After a five-year absence the Belgian Air Force hosted its own military airshow, Belgian Air Force Days, at Kleine Brogel. At the heart of the show were exhibitions and displays highlighting the work of the Air Force and the opportunities it offers young people. However, the show also included support from a variety of partner nations and civilian participants to inspire the next generation into engineering and aerospace.
Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author.
Now we are nearing the end of the 2023 Display Season in Europe, it is perhaps fair to say we have had a very strange year of weather in Northern Europe. The early part of the season was certainly quite favourable and warm. However, the middle part of the season was distinctly unseasonable with periods of cold wet weather. Usually, September brings fair but relatively cool weather to Northern Europe. Not so in 2023. The BAF Days weekend saw sunny and hot conditions breaking several meteorological records in Belgium. So intense was the heat that the event organisers had to bring in a hot weather plan with free drinking water points and even water sprays to reduce the onset of heatstroke and dehydration amongst the audience.
The heat was just one of several issues overcome by organisers. Military organised airshows are a dying breed in Europe. The reasons for the loss of these airshows are varied, but the two principal reasons are the very increasing costs of running large scale events and the availability of personnel to support them. Since the last BAF Days event in 2018, it was noticeable that there were far fewer military personnel involved in the running of the show with a large cohort of volunteers brought in from the Sanicole Airshow team to support the event. It was however very much led by the Belgian Air Force. The five-year gap between events does not help either as many personnel with experience of the event will have left the service or moved on elsewhere. This perfect storm of fewer experienced personnel perhaps explains why many attending on the Saturday had a poor experience compared to those attending on the Sunday. For many, Saturday was marred by car parking issues and some very long waits for shuttle buses – particularly on exit from certain car parks. So significant was the issue that organisers took water and sugar waffles to those stuck in long queues – how very Belgian! Sunday was almost a completely different story with a much smoother entrance and exit for spectators.
The showground at Kleine Brogel covered a large area. The maintenance area served as the main exhibition area highlight many of the trades found within the Belgian Air Force. There were also many industry exhibitions and other entertainment for families. Out on the airfield, the viewing area stretched down much of the parallel taxiway and relief runway. The static displays on the relief runway were perhaps a little smaller than in previous editions but did contain quite a few gems. The home team was represented by the Airbus A400M, Dassault Falcon 7X, NH90TTH, SIAI Marchetti SF260 and F-16s. Belgium’s near neighbours also made significant contributions with F-16AM Fighting Falcons, F-35A Lightning IIs and a NH90NFH Caiman from the Royal Netherlands Air Force, a pair of Pilatus PC-7s from the Austrian Air Force, a CH-53GS Stallion, NH90TTH, Airbus H145M, Airbus A400M and Panavia Tornado IDS/ECRs from the German Air Force and Army, Embraer EMB-121 Xingu and EC-120 Colibri from France plus a pair of Airbus Juno HT1s from the Royal Air Force.
The Portuguese Air Force have long been loyal supporters of Belgian Air Force days and brought a pair of F-16AM Fighting Falcons for the static display. The Spanish Air Force also contributed to the ground show with a CASA CN295M (T.21).
But perhaps the star of the static display was a pristine Mil Mi-17 Hip from the Slovak Air Force wearing a digital style camouflage. Slovak participation at western airshows has become something of a rarity in recent years in general so to see them back in Belgium with a soviet era type was most welcome. Alongside the military hardware were a handful of civilian operated aircraft including a Yak-52, Stampe and the Royal Netherland Air Force Historic Flight Beech 18.
The main show-day flying displays got underway at 10am and ran through to well past 5pm on both days enjoying clear blues skies throughout. While military displays were very much as the forefront of the aerial action, the programme was very varied with civilian and historic displays adding some colour to proceedings. The show opened with some warbird action with an elegant aerobatic sequence by Stijn De Jaeghere flying his North American AT-6D Texan. Further T-6s appeared later in the morning displays with a Belgian based four ship display featuring Texans wearing the colours of the US Navy, Royal Canadian and Belgian Air Forces. After some loose formation passes, the four-ship then re-enacted a ‘Tora-Tora-Tora’ style airfield attack complimented by some ground-based pyrotechnics.
