Belgian Air Force Days, Florennes

Belgian Air Force Days, Florennes

2016 marked the return of the biennial Belgian Air Force Days military airshow. This year it was the turn of Belgium’s southern F-16 base at Florennes to host the two day extravaganza which brings together many air arms from across Europe. Three major themes dominated the event; The 70th Anniversary of the Belgian Air Force, 20 years of Belgian F-16 operations and the 75th Anniversary of 350(F) Squadron.

Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author.

Belgium may be one of the smaller European nations, but when it comes to airshows it hosts some of the best in Europe. The Belgian Air Force Days are amongst the very biggest military airshows in Europe. In the modern era, they are held biennially with different bases taking turns to host the event. After the memorable event held at Kleine Brogel in 2014, 2016 saw the event move to the nation’s other F-16 at Florennes.

Found in the southern province of Namur, Florennes Air Base is home to the Belgian Air Force’s 2nd Tactical Wing which encompasses Nos 1 and 350 Squadrons, both flying the Lockheed Martin F-16AM Fighting Falcon. Unlike Kleine Brogel which sees a long thin operational area surrounded by trees, Florennes is far more open with its hardened aircraft shelters mostly in plain sight. There is also far more area between the runway and parallel taxiway which is used to grow crops! This can be frustrating for those photographers wanting to get take-off or landing shots as they find themselves quite a way from the operational runway with some quite high vegetation in the way!

As things turned out, this edition of Belgian Air Force Days turned into an event not for the faint hearted. The last few months have certainly been challenging for Belgium as it comes to grips with international terrorism. Naturally, the authorities have particular safety concerns about large public events. For the Spotterdays, security was particularly tight with off-base car parking followed by some fairly thorough security checks before a bus ride to a fenced area near the runway. This area really was a bit too small and meant it became quite difficult to view the action as more and more stepladders blocked the view! Fortunately, an enforced move back to the normal spectator area on Friday (to allow for flying display rehearsals) did at least provide better opportunities later in the day.

Saturday saw even more difficulties for the organisation. Confusion over what baggage was being let in soon turned to farce as the security team simply couldn’t cope with the crowds! It seemed that the base personnel were swamped and didn’t have the authority to reassess how they were doing things. Repeatedly they scanned obvious metal objects without thought. It was taking some well over an hour to move the 40m or so in the security lanes only to be confronted by the next challenge; the amazingly long walk to the actual showground along the perimeter roads and taxiway! It worked out as nearly 3km from the nearest (blue) car park to the static line of aircraft. While for adults this was an inconvenience, it must have been quite hard work for those with children or the elderly! Many missed the first few flying display acts (the crowd line looked empty for the opening displays) and you had to feel for the later arrivals which were parked even further out from the airfield by some considerable distance! Talking of the car parks, they were grazing fields for cattle which were still being cleared out as we arrived on the Sunday! To make matters worse, the heavy rain in the days before the show had really damaged the car parks which lead to people parking on the approach roads and verges. By 1pm on Saturday it had got so chaotic they were turning visitors away even though the showground was never really overcrowded.

Sunday I am happy to report was a whole lot easier. Security was streamlined and it was much quicker to get in. It is a shame it took them the whole of Saturday to grasp the situation and make improvements as it caused quite a backlash on the show’s Facebook page!

Once in though, the mood slowly improved as aviation wise, this was a superb event. As with any major military airshow, the flying display was complemented by a static display featuring a number of military, historic and civilian aircraft.

Being a fighter base, it was good see a wide range of front-line fast jets from across Europe and NATO participating. Joining their Belgian counterparts were Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcons from Denmark and Portugal plus a JAS-39D Gripen from Sweden. Germany and the Royal Air Force also contributed with examples of the Eurofighter EF2000/Typhoon and the Czech Air Force sent an Aero Vodochody L-159A ALCA.

It was good to see the United States Air Force back at Air Force Days, this time with two examples of the McDonnell Douglas F-15E Strike Eagle. However, perhaps the show stars of the whole static for many were a pair of McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom IIs from the Turkish Air Force. Now a rare beast in European skies, there is still a great deal of affection for these iconic Cold War warriors. The Cold War theme continued with Polish and Slovak Air Force examples of the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-29 Fulcrum.

