The International Sanicole Airshow is Belgium’s only major annual civilian airshow. It attracts acts from both the military and civilian world from across Europe for one of the continent’s most varied flying displays. The Sanicole Aeroclub maintains very close links with 31 Tiger Squadron based at Kleine Brogel airbase which is just a few kilometres from the airfield and therefore it was highly appropriate that the show marked the 55th Anniversary of the NATO Tiger Association and the 70th Anniversary of the Belgian Air Force during the day long flying display.
If you have been lucky enough to visit the Sanicole Aeroclub’s Clubhouse, you would think you had walked into a museum of European Airshows. The walls are filled with pictures of military and civilian display teams from across the world and even the tail rotor from a RNAS Culdrose based Sea King. All are mementoes from the history of the Sanicole Airshow and a sign of the amazing reputation this little airfield has amongst the global airshow community.
What really makes Sanicole stand out from other big airshows in Europe is the sheer variety of the display acts that it brings together each year. It is one of the few shows where light aircraft acts have equal billing alongside warbirds, helicopters, fast jets and national display teams. Another major attraction of the event is that the Sanicole team make a conscious effort to vary the display from year to year new displays and add some very special one-off formations. This means you are almost guaranteed to see something new and very different each year.
This year proved slightly challenging for the organisers with regard to participation. Many European air forces are being stretched by operations and it was notable that Belgium’s close neighbours, France and the Netherlands, were unable to contribute to the flying displays. The Royal Netherlands Air Force did however send a Boeing CH-47D Chinook for static display over the weekend. The days leading up to the show also saw a handful of acts forced to withdraw from the show. It is however much to Sanicole’s credit that the cancellations did not leave any major holes in the flying and it still stood at well over seven and half hours of some very high quality flying.
A nice touch for UK and other English speaking visitors is that the commentary is presented in Flemish and English. Providing the English speaking commentary was Canadian Ric Peterson who made his Sanicole debut last year. Ric is a very experienced “announcer” on the North American display circuit covering major events such as the London Airshow, Oshkosh and San Francisco’s Fleet Week. Ric clearly enjoys the Sanicole experience and his enthusiasm shone through throughout the day.
It had been a glorious few days in Belgium before the show with wall-to-wall blue skies and warm sunshine bathing northern European. Come show day, the inevitable happened and much of the event took place under a grey overcast though not enough to prevent any of the acts from displaying.
Opening the show was a type soon to be retired from Belgian Air Force service, the Westland Sea King Mk48. Based with 40 Squadron at the coastal airbase at Koksijde, the Sea Kings provide Search and Rescue along Belgium’s channel coast. Sea Kings have been a regular sight at Sanicole Airshows in the past, not only as display aircraft but also providing support to the emergency services.
A much small rotary craft followed the Sea King, the Magni Gyrocopter. The Italian built Gyrocopter is one of a new breed of Gyros offering affordable aviation to private pilots. The Magni was just the first in a big line-up of civilian displays highlight general and sports aviation.
Luc Coessons returned to Sanicole in his Pitts S-2C Special flying a very exciting routine of advanced aerobatics. Luc lost an arm in an accident and therefore flies a specially adapted aircraft. However, it does not hold him back from flying some very entertaining gyroscopic figures. Another incredible display of biplane aerobatics came from a replica Bucker Jungmeister. This polish built replica is fitted with an inline engine from a Zlin aerobatic aircraft which not only gives the aircraft a very distinctive sound, but also amazing agility. Completing the line-up of biplane aerobatic displays was the Stolp Starduster Too flown by Jean-Marc d’Hulst through an elegant routine of standard aerobatics.
Bringing the story of aerobatic aircraft right up to date was Mark Jefferies in the Extra 330SC. It was a very busy weekend for Mark flying displays at Sanicole on Friday and Sunday plus a further display as part of the Global Stars team at Duxford on the Saturday. Good job the Extra is fairly quick in the cruise! Mark’s solo display starts with a jaw-dropping series of flick rolls into the display area before a non-stop routine of unlimited aerobatics highlighted by thick smoke trails.
The Royal Jordanian Falcons also returned to Sanicole this year with their four Extra 300Ls. Sanicole marked the end of their 2016 European Tour which has seen them display at major air displays in the UK, France, Germany and other European nations.