There were also two Spitfires in the display representing the first fighter aircraft to fly with the Belgian Air Force. The Royal Netherlands Air Force Historic Flight Supermarine Spitfire IX made the short hop over from its base at Glize-Rijen for an aerobatic solo. Later in the display, Kris van der Bergh displayed the Belgian based Supermarine Spitfire XVI SL721/OO-XVI before joining up with with Captain Steven De Vries flying the ‘Dream Viper’ F-16AM Fighting Falcon for some formation flypast honouring the heritage of the Belgian Air Force.
Later Belgian Air Force history was marked by the Antwerp based Fouga CM170 Magister. This particular aircraft gave a spirited solo display and wears the colours of the Belgian Air Force’s National Display Team, the Diables Rouges or Red Devils. Saturday’s display saw a further nod to this famous cold war display team with the late addition of Patrouille Tranchard from France flying four very colourful CM170 Magisters. The team were brought in at short notice following the cancellation of the Finnish Air Force’s Midnight Hawks display team but actually they were something of a star addition to the line-up for many enthusiasts as they are rarely seen outside of France. Their display was an aerial ballet of gentle formation aerobatics punctuated with Blue, White and Red smoke.
Completing the classic jet action with the punchy SAAB J35J Draken and AJS37 Viggen from the Swedish Air Force Historic Flight. Both jets gave thunderous displays, but the Draken was particularly spectacular with its enormous reheat flame standing out prominently against the deep blue morning skies.
The world of civilian aviation was also well represented. No major Belgian airshow would be complete without the Victors Formation Team from Ursel. Flying four Piper PA28 Cherokees, the team fly a very polished routine of formation passes, an eye-catching carousel style tailchase and breaks. Aerobatics also came to fore with Belgian F-16 pilot Kristof Cloetens showing off his freestyle competition routine in the patriotic Extra 330SC and Italian glider ace Luca Bertossio wowing the crowds in his S-1 Swift.
Belgian Air Force Days marked the conclusion of the 2023 European Tour by the Royal Jordanian Falcons. Even with a large display line to cover, the team put on a very impressive display with several unique formation and opposition manoeuvres in the clear blue skies.
Sunday’s display saw civilian participation from the opposite end of the scale with some flypasts from an Airbus A330-200CEO from Air Belgium. This company flies various charters and cargo operations and until very recently also had some scheduled operations.
BAD Days often feature some trade displays reflecting future Belgian Air Force requirements. Currently the Air Force is looking to acquire some smaller transport aircraft to complement their Airbus A400Ms. One of the types under consideration is the Dornier Do228NG which was put through a short demonstration in the flying display highlighting the types agility and ability to use short landing strips.
The current Belgian Air Force made several contributions to the flying displays. At the slower end of the spectrum were the Red Devils flying four SIAI-Marchetti SF260 trainers from Beauvechain Air Base. The team had an interesting build-up to the show after one pilot suffered an injury. Fortunately, the team were able to draw on the experience at Beauvechain and train a new pilot p for their aerobatic sequence.
Belgian Air Force Days were a notable weekend for another Beauvechain based display, the A109 Display Team. For many years the Belgian Agusta A109BAi displays have been a stalwart of the European Airshow circuit supporting events large and small. They have also made some impressive contributions to various sporting events including the Belgian Grand Prix with spectacular flare releases. However, the A109BAi is now reaching the end of its Air Force career and Belgian Air Force Days was the team’s final public appearance. Sadly, the team were unable to employ their flares during the weekend but Captain JJ Jacobs and Stijn Soenens still gave a very fine routine on both days to conclude A109 Displays. Further rotary action came from the Koksijde based NH90NFH Caiman Search and Rescue demo.
Belgium’s F-16AM Fighting Falcons were very much in evidence during the display. Kleine Brogel based 31 Squadron presented their ‘Thundertigers’ routine often seen at the Sanicole Airshow. Their display during Friday’s Spottersday was particularly significant as it saw the first Belgian Air Force F-16AM Fighting Falcon reach its 8000 Flying Hours limit. FA-95 was suitably adorned with special marking on its tail to mark the occasion. Despite being a later F-16, FA-95 has been a good aircraft during its career with a high serviceability rate and therefore racking up the hours faster than some earlier aircraft. Following Friday’s display, the aircraft was grounded and put on static display in the main exhibition area. It is likely to stay in service however serving as a ground instructional airframe. The weekend flying displays were brought to a close with the punchy F-16 solo display by Captain Steven De Vries in the ‘Dream Viper.’
