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2014 European Airshows : REVIEW

Belgian Air Force Days, Kleine Brogel

Mid-September saw the return of the Belgian Air Force Days, the country's only major military airshow. The venue was Kleine Brogel Air Base which is situated close to the Dutch and Germany borders with Belgium. It has been 15 years since "KB" has held a major airshow, though the base has hosted the Tiger Meet in 2008 and a small spotters day last year. The show celebrated tow very significant anniversaries linked to the Belgian Air Force; the 100th Anniversary of Belgian Military Aviation and the 40th Anniversary of the F-16 Fighting Falcon.

Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. Photography by Paul Johnson/Flightline UK and James George. Video highlights by the Air Force Days Video Team.

Situated close to the towns of Hetchel, Hasselt and Peer, Kleine Brogel is one of the best known Air Bases in Europe. One of two F-16 bases in Belgium, the bases is home to 31 Tiger Squadron, 349 Squadron and the Operational Conversion Unit for the type. Like many North European bases, the long main and reserve runways are surrounded by trees in which are housed the taxiways, hangars and hardened aircraft shelters.

This means the showground for the airshow is very long and thin being restricted by the reserve runway and the tree line. However, with the showground on the south side of the runway it does mean the light is good for the majority of the day and is fairly sheltered. The majority of the static display is also lined on the reserve runway in front of the crowd. While many enthusiasts may bemoan this blocking the view of the runway, it does mean unlike many UK shows where static displays are often buried within the showground, the aircraft are sensibly spaced from the barriers and have uncluttered backdrops perfect for photography. For those that attended on the Friday Spotter Day, this had the added benefit of seeing aircraft arriving for the static display operating at close quarters.

Though Air Force Days was predominately a military event, this year saw the very experienced Sanicole Airshow team take a prominent role in the organisation helping with much of the event coordination. Air Force Days actually took over the Sanicole weekend slot for the year as their airshow took a break for the year but will return in 2015.

The Static displays were certainly very impressive and varied including many different types, both modern and historic. Amongst the historic aircraft on display were the Bronco Demo Team's North American OV-10B Bronco line-up with a very well preserved example of the Cessna O-2 Skymaster. Other historics included the North American T-28 Trojan and much more familiar types such as the Stampe SV4.

The Belgian Air Force was of course well represented on the ground. Their largest type on static display was the Lockheed C-130H Hercules from the 15th Air Transport Wing at Melsbroek. It was joined by the much rarer Dassault Falcon 20 also from the 15th ATW. Like many European Air Forces, Belgium is going through a transformation with its helicopter fleets and both the old and new were on show. Seeing out their last days of service are the Aerospatiale Alouette III and the Westland Sea King Mk48 both on which were seen on static display. Despite their very different shapes and sizes, both helicopters are being replaced by a common type, the NH Industries NH90 albeit in two different variants, the NH90 TTH and NH90 HFH and both variants were displayed alongside each other.

Most impressive was the line-up of international fast jets. It is great to see the United States Air Force back on the airshow circuit in Europe and at KB, they had two McDonnell Douglas F-15D Eagles in the static display. One of the main adversaries of the F-15 was also on static display with a pair of Mikoyan MiG-29 Fulcrums; a MiG-29A from the Polish Air Force and a MiG-29UBS from the Slovakian Air Force. Slovakia's neighbour, the Czech Republic also showed off it indigenous light strike aircraft, the Aero Vodochody L-159 ALCA complete with a representative weapons load. The Royal Air Force's contribution was rather more low key with a single BAE Systems Hawk T1 from 208[R] Squadron parked up amongst the potent jets.

With the 40th Anniversary of the F-16 as a major theme, it was good to see perhaps the biggest airshow gathering of the type this year. The Belgian Air Force had specially marked F-16AMs from 31 Tiger and 349 Squadrons in the static park alongside further examples from the Royal Netherlands Air Force, Royal Danish Air Force and the Portuguese Air Force. The anniversary also coincides with the Belgian requirement for an F-16 replacement and there was a special display to mark this competition.

At the crowd centre was a Belgian F-16 specially painted as the very first YF-16 Fighting Falcon prototype. It was surrounded by the main types vying to succeed the F-16 in Belgian Air Force service with a Hungarian SAAB JAS-39D Gripen, Luftwaffe Eurofighter Typhoon, Swiss Air Force Boeing F/A-18D Hornet (representing the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet) and a French Air Force Dassualt Rafale C. In addition, the French Navy had a pair of Dassault Rafale Ms in the static display. Both Eurofighter and Rafale International were on the ground with stands, though it did seem the Rafale team were pushing harder with free day-glo orange baseball caps and bags appearing across the showground.

