The International Sanicole Airshow returned in 2019 following a year out while nearby Kleine Brogel Air Base hosted the biennial Air Force Days military airshow. The Sanicole weekend traditionally opens with the Sunset Airshow, an event which has been inspired by the stunning night shows in North America. This year, the Sunset show took on a very poignant note as Sanicole marked the 75th Anniversary of the D-Day Landings and the Arnhem operations which were staged from nearby Leopoldsburg.
Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author.
The previous seven editions of the Sanicole Sunset Airshow have all been very special events in their own right. However, with the weather set fair the 8th Sanicole Sunset Airshow raised the bar even further with some truly spectacular flying displays and a very poignant finale. Regular visitors to Sanicole will have noticed quite a number of changes since the 2017 show. Most notable was the change to remote parking and shuttle buses which on the whole worked very well. Perhaps the most notable change to the airshow was an expansion of the showground with the fence-line moved towards the runway. This did mean fixed wing aircraft could no longer operate from the airfield during public opening hours, but it made for a much more pleasant experience without any of the overcrowding experienced in 2017.
The Sunset flying display is much more than just a preview of the main International Sanicole Airshow and now regular attracts its own unique participants and highlights. The display however was opened by Sanicole regular Jean-Marc D’Hulst flying the Trescal sponsored Stolp Starduster Too through an exceptionally elegant routine of aerobatics
Following the Starduster came a series of flypasts from the United States Air Force and NATO. This did slow the pace slightly as all three aircraft had to navigate their way around the holding pattern to enter the display area. First to appear was a United States Air Force Boeing B-52H Stratofortress flying out of RAF Fairford in the UK. The crew made one pass into the setting sun opening the throttles to leave the characteristic dark smoke trails in the blue sky. Further USAF machinery followed with a couple of flypasts from a RAF Mildenhall based Bell/Boeing CV-22B Osprey from Special Operations Command. Though the CV-22B has been on static display at Air Force Days, this was the first ever flying display appearance by the tiltrotor at a Belgian show.
Completing the sequence of fly-bys was a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) Boeing E-3A Sentry based at Geilenkirchen in Germany. NATO E-3s have become quite rare on the display circuit, particularly in flying displays. It was particularly fitting to see the E-3A in 2019 as NATO marks its own 70th Anniversary.
Following on from the visiting military hardware, the display then moved into a series of historic displays with Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress ‘Sally-B.’ The UK based memorial to all airmen from the USAAF that served in Europe during the Second World War was at the end of a short tour of Belgium having attended events in Antwerp marking the 75th Anniversary of Belgium liberation in September 1944. Joining Sally-B were two Belgian based warbirds, the North American TF-51D Mustang ‘Scat VII’ and Supermarine Spitfire XVI SL721 from the FAST Aero Company which gave a very photogenic pairs routine. Seeing three beautiful classic aircraft flying in the golden light was a really evocative experience and part of a wonderful tribute at Sanicole to the 75th Anniversary of D-Day and Liberation.
Cold War air power also featured in the sunset flying with the Swedish Air Force Historic Flight’s SAAB Sk37E Viggen flown by Stellan Andersson. Wearing the distinctive splinter camouflage, the Viggen is a very powerful machine and the low light brought out its near purple reheat flame that much more!
The Sunset Show always features one of the national teams and this time it was the turn of the Patrouille Suisse. Though some low cloud forced them into a rolling show, their performance was really eye-catching, particularly as the low light really highlighted the reheat of their Northrop F-5E Tiger IIs. They also included some really impressive flare releases at the end of the show with the solo shooting up from the ‘Tunnel’ manoeuvre firing flares while the rest of the formation released a massive ‘cloud’ of orange flares as they climbed away!
The Belgian Air Force closed out the ‘regular’ displays with the Agusta A109BAi and the Lockheed Martin F-16AM Fighting Falcon solo displays. Both are stunning displays in their own right, but their use of flares in the inky blue twilight skies is always a sight to behold.
As the light faded away, the display moved on to the specialist ‘twilight’ display acts. The FireFlies Aerobatic Team were first to appear making their Sanicole debut in their Vans RV4s. 2019 has seen the team expand their pilot line-up and it was Jon Corley and Nigel Reid at the helm for the Sanicole weekend. For Jon it was also his first public pyro display. Their display is flowing routine of formation synchronised aerobatics highlighted with delicate streams of pyrotechnics flowing from their wingtips.
By contrast, the penultimate item of the evening was a riot of colour and noise. Brendan O’Brien has become a Sanicole regular with his pyro shows and this year returned with OTTO the Helicopter, a Schweizer S300C. OTTO was a legend when flown by Roger Buis and others on the US airshow scene and often performed Night shows with fireworks and a giant US flag illuminated by spotlight. Brendan has chosen to concentrate on the pyro side and OTTO now carries perhaps more pyrotechnic effects that any other aircraft!
The final event of the evening saw thoughts return to the 75th Anniversary of Belgian liberation in September 1944. A lone bugler stood on the runway and first played ‘Amazing Grace’ to open the commemoration. Following readings playing tribute to all those that fought and sacrificed for the liberation from commentators Ric Peterson and Chris Christiaens the bugler played the last post. As he played the ghostly shape of a Royal Danish Air Force Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules appeared out of the final shards of sunlight poking through the dark clouds and laid down a wall of flares the full length of display line. It was a truly memorable, emotive and poignant way to close an excellent edition of the Sanicole Sunset Show.