The centrepiece of the International Sanicole Airshow weekend is the main daytime show. For 2021 this was expanded to two days to compensate for restricted crowd numbers. Despite the extra day and smaller crowd numbers, the event was reassuringly familiar with over 7 hours of flying displays from perhaps the most international cast of flying displays seen anywhere this year. The show also took time on the Sunday to mark the 60th Anniversary of the NATO Tiger Association with a very unique fly-by lead by Kleine Brogel based 31 Squadron.
Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author. Video from Sanicole Airshow.
We have to start the review of the 2021 show by remarking on the great efforts the entire International Sanicole Airshow team made to get their show off the ground. 2021 has been an incredibly uncertain year for event organisers across the globe and for those that have been able to go ahead it has meant some fairly significant changes to way they run their event. That was certainly true for Sanicole. Daily crowd numbers were significantly reduced and the showground was significantly redesigned to reduce contacts. On entry, all visitors had to prove their covid status and once in you chose a zone from whch to view the flying displays. On entry to a zone you received a coloured wrist band which meant you could visit the trading area and static dipslay without losing your place in your chosen zone. Each zone also had its own facilities and catering. The most remarkable trick that organisers pulled however was that despite these and some other changes it felt just like all the previous Sanicole Airshows we know and love with that same great welcoming atmosphere.
As in 2019, the runway was closed and used as a static display for helicopters with visiting fixed wing aircraft positioned on the boulevard behind the spectator zones. Not only did the helicopter line-up include the flying display aircraft, but also a visiting German Army NH Industries NH90TTH and a Royal Netherlands Air Force Boeing CH-47D Chinook.
The air display was without the traditional lunch break and started slightly later to allow extra time for the audience to get through the entrance check. However, it still clocked in at over seven hours with some of the very best military and civilian displays from across Europe.
The honour of opening the displays on both days went to the Royal Danish Air Force’s display team, Baby Blue. The team recently expanded to six aircraft but sadly their usual leader was unavailable for the weekend reducing the display to a five-ship. While four of the aircraft wore the standard green of the RDAF SAAB T-17 Supporter fleet, the lead aircraft wore silver and day-glow orange markings to mark the 75th Anniversary of the de Havilland Chipmunk.
The Baby Blue were just one of a small gathering of prop-powered teams that appeared throughout the day that included the Belgian Air Force’s Red Devils flying four SIAI-Marchetti SF260s and the Ursel based Victors Formation Team and their Piper PA28 Cherokees. Two UK based teams were also in action during the day with Airborne Pyrotechnics presenting an aerial ballet with their pair of Grob 109bs and Team Raven with a four-ship of Vans RV4s.
Further aerobatics came from a brace of solo displays. The Trescal sponsored Stolp Starduster Too flown by Jean-Marc D’Hulst appeared on both days presenting some classic aerobatics. However, it was the Equipe de Voltige de l’Armée de l’Air (EVAA) that really stood out with a freestyle unlimited aerobatics routine that really demonstrated the extreme power and performance of the modern Extra 330SC with some very harsh negative-G manoeuvres and eye-popping gyroscopic tumbles.
No-one could miss the Scandinavian Airshow team’s ‘Catwalk’ wingwalking display. The Grumman Ag-Cat has great presence on its own in its distinctive yellow and black colour scheme. However, it has the mother-of-all smoke systems fitted which was augmented by even more coloured smoke from grenades mounted on all four wingtips and under the undercarriage legs! Add in two very brave wingwalkers which move around on top and between the wings and you certainly have a very unique crowd-pleasing display.
Another display that made the headlines at Sanicole was the Flying Bulls MBB Bo-105 flown by Red Bull Stratos skydiver Felix Baumgartner. Felix jumped from a helium balloon at an altitude of 39 kilometres on the 14th October 2012 breaking several world records and becoming the first human to break the sound barrier without vehicular power. Needless to say, Felix flew the Bo-105 through a daredevil routine of aerobatics including loops, rolls and half Cubans.
Fans of historic aviation were not disappointed with a great selection of types on show from Belgium and the Netherlands. Stijn De Jaeghere last appeared at Sanicole flying the Extra 330SC but since moved on to historic types. His Stampe SV4 was on show in the VIP while in the air he gave a very nice presentation in his North American AT-6D Texan. One of the most exciting historic aircraft flying in Belgium is Fast Aero’s Hawker Fury ISS OO-ISS. This aircraft entered service with the Iraqi Air Force in 1949 and following retirement went through American and Australian owners. It was acquired and brought to Belgium by its pilot Kris van den Bergh in 2011 and flew again in 2019 following an extensive restoration. Another Belgian based favourite in the display was the colourful North American OV-10B Bronco brilliantly flown as usual by Tony de Bruyn.
The Royal Netherlands Air Force Historic Flight also made a significant contribution to the flying with a pair of solo displays from its fleet. The North American B-25N Mitchell was a welcome sight in the flying display returning after a difficult couple of years following engine problems and the impact of the pandemic. It was joined by the Supermarine Spitfire XVIe TB885 which is operated by flight but owned by Frits van Eerd. Completing the Royal Netherlands Air Force heritage in the flying was the Dutch Hawker Hunter Foundation’s stunning Hawker Hunter F6A. The jet was put through an elegant routine of aerobatics before a couple of head-turning high-speed passes which produced two wonderful blasts of the signature ‘blue note!’
An unusual addition to the airshow on the Saturday was an Air Belgium Airbus A340-313. Based at Charleroi, Air Belgium is a relative newcomer to the market and currently operates a small fleet of A330 and A340s flying a mixture of scheduled, charter and cargo flights.
