40th International Sanicole Airshow

40th International Sanicole Airshow

The highlight of the aviation calendar in Belgium is the International Sanicole Airshow. It is the country’s only major civilian airshow and attracts aircraft and visitors from around the world.  This year saw the event celebrate its 40th edition with over eight hours of spectacular flying displays covering just about every facet of flight and aviation with participants from 18 different countries.

Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author. Video highlights by the Sanicole Media Team. 

I am only a very recent convert to the International Sanicole Airshow having found the event in 2010. I was just amazed at how a relatively small aero-club on the outskirts of Leopoldsburg could transform itself into a base for one of the biggest, most well respected civilian airshows in the world. The airfield itself boasts a small hard-runway, a main club building and a handful of small hangars. Yet, come September it is transformed into an eight hour long aerial theatre of noise and colour.

Sanicole traces its roots back to the mid-1970’s when the airfield hosted Stunt Shows. These developed into regular air displays and in 1982 welcomed its first international participants, the Asas de Portugal national display team. Two years later both the Frecce Tricolori and Red Arrows attended for the first time. By the end of the 1980’s Sanicole had welcomed such highlights as the Chilean Air Force Los Halcones display team and the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Avro Lancaster. The 1990’s saw Eastern European participation for the first time and in 1994 the Russian Test Pilots team made their Sanicole debut with the Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker.

The mid-1990’s also saw major challenges to airshow regulation in Belgium as a result of the Ostend Airshow accident and in 1997 Sanicole was  the only civilian airshow left in Belgium. It did not stop the event developing however and more recent highlights include the only appearance in Belgium by Avro Vulcan XH558 in 2009. That same year saw Sanicole co-host the annual Tiger Meet exercise with 31 Squadron at Kleine Brogel attracting a star-cast of exotic jets wearing eye-catching colour schemes. Perhaps the ultimate expression of just how far Sanicole has come was the 2015 event which welcomed the Patrouille de France, the Red Arrows, Il Frecce Tricolori and Patrouille Suisse and culminated in an incredible “leaders formation” during that year’s Sunset Show.

Today, the International Sanicole Airshow is world renowned. The organisation plays an important part in the European Airshow Council and has forged strong links with the International Council of Air Shows, the association that supports the US air display industry. Sanicole has always been an innovator amongst airshows, and perhaps its biggest innovations was the Friday evening sunset show which started 2010 and was inspired by the long-running US tradition for night shows and the development of specialist pyrotechnic acts in Europe, particularly the UK. The Sanicole Sunset Show has provided the blueprint for many other similar events around Europe which has led to more and more “pyro” display acts joining the fold.

The modern day Sanicole Airshow is truly an international affair. Displays acts come from around the globe to perform and unusually the event commentary is in two languages with  Belgian commentator Chris Christiaens joined by an English speaking commentator. Over the years they have included UK commentator Sean Maffett and US commentator Gordon Bowman-Jones. More recently Canadian based commentator Ric Peterson has joined the show. Ric’s enthusiasm for display flying is incredible and his excitement at seeing the different European acts shines through and adds to the spirit of the Sanicole airshow.

Another factor that makes Sanicole so appealing is that it rarely has the same acts from one year to the next, certainly from the civilian world. It keeps each edition of the show fresh with new faces amongst the participants and an ever changing spectacle in the sky.

While the focal point of the event is the flying display, there plenty of aviation related attractions on the ground. The hangars this year hosted exhibitions about the show and the Belgian Air Force. Elsewhere there were contributions from the international aerospace industry and other traders.

To celebrate the 40th International Sanicole Airshow, the organisers put together an incredible line-up of display acts in a flying display which started at 9.30am and didn’t finish until after 6pm, though there was a short half hour break for lunch. Under the tagline “Honouring the Past, Celebrating the Future” the show really told the story of flight right from its beginnings through to the high-tech world of today and beyond. The weather thankfully significantly improved from the rather grey day experienced on Friday into a day of bright sunny spells, though the cloud did remain stubbornly low at times.