Kleine Brogel's layout did mean it was rather restrictive for larger types which were all parked down the far western end and a relatively small pan. However, parked next to the Belgian C-130H was a rather lovely Royal Norwegian Air Force Lockheed P-3C Orion, a very rare visitor to airshows. Also tucked well away, almost out of sight, at the western end was a Czech Air Force Mil Mi-24 Hind attack helicopter wearing Tiger Squadron markings!

The flying display was a huge affair and also continued the superb variety set by the static display. It has been planned to last nearly 10 hours from 9am to 7pm over the two main show days. Sadly however, some typically North European weather meant that the mornings on Saturday and Sunday proved rather foggy and the start of flying had to be delayed. In the event, everything flew at least once over the weekend.

With so much military flying planned, there were just a few civilian displays. The Victors Formation Team are a regular fixture at major Belgian aviation events. Flying four Piper Cherokees, the team flying some very precise formations and are a great advertisement for general aviation in Belgium. More sporting aerobatic displays came from a Belgian based Mudry CAP232 and the Swiss Breitling sponsored Sukhoi Su-26.

The Centenary of Military Aviation was marked by a plethora of types. Mikael Carlson brough one of his Thulin As, a licence built version of the Bleriot IX monoplane which was one of the first types to be operated by the Belgian military. One thing that marks Belgian events out from others are mixed displays and to show a century of development, Capt Renault 'Grat' Thys flew with the Mikael on the Saturday flying slow circuits behind the Thulin in his F-16AM Fighting Falcon; Superb aerial theatre!

Further "Then and Now" formations occurred throughout the weekend looking at training aircraft. Only seen on the Friday Spotters-Day was a formation of Stampe SV4 and two SIAI-Marchetti SF260s from the Red Devils display team. Moving onto more potent piston powered training provided by North American products, a Belgian marked T-6 Texan flew alongside a US Navy T-28 Trojan.

By far the most impressive mixed formation saw the Airbus supported Fouga CM170 Magister perform a gentle duo display with one of the Belgian Air Force's current jet trainer, the Dassault Alpha Jet which was wearing some striking special markings. Not only did the pair fly in close formation, but concluded their display with a gentle tailchase in a rather lovely salute to French built jet trainers.

Further "Heritage" displays came from Historical organisations from the Royal Netherlands Air Force and the Royal Air Force. Second World War fighters were marked by the Royal Netherlands Air Force Historic Flight's Supermarine Spitfire IX which gave a superb display under very low cloud on the Saturday. Fortunately for Friday's rehearsal, the weather was much better and showed off the glorious silver scheme to great effect. It was good to see the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight also make the trip over the Channel with their Douglas Dakota III. Not only did the C-47/DC-3 serve with the Belgian Air Force, but the BBMF Dakota also was a timely reminder of the actions 75 years ago during Operation Market Garden. The long straight roads around nearby Leopoldsburg were the staging area for the ground operations.

The Cold War was remembered by the Dutch Hawker Hunter Foundations stunning Hawker Hunter F6 flown by Patrick Tuit. On both days, Patrick displayed in less than ideal conditions, but perfectly demonstrated the superb agility and handling of the classic Hunter which forms the backbone of many Air Forces during the late 1950s and 1960s.

The centrepiece of the airshow for the modern day Belgian Air Force was the Joint Power Demo. This featured the combined forces of the Belgian Air and Land components operating alongside NATO allies in simulated operation to protect and re-enforce a forward operating base. The sequence started with a streamed launch of six F-16AM Fighting Falcons before the scripted commentary began and two further F-16s were scrambled in a simulated Quick Reaction Alert. Over the course of an hour, the demo simulated an F-16 attack on an enemy compound, F-16s providing close air support around a forward operating base and the insertion of Special Forces to support the besieged FOB utilising the Belgian Air Forces new NH Industries NH90TTH supported by Agusta A109BAs and a Czech Air Force Mil Mi-24 Gunship. The scenario also included a flypast by the Hunter-B UAV which used near-by Sanicole Aero Club has a remote operating base. The final element of the demo saw one of Belgium's C-130H Hercules perform a tactical approach and landing before unloading an overwhelming force of troops to end the enemy action. The demo was brought to a close by a series of flypasts. The first formation saw a NATO Boeing E-3A Sentry escorted by a pair of F-16s before the Hercules re-appeared in formation with three F-16s before a final formation of the final three F-16s. It was certainly a very large and comprehensive demonstration book-ended by action, but the middle segment did seem rather drawn out.

