SHAPE International Air Fest 2024, Chièvres

SHAPE International Air Fest 2024, Chièvres

One of smaller military events on the 2024 European Airshow Calendar was the SHAPE International Air Fest held at Chièvres Air Base in Belgium. The annual event is hosted by US Army Garrison BENELUX and each year invites the local community on base for a ‘family fun day’ style event. It does however also feature a number of rare military aircraft from across Europe and for 2024 added some ‘dynamic’ aerial action to its entertainment offering.

Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author.

Chièvres has a long association with military aviation. The Walloon Town first saw military aviation during the First World War when the Imperial German Army and then Air Force established an airfield here during the First World War. Between the wars the Belgian Military established the current airfield just outside the town and were in the process of construction during the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe. In May 1940 it was captured by Germans and used by various fighter and bomber units. The Corpo Aereo Italiano also used the airfield during the Battle of Britain stationing bombers at the airfield. By late 1940, the Germans moved operational aircraft out of Chièvres and began upgrading the airfield with new facilities and concrete runways. In 1941 it returned to operations with the arrival of Luftwaffe bomber units. In August 1944 the airfield briefly saw operations by the Me262 jet fighter.

 

In September 1944 Chièvres was liberated and airfield pressed into Allied service as Advanced Landing Ground 84. It was used by USAAF P-51 Mustangs and P-47 Thunderbolts plus RAF Typhoons. The airfield returned to Belgian control following the end of the Second World War and developed for operation of the country’s first jet fighters flying with the 7th Fighter Wing, the Gloster Meteor and F-84E Thunderjet. 1956 saw the arrival of the Hawker Hunter F4 with the 7th Wing and a year later a four-ship aerobatic team was formed at the base. In 1960 this team was christened the ‘Red Devils.’

In December 1967 the Belgian Air Force left Chièvres and the base passed to ‘Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe’ – SHAPE – located in Casteau near Mons. SHAPE is the headquarters of for the commander of Allied Operations Europe, one of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s two strategic military commands. The airfield’s role is to provide logistical support to SHAPE and NATO. The airfield’s runways and taxiways come under the care of the United States Air Force’s 424th Air Base Squadron, part of the 86th Airlift Wing based at Ramstein. However, the base is operated and maintained by US Army Garrison BENELUX.

 

Over its post war history, Chièvres has been no stranger to major aviation events with a number of International Airshows and Open Days hosted at the base up until the mid 1990s with some incredible participation from US forces and allies.  The modern incarnation of the ‘SHAPE International Air Fest’ emerged in September 2021. Apart from some parachute jumping, it only featured a static display of military aircraft though there was some very rare participation from Romania and Slovenia. 2022 saw ‘dynamic’ action added to the programme with some flypasts from a pair of Hungarian JAS-39C Gripens. 2023 saw the event take a break from any aviation involvement.

2024 sees some significant anniversaries for SHAPE and Chièvres, not least the 75th Anniversary of the NATO. This year also marks the 80th Anniversary of the D-Day landings and Belgian liberation. As such, a bigger event was planned this year and promised the return of aircraft static displays and some more significant flying action. It was a two-day event with Friday evening seeing a closed event for NATO personnel while the Saturday was opened to the general public for free. However beyond that information, pre-event publicity was rather vague and in the end didn’t completely reflect what actually occurred on the day.

 

A pleasant surprise on arrival was being able to actually drive on to a US operated airfield with just some simple security checks at the main gate. However once on the base, things got a little strange being directed to a car park on a secondary runway between the public area and the operational runway. As it turned out, this runway was within the ‘main’ flying display area. Belgium has very similar rules about flying displays and safety management to the UK so it was quite surprising to see organisers at Chièvres were able to accept the obvious risks of having the public transiting in and out this area throughout the day both on foot and in vehicles!

The car park was also quite a distance to the main showground and for early arrivals there was no shuttlebus waiting so people were walking to the show entrance. Not ideal when many early visitors were elderly or had kids and were vulnerable to the heat. Fortunately, the US Army personnel came to the rescue quite quickly with a number of all-terrain buggies as an interim shuttle solution until the minibuses arrived.

There was more stringent security at the showground entrance much like that seen at RIAT or Farnborough with scanners and bag checks. Visitors could not take in cool boxes or their own food and drink but there was at least plenty of free water taps around the site. As a consequence though the queues for food and drink were lengthy throughout the afternoon. Getting a drink was further complicated by the need to queue for a drink voucher before joining another queue for the bar. The food vendors were happy to accept cash but there were too few for the number of people attending.

The event was not just about aviation; there were several different attractions dotted around the showground including historic military vehicles, a Second World War exhibition, various military displays and the obligatory children’s play area. Amongst the historic military vehicles were a number of tanks from the Mons Memorial Museum including a US M3 Tank plus a couple of eye-catching armoured vehicles from the Czech Republic. Live music was also an important part of the day with one of the hangars turned into a concert venue. The festivities went on long into the night with fireworks bringing the Air Fest to a close at 11pm.

 

Outside of the hangars there was a small, but impressive static display. But in keeping with the American style of event none of the aircraft were barriered off and most were open to the public for walkthroughs or cockpit visits. Curiously by the time I left the Air Fest, the sole Belgian Air Force Lockheed Martin F-16AM Fighting Falcon at the event had been roped off suggesting some crews may have been less than happy with that arrangement.

