Luchtmachtdagen (Air Force Days) returned to the European airshow calendar this year following a three year absence. The show which moves around the three major Royal Netherlands Air Force air bases was this year held at Volkel Air Base, just a few kilometres north of Eindhoven. The event is a major public relations exercise for the Air Force as it seeks to renew and bolster it ranks as well as showing off its capabilities to the Dutch public.
Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author.
Budgets and operational requirements have meant that Luchtmachtdagen, one of Europe’s most popular airshows, has been absent from the circuit for over two years. In 2019 it returned to Volkel Air Base near Eindhoven in its usual mid-June slot. As one of the largest airshows in the Benelux region, it was very popular not least because it is free to enter and this year is said of attracted some 240,000 visitors over two days.
Despite the lack of ticketing, thanks to some slick organisation it is fairly straight-forward getting in and out. Car parking does come at a price but even then is just €10 for the closest car parks to the event. Car parks slightly further away cost slightly less though there are much longer walks to the main gates. The entrance (and exit) itself was quite the experience walking through a series of arches which supported screens which ran videos clips of Royal Netherlands Air Force personnel promoting their work. The ‘installation’ would not have been out of place in a Sci-fi movie.
The showground was spread along the length of Volkel’s parallel taxiway/relief runway. Almost all of the displays and marquees in the showground were Air Force or military related with very few general traders. There were however plenty of catering areas! The far eastern end of the showground was themed around Royal Netherlands Air Force overseas operations with many of their aircraft presented in simulated hides and forward operating base areas. These included Lockheed Martin F-16AM Fighting Falcons, Eurocopter AS532U2 Cougar, Boeing AH-64D Apache and Lockheed C-130H Hercules.
The Royal Netherlands Air Force had further F-16s on show around the showground and in the main static park. Their two-seat F-16BM Fighting Falcon ‘Orange Jumper’ from the Air Force Test Centre was also on display as was an example of a Pilatus PC-7 Turbotrainer.
Most aircraft on static display were parked with the flying display participants on the taxiway. Further F-16AM/BM Fighting Falcons from the Danish, Belgian and Norwegian Air Forces joined their Dutch counterparts alongside Italian and Spanish Eurofighter Typhoons, a German Panavia Tornado IDS, a BAE Systems Hawk T1 and Westland Puma HC2 from the Royal Air Force, plus a very well-guarded Italian Air Force Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II. The Hellenic Air Force were very welcome participants in the static line with a pair of McDonnell Douglas F-4E(HUP) Phantom IIs one of which wore special ‘Phokel’ markings.
The western end of the flightline also boasted a couple of heavy aircraft on show. The Boeing E-3A Sentry from the NATO AEW force was a popular walk-through attraction throughout the weekend. The other heavy aircraft, an Airbus DS A330MRTT (KC-30) represented the new Multinational Multi-role Tanker Transport fleet (MFF). MFF currently consists of the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Norway, Germany and Belgium. A fleet of eight A330MRTTs will be based at both Eindhoven in the Netherlands and Köln in Germany with further nations expected to join the programme. The example on show at Volkel is the first A330MRTT for the MFF and still wore its orange primer paint.
As well as the modern machinery, the static line-up also included a few historic and civilian gems including a Vultee BT-13 Valiant, a pair of Focke-Wulf Fw149s, two Slingsby Fireflys as well as the local MEDEVAC Eurocopter EC135. The static line also included a Lockheed TF-104G Starfighter which has been lovingly restored on base at Volkel.
Like other major European military displays, the flying display lasted for over seven hours starting shortly after 9am with a brief break for lunch. On both days the weather was perhaps best described as mixed with the odd very light rain shower and some periods of low cloud. However full flying displays were presented each day. On both days the flying was opened by a very beautifully presented North American T-6 Texan wearing the markings of the Royal Netherlands Navy. Further T-6s came from the Royal Netherlands Air Force Historic Flight who flew a pair of the trainers with their Beech D18S. The North American lineage Was continued by the Stichting Vroege Vogels North American P-51D Mustang ‘Trusty Rusty’ which flew a solo display.
There was an impressive classic jet line-up in the air display. The Swedish Air Force Historic Flight presented powerful solo displays with their SAAB Sk35C Draken and AJS-37 Viggen. The Viggen flown by Stellan Anderson was particularly impressive as it performed its traditional in-service party piece of a short landing following by a reverse 180 turn and rapid take-off. It also impressed with its ability to reverse park in the tight static line right in front of the crowd.
The Dutch Hawker Hunter Foundation are welcome returnees to the display circuit with their wonderful Hawker Hunter F6A. It was beautifully displayed on both days creating the much-loved ‘Blue Note’ on several occasions during an elegant aerobatic routine. Further post war Royal Netherlands Air Force nostalgia came in the form of the Fokker Four team flying a quartet of Fokker S11 Instructors.
The civilian contribution to the flying display was not just restricted to historic flying with a number of civilian team and solo displays. Frank Van Hooten gave a punchy account of his Sukhoi Su-26MX while some raspy close formation flying came from the ThunderYaks flying a trio of Yakovlev Yak-52s and a single Sukhoi Su-29. Air Combat Europe brought a very different display with a pair of Blackshape Prime light aircraft. The stylish Italian designed aircraft wear pseudo-military markings with an overall grey scheme and Dutch roundels as they are often used by the Royal Netherlands Air Force Air Cadets for air experience flights. Civilian customers can also try their hand at Air Combat in these aircraft as they offer “Air Combat Experience flights’ for thrill-seekers. Their display showed off this with a simulated one-on-one dogfight as well as close formation flying. The home based teams were also joined by The Blades and Team Raven from the UK who both showed off their formation aerobatic prowess in some difficult conditions.
