41st International Sanicole Airshow

41st International Sanicole Airshow

The 41st International Sanicole Airshow marked a new look for Belgium’s biggest annual civilian airshow. The event carried over the “Honouring the Past, Celebrating the Future” theme from the 40th edition with an enhanced showground with plenty of new experiences to be enjoyed alongside the traditional eight hour flying display. The flying displays marked the 75th Anniversary of the D-Day Landings, Belgian Liberation and Operation Market Garden. Towards the end of the show, there was also a fond goodbye to a very special aviation partnership.

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

The 40th edition of the International Sanicole Airshow in 2017 was a very big show but was perhaps was on the limit of what could be achieved with the event set-up at the time. The shows own big anniversary and a decent weather forecast draw lots of attention and therefore a massive crowd. On reflection it was very crowded and getting away from the event was at best described as a little sticky. With a year out to accommodate the return of the Belgian Air Force Days event at Kleine Brogel, the Sanicole team looked very hard at how to improve the show not only to ensure its future, but also for the customer.

The biggest change was to the showground with the crowdline moved about 15m closer to Sanicole Aeroclub small hard runway. These did prevent fixed wing operations from the airfield during public opening hours but opened up a huge amount of space. This allowed for some improvements to the showground layout with larger, better quality catering areas and a better arrangement of the traders. The extra space also allowed for more “experiences” to be added to the showground included a theme vintage area and the ‘Skyview’ which hoisted spectators some 300ft above showground!

Another major change was to the car parking arrangements. These were dispersed away from the airfield and linked to the show via shuttle buses. On the whole this seemed to work very well and certainly didn’t put off another huge audience. Certainly on exit, the queues cleared quite quickly and only one of the car parks seems to have suffered any sort of significant exit delay.

The changes to the showground also allowed for a bigger gathering of static aircraft. Stars of the static displays were a German Army NH Industries NH90TTH and a Croatian Air Force Mil Mi-171 Hip. Joining the big helicopters were a Belgian Air Force SIAI-Marchetti SF260D, a pair of North American T-28B Trojans, the beautiful Lockheed Electra, a Pilatus PC-7 and PC-12 plus an Eclipse Autogyro.

One constant was the flying display, one of the most varied you’ll find anywhere lasting for eight hours including a short 30 min break for lunch. Unusually however it was opened by the Belgian Air Force’s F-16AM Fighting Falcon solo display flown by Captain Stephan ‘Vador’ Darte flying his first of two displays of the day – certainly a punchy way to kick off proceedings in clear blue skies. ‘Vador’ also displayed later in the day in the more traditional display slot for the home F-16 just ahead of the show finale.

One of the great things about Sanicole is that the military and civilian displays get equal billing and the flying flip-flopped between heavy and light, fast and slow, fixed and rotary. As ever, there was a great selection of civilian acts from Belgium and the rest of Europe covering a wide range of flying. One of the home favourites, the Victors Formation Team were one of the first acts to appear flying four Piper PA28 Cherokees. They are one of few acts to be Sanicole regulars but this year showing off their new coloured smoke painting the Belgian national colours in the sky. Further home based civilian flying came in the form of two impressive demonstrations of unlimited aerobatics by Kristof Cloetens and Stijn de Jaeghere both flying Extra 330SCs.

Joining the home based civilian teams were more colourful from across the UK and France. Graceful solo aerobatics came from the Trescal Stolp Starduster Too flown by Jean-Marc D’Hulst while Brendan O’Brien had even more fireworks for his daytime ‘Chopperbatics’ display in OTTO the Helicopter.

Formation aerobatic routines came from two UK based teams flying the Vans family of light aircraft. The Fireflies Aerobatic Team of Jon Corley and Nigel Reid flew a pair of Vans RV4s though a very smooth routine of close formation and synchronised aerobatics. Later in the day Team Raven filled the skies with their five-ship of Vans RV8s with their pleasing mix of different formations and solo aerobatics.

