43rd International Sanicole Airshow

43rd International Sanicole Airshow

The 43rd International Sanicole Airshow brought together participants from 14 different counties for a spectacular flying display. Amongst those acts were five national display teams and the European debut of the full USAF F-35A Lightning II demonstration. Despite some tricky weather at times, 30,000 attended the airshow hosted by Sanicole Aeroclub and enjoyed some of the world’s best flying displays.

Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author. Video by Sanicole Media Team

Following a very successful ‘Covid-safe’ event in 2021, The International Sanicole Airshow returned to its normal self in 2022 with one of the most eye-catching line-ups of the year. For the organisers however, there were some challenges during the weekend.  The Sanicole Sunset Airshow held the day before had endured some torrential rain which by the time the event close had left much of the airfield under a centimetre or two of water. Anyone who had attended the Royal International Air Tattoo in 2008 was probably wondering if the main airshow would be cancelled as a result. Fortunately, the sandy plains around the aeroclub do drain very quickly and by the time dawn had broken on Sunday the water had gone away.

More troubling for the organisers was the remote parking and shuttle bus system. While for many visitors it did work, for others there were some very long and frustrating waits for buses to the show. The remote parking system was introduced for the 2019 event and has been successful in reducing some of the unacceptable traffic delays in surrounding towns (in 2021 when they didn’t use the shuttle buses, it took a very long time to escape the back roads of Leopoldsburg for those leaving by car). However, in 2022 something went wrong at the peak arrival time. To their credit, the organisers were very quick to acknowledge the issues many had experienced with an apology issued by email to all ticket holders on Monday morning after the event. The quick and heartfelt apology was a reflection on the family nature of the organisation and an example to all other event organisers that quick acknowledgment of failings does wonders to retain goodwill amongst your customers.

 

Compared to the weather for the Sunset Airshow, the full International Sanicole Airshow enjoyed much drier conditions. However, a legacy of all that rain was some thick fog on Sunday morning which took sometime to burn off delaying the start of the flying programme. However, the Flying Display coordinators pulled a rabbit out of hat by rescheduling most of the planned displays losing just the Belgian Lockheed Electra and the Firebirds Display Team due to the weather plus the Red Bull P-38 Lightning which was grounded with engine issues.

As ever, there was a small static display along the crowdline with a number of helicopters and light aircraft on show. The competition to replace the Belgian Air Force’s SF260 trainers saw the attendance of the Diamond DART 250 and Grob G120TP demonstrators lined up on the grass. Another Belgian requirement for a small transport also attracted the DHC-6 Twin Otter from Viking Air.  A small array of military helicopters were also on show with a German Army NH90TTH, German Navy Westland Sea Lynx Mk88 and Royal Netherlands Air Force Boeing AH-64D Apache on the main runway. A surprise last minute addition to the static display was a Belgian own ex-German Army Bell UH-1D Iroquois; a really nice addition to Europe’s growing fleet of civilian operated classic helicopters.

 

Opening the flying displays in somewhat grey and hazy skies was the dramatic German Army NH Industries NH90TTH demonstration. A relative newcomer to the European display circuit, it is an impressive display of the NH90’s power and agility with steep turns, nose-overs and climbs. Following the German Army example came a NH90NFH from 40 Squadron of the Belgian Air Force. These helicopters have replaced both the Sea King and Alouette III in Belgian military service fulfilling the naval support plus search and rescue roles. 2022 has seen the Belgian NH90NFH surpass 5000 flight hours – am achievement marked by some special markings carried by the example displaying at Sanicole.

The NH90NFH was the first in a wide range of Belgian Air Force aircraft taking part in the show. Further rotary action came from the ever-impressive Agusta A109BAi which liberally fired flares throughout its display. Also from Beauvechain came the Red Devils, the official display team of the Belgian Air Force flying four SIAI-Marchetti SF260s.

