In 1942, a Messerschmitt Me.110 marked the first aircraft landing at the Luftwaffe base of Florennes. 70 years on, 2 Wing of the Belgian Air Component celebrated the base's history by hosting the Annual Belgian International Airshow at their home airbase of Florennes on 23-24 June 2012. Harry Forman and Ben Sadler present this report for AeroResource.
This was the first meeting organised by the Wing since 2001 - although the last airshow hosted at Florennes was the Belgian Defence Days in July 2008. With the gradual withdrawal of aircraft variety from many European Air Arms, the organizers had to pull out all the stops to put on a show of as good quality as of that in 2008. Florennes has become famous due to the demanding TLP (Tactical Leadership Programme) being held at the base since 1989, when it was moved from Jever Air Base in Germany. This was due to the central location of Florennes in Europe, and the low fly restrictions in Germany after various fatal accidents in 1988.
TLP evolved into a 4 week exercise, taking place 6 times a year at Florennes - a fact that caused hundreds of aviation enthusiasts to flock to Florennes to see many rare types from as many as 14 different air arms based in Europe. However, the night flying restrictions in Belgium led to the eventual departure of TLP from Florennes in 2009 to Albacete, Spain where it remains.
With the lack of TLP to draw in aircraft, Florennes has in some ways disappeared off the radar for many enthusiasts, and this Airshow was the first event of its kind held since TLP relocated to Albacete. Despite the loss of TLP, Florennes still hosts a locally assigned unit of the Belgian Air Component.
During normal operations, 2 Wing are the only inhabitants of Florennes, consisting of 1 Squadron “Stingers” and 350 Squadron “Ambiorix”, both of which operate the F-16AM Fighting Falcon since the 2003. 2 Wing are one of only two Belgian Wings that operate the F-16, with the other being 10 wing at Kleine-Brogel. 1 Squadron primarily use their F-16s in the fighter-bomber role, although they have also taken up responsibilities of the Belgian Air Component's Reconnaissance role. 350 Squadron operate as a Fighter Squadron, with a secondary role as Fighter-Bombers. Until the transition to the F-16, previous aircraft operated by 2 Wing include the Republic F-84, Dassault Mirage VBs and most recently the Dassault Mirage IV. These aircraft were some of the first aircraft to be seen at the airshow, as 3 F-84s are preserved near the gate, as well as a Mirage IV BA.
After a short ferry crossing across the channel, and a 2 1/2 hour journey from Calais to a remote location, it became more obvious the high amount of publicity this air show had generated by the high level of response from the Belgian public. Of course this was great news for the show, but as always there was a down side, with an enormous amount of traffic, and along with poor traffic management, major delays began to build. The traffic did eventually began to move, but many people attending the show managed to enter for free as non-official routes were opened to ease the congestion. Whilst obviously a bonus for the visitors, it must have stung for the organisers of the event.
A variety of aircraft including civilian and military were on static display for the public to see and also formed the very impressive flying programme. Various warbirds participated in the flying programme over the duration of the weekend. These included the Messerschmitt 208, also known as the Nord Noralpha 1101 (the French-built, re-engined version of the original Me.208), a pair of T-6 Harvards, a T-28 Trojan, a rare Morane-Saulnier M.S.406 and equally unusual Fiesler Storch. The most notable of the group being the pair of T-6 Harvards, with the display showing how manoeuvrable and dynamic the aircraft are. The pair, who formerly flew with the Belgium Air Force as H50 and H210 are now civil owned and registered (OO-DAF And N4109C respectively). The aircraft which were regularly used during WW2 and into the mid 1950’s are single engined advanced trainers used by many air forces. The Harvards proved their popularity, with many amongst the large crowds of people standing to watch the display (proving in the process that fast jets and noise are not the only draw to an airshow).
With a rich flying component of warbirds, the static display was somewhat scarce of historical aircraft - with only an MS.733, Stearman and T-28 on show. These aircraft added a balance to the static, with the majority being modern military aircraft. Some thought on the organisers part was shown by the separation in the static line - with the Morane-Saulnier MS.733, Stearman and an Auster situated around the back close to an area that sought to take visitors back in time to World War II.