Opening the flying was French conservationist Christian Moullec flying his small flexi-wing microlight with a flock of geese. For over twenty years Christian has been training birds to fly safer migration route with the aid of his Microlight. His airshow appearances are always amazing to watch as his birds fly such close formation with him.

Birds were man’s inspiration to flight and the first manned flights were in gliders. In tribute to these pioneers, the next acts was the UK’ GliderFX Display Team debuted their new duo of MDM-1 Fox and S-1 Swift aerobatic gliders flown by Ian Gallacher and Guy Westgate respectively. Due to the limitations on Sanicole’s narrow runway, the team had to use two locally based Piper Pawnee to tow each glider to height separately. However this did mean we got to see a mini-balbo fly-through while Guy performed some rolls-on-tow! Once at height, the pair flew some elegant formation aerobatics though a gap in the cloud before splitting into some low-level solo aerobatics with delicate smoke trails trailing from their wingtips.

The very earliest years of powered flight came next with Mikael Carlson demonstrating his beautiful Bleriot XI (actually a Swedish built Thulin A). Mikael’s aircraft was built in 1918 in Sweden and is powered by a genuine Gnome rotary engine. It is always amazing to watch Mikael fly his Bleriot which is very much at the mercy of the weather as he gently guides his veteran aircraft around the sky.

The historic action at Sanicole didn’t stop there as the show paid tribute to the 70th Anniversary of the United States Air Force. The main salute to this anniversary saw a pairing of North American T-28B Trojan and P-51D Mustang ‘Scat VII.’ The T-28B was flown by Luc Helling and is usually based at Zwartberg in Belgium. It is originally a US Navy version of the famous post-war training aircraft but has recently been repainted into a very colourful USAF scheme. ‘Scat VII’ is a genuine survivor of the Second World War having been built in 1944 and saw service with the 34th Fighter Squadron as part of the 479th Fighter Group. It was the personal aircraft of Major Robin Olds who was a triple ace scoring his final four kills in this very airframe. It is now operated by the Vintage Dreams Factory in Belgium offering members of the public to fly in the backseat. Accompanying the P-51D on the ground was a very large collection of Ford Mustangs of various vintages parading along the runway.

Rounding off the story of the story of the USAF 70th Anniversary later in the display was a couple of flypasts by a Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker. Unusually however, this was not a RAF Mildenhall based example but one from the 157th Air Refuelling Wing which is part of the New Hampshire Air National Guard. The unit operates out of Pease Air National Guard base and was in Europe on exercise.

The US connection continued with an appearance by the US Army’s Golden Knights Parachute Display Team. International parachuting displays often feature in a Sanicole display and the event has hosted the likes of the RAF Falcons and the Canadian Armed Forces Skyhawks Team in the past. For the Golden Knights this was their first European performance for a number of years. Despite the best efforts of some low cloud, the team managed to get their display in with some impressive canopy work.

As well as all the military might, Sanicole always has a fine pick of civilian displays from home and overseas. On the ground, the Bronco Demo Team were represented with one of the team’s Shorts SC7 Skyvan on static display supported  by their always enthusiastic ground crew. The Victors Formation Team are regulars at Sanicole. Based at Ursel, the team fly four Piper PA28 Cherokee aircraft presenting some very precise formations. A surprise item in the flying was a solo by a SIAI-Marchetti SF260M. The aircraft was piloted by Sanicole’s own airshow director, Geoffrey Buekenberghs who performed a very crisp routine of aerobatics to celebrate the shows 40th edition. Completing the line-up of Belgian civilian displays was Kristof Cloetens flying an Extra 330SC. Kristof is a member of the Belgian Air Force and is an F-16 instructor but also flies competition aerobatics and is the current national champion.