Further modern day Belgian Air Force action came from some of the more familiar displays. The Agusta A109BA solo display team gave a very lively performance of the battlefield helicopter making good use of flares throughout his routine. They flair for showmanship and special formations continued with the regular displays. The Red Devils once again gave a superb display at their "home" show, but as they finished the solo F-16AM display roared into the air in pursuit to formated with the team before the whole combination performed a head on break prior to the F-16s own solo performance.

Not to be outdone were the Swiss Air Force. Only in the two weeks before the Swiss Air Force has been celebrating their own centenary during AIR14 at Payerne. One of their special formations from that show was repeated at Kleine Brogel with the PC-7 Team leading the Eurocopter Super Puma solo display helciopter for opening pass before their respective precise displays!

Fans of the big formation teams certainly would not have been disappointed with the line-up. Joining the aforementioned Red Devils and PC-7 Team were many of Europe's big teams plus a couple from the Middle East.

Though a civilian team, the Breitling Jet Team must still be counted as one of the very best jet formation teams in the world. They performed on both days finishing their display with a flurry of pyrotechnics. The team may not be seen in Europe much next year as they are due to tour North America during 2015.

Il Frecce Tricolori always provide great colour and excitement during their displays, even if they are restricted by the weather. Saturday's display took place under a relatively low cloud base, but their Sunday slot afforded them conditions to perform their full patriotic and exuberant display.

Sunday saw La Patrouille de France display late in the afternoon. The Patrouille's display is amongst the most eye-catching of any national team with some very original formation and synchronised aerobatic figures and great use of their smoke systems.

The RAF Red Arrows were late arrivals to the event touching down during the Saturday's display programme due to another incredibly busy weekend schedule. While they had to contend with low cloud on Sunday, their finale slot on the Saturday saw clear skies and a stunning sunset.

A further contribution from the Royal Air Force came in the form of the Falcons Parachute Display Team. The team were fortunate to have clear conditions for both their display so they could not only show off their superb skill under the canopy, but also some freefall work.

The Royal Jordanian Falcons were at the end of the annual European tour and were welcome additions to the Saturday flying display with their three Extra 300Ls. They were joined by another Middle East based team, Al Fursan from the United Arab Emirates. Al Fursan were making only their second visit to Europe following their debut in 2012 during the flying displays at the Royal International Air Tattoo and Jeselo in Italy. As Flightline UK witnessed in Al Ain in 2013, the team have developed their display greatly including more and more original figures including a very striking interpretation of the classic corkscrew! Like the Red Arrows, the team had mixed fortunes with the weather but closed the event on Sunday in beautiful and evocative sunset conditions.

There were two solo displays by training types from very different eras. The Austrian Air Force participated with two SAAB J105OE aircraft, one on static and the other in the air. Despite its slightly more sedate looks, the SAAB remains quite a performer and certainly grabs the attention of the crowd. A much later trainer came from Switzerland. Pilatus gave a full flying display with their PC-21 demonstrator fitted with underwing smoke generators. The aircraft has sold well in the Middle and Far East and is entering service with the Air Forces of Singapore, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In Europe, just the Swiss operate the type and Pilatus is keen to add to that as the older PC-7s, PC-9s and Tucano aircraft reach the end of their lives.

The Swiss Puma was not the only military rotary display item. The Royal Navy provided a solo Westland Lynx HMA8 which gave a superb account of its agility. The Czech Air Force sent a significant contribution to the rotary flying displays with two very different displays. The Mil Mi-24V Hind that took part in the Joint Power Demo returned later in the afternoon to provide a dramatic solo routine complete with stub mounted smoke generators. Joining the Hind was the pair of Mil Mi-171 Hips last seen at Sanicole Airshow last year. These impressive transport helicopters perform a mix of display and role demonstration highlighting the big Russian helicopters Combat Search and Rescue role within the Czech Air Force.

Completing an impressive array of rotary displays was the Royal Netherlands Air Force Boeing AH-64D Apache. The example displayed was a standard example and gave the full aerobatic and flare firing routine that has made the display a popular fixture wherever it appears. Sunday saw the Apache join in formation with the other main Dutch solo display, the Lockheed Martin F-16AM Fighting Falcon for spectacular fly-by and break with yet more flares!