Being a primarily military airshow, Florennes had little to offer in terms of civil and general aviation participation. The static display had various microlight aircraft, and a couple of Cessnas, both from Belgium. The most notable of the civilian static was a Yak-52 from Latvia in a dark green and orange colour scheme. Additional items included a Belgian Cub and a French DA-42 Twinstar.
The only purely civil aircraft in the flying display were the Victors Formation Team, with the majority of other civilian aircraft on display formerly operated by various Air Arms. The five ship display team impressed many people with their Piper PA-28s. A very unusual sight for any British visitors as they never perform their impressive and measured routine in the UK.
‘What is an airshow without fast jets?’ were the words of the Air Show organisers on their website in the run-up to Florennes, and they certainly followed this up with a varied and exciting range aircraft both in the air and on the ground. The air show commenced from a fast jet perspective with the Belgian Air Component's very own Solo F-16 Display - from 2 wing locally based at Florennes. By now, the crowd were more than ready for some noise, after an impressive but quiet morning filled with warbirds and propellers. A not uncommon display within the UK, Renaud 'GRAT' Thys was flying the F-16 for his first season - having previously been the manager of the display team. The display itself has become well recognised all over Europe for its well rehearsed routine and unique colour scheme, which has been updated this year since the team’s relocation from Kleine Brogel to Florennes. A varying display which included flares, a somewhat rarer sight back home in the UK, giving plenty of photographic opportunities for the crowds who packed in close to the crowd line.
Other participating countries such as Greece, Turkey and the Netherlands also had their own F-16s flying solo displays, and with the competitive nature of fighter pilots, the day ahead was a very exciting prospect for the expectant crowd. The majority of people had high hopes for the Belgium Solo display but were left amazed at how impressive Major Murat Keles was, flying his routine as SOLO TURK. The display showed off the incredibly impressive Black Gold and Silver colour scheme, as was unveiled in the previous display season. The display consisted of tight turns, loops, high speed passes, and inverted climbing pulling both positive and negative G forces. In the second year of his F-16 display career, Major Keles' display has already won many admirers (including those at RIAT 2011), and there were many more to add to the long list after another inspiring show at Florennes. The display also included flares, and a landing off a loop to complete its show, with the parachute being deployed on the landing roll.
As well as the Turkish and Belgian examples, the Royal Netherlands Air Force were also in attendance with their F-16 from Volkel Airbase. Resplendant in it's 'Orange Lion' scheme, the 2012 display was no exception for quality, with a very dynamic take off on full afterburner before a heavy right bank and once again, a varied use of flares. While the display was impressive, it was slightly overshadowed by the 2 displays - although this is ot to say it was not a superb display in it's own right, flown by Stefan 'Stitch' Hutten in his first year of a two year stint with the KLu demo team.
The last but certainly not least F-16 to display was ‘Zeus’, the Hellenic Air Force solo display. The only display at the show to use the Block 52 variant of the F-16, the Greek demonstration certainly stood out from the rest as the display received wide spread commendation for being somewhat unique - not to mention rare on the display circuit. The airshow organisers reflected this by placing ‘Zeus’ as the last fast jet in the flying display at 7.30pm, likely in the hope of persuading the visitors to stay until the end (although unfortunately the author had to leave beforehand!). All four of the displays offered differing colour schemes, dramatic flares and high-g manoeuvres, and all helped to contribute to what is likely to be one of the best fast jet line-ups in a European air show this year.
It was not just a Falcon-fest at Florennes, with the flying programme also included fast jet displays from a Slovakian MiG-29, Swiss Hornet and a pair of Polish Su-22 Fitters. Whilst the Swiss Hornet is a relatively common sight across Europe (as is the Slovakian MiG-29, to a much lesser extent), there was no doubting that they both offered a very powerful display, and gave a good chance to see Western technology in contrast to Eastern. The general consensus seemed to be that the Hornet display was the best solo fighter in the display, with its routine consisting of differing moves, notably including a square loop.
The MiG-29 also received a lot of praise, due to the almost constant use of afterburners during its display as well as the amount of smoke given out by its two Klimov RD-33 engines. From an enthusiast's point of view, as the MiG-29 is Russian, the display would always be popular regardless of how good it might be!