Two of the international civilian displays came from the UK. The ever-impressive Blades Aerobatic Team returned to Sanicole after an eight year gap. Led by Ben Murphy, the team demonstrated just how flexible they are constantly changing between flat, rolling and full displays under the scattered low cloud in the morning. Rich Goodwin had much better luck with the weather flying towards the end of the day in his Pitts S-2S Special. By late afternoon, the clouds had given way to blue skies and Rich was able to give a full routine with his ‘Muscle Biplane.’ He finished his display with a flourish with some colour pyrotechnics fired from the ground as he made his last knife-edge pass. Further biplane aerobatics came earlier in the day from Frenchman Jean-Marc D’Hulst flying the Trescal sponsored Stolp Starduster Too.

In 1983, two international civilian display teams made their debut at Sanicole in the form of the Royal Jordanian Falcons and Jacques Bothelin’s Patrouille Martini. 34 years later, both the Falcons and Jacques were back displaying over Sanicole. The Falcons have since moved on to flying four Extra 300Ls while Jacques’ latest team is the Breitling Jet Team flying six Aero Vodochody L-39C Albatros jet trainers. It was particularly good to see the Breitling Jets back in action over Europe after two years away on tour in North America. Both teams have been a big part of Sanicole history and no celebration of the 40th Edition would have be complete without them.

The level of military participation at this year’s show was truly exceptional with an astonishing array of helicopters, fast jets and national display teams squeezed into the flying. Naturally the Belgian Air Force led the way with the NH Industries NH90 performing a search and rescue demonstration, the Red Devils flying four SIAI-Marchetti SF260s, the near aerobatic Agusta A109BA solo plus of course the Lockheed Martin F-16AM Fighting Falcon flown by Cdt Tom ‘Gizmo’ de Moortel. The F-16 traditionally flies towards the end of the day and Tom really flew a very tight and spirited display in his final season as display pilot with plenty of flares.

The Silver Tigers are a Belgian Air Force act unique to Sanicole. The Aero-club and airshow have a very strong bond with all at Kleine Brogel, but in particular with 31 ‘Tiger’ Squadron. For each Sanicole Airshow, the squadron has put on a one-off display of formation flying mixed in with role-demonstration as the Tigers, ThunderTigers or more recently Silver Tigers. This year they once again put up a four-ship of F-16AM Fighting Falcons led by the Squadron’s tiger jet for 2017, the Tiger Pirate.

The Royal Netherlands, Spanish and Czech Air Forces all contributed helicopters for the show. The Netherlands sent a CH-47D Chinook for static display over the weekend while the Spanish Air Force sent Patrulla ASPA for their Sanicole debut. The team fly five Airbus Helicopters H125 Colibri helicopters all wearing very patriotic markings and fitted with smoke systems. The team are relatively rare performers outside of their homeland. They put on a really interesting display too with some great choreography linking formation and solo set-pieces. Completing the rotary displays was the sinister Mil Mi-24V Hind-D from the Czech Air Force.

If you are a fan of fast jet displays, then you were truly spoilt for choice at Sanicole this year. It was not just Belgium showcasing the F-16 as Sanicole attracted the F-16 solos from both Turkey and Greece. The ‘SoloTurk’ display flying a F-16C Fighting Falcon had all its usual extravagance with the beautifully painted display jet and the pilot rolling (near flick-rolling) the big jet around under the cloudbase. The Hellenic Air Force F-16C Fighting Falcon display, known as “Zeus” is bit more purposeful. The jet carries conformal fuel tanks on its fuselage which gives the jet a much more aggressive stance. The display too is very different with more emphasis on the F-16’s ability to accelerate and turn tightly rather than its ability as an aerobatic performer.

As well as all the F-16s, there were two chances to see examples of the F/A-18 Hornet in action. The Finnish Air Force appeared at Sanicole for the first time with its McDonnell Douglas F-18C Hornet solo display. The low cloud in the morning restricted the display somewhat but it was still an impressive performed generating plenty of vapour clouds across its upper surfaces. The Swiss Air Force have been regular supported of Sanicole and they once again sent their F/A-18C Hornet Solo display team flown by Nicolas “Vincent” Rossier. With the better condition later in the day, Nicolas had more height to display the Hornet’s impressive low-speed agility and power.