During Sunday’s display, two of the Thundertigers formed up with a NATO Multinational Multi-Role Tanker Transport Unit Airbus A330MRTT for a flypast. Belgium is a significant contributor to the MMU both in terms of financial backing and personnel. The MMU’s aircraft are based just across the border at Eindhoven wearing the marking of the Royal Netherlands Air Force.
Even with several other major airshows across Europe, Belgian Air Force Days attracted a good number of military displays from various partner nations. The Royal Air Force was represented in the flying displays by the RAF Falcons Parachute Display Team whose display was really enjoyed by the audience.
Another popular display was that from the Czech Air Force’s PZL W-3A Sokol helicopter. The display is billed as a Search and Rescue demonstration but it is so much more. The crew do demonstrate winching during their display which includes a spectacular fast circuit with the winchman dangling below the aircraft. However, in between the winching demos the powerful helicopter is put through a very dramatic handling display with some very tight turns and unusual attitudes.
The Polish Air Force’s Zespół Akrobacyjny “Orlik” (Orlik Aerobatic Team) returned to Belgium for the first time in 20 years. Flying the PZL 130TP-II Orlik training aircraft the team have flown a variety of different sized formation routine in the past few years. In 2023 they presented a six-ship routine which included some novel formations and some stunning mirror formation flying from the solo pilots.
While the contingent of international fast jets may have been small, it was full of quality. The Swiss Air Force always support Belgian events well and Captain Yannick “Fönsi” Zanata returned with his stunning routine in the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18C Hornet. Another air arm that seems never to miss the major Belgian airshow of the year is the Hellenic Air Force. For BAF Days they sent the ‘Zeus’ F-16C Fighting Falcon solo display. The ‘Zeus’ display intially started with a near copy of the USAF ‘Viper Demo Team’ display routine but has been developed over many years incorporating ideas from European displays and is now one of the best F-16 displays on the continent.
The Spanish Air Force made a welcome contribution to the fast jet line-up with a solo display by a Eurofighter C.16 Typhoon from Ala 14. They presented a very different Typhoon display compared with those from the RAF and Italian Air Forces highlighting the sheer power of the EJ200 Turbofans, the ability to turn very hard and the impressive roll-rate of the multirole fighter.
But it was the return of the United States Air Force’s F-35A Lightning II Demo Team to Belgium that was the highlight for many. The inclusion of the F-35A in the flying was the epitome of the ‘Join the Next Generation’ theme of Belgian Air Force Days. Major Kristen ‘Beo’ Wolfe was once again at the controls of the jet and was able to perform her full unrestricted display on each day. Despite the very dry conditions, the F-35A drew incredible amounts of vapour out of the air as it tore through the air delighting the audience. The display included some very impressive moments including a descending flat turn and the signature ‘tactical pitch.’ A measure of just how much the Belgian crowds were enthused by the return of the F-35A Demo to Europe could be seen at the ‘Meet the Pilots’ tent which saw huge queues form despite the intense heat when ‘Beo’ arrived to sign autographs.
The final international display of the Belgian Air Force Days weekend on the Sunday was the Patrouille de France. 2023 is a special year for the team as they celebrate their 70th Anniversary. Unlike other teams, the Patrouille almost completely re-work their display each year and this year includes some amazing and very beautiful moments – not least a very original way of painting ‘70’ in the sky. It was the perfect way to close the weekend as the sky became golden with the lowering sun.
While Belgian Air Force Days may have faced more than its fair share of challenges, it was an enjoyable and entertaining three days at what is still a very traditional military airshow. Such events should be cherished as they are special way for the military to engage with the public and inspire the next generation of engineers, pilots and armed forces personnel. We sincerely hope it is not too long before Belgian Air Force Days returned but that may be sometime as Belgium modernises its various air bases for new equipment and challenges. 2024 will see air displays return to the region with the International Sanicole Airshow on the 22nd-23rd September.
The author would like to thank the Belgian Air Force Press Office, Nico Alpaert, Joeri Mombers and Chris Janssens for their help over the BAFDays Weekend