Continuing the Russian theme, but with a considerably rarer sight, the Polish Air Force Sukhoi Su-22 Fitters were a very special sight - even more so as they are soon to be retired and taken out of service. An added bonus was the special scheme that one of the aircraft in the display was wearing - allowing the spectators to capture not only a standard service machine but a special one too. Whilst not the most dynamic display, it was certainly a very noisy and powerful one by the Su-22, which was probably the most popular aircraft among the enthusiasts in the crowd.
As well as the F-16 solo display, the Belgian Air Force were of course very well represented at their main show of 2012. In the flying display alone, the admiring crowd (the majority of whom were predictably Belgian) managed to see a glimpse of the vast majority of the aircraft involved in modern day Belgian Air Force operations. The first example was the Agusta A-109BA. The Belgian A109 display shows well the wide capabilities of the type, with the display including limited aerobatics (the A109 is not classed as an aerobatic helicopter), high speed passes and flares - certainly a sight to behold! Another Helicopter from the Belgian inventory that was displayed was the Belgian Air Component Sea King, based at Koksijde. This also put on a great display, showing the crowd many of its day to day activities and included an example of the helicopter winching -showing the SAR (search and rescue) capabilities that the aircraft has. Six alpha jets performed multiple flypasts, including a very colourful smoke pass, painting the Belgian flag, which certainly seemed to create a very patriotic spirit within the crowd.
Outside of the flying display, the Belgian Air Component presented most of these assets again, with a large array of aircraft on display in the static park. Notably there was one C-130 Hercules, based at Melsbroek Air Base in Brussels. One of 13 in Belgian service, the C-130 operates in the long range transport role. Both the Falcon 20 and Embraer ERJ-135 wer present, operated by the Belgians as VIP transport aircraft. There are only 2 Falcon 20s and 4 ERJ-135/145s in Belgian service. The Belgian Police had an example of their MD.900 on show. A former Belgian Navy Alouette III and Belgian Air Force Magister were also to be seen on the static, bringing some history to a very modern presentation.
Other aircraft of note that displayed in the flying programme of were the various display teams. These included the Belgian Red Devils, the Swiss PC-7 team, the French Cartouche Dore, the Baltic Bees, the Patrouille de France and the Croatian PC-9 Wings of Storm team. Whilst most this lineup may seem to provide very similar displays, this was not the case as each team has different aspects to their routine. All displays were lengthy and kept the crowd entertained for a substantial period of time. The Belgian Red Devils flying the SF-260 Marchetti as expected kept most of the crowd keen, being the home team. A rare sight within the UK bar an appearance at RIAT 2011, the four aircraft are painted red as opposed to the usual yellow SF-260s, and put on a very tight routine, and should be commended on a valiant effort, considering the lack of power and noise compared to some of the other aircraft in the flying display.
The static line also had many aircraft of foreign descent situated on display around the airfield. Support aircraft such as the Polish and Czech CASA.295’s, and very rare Croatian Antonov An-32 were on show. The main static line parallel to the runway held a NATO E-3, French Xingu, and Dutch KDC-10. The static had only one foreign helicopter on show, and this was the very impressive German Army Bolkow Bo-105. On the old TLP ramp were many fast jets, including F-16’s from different Air Forces, such as the Danish and Norwegians as well as examples from the home team. Happily for the photographers, many of these aircraft were in tiger scheme markings. Two Norwegian and one Belgian F-16 together with a single Czech SAAB Gripen made up the Tiger contingent of the show. The other notable fast jet on static was the Panavia Tornado from the German Air Force. A singleton Dutch PC-7, Swiss Pilatus P.3, and Austrian PC-7 were also on display, with the Austrian example resplendent in a special snake scheme.
Overall the airshow was very impressive for aviation enthusiasts and the general public alike. The weather was considerably good over the duration of the Saturday show, certainly contradicting many forecasts in the lead up of the show. However Sunday was an unfortunately different affair with a large percentage of flying cancelled.
As a result of a wide range of flying displays which included noise, speed, and power as well as the slow and quiet turbo propelled display teams, Florennes probably ranks as one of the better air displays of the 2012 season. The incredible variety and quality of the display - both on the ground and in the air, made this a superb show, and easily overshadowed the slight negative factors that any event such as this will always have. Overall a thoroughly enjoyable day out, and congratulations to the organisers for pulling it off despite some poor weather attempting to do its worst!