Transport aircraft featured well too, particularly as many of the support aircraft for the various display teams stayed on during the weekend. Joining the home team’s Lockheed C-130H Hercules were a Polish Air Force Airbus CN295M, an Italian C-27J Spartan, Slovak Let L410-UVP and French Air Force Embraer EMB-312 Xingu.

European ISTAR capabilities were much in evidence with the NATO Boeing E-3A Sentry towering over the static display. The Belgian Air Force showed off the opposite end of the surveillance role with an example of its B-Hunter Remotely Piloted Aerial System (RPAS).

The Belgian Air Force also displayed some of its training fleet with two examples of the SIAI-Marchetti SF260 and an Alpha Jet E. Surprisingly, the only visiting training aircraft on show in the static area was an Austrian Air Force Pilatus PC-7 which had accompanied a further example participating in the flying.

Visiting rotary types included a Belgian NH90TTH, French Army Airbus Helicopters SA330 Puma and a Boeing CH-47D Chinook from the Royal Netherlands Air Force. The Belgian Federal Police Service also had one of its MD Helicopters MD900 Explorer helicopters.

Bolstering the military aircraft were a number of civilian aircraft, old and new. The First World War centenary is one dear to the Belgian nation was marked in the static display by a replica of the Nieuport 28 fighter. Also always at a Belgian military show, there was an example of the Stampe SV4 on static display alongside other interesting ex-military types such as the de Havilland Canada DHC-1 Chipmunk, Cessna C-195, Yakovlev Yak-52, Morane-Saulnier MS506L Storch and MS733 Alcyon.

The flying displays lasted for over eight hours on each day starting mid-morning and ending in the early evening. Things were a little strung out with some quite large gaps between displays as aircraft came out from and returned to their roosts. The weather didn’t help with both days seeing periods of rain between warm sunny spells as well as some low cloud.

Opening each days flying was the traditional patriotic formation flypast of Belgian Air Force Dassault Alpha Jet Es leaving smoke trails in the Belgian National Colours.

The flying display really was a feast of action for fast jet fans. Naturally F-16s featured well. The Belgian Air Force solo F-16AM display flown by Cdt Tom ‘Gizmo’ de Moortel spearheaded the clutch of ‘Vipers’ each day. The Hellenic Air Force F-16C Fighting Falcon demo team is  becoming much more prolific on the European Airshow circuit and made a welcome return to Air Force Days with its very American style of display. A much rarer F-16 solo display these days is that from the Royal Danish Air Force which like the Belgian Air Force, still uses the upgraded F-16AM model. The Danish display is very different to other F-16 displays and liberally uses flares throughout its routine.

Other fighter types seem to appear in the display in pairs. The Spanish Air Force made a welcome return to the solo fast arena with a display by the McDonnell Douglas EF-18M (or C.15) Hornet. The Hornet is always a spectacular performer being able to perform extremely tight turns which was a hallmark of the Spanish display. The Spanish flew some pretty aggressive split-S figures too almost stopping as he pulled through the top of each half loop! The Swiss Air Force sent their F/A-18C Hornet solo display to Florennes. The Swiss variant is much later than that operated by the Spanish Air Force and is equipped with the flight control software from the later Super Hornet. This means the Capt ‘Teddy’ Meister is able to show off some incredible manoeuvres at very high angles of attack during his full show.

The “eastern-bloc” adversary for the F-16 and F/A-18, the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-29A Fulcrum was also very much in evidence at Air Force Days. The Polish Air Force MiG-29 solo display has become a very popular addition to the European Airshow circuit performing at many of the famous military events. The Poles show off many of the unique display traits that made MiGs such big draws at airshows in the 1990’s such as the infamous ‘Tailslide’ or ‘Bell.’

A seldom seen MiG-29 display is that from the Slovakian Air Force. They have made precious few ventures westward in recent years but they were very welcome additions to the Florennes display. Their displays is perhaps a little forgiving on the aircraft than the Polish display, but still looks superb leaving thick black smoke trails from the Klimov jet engines and also included an awesome flare release after a touch and go on the main runway!

