overseas airshow participation and it was left to the RAF Falcons Parachute Display Team to open the junior service’s account, dropping from the team’s Cessna Caravan.
The Belgians’ next door neighbours, the Dutch, were next up with a double-header of the AH-64D Apache, in the hands of Major Roland “Wally” Blankenspoor and Major Harm “Kaas” Cazemier, followed closely by the F-16AM, flown by Captain Jeroen “Slick” Dickens. The Apache demo is always a class act and shows off the agility of this hugely capable helicopter to great effect, whilst “Slick” continues the fine tradition of Dutch F-16 demo pilots and really wrings the neck of this jet, belying the fact that it is a 40 year old design. Both demos featured a feast of flares in their respective displays and it is such a pity that there are only a limited number of venues in the UK that can meet the requirements for their use within a demo sequence.
With a couple of hours of flying still to come, it was the turn of the UAE Air Force with its Al Fursan team flying seven Aermacchi MB-339s. Al Fursan are still a relatively new team on the circuit and continue to develop their routine which features a few familiar moves drawn from their counterparts and early Italian mentors, the Frecce Tricolori. The routine is certainly a competent one but lacks the sparkle of some of their contemporaries, although they certainly lead the way with regard to smoke output, the aircraft being obscured at times due to the sheer amount of smoke hanging in the air. A short sequence featuring the specially-marked Alpha Jet AT-24 formating with the Airbus-sponsored CM170 Magister F-AZZP provided a ‘then and now’ look at Belgian Air Force jet pilot training; this was a pleasing formation to see and the only criticism that could be drawn was that it was such a brief sequence before both were back on the ground. No such criticism could be levelled at the Polish Air Force courtesy of Capt Maciej Skrzypek in the Polish Air Force MiG-29, with a powerful display showing off the brute force of this Cold War fighter. The Fulcrum is still a huge crowd pleaser, and Capt Skrzypek ratcheted it up another notch or two with some prolific flare bursts throughout his display; super stuff indeed.
Contrasting with the Polish MiG was the French Rafale Solo Demo with Captain Benoit “Tao” Planche at the helm. There’s something about the manner in which the French display their aircraft, power, speed, dynamism, flair, this display had it all. Add the special “Thundertiger” scheme carried by Saturday’s display aircraft and what more could an airshow aficionado wish for? In a word, wow!
The pace changed next somewhat with the Czech Mil Mi-171 pair led by Captain Ladislav Zajicek; this was another display not usually seen at the majority of European displays and, whilst understandably not a particularly dynamic routine, this was a very welcome demonstration of the capabilities and surprising manoeuvrability of this large support helicopter.
Continuing with the support theme it was good to see the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Dakota “Kwicherbichen” displaying in Europe and, with the sole focus being on the Dak without competition from the Spitfire/Hurricane/Lancaster, it was an opportunity to concentrate on what is a very nice large aircraft display. The Dakota was surprisingly one of only a few large aircraft to feature in the event – the previously mentioned E-3 and C-130 playing a nominal part in the flying display and the Norwegian P-3 and Belgian C-130H sitting at the south-west of the static line.
With the show close to completion the crowd had become noticeably thinner and the light had become a challenge for the photographer; Kristof Cloetens, a serving Belgian Air Force officer and former F-16 and ‘Hardship Red’ SF-260 pilot, provided the build up to the show finale with a display of precision aerobatics in the CAP232 before the Belgian Air Force Red Devils took to the skies in their four red SF-260. The Devils joined up with the Belgian display F-16 and ended their display with an on-crowd break with “Grat” pulling up and out to commence his solo routine. Grat has really been on his game this year and his Saturday display at KB was no exception, full of raw power, superbly executed manoeuvre after manoeuvre and salvoes of flares at regular intervals to add to the spectacle.
This capped off the Belgian participation for the day and left the stage clear for the Red Arrows to close the show in their 50th display season, and the last year for team leader Squadron Leader Jim Turner. It was as if the day had teased the best from a good many participants and the Reds were not to be outdone; this was a superb flowing display, towering loops, precision formation changes and the sheer pace and energy of the “Gypo” element all combining to have the KB crowd applauding the team on conclusion of their performance.
On reflection this had been a solid Belgian Air Force Days show that presented the opportunity to see the Belgian Air Force up close and had provided a number of gems in the air. My only real criticisms would have to be the decision to start the flying display at the same time as opening the doors to the public and the inability of the airshow team to reschedule the Greek F-16 and Slovak MiG-29 on the Saturday, which was a huge disappointment to many. That said this was still a very good show that had a really tough job competing with the likes of the mammoth Air 14 event in Switzerland. Let’s hope that it isn’t another 15 years before the next KB show.