2019 marks several significant anniversaries for Belgium and the Netherlands. 1944 marked the beginning of Europe’s liberation with the D-Day Landings in June of that year and September saw the liberation of Belgium. September also saw the ill-fated Operation Market Garden which saw the allies try to capture nine bridges in the Netherlands ahead of mounting an invasion of Northern Germany. Operation ‘Market’ was the airborne operation to capture the bridges while ‘Garden’ was the ground-led attack. The area around Hetchel-Eskel and Leopoldsburg where Sanicole Airshow is held was the staging area for the ground operations so the anniversary is particularly significant to the region. The importance of the anniversaries was reflected in the flying display with selection of warbirds as well as a salute from the modern Belgian Air Force. Leading the warbird contingent was FAST Aero’s beautiful Hawker Hurricane IV. This aircraft was restored by the Fighter Collection at Duxford and spent some time on the UK circuit before being sold to Canada. It returned to Europe this year and has been seen a number of events throughout the summer. FAST Aero also displayed their North American TF-51D Mustang Scat VII and Supermarine Spitfire XVI SL721 as a formation and tailchase duo.

Joining the Belgian based warbirds were two from overseas. The Royal Netherlands Air Force Historic also had their Supermarine Spitfire IX in the flying display as a solo item flown by Ralph Aarts. One of the main highlights of the show however was Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress Sally-B, the only airworthy B-17 in Europe. Sanicole came at the end of a short stay in Belgium for the B-17G which also took part in celebrations in Antwerp to mark the 75th Anniversary of Liberation. The display by Peter Kuypers and crew was the most evocative of the show and was very much appreciated by the audience.

The FAST Aero Spitfire also featured in the Belgian Air Force’s salute to liberation leading the two Lockheed Martin F-16AM Fighting Falcons of 349 and 350 Squadron which wear D-Day 75th Anniversary markings and invasion strips. There were followed by the Lockheed Martin C-130H Hercules from No 20 Squadron which also wears invasion stripes for the anniversary in salute to 525 Squadron which flew Douglas Dakotas during 1944 with Belgian and Canadian crews and flew regular services between the UK and allied bases in Europe in support of various operations. Following the first pass with the Spitfire, the modern aircraft then formed up for the second pass together to close the tribute.

This year Sanicole managed to attract a large collection of military helicopter displays, some of which are very rare airshow participants outside of their home country. The French Army made a rare flying display contribution with an Airbus Helicopters EC120 Colibri based at Dax. The colourful little trainer helicopter put on a really spritely display highlighting the exceptional agility of the type. The German Army too participated in the flying program with the bigger Airbus Helicopters EC135. Also used for training, the EC135 is a new addition to the European display circuit and Sanicole marked one its first appearances outside of Germany.

Frontline rotary hardware came from Belgium, the UK and Switzerland. The Belgian Air Force’s Agusta A109BAi is a favourite display item on the display circuit with its near aerobatic performance and dramatic use of flares. The Royal Navy were very welcome returnees with a solo Leonardo Wildcat HMA2 flown by Lt Chris Rebbeck from the Black Cats Helicopter Display Team. Completing the line-up of military helicopters was the ever impressive Aerospatialé A332M Super Puma from the Swiss Air Force. It is incredible to see just what the Swiss crew can do with the Medium lift helicopter with a series of vertical climbs, descents and very tight turns. The standout moment from the routine is a vertical descent complete with 360° roll! The two-man crew also show off their teamwork skills both waving to the crowds with different hands as the Puma travels sideways down the crowdline.

Another alpine country appearing in the flying display was the Austrian Air Force with the Pilatus PC-7 solo display. Unusually, the team brought some standard camouflaged aircraft with them to Sanicole instead of the usual pair of specially marked machines. Despite numerous appearances at the Air Force Days events, this was the Sanicole debut for the PC-7 which gave a crisp routine of aerobatics. The French Air Force continued the trainer theme with the Dassault Alpha Jet E solo display. This has always been one of the best solo jet displays on the circuit and the 2019 display is no different with a dizzying array of aerobatic figures in close succession and all flown to perfection.