Recent years have seen a keenly fought competition amongst the Defence industry to provide a replacement for the Belgian Air Force’s fleet of F-16s. There have been five key options available to the Belgians; the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II, the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Eurofighter Typhoon, the SAAB JAS-39 Gripen and the Dassault Rafale. Sadly examples of the former two aircraft were not present, the remaining three were well represented in the flying display. Both the Air Forces of Sweden and the Czech Republic sent their SAAB JAS-39C Gripen solo displays to the show highlighting the capability of the small, single seat fighter.

Eurofighter has slowly been increasing its push toward Belgium in the last year. At the 2014 event, apart from a static example from the Luftwaffe, the company had no presence at all during the show. The next year at the Sanicole Airshow they had their exhibition unit on the ground. That all changed for Florennes with flying displays from two partner nations as well as a much larger ground exhibition. The Royal Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 Display Team made a very rare trip into Europe with Flt Lt Mark Long showing off the brutal power of the Typhoon’s twin EJ200 engines. The Italian Air Force’s Reparto Sperimentale Volo sent their F-2000A Typhoon solo display which was a great contrast to the RAF display with a particular highlight on the aircrafts speed and agility.

While the other companies have been slow to realise the impact of display their aircraft at Belgian events, Dassault have been returning to Sanicole and Air Force Days like clockwork and 2016 was no different. The French Air Force Dassault Rafale C solo is easily one of the most impressive displays in Europe. Not only is it noisy, it is very different in its style of presentation which flows from one aerobatic figure to another without relenting. C’est magnifique!

More Gallic flair came from Ramex Delta flying two Dassault Mirage 2000Ns. 2016 is sadly the team’s swansong. It’s a great pity as they’ve been a fairly short lived team, but one that has left a huge impression with airshow audiences with a superbly well-choreographed role demonstration.

It was not just solo jets. A very rare solo display participant on the European circuit is the Austrian Air Force Pilatus PC-7. The display aircraft wore a really striking and colourful scheme and was put through a very nice routine of linked aerobatics. Rotary aircraft too were well represented. The Belgian Air Force contributed the ever popular Agusta A109BA solo display complete with multiple flare releases plus a Search and Rescue demonstration from the EH Industries NH90NFH from Koksijde.

Saturday saw a glimpse of a future Belgian Air Force type, the Airbus DS A400M Atlas. The aircraft was one of Airbus’ development aircraft and made a series of flypasts plus a “touch-and-go” showing off the types agility  plus speed range.

The major theme marking the 75th Anniversary of the Belgian Air Force ran throughout the flying display. The origins of many Belgian squadrons during the Second World War which formed as part of the Royal Air Force was marked by two Spitfire displays. The Royal Air Force Battle of Britain Memorial Flight contributed a solo display by a Supermarine Spitfire ­­­XVI. Their Dutch counterparts from the Royal Netherlands Air Force Historic Flight also sent their North American TB-25N Mitchell and Supermarine Spitfire IX, though only the Mitchell took a full role in the flying display.

Though not strictly related to the show themes, there were some other great historic aircraft in the flying display. The stunning Breitling Lockheed Super Constellation flew on both days of the show gracefully growling around the rolling hills that surround Florennes. Remko Sijben’s Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation CAC-13 Boomerang also gave fine display. For a small radial engined fighter, it puts on quite a punchy display complete with smoke. There was also a small celebration of North American aircraft types. It was good to see North American TF-51D Mustang “Scat VII” back in the skies. This aircraft was built in 1944 and was the personal aircraft of Major Robin Olds, a triple ace who scored his 4 last kills in this particular machine. Alongside the Mustang was the T-28 Trojan of Kris van der Bergh carrying the marking of the US Navy.

One of the big set pieces marked the lineage of training aircraft which have served with the Belgian Air Force. The flypast was headed by a group of Stampe SV.4 biplane trainers followed by a single North American Havard. However, the most impressive formation saw a Fouga Magister lead the four SIAI Marchetti SF260s of the Red Devils Formation Team to bring the lineage through the Cold War to the current day. The Magister also wears the colours of the Red Devils and had only flown for the first time in the week before the show so it was especially good to see it participate in the display.