As well as powered aerobatics, glider aerobatics also featured well with teams from Germany and the UK. Sadly, both teams were slightly restricted by the low cloud but both were able to display the elegant grace of silent flight and aerobatics through energy management. First to display were the Skydance Airshow Team who fly the Maganski S-1 Swift aerobatic glider. Flying Sunday’s display was Andrea Lehmann. Andrea has represented Germany at European championships twice and at the World Championship 3 times. At all three World Championships, Andrea was ranked as the top female competitor. The GliderFX Display Team also took on the clouds later in the day eith their brightly coloured MDM-1 Fox glider flown by Ian Gallacher who just like Andrea, was restricted to some elegant loops and rolls due to low cloud.
There was a good showing of UK display teams throughout the afternoon. The gliding theme was continued by the AeroSPARX Team of Tim Dews and Guy Westgate flying a pair of Grob 109b motorgliders. For their daytime show they fit some very effective black smoke generators to their wingtips in place of the fireworks which beautifully highlight their gentle loops and turns in the sky.
In total contrast to the silence and grace of the gliders was OTTO the Helicopter. OTTO, a Schweizer 300C, has recently been imported into the UK by legendary airshow pilot Brendan O’Brien. For UK airshow goers, OTTO is an iconic airshow participant performing a wide variety of acts including picking up a over-sized yo-yo, banner towing and even helicopter-to-aeroplane transfers of stuntmen. For sunday’s display, Brendan performed an energetic routine of “Chopperbatics” complete with display smoke.
The last of the UK based teams to perform were the Breitling WIngwalkers who presented their popular duo of Boeing Stearman flown by Dave Barrell and Martyn Carrington. On the wings were Emily Guilding and Florence Rolleston-Smith. The team’s classic display of formation wingwalking is always appreciated by the Sanicole crowds who “ooo-ed” and arrr-ed” throughout the team’s display.
A new team for 2016 is the Blackshape Air Combat Team from the Netherlands. The team fly the Blackshape BS100 Prime, an Italian designed lightweight training aircraft. The team come from Air Combat Europe, a company which offers air combat experience flights and also provides air experience flights for the Dutch Air Cadets hence the rather military looking colour scheme worn by the team’s aircaft and Royal Netherlands Air Force roundels. The team fly a mix of formation figures as well as a dogfight demonstration during their routine in these very quiet and modern looking aircraft.
The Belgian’s own civilian display team, The Victors Formation Team, is celebrating its tenth anniversary in 2016. The team, based at Ursel, fly the Piper Cherokee. This may not be the first choice of machinery for an air display act but they do sterling work in highlighting general aviation to the public with a very precise routine of formation passes. To mark the anniversary the team’s aircraft have had special tail marking applied this season and they have perfected a brand new routine. In the flying, their own anniversary and the 70th Anniversary of the Belgian Air Force was marking in the first of the special formations of the afternoon which saw the team fly with the Belgian Air Force’s Red Devils display team flying four SIAI-Marchetti SF260s. This is a tricky formation as the speed ranges of the Cherokee and the SF260 are very different so keeping the formation tight was a challenge for all pilots involved.
The Red Devils also flew another special formation later in the afternoon, this time with the Stampe and Vertongen Museum’s Fouga CM170 Magister to mark the history of this famous display team name. This example of the distinctive jet trainer from France has only been made airworthy this year and made its debut at the Belgian Air Force Days at Florennes. It currently has a very limited permit to fly which meant Sanicole was only the second outing for the jet and the very first time it performed its own solo routine in public. The Red Devils followed the Magister with their own crisp display of formation and solo aerobatics.
The Magister was just one of several historic military types in the display. One of the first types to be operated by the Belgian Air Force was the Spitfire which was represented by the Royal Netherlands Air Force Historic Flight’s Supermarine Spitfire IX flown by Ralph Aarts. Further heavy-iron warbirds came from the Austrian based Flying Bulls with their gorgeous Lockheed P-38J Lightning flown by Raimund Reidmann and Chance-Vought F4U Corsair piloted by Eric Goujon.
Another alpine based team joining the Sanicole line-up were the Swiss P3 Flyers. As the name suggested, the team are a group of pilots who flying the Pilatus P3 trainer. These aircraft were developed post war by Pilatus as basic and advanced trainers for the Swiss Air Force first flying in 1953. The aircraft was also the first Pilatus type to be exported when it was ordered by the Brazilian Navy. The team are all civilian pilots; team leader Marco Cuscio is the only commercial pilot on the team while the rest are all Private Pilots. They are Boris Commazi, Fabrizio Pongelli, Marc Roth and Valerio Caroni. The team flies an engaging mix of big formations, solo and synchronized aerobatics in their aircraft, all of which carry different authentic Swiss Air Force or Pilatus demonstrator markings.