The Swedish Air Force Historic Flight added to the solo jet action with the SAAB Sk37E Viggen flown by Stellan Andersson. The Viggen is perhaps one of the most potent and complex jets currently in civilian operation. Stellan’s displays, while always sympathetic to the classic jet, always show off the great potential of the Viggen and its thunderous power. Further Scandinavian action came from the Air Forces of Denmark and Norway. The Royal Danish Air Force presented a rare tactical demonstration from one its Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules II which showed off its low level agility at low and high speed. It completed its display with spectacular release of flares which filled the sky as the crew performed a steep climb.  The Royal Norwegian Air Force had hoped to present a formation of Dassualt Falcon 20ECM with a pair of F-16s. Sadly both F-16s were unavailable leaving the DA20 to perform solo. That didn’t mean it wasn’t one of the most memorable displays of the day, not least because of its near aerobatic steep climb at the end of the its penultimate pass!

Another Cold War warrior and another outstanding highlight of the flying display was the Ukrainian Air Force’s Sukhoi Su-27P1M Flanker solo. 2019 was the first time the Ukrainian Su-27 had displayed at Sanicole and Lt Col Yurii Bulavka’s display did not disappoint demonstrating the agility and incredible presence of the huge interceptor fighter.

Displays by F-16s were not in short supply. Joining the Belgian F-16 solo display was the Hellenic Air Force’s F-16C Fighting Falcon Display Team ‘Zeus.’ The team are always a popular addition to any show they visit with their dynamic display routine which combines some popular elements of the USAF F-16 displays such as the dedication pass with some more familiar European display profiles. No Sanicole Airshow would be complete without a display from the Kleine Brogel based ‘ThunderTigers’ from 31 Squadron. They presented their traditional four-ship routine mixing crowd pleasing formation passes with some more tactical manoeuvres with of course plenty of flares!

The Belgian Air Force’s own Red Devils flying four SIAI-Marchetti SF260s led a cracking line-up of military and jet display teams from across Europe and beyond. The Royal Jordanian Falcons flying their Extra 330LX aircraft were making their penultimate stop of their 2019 European Tour at Sanicole. Their display at Sanicole was particularly eye-catching with some very nice choreography between the formation and solo elements of their routine.

A team making their Sanicole debut were the Croatian Air Force’s Krula Oluje. The team fly six Pilatus PC-9Ms and only ever make a handful of appearances outside their homeland each year. They also fly one of the most dynamic and original routines of any national team with several unique formation manoeuvres such as a three-ship formation tail-slides, inverted formation turns and their trademark six ship mirror. Their display deservedly drew applause from the crowd and was one of the outstanding highlights of the display.

The Breitling Jet Team have been part of the European and global airshow scene for over 17 years. Led by Jacques Bothelin, the team have travelled across the Globe flying their elegant routine in Japan, China, the United States and at numerous venues around Europe. During that time they have displayed at Sanicole on multiple occasions and whatever the weather have impressed the crowd. Sadly, their 2019 appearance flying six Aero-Vodochody L-39C Albatros jets was one of their final ones under Breitling sponsorship. They did however say goodbye to the Swiss Chronograph manufacturer in style with not only a faultless display but a final very special formation with the Swiss Air Force’s Patrouille Suisse flying six Northrop F-5E Tiger IIs. The special farewell sequence started with one big V- formation the six Breitling Jets flanked by the Swiss F-5Es as passed parallel to the display line. The second curving pass saw both teams in their standard ‘Delta’ formations led by the Breitling team. As they turned away from the crowd the two teams performed an emotional split away from each other marking the end of the Franco-Swiss partnership.

The finale to another excellent International Sanicole Airshow weekend was a full display by Patrouille Suisse under gin clear blue skies. Their fast paced display of precision which closed with flare-firing bomb-burst was the prefect end to a show full of superb flying, variety, inspiration, emotional farewells and emotive salutes to the sacrifice of 75 years ago. Even with the changes this year, Sanicole has lost none of the charm or the special atmosphere that make it such a special event on the European and World airshow calendar. The main Sunday show on its own is worth a visit, but combined with the Friday Sunset show and the Kleine Brogel Spotterday the Sanicole weekend remains one of the very best airshow weekends anywhere.