 

Belgium’s latest military aircraft, the Airbus A400M played a crucial role in the display. First it provided a jump platform for the outstanding L’équipe de Parachutistes de l’armée de l’Air from France. They put on a stunning display of parachuting skills including some novel canopy-relatively-work as well as some very patriotic flag waving as the descended to the ground. Once the parachutists were on the ground, the A400M had its own slot in the flying display presenting a number of flypasts in different configurations.

No Sanicole would be complete without the Thundertigers from 31 Squadron based at nearby Kleine Brogel. They presented four Lockheed Martin F-16AM Fighting Falcons with a short display of formation passes before a tactical break.  The show was closed with further F-16 action from this year’s solo display flown by Commander Steven ‘Vrieske’ De Vries flying the ‘Dream Viper.’ BY early evening, the skies had cleared completely allowing Vrieske to show off his full routine complete with bursts of flares at various points of his display.

 

Further to the parachuting display, the French Air and Space Force was also represented in the air by the Mustang X-Ray Tactical Demonstration flying a pair of Pilatus PC-21 trainers. Their display of various tactics and formation passes really suited the Sanicole display area and was one of a number of displays by military trainers. The Hellenic Air Force’s Daedalus Demo Team made their Sanicole debut with a punchy display in the Beechcraft T-6A Texan II.  A further competitor for the new Belgian training aircraft is the Pilatus PC-7 Mk X. This aircraft uses the type certificate of the older PC-7 MkII but brings in a number of enhancements including new avionics, ground based simulator technology and improved aerodynamics. The demonstrator was put through a very precise routine of aerobatics by its Pilatus test pilot.

 

An impressive contingent from the Italian Air Force’s Reparto Sperimentale Volo also included a look at an advanced training aircraft in the form of a solo display from a Leonardo T-346A Master. It was joined by displays from the Eurofighter F-2000 Typhoon and the Alenia C-27J Spartan. The latter is always a highlight of any flying display with its aerobatic antics. However, Sanicole saw an enhanced routine over that seen earlier in the year with further rolls added to the sequence and a very impressive vertical manoeuvre that saw the aircraft perform an inverted turn to reverse direction.

Sanicole is a firm fixture for Swiss Air Force participation in 2022 saw the show supported by the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18C Hornet display. Appearing early in the display programme, Captain Yannick “Fönsi” Zanata had to content with some stubborn low cloud and perform his flat routine. However, the moist conditions meant the Hornet pulled some serious vapour clouds over its upper and lower surfaces throughout Fonsi’s noisy display.

 

A star and perhaps my favourite display of the 2021 Sanicole airshow was that of the Czech Air Force PZL W-3A Sokół. It was back for 2022 with two display crews sharing duties across the weekend. As in 2021, their displays were a really eye-catching mix of Search and Rescue role demonstration and a really rather striking handling display of the small, yet powerful Polish-built helicopter.

Another display returning from 2021 was the Royal Danish Air Force’s Baby Blue Team with their SAAB T-17 Supporters. This year they were able to present their full six-ship routine presenting an eclectic mix of solo aerobatics and formation passes.

 

There was a definite eastern flavour to this year’s flying displays with three teams from the Middle East. The Royal Jordanian Falcons are very much Sanicole favourites appearing almost every year. This in part is due to the support from Belgium the team receives each time they visit Europe which includes the provision of the team’s support vehicle. Their 2022 display is also really pleasing on the eye with some very original crossing manoeuvres between the main three aircraft and the soloist.

The Turkish Stars made a very welcome return to Sanicole having last displayed here in 2010. The local area has a large Turkish population, and many came to the show to support their compatriots. The team flew six Northrop NF-5A/B Freedom Fighters for their 30-minute display that has developed significantly since their last visit. Their formation passes included some very novel twists while their soloist pilots performed some of the most dramatic opposition passes.

 

The final team display of day came from the Royal Saudi Air Force’s Saudi Hawks flying seven BAE Systems Hawk Mk65a jet trainers. Somewhat unusually the Saudi Hawks deployed to Europe solely to display at Sanicole. On previous occasions, the team has toured a number of Europe’s military events. With plenty of input from advisors from the RAF Red Arrows, the Saudi Hawks display does feature a number of familiar formations and even a carbon copy of the ‘Tornado’ pass. However, the team also have their own original figures including a huge piece of smoke art painting the national emblem of Saudi Arabia in the sky – the crossed swords and palm tree. It is also noticeable just how much work has gone into the development of their display routine which is now much flowing and attention-grabbing their first displays in Europe a decade ago.

