Visiting the International Sanicole Airshow is a weekend long experience for visitors and in 2017 saw three separate events held both at the airshow site and Kleine Brogel Air Base. For early arrivals, the festivities opened with the 7th Sunset Airshow on Friday 8th September. Starting at 6pm, the Sunset Show ran for two hours as darkness slowly descended over the airfield a featured a variety of acts both military and civilian, many flying with flares or special pyrotechnic effects.
Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author. Video highlights by the Sanicole Media Team.
2017 is a very special year for the International Sanicole Airshow as it celebrated its 40th edition. For the 7th time, the weekend long celebration of aviation got underway on the Friday with the Sunset Airshow. Inspired by the night shows seen the in the US and growing number of European based acts specialising in twilight shows, the Sanicole Sunset Show has grown into the leading event of its kind this side of the Atlantic.
The weather forecasts were not kind to Sanicole, particularly for the Friday which saw predictions of Heavy Rain throughout the day and well into the evening. Indeed, it was a very wet day throughout North Europe and while waiting for the event to open, there was a fair degree of scepticism. However, as the start time approached the rains eased and there were even a few late afternoon validations. By the start of the scheduled flying display, it was still raining just, but the main cloud-base had lifted. However, there was a fair amount of shuffling and re-jigging needed as some for some acts, the weather limited at the display site and over wider area were below their limited. This did mean that sadly the show lost is RAF contribution of Typhoon and Red Arrows and the parachute drop by the US Army’s Golden Knights.
Opening the flying was Sanicole regular Jean-March D’Hulst flying the Trescal sponsored Stolp Starduster Too. Jean was able to find a gap in the cloud and get a full and very elegant display of aerobatics
The show then really moved up a notch with the first display of the weekend by the Italian Air Force’s Il Frecce Tricolori. Sanicole is always a special show for the team as the Limburg region of Belgium is home to a significant population of Italian ex-pats. Incredibly, despite some low isolated patchy cloud, the flamboyant team got their rolling show in under the clad filling the dull skies with colour and noise.
The first flares of the evening came from the Belgian Air Force’s Agusta A109BA helicopter. The display has a new crew this year and they put on a superb extended display of the utility helicopters agility which even included rolling touch and go’s on the short hard runway at the airfield.
The Dassault Rafale C solo display flew next in the hands of Captaine Jean-Guillaume ‘Marty’ Martinez. Marty flew one of the tightest; most exciting flat displays that I ever seen. As well as the reheat from the Rafale’s two engines lighting up the sky, the aircraft pulled huge vapour clouds out of the air over its wings as it sliced its way around the grey skies.
Sadly for The Blades, a nasty low black cloud crossed the display area as they got airborne for their display. After a few minutes orbiting behind the crowd, they ran out of time for their display. Flying resumed after a short gap with the welcome return of the Breitling Jet Team to Sanicole led by Jaques Bothelin. The team have missed the previous two shows due to their extended tour of North American supporting their sponsors. The low cloud forced the team to fly a flat formation routine, but they ended their routine with a spectacular release of flares at low level as they flew back to Kleine Brogel
Immediately after the Breitling Jet Teams display there followed the first of many special moments of the Sanicole weekend – the leaders formation. In the lead was the Belgian Air Force’s solo display F-16 Fighting Falcon flown by Cdt Tom ‘Gizmo’ de Moortel. On his wings were the BAE Systems Hawk Mk65 of the Saudi Hawks, the Northrop F-5E Tiger II of Patrouille Suisse, the Aero L-39C Albatros of the Breitling Jet Team and the Leonardo AT-339PAN of Il Frecce Tricolori. It was wonderful to see such a collection of international display teams fly together to celebrate the Sanicole Airshow and it was beautifully flown. The first pass curved around the crowd showing the topside of the aircraft while the second was straight and level down the runway. Incredibly as the formation had been forming up and performing flypasts for the crowd the low cloud had broken just leaving some high level cloud. As the formation headed back to Kleine Brogel, ‘Gizmo’ pulled up into the vertical to set up for his thunderous full solo display. The traditional F-16 solo during the Sunset Show is always a high point of the event with its spectacular bright reheat and liberal use of flares illuminating the twilight skies. Further Belgian Air Force participation followed with a fly-through by a Lockheed C-130H Hercules on its way home from Kleine Brogel.
The show was closed by two well-known UK acts who specialise in spectacular pyrotechnic shows. First up was the pair of Silence SA1100 Twisters of the Twister Aerobatics Team. Peter Wells and Chris Burkett’s evening shows are the most elegant of formation routine with gentle loops and rolls highlighted by delicate streams of sparks from the aircraft’s wingtips. Their show finished in style too with their traditional heart accompanied by some further ground based fireworks. Closing the flying displays was the GliderFX Display Team with Guy Westgate flying the team’s new Swift S-1 Aerobatic Glider known as the ‘Pheonix.’ Against the dark sky, the glider looked fantastic with its animated LED lights and all manner of pyrotechnics effects firing from the gliders wing tips and it looped and rolled its was down to the ground ahead a final flurry of ground based fireworks.
If ever there was a triumph against the odds at an airshow, the 7th Sanicole Sunset Show was surely it. Yes we may have gotten a little wet and it was very autumnal, but few would disagree that this was truly a spectacular start to Sanicole’s celebration of 40 airshows. Credit must go to all the organising team and the participating crews that not only made the show happen despite some tricky weather conditions, but did it in style. And this was just the start of an amazing weekend of aviation.