Belgium’s own Bronco Demo Team continued the post war history with the North American OV-10B Bronco flown by Tony de Bruyn. Tony’s display was accompanied by Vietnam era music highlighting the role the Bronco played as a forward air control aircraft during the long-running conflict in South-East Asia. Like Broncos used in Vietnam, Tony’s OV-10B is fitted with a smoke generator on one side which in conflict was used to highlight targets for the fast moving ground attack aircraft.
However, the stars of the historic line-up were the SAAB jets of the Swedish Air Force Historic Flight. SAAB had a big presence at the show as they are offering the latest generation of Gripen to the Belgian Air Force as replacement for the F-16. As in previous editions of the Sanicole Airshow, there was a sizable industry presence with the likes of Eurofighter and Lockheed Martin on the ground. Three of SAAB most potent cold war jets flew solo displays starting with the tubby SAAB J29C Tunnan (Or ‘Flying Barrel’) before moving on the dramatic SAAB Sk35C Draken and AJS37C Viggen. The latter two gave particular thunderous displays making full use of their Swedish built reheat systems. The culmination of the SAAB Classic Jets displays was the “Silver SAAB” formation which saw all three fighters fly together with the flights SAAB Sk60 (105) trainer for some passes up and down the crowdline.
Completing the story of SAAB jets was the Czech Air Force’s SAAB JAS-39C Gripen solo display. The Czech solo display is a very punchy display highlighting just how fast the Gripen can change direction and get around the sky. The Gripen also fitted in nicely with the Tiger theme as its unit, 211th TL, is one of two Czech squadrons to be full members of the NATO Tiger Squadron.
Adding to the Tiger theme was the Spanish Air Force McDonnell Douglas EF-18M Hornet solo from Ala 15. The display aircraft wore some colourful Tiger markings over the rear fins and horizontal stabilizers and was perhaps the star turn of the afternoon giving a very aggressive and powerful performance that pulled plenty of water vapour out of the air.
A highlight of any Sanicole air display is the involvement of 31 Tiger Squadron from the Belgian Air Force. Their fourship of Lockheed Martin F-16AM Fighting Falcons was dubbed “The Silver Tigers” for this special anniversary year. Leading the formation this year was 31 Squadron’s amazing Tiger schemed aircraft – perhaps the most striking of all the Tiger schemes applied for this year’s Tiger Meet held in Spain. As ever their display was a spectacular mix of role demonstration and formation passes with liberal use of flares!
The Belgian Air Force really does come up with some very striking special scheme as it demonstrated by the solo display F-16 flown by Tom ‘Gizmo’ de Moortel. The display jet scheme is nicknamed ‘Blizzard’ and really accentuates the aircraft lines and also how the vapour forms over the top surfaces of the aircraft during high-g maneuvers. Tom’s powerful routine is always a highlight of any show, but always to seems to really captivate the ‘home’ crowd at Sanicole.
Adding to the Belgian Air Force presence at the show was a Lockheed C-130H Hercules from No 20 Squadron, part of No 15 Wing based at Melsbroek. It is a rare sight to see any C-130 during a flying display in Europe in these days of smaller fleets and more distant operations. Therefore the two brief flypasts and a demonstration of a steep tactical approach were a most welcome to the show.
The Sanicole Airshow is traditionally closed by a visiting national display team. This year, it was the turn of the Swiss Air Force to close the event with their Super Puma Display Team and the famous PC-7 Team. Both teams arrived together for one of the Swiss Air Force’s signature formation passes before the AS332 Super Puma gave an incredible solo display highlighting the power of agility of the big transport helicopter. The final 25 minutes were given over to the PC-7 Team to close Sanicole in style. Flying nine NCPC-7 Turbotrainers, the team fly a really precise and elegant routine that highlights the professionalism of Swiss Air Force pilots and the excellent flying qualities of the aircraft. This year has seen the routine given more dynamism with subtle tweaks to figures such as ‘super-mirror’ and ‘the flirt.’ The second half of their display also features a demonstration of tight turning dogfight involving five aircraft which is really eye-catching.
2016 may have had its challenges, but the Sanicole organisers more than rose to the occasion presenting a very varied and entertaining flying display full of highlights. Adding to the appeal of Sanicole is the very welcoming atmosphere and the obvious passion all the organisers, volunteers and pilots have to make the event a success. 2017 promises to be a very special year as it marks the 40th event and it promises to be quite a celebration. Flightline UK will be there!