Aside from military displays, Sanicole also attracts some of the best civilian displays from across Europe. Team Raven from the UK were a late addition to the show flying five Vans RV4s. They replaced both the Blades and the Royal Navy Wildcat display which were withdrawn following the passing of Queen Elizabeth II in the days before Sanicole. Team Raven’s pilot line-up includes a number of former servicemen and after performing their very entertaining display of formation aerobatics, they flew a missing man formation with former Sea Harrier pilot Russ Eatwell climbing skywards to honour his former commander-in-chief. Joining Team Raven from the UK was Rich Goodwin in his Pitts S-2S Special G-JPIT. Rich’s thrilling display of unlimited aerobatics always turns heads even amongst the military hardware on show at Sanicole.

 

Sanicole is a second home display for the Victors Formation Team from Ursel Flying Club. Always part of the programme, the team perform a series of different formations in their four Piper PA-28 Cherokee aircraft highlighting the accessibility of general aviation to the public. At the opposite end of the scale was the Air Belgium Airbus A330-900NEO. The large airliner performed three flypasts over Sanicole representing the relatively new airline including an opening pass in company with two F-16s from Thundertigers.

However, the main theme of the 2022 Sanicole weekend was the 75th Anniversary of the United States Air Force. A number of historic aircraft were brought into represent the theme including Stijn De Jaeghere’s North American AT-6D Texan and the Flying Bulls North American B-25 Mitchell which looked glorious in its high-polish finish. A surprise addition to the celebrations was a quick flypast by the Norwegian Air Force Historical Squadron’s Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15UTI which now wears USAF markings representing a captured North Korean MiG which was tested by American pilots based at Kadena Air Force Base, Okinawa, Japan. The aircraft’s quick appearance was due to the aircraft stopping at Kleine Brogel for fuel on its way back to Norway.

 

The centrepiece of the USAF 75th Anniversary celebrations was the United States Air Force F-35A Lightning II Demonstration Team and Heritage Flight. The participation of a USAF Demo Team at Sanicole is the culmination of a lot of effort from the ISA team and it was wonderful to see their efforts rewarded. The participation of the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II at Sanicole was not just important to the USAF 75th theme, it also marked the future for the Belgian Air Force with the first Belgian example now in production and due to enter service in 2023 for training in the US. It will not be until 2025 that they will be in Belgian skies with the first aircraft due to be based at Florennes.

The F-35A appearance at Sanicole was major news in Belgium and no doubt helped boost ticket sales. Team commander and pilot, Major Kristen ‘Beo’ Wolfe proved very popular at the Meet the Pilots tent with a very lengthy queue forming of fans hoping to get her autograph. She obliged by extending her stay for a few extra minutes before making the short road trip to Kleine Brogel to prepare for her display. And it is quite the display – the F-35A has a tremendous presence in the display box with its very deep and loud engine note plus streams and stream of vapour pouring off its wingtips and upper surface as it twists and turns.

 

The finale to the F-35’s appearance was a formation with Comanche Warbird’s North American P-51D Mustang ‘The Hun Hunter \ Texas’ flown by Heritage Flight Foundation pilot Tony Williams. Sanicole’s shorter display line allowed the two aircraft to perform some wonder curving passes for the crowd before the split for some solo passes. This was the first time the Heritage Flight has been performed in Belgium and it was a very memorable occasion for all involved.

The 43rd International Sanicole Airshow may have faced a few challenges both with logistics and some late cancellations, but it was still a very full day of entertaining flying even with a weather delay in the morning. Few other airshows offer such a diverse range of displays in one day and in such a friendly atmosphere. The sad news is that we will have to wait until 2024 to experience Sanicole again as 2023 with see Kleine Brogel host the Belgian Air Force Days event in September.