The Dutch F-16, also wearing more standard markings for the 2014 season, went on to provide a wonderful account of the popular fighter popping flares and pulling plenty of moisture out of the September evening air on both days.

Whereas both the Belgian and Dutch F-16s are regular participants at European airshows, the F-16's 40th Anniversary of the type was completed by two further solo displays from south east Europe. The Turkish Air Force's solo F-16 display team, SoloTurk, have been a familiar sight at airshows across Europe in the past four years with their stunning looking F-16C Fighting Falcons adorning in glossy black and gold markings. Matching their eye-catching aircraft is their display which is one of the most exuberant of all display some of the more extreme elements of the F-16's agility including some very rapid rolling figures and wing-bending tight turns.

A much rarer F-16 display comes from the Hellenic Air Force which since 2010 has only been seen a handful of times outside its home country. The Hellenic F-16C Fighting Falcons represent the more modern face of the F-16 as they are fitted with the Conformal Fuel Tanks (CFTs) which sit on the upper surfaces of the fuselage giving the aircraft a boxier, more aggressive look. For the most part, the Hellenic Air Force 'Zeus' Team has displayed standard squadron examples of their aircraft, but for the short season of European shows, the team applied a special scheme to the CFT's and under fuselage aerodynamic surfaces. The display is very different from the other European displays having original been advised by the USAF F-16 Demo Teams but the display still contains the odd use of flares as was seen very late on Friday evening.

The Mikoyan MiG-29A Fulcrum was also well represented at Air Force Days with two different Air Forces showing off the powerful Russian fighter. A fairly regular proponent of the MiG-29 at European shows is the Polish Air Force which just managed to provide a new solo display pilot in time for the show. The new routine included tailslides for the first time plus some great use of flares!

More seldom seen in flying displays is the Slovakian MiG-29A solo display. While it may have not included tailslides or flares, it was still a very powerful demonstration of the Cold War jet leaving thick trails of black smoke as it thundered through the sky.

The French Air Force provided two outstanding highlights to the flying programme. The Ramex Delta display team fly a pair of Dassault Mirage 2000Ns. These are the French Air Force's main dedicated strike aircraft based on the hugely successful delta design. Ramex Delta are the latest in a series of exciting French fast jet pair displays than has included the Jaguars of Raffin Mike and the Mirage F1s of Voltage Victor. Like the previous duos, Ramex Delta perform some very impressive close formation flying, but this in intermixed by demonstrations of more tactical manoeuvres. The Mirage 2000 has always been a great air display aircraft with its thunderous engine and delta design and the team certainly take advantage of this; it is not hard to see why they have proved to be so popular at the shows they attend.

The French Air Force also provide perhaps the best solo jet demonstration in Europe in the form of the Dassault Rafale. The aircraft seems to be able to perform a routine at incredible speed whilst still keeping the big jet almost totally within the airfield boundary; more so that its rivals. It's another good looking beast too. The showmanship extends into the aircraft's paint schemes too. Saturday's displays saw a very striking red and gold special schemed Rafale C take centre stage in the evening sun with wingtip smoke generators which looked stunning. Sunday's display saw a standard grey Rafale B display, but it was no less impressive.

Air Force Days 2014 was certainly a very impressive show. The static display may have been small, but was full of interesting types from across Europe plus plenty of participation from the Belgian Armed Forces.

The flying display was quite exceptional. While it may not run for the full planned 10 hours on either of the public days due to the low cloud and fog each morning, it certainly was a superb display with some great showmanship - the mixed formations were all very memorable and well flown. If there was a weak point in the flying, it would have been the Joint Power Demo which while in included several very engaging moments was very lengthy with several noticeable gaps within it. These may have been by design, but it did mean the whole scenario lacked the flow of similar set-piece displays. The weather too may have frustrated some who only attended one day as some acts only flew on one day or the other due to the delayed start. Those that attended on two or three days managed to see the complete program in good weather at various points throughout the weekend.

Kleine Brogel put on a great edition of Belgian Air Force Days and it was a thoroughly enjoyable weekend. The base provides a near-perfect venue for airshows and there was certainly a noticeable effort by all involved to make the event the very best possible for visitors. Air Force Days is set to return again in 2016 but next year does see the quite superb Sanicole Airshow which takes place just a few kilometres away from Kleine Brogel - we are already looking forward to it immensely!

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