There were some truly exception military contributions to the show with many sharing ties to the NATO Tiger Association. As always, the Belgian Air Force lent the show its full support with the aforementioned Red Devils joined by a search and rescue demonstration from a 40 Squadron NH Industries NH90NFH Caiman plus the flare firing routines from the Agusta A109BAi and Lockheed Martin F-16AM Fighting Falcon.
As well as the EVAA Extra 330SC, the French Air Force were also represented in the flying by the Vautour Bravo Tactical Demonstration Team. The team of Capitaine Jean-Phillipe and Captaine Julian fly a pair of Dassault Rafale B/C multi-role fighters from EC2/30 ‘Normandie Niemen‘ and EC3/30 ‘Lorraine’ based at Mont-de-Marsan. Their very noisy routine demonstrated both the air defence and strike roles the Rafale performs before some close passes to conclude their presentation.
Not to be outdone were the French Navy which contributed to the flying display with an incredibly rare display from a Northrop Grumman E-2C Hawkeye. Despite being in service for over two decades, the carrier based airborne early warning aircraft has seldom been seen on static display at European airshows so it was a real coup for Sanicole to attract one for the flying.
The Royal Navy’s Wildcat Demo Team was the only full display from the UK armed forces in the main weekend displays with Lt Ryan Wotton flying the Leonardo Wildcat HMA2. However, Saturday’s audience were treated to a farewell flypast from the RAF Red Arrows as they returned home following their display during Friday’s Sunset Airshow.
The support from the Czech Air Force was truly exceptional with three very different displays featuring four types. The Czech SAAB JAS-39C Gripen solo display returned in the hands of a new display pilot for 2021, Captain Ondřej Španko. Ondřej is no stranger to the display circuit having also demonstrated the L-39 and L-159 at European airshow. Also familiar to many European airshow audiences are displays from the Mil Mi-24V Hind and Mi-171 Hip helicopters. For Sanicole, the two battlefield helicopters were put through an engaging duo display rather than a role demonstration. The Mi-24 comes from 211 Squadron which is a member of the Tiger association and its aircraft often sport some dramatic special schemes. This year their display aircraft wears a special scheme not only celebrating its Tiger Association links, but also its 80th Anniversary with a depiction of a 211 squadron Vickers Wellington down the sides of the fuselage. But the star of the Czech displays was the performance by the PZL W-3A Sokół Search and Rescue helicopter. Few other helicopter displays exhibit such energy during a display and that extended to the winchman and the diver who literally ran out of the side of the helicopters on to the wire!
The Italian Air Force made a significant contribution to the flying display with three solo displays from the Reparto Sperimentale Volo (RSV). First to appear was the Eurofighter F-2000 Typhoon which incredibly was the first time the type had displayed in front of the public at Sanicole (The RAF Typhoon display team had been due to appear at the 2017 sunset display but the weather was outside the team’s limits). Joining the Typhoon was the purposeful Aermacchi T-346 Master and the Alenia C-27J Spartan demonstration its incredible aerobatic capabilities.
As always at Sanicole, the F-16 was a prolific type at the show with multiple solo displays by the type from visiting air forces. Appearing early in the display was the F-16C Fighting Falcon from the Polish Air Force’s ‘Tiger Demo Team’ flown by Major Wojciech ′′Ramrod′′ Kieczur. Based at Poznań-Krzesiny, the demo team is drawn from 6ELT which proudly displays its Tiger links on the main display jet which is adorned with low vis tiger stripes. The Hellenic Air Force’s ZEUS Demo Team have supported the show well in recent years and were welcome returnees this year with a crowd-pleasing routine than improves year on year.
No Sanicole would be complete without the Thundertigers display from 31 Squadron. This four-ship formation display of F-16AM Fighting Falcons is almost unique to the Sanicole Airshow and marks the special relationship between the squadron and the Sanicole Aeroclub. This year, on the Sunday at least, it was also a chance for the unit to show off its latest special Tiger jet – the ‘X-Tiger.’
However, there were two fast jet solo displays that really caught the crowd’s attention and brought the showground to a stop. The first was the Hungarian Air Force SAAB JAS-39C Gripen that so impressed during the Sunset Show. Pilot Mate Majerik really did show off the little Swedish multi-role jet at its very best with an aggressive yet flowing routine of aerobatics. Add in some flares and the trademark dump-and-burn and it was one of the real spectacles of the flying display. But taking aggressive turns to the next level was the Finnish Air Force McDonnell Douglas F/A-18C Hornet flown by Captain Anssi Nieminen. Anssi kept the big noisy jet close in to the crowdline lobbing great salvoes of flares off into the late afternoon skies and generating huge blankets of flash condensation across the Hornet’s wings.
Sunday saw further fast jet action with a special ‘Tiger Tails’ formation featuring some of the jets gathered at Kleine Brogel for the ‘XT-Roar-Dinnary 60th Anniversary Tiger Meet.’ Lead by 31 squadron’s ‘X-Tiger’ F-16AM, the formation included two French Air Force Dassault Rafale B/Cs, a single French Navy Rafale M. Hungarian Air Force JAS-39C Gripen, Hellenic Air Force F-16C, Polish Air Force F-16C, Austrian Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon and a two seat F-16BM from the Belgian Air Force which was also a photo-ship for the formation.
Adding to the ‘Tiger’ theme were Patrouille Suisse flying their six Northrop F-5E Tiger II jets who are always keen supporters of Sanicole. Led by Captain Michael ‘Pűpi’ Duft, the team put on a typically loud and precise display of formation and solo aerobatics to delight the Sanicole crowds.