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2012 European Airshows : REVIEW

36th International Sanicole Airshow

The International Sanicole Airshow is one of the biggest and longest running civilian organised airshows in Europe. It is also the only civilian run airshow in Belgium. In many ways Sanicole is at the centre of the airshow scene. The airshow is a key member of the European Airshow Council and does much of the organisation for the annual EAC convention which is held in Belgium in February. 2012 saw the 36th running of the event which celebrated its links of Swiss Chronograph manufacturer Breitling and also ‘Duo’ display items.

Paul Johnson/Flightline reports. All photography copyright of the Author.

Sanicole Airshow is a very unique event for many reasons. It is the only civilian organised airshow in Belgium and promotes aviation, particularly that of the Sanicole Aeroclub to the wider community. The airfield itself makes for a very unique experience. Situated amongst some extensive training grounds for the Belgian Armed Forces, the airfield is quite small with just a single short narrow hard runway nestled in a small clearing; this gives the airshow a very special atmosphere compared to events held at larger airfields.

The flying displays are very varied including military and civilian displays from across Europe and beyond. For British enthusiasts the display is reminiscent of the famous Biggin Hill flying displays including everything from warbirds through to general and commercial aviation as well as military acts.

Despite some very unsettled September weather around Northern Europe, the main show day at Sanicole enjoyed bright sunny conditions throughout the day. Sadly the flying display was hit by a number of last minute cancellations and changes. Perhaps the most dramatic was the withdrawl of the Breitling Jet Team following an ejection by the number 2 pilot and his engineer while they were repositioning to Kliene Brogel from the Heldair Martime Airshow in the Netherlands following engine problems. Fortunately the prompt actions of the pilot meant the ejection was very successful with the crew receiving just minor injuries.

British visitors to the event would have much of the flying very familiar with a large contingent of acts from the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and the civilian scene. The Royal Air Force was due to have been represented by four different solo displays from the training fleet. The Tutor was cancelled fairly early on following the fleet being grounded. Then in the days before the show the King Air was forced to cancel following a technical problem experienced by the aircraft during the Jersey Airshow. That left just the Tucano and Hawk solo displays, but though both rehearsed in the days before the show, just the Tucano flew during the actual show.

The Royal Navy fared slightly better sending the solo Westland Lynx HMA8 display from 815NAS based at RNAS Yeovilton. The crew put on a great display in the tight arena of Sanicole affording the crowds a very close view of the aircraft as it showed off its capabilities for operating off small ships.

There were a whole host of civilian display items from the UK, mainly supporting the ‘It takes two’ theme. The SWIP Team opened the theme early in the flying display with their graceful formation and synchronised aerobatic routine. The SWIP Team fly the Silence Twister which is in many ways is the modern day successor to the Fournier RF4 which itself is a famous display aircraft. The RedHawks Duo of Bob Grimstead and Matthew Hill represented the Fournier in the flying display with their lyrical display routine highlighted by delicate wingtip smoke.

Moving the pace up a notch were the TRIG Aerobatic Team of Richard Grace and Dave Puleston. The TRIG team’s display is always a great watch with some very tight formation flying and daredevil opposition passes and the Belgian crowd clearly enjoyed their routine.

Further to the duo routines, there was further UK representation from O’Brien’s Flying Circus and the Aerostars. Sanicole has some strict limits on its flying display with a 200ft base height. Clearly for Brendan O’Brien it meant he was unable to perform his usual crazy flying routine which never really gets above 200ft!! Instead, Brendan did a great job of showing off some of the Piper J3 Cub superb flying attributes complete with odd bit of pyrotechnics!!! The Aerostars are always a highlight of any flying display, but their display at Sanicole was all the more impressive with the lead Yak-50 being replaced by a Sukhoi Su-29.

Aerobatics did not just come from the UK. Belgium too was represented by an impressive and patriotic Extra 330SC flown by Didier Amelinclx, the national aerobatic champion of Belgium. Swiss pilot Pierre Marmy is also actually based in Belgium, but represented his home country and was the first display to celebrate Sanicole’s link with Breitling Watches in his Sukhoi Su-26.

However the star aerobatic routine came from Red Bull Air Race World Champion Hannes Arch in his Red Bull Edge 540. Hannes gave a superb demonstration of unlimited aerobatics including a very sporting landing where he kept the tail off the ground right until he taxied off the runway!

