The International Sanicole Airshow weekend was a little different this year with three airshow days from Friday through to Sunday. However, the Friday remained as the traditional sunset airshow with nearly three hours of flying as the sun lowered in the sky and twilight set in over the Belgian countryside.
Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author. Video by Sanicole Airshow.
The Sanicole Airshow weekend is one of the very best in Europe and the Sunset Airshow is always the most spectacular of openers. Like many events across Europe, things were a little different in 2021 with the showground split into five ‘zones’ which spectators could choose on their arrival by picking up the appropriate wrist band. This allowed them to enjoy the trading areas and static displays while not losing their place in their chosen zone. The audience was also limited on each day to ensure there was no crowding. However, the rest of the show felt reassuring familiar with the usual great welcome from the organisers even if the man with the keys to gates was slightly late!
The weather is always a major factor for the sunset show as it can drastically change the lighting for spectators and the references for the participating pilots. If you believed the weather forecasts you could have been forgiven for thinking that the show would be a total washout with most weather forecast apps predicting hours of heavy rain. In reality conditions could not have been more different with the most glorious of late summer evenings for the flying display and relatively clear skies. Only after flying had concluded did a distant thunderstorm provide its own light show as I headed back to the hotel!
The flying opened with three flypasts from the latest type to enter Belgian Air Force service, the Airbus DS A400M Atlas. The aircraft that flew at Sanicole was actually the Luxembourg Armed Forces example which is based with the rest of the Belgian Air Force fleet at Melsbroek as part of the 15th Air Transport Wing.
The A400M was followed by the Royal Air Force Red Arrows fresh from their displays in the Channel Islands. As anyone who watched the news coverage of the G7 summit would have seen, a sunset Red Arrows display is something truly very special to watch with the golden light making the red colour scheme really pop and really picking out the smoke trails.
The British participation continued after the Red Arrows with Plane Sailing’s Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina making its only appearance of the weekend. The big white amphibian looked spectacular against the cloudscape before it headed south to the Air Legend Airshow at Melun, France. Further piston powered nostalgia followed with Kris van der Bergh giving a virtuoso solo aerobatic display in the Hawker Fury ISS. This stunning restoration of Hawker’s ultimate piston powered fighter wears its original Iraqi Air Force colours and is powered by the original Bristol Centaurus radial engine.
Two contrasting solo aerobatic displays came from France. Jean-Marc D’Hulst returned with the Trescal sponsored Stolp Starduster Too performing some lyrical aerobatics in the golden skies. The display from the Equipe de Voltige de l’Armée de l’Air Extra 330SC was at the opposite end of the aerobatic spectrum with some really aggressive gyroscopic aerobatics which really seemed to defy all laws of physics and logical with the pilot able to to stop and tumble his aircraft at will in any position!
The mid-point of the display was marked by the second national jet of the show, Patrouille Suisse with their six Northrop F-5E Tiger IIs. The skies provided the most dramatic canvas as a backdrop to the Patrouille’s fast paced display which also includes some eye-catching flares during their ‘finale grande.’
As the skies started to turn an inky blue, the flying moved on to some modern military solo displays. First of these was the Hungarian Air Force’s SAAB JAS-39C Gripen which is rarely seen on the wider display circuit. Pilot Mate Majerik’s display was one of the highlights of the evening with some dramatic flare releases as the Gripen cavorted around the skies. It wasn’t just his flares that lit the dark sky as Mate also included a dump and burn during his display. More breath-taking flare dumps came from the two Belgian Air Force solo display teams, the Agusta A109BAi flown by Captains Jo Jacobs and Stijn Soenens and the F-16AM Fighting Falcon piloted by Captain Stephan ‘Vador’ Darte.
The evening flying concluded with a pair of special pyrotechnic displays from civilian performers. First of these was the UK based Airborne Pyrotechnics flying a pair of Grob 109b motorgliders. The team are made up of UK Grob agent Tim Dews and his son Tom who are based at a private strip in Wiltshire. Their aircraft are equipped with thousands of LED lights and wingtip pyrotechnics for evening displays. In the last couple of years, they’ve even added an illuminate tribute to the UK NHS under their wings. Their display was a beautiful aerial ballet of loops and wingovers performed both as a pair and as solos.
By contrast to the elegance of the motorgliders, the final act was a bit more rock and roll with the Scandinavian Airshow Grumman AgCat flown by Jacob Hollander. The AgCat has been a regular on the display circuit for many years as part of the team’s ‘CatWalk’ wingwalking display but the team call their night show ‘LLP’ which stands for Lights, Laser and Pyrotechnics. It was an awesome end of the show with the bright yellow biplane radiated all sorts of visual effects into the dark skies whether it was the animated LEDs on the lower surfaces of the aircraft, the bright green lasers or the smorgasbord of fireworks erupting from the wingtips!
There really is nothing like the Sanicole Sunset Airshow, it really is a special event in its own right. This year’s edition was as, if not more spectacular than ever and the ultimate way to kick off a very special airshow weekend.