43rd International Sanicole Airshow

43rd International Sanicole Airshow

The 10th Sanicole Sunset Airshow could well be one of the most memorable editions of the event, not least because of the biblical rain and standing water on the showground. Yet somehow most of the displays did fly with a stand-out debut performance by the United States Air Force F-35A Demonstration Team. Those that endured the downpours were rewarded with a spectacular start to the Sanicole weekend.

Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports on the experiences from a very soggy Saturday. All photography by the author.

2022 saw a compressed format for the Sanicole Airshow weekend. The opening act, the Sunset Airshow, was moved from Friday to the Saturday to allow more spectators to attend. That did mean Saturday which was once quite a relaxed day became quite busy with Kleine Brogel Air Base also hosting its Spottersday. It should be stressed that Spottersday itself is not part of Sanicole Airshow, but is a Belgian Air Force led event though there is significant cooperation between the two organisations. 

For many years, Spottersday has been an integral part of the Sanicole weekend for many enthusiasts allowing for some very favourable conditions to photograph the acts gathered for Sanicole as well the chance to see the odd ‘extra’ including displays from the Belgian Air Force participants. When it didn’t clash with a public event at Sanicole, it was a very pleasant way to spend the day off watching aircraft depart and return from rehearsals as well as the various photo-flights. However, in 2021 when Sanicole ran over three days to spread out crowd numbers, the clash with Sanicole Airshow left Spottersday feeling rather flat. There was compensation however as Spottersday ticket holders were also invited back on the Monday to watch departures which rather saved the event in many people’s eyes. That was not on offer this year and with the cancellation of a pair of F-22s, there was little on offer for the 60€ ticket price (Quite the price hike over 2021). Just to compound the woe, the weather on Saturday morning was truly miserable leading to many making for an early exit. As such, I cannot really write a full review for Spottersday and just include a few ‘highlights’ here as an added bonus to the Sunset Airshow review.

 

By the time the gates opened at Sanicole for the Sunset Airshow the morning clag and persistent rain had cleared and it all looked rather promising for the early evening flying. However, the weather had other ideas with a narrow, but dramatic line of thundershowers forming just to the north of Sanicole. As they drifted south, they organised themselves into a neat line that sat over Sanicole for much of the early part of the evening. While some items were inevitably lost, many did manage to fly in the periods of better visibility between downpours.

Opening the show were L’équipe de Parachutistes de l’armée de l’Air jumping from a Belgian Air Force Airbus DS A400M. Incredibly, despite the advance of the first thundershower of the evening the team got a full jump in descending through some of the clag with flags and streamers flowing from their legs. They quite right got a very enthusiastic round of applause from the Hospitality area which they landed in front of. The A400M then took centre stage with a few flypasts in different configurations as the rain really started to fall.

 

The first fast jet display of the evening was the Swiss Air Force’s McDonnell Douglas F/A-18C Hornet flown by Yannick “Fönsi” Zanata. In the midst of the heavy rain, Fonsi flew a flat display but what a display it was with huge vapour clouds exploding off the top surfaces and some dramatic cloudscapes starting to take shape to the west.

If we had to award a display crew for their commitment, it would to the crew of the Czech Air Force PZL W-3A Sokół. They flew in the absolute worst of the conditions not only demonstrating the search and rescue role of the W-3A, but also the helicopters impressive handling qualities. The Czech winchmen got the full blast of the soaking conditions with their antics on the cable as the W-3 flew a quick circuit around the display area!

 

By now the showground was under a cm or two of water, but at last the rain was starting to ease. Taking advantage of the slightly better conditions were the French Air and Space Force’s Mustang X-Ray Tactical Demonstration Team flying a pair of Pilatus PC-21s. They performed their full demonstration of close formation flying as well as various tactical manoeuvres which looked really good in the confines of the Sanicole display area.

Adding some much-needed colour to the evening was the Airbus A330-900NEO from Air Belgium which performed three flypasts. The skies were now turning a deep shade of orange as the rain moved slightly further west. As the mighty airliner caught up with the rain, there were some eye-catching atmospheric effects as the rain washed over the aircraft wings and got caught in the wake!

 

Sadly, the earlier rain had meant the Saudi Hawks had to abandon their display after a single flypast. However, with the skies starting to open up the Turkish Stars were able to fly a modified display routine in some stunning skies with their six Northrop NF-5A/B Freedom Fighters. It wasn’t an easy display for the team as there were some still some short bursts of rain, but a lot of credit must go to them for persisting with their display with only a few short gaps to avoid the worst of the poor visibility. An added bonus following the Turkish Stars was a sunset departure of a Royal Netherlands Air Force Boeing AH-64D Apache from the static display as it headed back to Kleine Brogel.

It was incredibly fortuitous that for the headline act of the evening, the USAF F-35A Lightning II Demo Team, the rain had stopped and the sunset was at its most glorious. This was the public debut of the full USAF F-35A demonstration in Europe with RIAT having previously hosted the F-35A Heritage Flight Team in 2018. That Heritage Flight display had given the slightest glimpse of what to expect from the F-35A in a display but Major Kristen ‘Beo’ Wolfe’s demonstration was on a whole different level highlighting the agility, acceleration and the aggressive carefree handling afforded to the type’s crews. Combine that with dark leaden skies, golden light from the setting sun and some very moist air and you have probably one of the most visually impressive fast jet displays seen in Europe this year.

 

The displays then turned to the flare and pyrotechnic displays that are the hallmark of the Sanicole Sunset Airshow. First it was the turn of the Belgian Air Force to entertain the audience with the Agusta A109BAi and Lockheed Martin F-16AM Fighting Falcon displays in the twilight. Both displays made liberal use of flares during their routines lighting up the skies in dramatic fashion.

Concluding the main flying displays were the Firebirds Display Team from the United Kingdom with their pair of Vans RV-4s. Their display was somewhat subdued compared to their performances at Clacton and Bournemouth but that was more than understandable given the difficult weather conditions earlier in the evening and the added risks close formation flying presents with bright wingtip pyrotechnics.

 

The evening was formally closed with a salute to the main theme of the International Sanicole Airshow, the 75th Anniversary of the United States Air Force. As the star-spangled banner rang out on the PA system, the North American B-25J Mitchell of the Flying Bulls collection made a single pass with flames glowing from its two engines in the inky dark skies.

Despite a handful of displays not being able to display due to the weather, this 10th running of the Sanicole Sunset Airshow was certainly memorable thanks to some epic visuals during the flying and immense amount of rain that fell in such in such a short period of time. The showground was completely covered in standing water by the end of the evening but the sandy ground does thankfully absorb it quite quickly which was a relief for organisers ahead of the main event the next day.