Further civilian flying came from some Belgian based acts. The extraordinary looking Verhees Delta homebuilt aircraft made a number of passes. It looks very like something that would look at home in a Gerry Anderson production such as the Thunderbirds! The Victors are a regular at Belgian shows flying a formation of five Piper PA28s. The team flew some extremely tight and accurate formations which is not easy with the more limited visibility of their aircraft cabins.

On top of the Su-26, Breitling was also represented in the flying by the company Douglas DC-3 which gave a very graceful display early in the flying display. There was a further example of the famous transport aircraft in the display with C-47 Skytrain ‘Drag ‘Em Oot.’ The C-47 was over in Europe for the commemorations of ‘Operation Market Garden’ which actually started very close to Sanicole around the towns of Leopoldsburg and Peer. The C-47 dropped members of the Stichting Parachute Group Holland who use static line dome shaped-chutes to re-enact para-dropping operations of the second world war.

The only other true warbird in the flying display was North American P-51D Mustang ‘Scat VII’ which arrived in a unique formation with a Boeing 737-800 in celebration of two very successful US aircraft. Both the 737 and the P-51 performed solo routines over Sanicole with a running commentary from the flightdeck of the 737 for his routine!

Opening the show was another airliner, Classic Wings’ Antonov An-2 in former East German markings. This particular An-2 is a regular attendee at European aishow not only as a display act but also as a pleasure flying aircraft.

Perhaps the most eager anticipation amongst the enthusiasts at Sanicole was for the displays from the Swedish Air Force Historic Flight. The cancellation of some planned participants did mean Sanicole were able to secure an additional display from the flight in the form of the SAAB J105 trainer which unlike the in-service examples wears the early bare metal finish that the type appeared in when it first entered service with the Swedish Air Force.

The pace was increased somewhat by the flight’s J29F Tunnan. The Tunnan has been a regular participant at the Jersey Air Display and has also made appearances at the RAF Leuchars Airshow, but this was the aircraft first appearance at Sanicole. The Tunnan is actually a very early design of SAAB jet, but included a Swedish reheat system fitted to its de Havilland Ghost powerplant. This extra power gives the Tunnan an impressive performance which was demonstrated well during its display.

However the star turn was the SAAB AJ37 Viggen. The Viggen has just been restored to flight and has been a star of the Swedish airshow scene (see our Flyfesten Review) this year as SAAB celebrates its centenary. Without a doubt this is currently the most exciting classic jet operating in Europe, not least because of the extraordinary shape and the brutish performance demonstrated during the display routine.

The Belgian Armed Forces made an impressive contribution to the show. All of the regular displays from the Air Component were on show including the Red Devils display team of four SIAI-Marchetti SF260s, the Westland Sea King Mk48 SAR demo and the flare popping Agusta A109BA. Fans of the F-16 Fighting Falcon were not disappointed with the solo display flown by Major ‘Grat’ Thys closing the show with his impressive solo show and also a type of role demonstration by another four F-16s from 31 Fighter Squadron based at the nearby Kliene Brogel Air Base. The fourship, known as the ‘Thundertigers’ performed a number of formation and solo passes highlighting some of the tactics and capabilities used by the F-16 during operations.

A Belgian C-130H Hercules supported two different parachuting the displays. The aircraft first dropped a civilian competition parachuting team known as Hayabusa which put on an impressive display of formations and teamwork. The C-130 returned later with perhaps one of the headline acts, the return of the Canadian Armed Forces SkyHawks team which despite the very long display slot put in some impressive relative canopy work!

Further international military participation came from the Netherlands , Jordan and the United States. The Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16AM Fighting Falcon solo display added to the impressive array of solo jets with a powerful performance including plenty of flare releases which was great for the photographers. Jordan was represented by the Royal Jordanian Falcons with their four Extra 300Ls. They may be a regular at shows across Europe but they are always a welcome addition with their display of precise formation aerobatics and solo flying.

But by far the most awesome spectacle from the current military participants came from the B-52H Stratofortress from the United States Air Force. In recent years we have far too used to fairly dull high straight and flypasts from the type and often it only makes the one pass. This was not the case at Sanicole with the aircraft curving in from the hold for its display in dramatic style. The aircraft also made three passes before heading further east to a commitment at the ILA Berlin Airshow.

Despite more than its share of bad luck with display availability, Sanicole still presented one of the most varied and enjoyable airshows of the year with a superb mix of participants from across the world. We cannot wait for our next visit.

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