Three national aerobatic teams appeared over the two days. The Swiss Air Force’s Patrouille Suisse with six Northrop F-5E Tiger IIs performed on both days of the show with their usual panache and precision. Friday’s display also included sublime performances under blue skies by the French Air Force’s La Patrouille de France and the Royal Air Force Red Arrows. Both teams had major commitments in their home countries over the weekend and that did mean Saturday, a more popular day with the public, felt a bit flat compared to Friday’s display.
As well as national display teams, there was an excellent selection of international solo displays. In the absence of a home Lockheed Martin F-16AM Fighting Falcon solo display, it was left to the Belgian and Royal Danish Air Forces to show off the aerobatic abilities of the jet. Both displays made full use of flares during their displays which are very different. The Belgian display is a flowing display smoothly flowing between low speed and high speed aerobatic figures while the Danish is much more aggressive often showing off the extent to which the F-16s wing flex under load.
The latest generation of European fighters were also on show. The Czech Air Force’s sole representation at Volkel was the SAAB JAS-39C Gripen solo display which gave a typically punchy routine. Luchtmachtdagen also boasted participation from the Spanish Air Force which has cut back significantly on overseas participation in 2019. They sent their Eurofighter C.16 Typhoon solo display to the Netherlands for its only display appearance outside of it home country in 2016. A total of three aircraft arrived at Volkel for both static and flying display appearances including an attractive tiger-schemed jet from Ala 14.
The Italian Air Force’s Reparto Sperimentale Volo (Flight test Centre) sent solo displays from the Leonardo T-346 Master and the Alenia C-27J Spartan. The T-346’s noisy demonstration was greatly enhanced by a pair of ‘smokewinders’ under the wing highlighting its elegant sequence of aerobatics. For 2019, the C-27J display has returned to its eye-catching sequence of aerobatics including rolls and derry-turns showing off the transports care-free handling.
The United States Air Force also contributed to the flying displays with a rare appearance by a Boeing C-17A Globemaster III from March AFB. The crew demonstrated the C-17s tactical short take-off and landing abilities plus various configurations during five flypasts up and down Volkel’s runway.
Despite having no formal display teams on the circuit, the home team still had a significant showing during the flying displays. The Royal Netherlands Navy demonstrated its current frontline helicopter, the NH Industries NH90NFH Caiman, in a search and rescue role demonstration. The Royal Netherland Air Force also had a short rotary solo display with one of its Boeing CH-47D Chinooks demonstrating its firefighting capability with a bambi-bucket. The Air Force’s current transport and tanking capabilities were also on show with a couple of flypasts from a McDonnell Douglas KDC-10 from nearby Eindhoven airport.
The centrepiece to the flying display was the Air Power Demonstration. The 40 minute piece of aerial theatre brought together a Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II, 10 Lockheed Martin F-16AM Fighting Falcons drawn from both Volkel and Leeuwarden air bases, a Lockheed C-130H Hercules, a pair of Boeing CH-47D Chinooks plus a pair of Eurocopter AS532U2 Cougars. The scenario opened with the F-35 making a fast pass to signify the type’s ability to gather target data and transmit back to command assets. Operations against the identified targets started with the C-130H Hercules at altitude dropping Special Forces by parachute who captured a spearhead to observe targets and direct air strikes. The stage was then set for the force of F-16s to soften up the target for the ground troops with a series of low level attacks. They attacked in pairs and as a four-ship from many different directions frequently firing decoy flares as they jinked on and off target. Once their attack was complete the C-130 reappeared at low level dropping palletises equipment off the back ramp in support of friendly ground forces. Re-enforcements followed on being fast-roped in from the helicopters which also went on to recover some ground vehicles. The scenario was closed with all the helicopters hovering in front of the crowd as the fixed wing aircraft flew past. The formation of 10 F-16s and the F-35 brought the demonstration to a spectacular end with a mass release of flares and some orange wingtip smoke to salute the audience.
Following on from the Air Power Demonstration, the Royal Netherlands Air Force marked its own heritage with the lead F-16AM Fighting Falcon and the F-35A Lightning II joining Frits van Eerd’s Supermarine Spitfire XVI TB885 for a series of formation flypasts, This Spitfire is relatively new to the display circuit and was restored in the UK by the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar. It made its airshow debut in hands of BHHH at the 2018 Biggin Hill Festival of Flight but is now based in the Netherlands joining a growing population of warbirds in Northern Europe.
Luchtmachtdagen 2019 was a memorable occasion thanks to the tremendous showmanship of the Royal Netherlands Air Force. While for the moment they do not boast any formal display teams, they can still project a truly positive image of their service through the way the engaged with the visiting public on the ground and in the air. For the author, the Air Power Demonstration was the biggest highlight of the show but there was plenty of notable flying from the international and civilian displays that supported the event. The next Luchtmachtdagen event is scheduled to be held in 2021 at Glize Rijen.