Just two other aircraft came from the Belgian Air Force in the form of a 20 Squadron Airbus A400M Atlas and a 1 Wing SIAI-Marchetti SF260. In the hangars, one of the Royal Belgian Air Cadets Grob Astir gliders was also on display.

Three other F-16s were on show in the static display. The Polish Air Force was represented by a very purposeful F-16D Fighting Falcon. However, it was the pair pf F-16C Fighting Falcons from 330 ‘Thunder’ Mira of the Hellenic Air Force that really caught the eye. The aircraft come from Nea Aghialos Air Base and wear the eye-catching Aegean Blue camouflage scheme. The Czech Air Force added to the fast jet line-up with an Aero Vodochody L-159A ALCA.

The transport aircraft in the static display were very popular walk-through attractions. As well as the Belgian A400M, the United States Air Force showed off one of their D-Day heritage marked Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules II and a Learjet C-21A from the 86th Airlift Wing at Ramstein. The Portuguese Air Force also displayed their latest airlifter in the static park with the Embraer C-390 Millennium making its first public appearance outside of Portugal.

 

For helicopter enthusiasts, there was some truly outstanding contributions from NATO forces. The US Army proudly displayed one of their new Boeing AH-64E Apache Guardians from the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade based in Germany. Also from Germany was the Airbus H145D3 from HSG64 of the German Air Force based at Laupheim.  The Hungarian Air Force also returned to Chièvres with one of their new Airbus H145M multi-role helicopters from Szolnok.

The Romanian Air Force made a significant contribution to the event. Their Alenia C-27J Spartan is now a familiar airshow participant, but they also sent a pair of IAR 330 helicopters from Escadrilla 712. These multirole helicopters are based at the 71st Air Base “General Emanoil Ionescu” near Câmpia Turzii. The IAR 330 is a licence produced version of the Aérospatiale SA 330 Puma but has been further developed in Romania. Pleasingly, the Romanians sent two versions of the helicopter to the Air Fest. An IAR 330M was displayed in a search and rescue configuration alongside a IAR 330L/SOCAT combat support variant.

The handful of flying displays were spread out throughout the afternoon interspersed with the live music performances so there were some quite long gaps. With the public car park occupying the display box, all of the displays were to be non-aerobatic but pretty much stuck to normal separation from the crowd line.

The flying started with the Belgian Air Force Red Devils shortly after the day was opened by garrison commander Colonel Lindsay R. Matthews. However, for them the prospect of performing even a non-aerobatic routine over the car park was unacceptable so they flew their non-aerobatic routine over a completely different display line on the opposite side of showground! One advantage for photography was that at least they were not backlit! As mentioned earlier, Chièvres is the spiritual home for the Red Devils and so it was very appropriate to see them perform at the airfield in what is their final season on the SIAI-Marchetti SF260. The venerable trainer will soon exit Belgian Air Force service but no decision has yet been made on a successor.

 

Soon after the Red Devils came the first of the planned parachuting displays by the Belgian Black Devils Team and Hellenic paratroopers flying the flags of NATO, Belgium and Greece. Sadly, a later drop by the RAF Falcons was cancelled by the proximity of major thunderstorms which caused significant damage in other parts of Europe and even disrupted the Euro 2024 Football.

Though the Belgian Air Force no longer supports a full-time display by the Agusta A109BAi helicopter, they have put together a role demonstration featuring a pair of aircraft, one of was in casualty evacuation fit with wider doors. As well as formation passes, the pair of aircraft also demonstrated the recovery of a casualty from the battlefield with one aircraft providing top cover while the other landed.

A very dramatic display both in terms of flying and backdrop came from the German Army NH Industries NH90TTH. The display crew fitted much of their display into the small strip of land between the car park and showground with steep turns and stunning nose-overs. As they performed, the thunderstorms that forced the RAF Falcons to cancel their jump were passing behind the display area darkening the skies and creating some eye-catching cloud formations.

 

The Czech Air Force sent two flying displays to Chièvres. Continuing the rotary theme was the incredible PZL W-3A Sokol Search and Rescue demonstration. Despite being slightly delayed by the storms passing close to the airfield,  they gave a superb demonstration of the types agility, power and winching capabilities together with some very low high speed passes.

The only fast jet in the display was the Czech Air Force SAAB JAS-39C Gripen flown by Ondřej Španko. To fit with the event’s non-aerobatic rules, Ondřej flew his flat routine but without turning his jet upside down. It was though the outstanding highlight of the event for many of the attendees. Because of this and perhaps also the loss of the Falcons, Ondřej reprised his display at the end of the day ahead of more live music and fireworks.

 

 

The strange car parking layout, the different display lines, the queues for food and drink plus some rather vague communication before and during the event did suggest planning for the Air Fest was rather rushed.

However, it must be said that all the US military personnel involved with running the event could not have been more friendly and helpful playing a big role in making the day enjoyable. It should also be reiterated that this event, thanks to the connection with SHAPE, did attract some very rare aircraft that do often make it to the bigger airshows in Western Europe so it perhaps worth keeping an eye on future editions.