As well as the training heritage formation, the Red Devils were part of a select group of formation teams that appeared during the flying display. Further Belgian flying, though this time purely civilian,  came the Victors Formation Team. No Belgian airshow is complete without the Victors who fly the humble Piper PA28 Cherokee, a type not often associated with major flying displays. The team have a brand new display for 2016 showing off much more formation work than is in previous years and amde great use of coloured smoke canisters attached to the access steps of their aircraft.

A brand new civilian formation team on the European Circuit is the Blackshape Team. Flying a pair of BS100 Blackshape trainers, the team come from a company called Air Combat Europe. Like Ultimate High back in the UK they offer advanced training and Air Combat experience flights. They have also teamed up with the Royal Netherlands Air Force Air Cadets scheme to offer them experience flight and therefore wear the Dutch military roundels on their sleek aircraft.

Compared to previous Belgian Air Force Days events, there were fewer big jet teams. Sadly the Polish Air Force’s Iskry Team were beaten by the weather on their transit but La Patrouille de France did fly on both days of the show. Adding further red, white and blue smoke trails were the Royal Air Force Red Arrows appearing on the Sunday of the show. Thier AIr Force Days appearance brought to a close a particularly busy weekend for the team as they had already completed displays and flypasts at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, the National Armed Forces Day event at Cleethorpes and at London Pride.

The remaining Royal Air Force contribution, the Falcons Parachute Display Team, also appeared only on the Sunday due to the busy Armed Forces Weekend back home. Their jump at Florennes was particularly interesting, and perhaps a little too exciting for the team. Just as they jumped, one of the main rainy squalls hit Florennes bringing in a really brisk wind. That made the jump particularly hard work for the team as they battled their way into the jump zone with their trademark loose stack.

However, the main highlight for me, and probably many of the visitors celebrated the 75th Anniversary of No 350(F) Squadron. One of Florennes’ two front line fighter Squadrons, 350 formed with free Belgian personnel as part of the Royal Air Force during 1941 at RAF Valley.  Flying Spitfires, 350 took part in offensive operations in France and Belgium. Post war, as part of the Belgian Air Force, 350 went on to fly a variety of legendary types including the Hawker Hunter and F-104G Starfighter.

To celebrate the Squadron’s anniversary, the unit put together a very special formation with three of its current Lockheed Martin F-16AM Fighting Falcons leading the Old Flying Machine Company’s Supermarine Spitfire IX MH434. ‘MH is itself a 350 Squadron veteran have flown with the unit during 1944 wearing the squadron codes MN-B. To mark the anniversary, OFMC applied the MN squadron codes especially for the show. 350 also celebrated with a special schemed F-16 which also wore the MN-B squadron codes and this aircraft flew alongside the Spitfire on the Friday before the show. The formation routine itself was spectacular with Steve Jones flying Spitfire as close as possible to the lead F-16. The formation flew a number of passes even changing the formation before a gentle split on the downwind leg ahead of landing.

Belgian Air Force Days 2016 certainly provided an experience. At times, due to some poor organisation it was unpleasant, particularly on Saturday morning. Long walks are a fact of life for big military airshows, but Florennes seemed to take it unnecessarily to an extreme (We did hear a path was made available on Sunday to shorten the long walk, but it was never announced!) The security on Saturday was a shambles too. It is a huge shame as in the past, I’ve found Belgian Air Shows to really good fun at venues like Koksijde, Sanicole and Kleine Brogel and this just seemed to let the side down. Things may have been better had there more useful communication from the organisers, particularly via Social Media – but they always seemed to be behind the drag curve.

However, you cannot overlook the quality of the static and flying displays. Even though perhaps there were less memorable formations and set-piece displays than previous editions of Air Force Days, there was plenty of quality displays on offer to satisfy everybody who stuck with it. Looking back over the entire weekend, I still have a smile and did enjoy the show and that is all that really matters. I look forward to being back at a Belgian airshow very soon.