The main cold war adversary to the F-16 and F/A-18 was also on show at Sanicole with the Polish Air Force’s Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-29 Fulcrum. The MiG-29 has been an airshow favourite ever since it first appeared in the West in 1988 and will be hopefully be seen for a few more years yet thanks to the Polish Air Force. The MiG has a presence all of its own in the skies thanks to the long trails of black smoke from its thunderous Klimov engines and was a real highlight of the afternoon.

The latest generation of fighters were well represented at Sanicole. On the ground there were full scale replicas of the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II. Both types are in the competition to replace the Belgian Air Force’s fleet of F-16s which is now entering its final stages.

The Swedish Air Force sent the SAAB JAS-39C Gripen solo display for a typically tight and punchy routine augmented with even more flares! The Gripen had also been in the running for the Belgian fighter competition but was withdrawn earlier this year. Over the Sanicole weekend news broke that there was confusion over whether France would be offering the Dassault Rafale C in the competition. The French government had not submitted a formal reply to the information request by the Belgian Government but instead wanted to offer an alternative joint defence agreement including the offer Rafale. Rafale International was represented on the ground and also in the air by the French Air Force’s solo display flown by Captaine Jean-Guillaume ‘Marty’ Martinez. Marty flew a full display in the charismatic French fighter despite having a minor issue with the reheat which was really impressive to see.

Sanicole always prides itself on attracting national jet display teams. In most years, the show usually has one or two teams to take the star billing. However such is the affection for the show that for the 40th show they attracted four big jet teams for the Sunday show. First to fly were the Italian Air Force’s Il Frecce Tricolori flying 10 Leonardo AT-339PAN jet trainers. Whatever show they put on, the Frecce never fail to impress and Sanicole is an important show for the team as the Limburg region of Belgium is home to a large Italian population.

A new team to Sanicole were the Saudi Hawks from the Royal Saudi Air Force. The team were in Europe for a short three stop tour which started at Sanicole before moving on to NATO Days in Ostrava and finishing at the Malta International Airshow. The team fly six BAE Systems Hawk Mk65a and since their formation have been advised by former members of the Red Arrows. It is therefore unsurprising that the team’s display reflects some of the Red Arrows repertoire. However, their display does still contain some very unique formations and figures.

Towards the end of the afternoon, there were two more of Europe’s finest teams to round off an exceptional flying display. The Swiss Air Force have been great supporters of Sanicole and thereis rarely a year in which the air arm doesn’t support the show with one of its two teams. This year it was the turn of the Patrouille Suisse to support the show with its six Northrop F-5E Tiger IIs. With six fighters, the teams display always stands out, particularly their grande finale with all six jets lobbing flares as the aircraft break away from each other.

The final team, The French Air Force’s Patrouille de France, brought the International Sanicole Airshow to a close in the late afternoon sunshine. Flying eight Dassault Alpha Jet Es, their display is certainly the most photogenic of all the team displays combined smooth elegant formation passes and exciting solo and synchronised flying. In particular, they are superb smoke artists drawing elegent figures in the sky throughout their display and closed the airshow in style.

The International Sanicole Airshow is always a special event, but this year was truly exceptional with a packed international flying display full of all the variety we’ve come to expect and more. It may have been a long flying display, but such was the quality it simply flew by! Many clearly agreed as they had a record crowd of 40,000 attending the show. There is always a very special atmosphere at Sanicole which despite its size hasn’t lost that family feel to it. That perhaps because you always get the feeling there is a real passion for the event amongst those who stage the event and volunteer for it each year. Combined with the Sunset Show on the Friday and the Spottersday on Saturday, Sanicole makes for a very special weekend of aviation and we sincerely hope it continues for many more years to come. The next ISA will take place over the weekend of 13th & 15th September 2019. 2018 sees Belgian Air Force Days return to Kleine Brogel.