After a year of absence in 2015, the annual Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) Luchtmachtdagen returned this year to Vliegerbasis Leeuwarden, in the North of the Netherlands. Whilst the theme of the show was once again Operatie Luchtsteun (which literally translates to Operation Air Support) it was clear that for this year at least the show had a rather particular aim. Love it or hate it, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II will be here to stay and for 2016, the Koninklijke Luchtmacht’s task was to ensure that the Dutch public loves this new aircraft. With a display centerpiece built around the presence of the first two RNLAF F-35As, this was either going to be a PR flop or triumph.
Staged as usual over two days (Friday June 10 and Saturday 11), the Luchtmachtdagen – literally translated as Air Force Days – are the main recruiting tool for not only the Royal Netherlands Air Force, but all branches of the Dutch Armed Forces. Whilst the same could probably be said of the Royal Air Force airshows back in the UK (RAF Cosford, and until recently RAF Waddington and RAF Leuchars), it’s refreshing to see this kind of show stick firmly to brand. If people want to attend to see the military – show them the military. The Luchtmachtdagen don’t waste time and money on what could be argued as unrelated entertainment such as funfairs, but use the resources available to the forces to allow them to put on some really quite impressive entertainment. From climbing walls and UAV flying challenges, to a superb full cockpit F-35 simulator, everything was designed to not only foster an interest in defence, but to do it in a way that is both educational and entertaining. Whilst we in the UK are certainly able to do this in small doses, to see an entire show 100% committed to this message was most impressive.
However impressive all of the various recruiting tools and other ground exhibits are, the real reason for attending the Luchtmachtdagen is, and always will be, the varied flying displays – after all, it’s an airshow! Frequently the Luchtmachtdagen shows have more displays in practice than pre-event advertising (predominantly via their website, over at http://www.defensiedagen.nl/luchtmachtdagen-2016) would suggest. This does raise hopes when attending, as there is an excitement over what surprise items may in fact be included in the lineup. The downside to this though is that when attendees do conform to the list, it could be seen as a let-down. The 2016 show ran effectively as advertised, with the only real surprise item being an F-16D from the Polish Air Force in the static display (perhaps replacing an initially advertised but later cancelled MiG-29A Fulcrum from the central European country).
Of the attendance list, there was only ever going to be one highlight – although technically that should be two highlights. The presence and participation of the first two Lockheed Martin F-35A Lighting IIs for the country had been known since the start of the year, but it was only in the week or two leading up to the event was their inclusion within the Air Power Demonstration was revealed.
The two F-35As, F-001 and F-002 of the 323rd Test and Evaluation Squadron, had arrived at the base on May 23 at the behest of the Minister for Defence, Jeannine Hennis-Plasschaert, as a response in part to concerns from residents over the noise levels of the F-35A compared to that of the F-16 Fighting Falcons that they will directly replace. Outcomes of the first noise tests – which included multiple sorties with afterburner takeoffs – showed that in general the perceived noise levels of the F-35A were indicated as being quite similar to the F-16 (although full results of the test are not available at the time of writing). As well as the serious business of testing the aircraft, the deployment – which marked the first time an F-35 was in the Netherlands – was also a fantastic opportunity for some badly needed public relations exercises. It’s no secret that the F-35 family is one of the most lambasted of all modern military designs, and whilst many of the problems frequently highlighted by the press are probably true of many combat designs, the net-centric design of the F-35 has made it much more susceptible to developmental issues.
After a nation-wide tour on June 7 by F-001, the participation in the Luchtmachtdagen was the centerpiece of the deployment. It’s probably quite cynical (but fair) to say that had this airshow participation been by US, RAF or Lockheed Martin personnel it may have been more sterile and controlled. Certainly, inclusion of jets on the static display would have been doubtful (although the forthcoming Royal International Air Tattoo may hopefully prove otherwise).
The F-35 marketing task was not just limited to the presence of the F-35s themselves. Every piece of merchandise available at Leeuwarden was in some way linked to the F-35 – right down to the plastic ‘munten’ tokens used to purchase food and drink at the show. The push to sell the aircraft to the Dutch public was obvious, and also very impressive.
Of course, all of this effort would be undone if the promised flying display was mundane – and happily it was anything but. Rather than flying the aircraft on their own, they were included in part of the traditional Air Power Demo, which sees various assets from the Koninklijke Luchtmacht take to the skies to simulate an air operation against a hostile position.
As well as the two F-35As, the 2016 event included ten F-16s, two AH-64D Apaches, two CH-47s (one each of the ‘D’ and newer ‘F’ variants), one C-130H and a single KDC-10 – although the latter was only involved as a flypast at the end.
It’s at this point that the value of speaking Dutch would benefit this review, as the extensive commentary was (rightly so) all in the native language. However, the overall procedure of events was reasonably self-explanatory. After all of the assets had departed (streamed departures of both F-35s and all of the F-16s leaving many ears ringing (from that distance, the F-35 and F-16 is equally deafening), the F-16s and F-35s returned for various Combat Air Patrol and ground attack roles.
As would be expected, the F-16s were in their element being thrown around with some vigor, complemented by pyrotechnics for both strafing and bombing runs. For those who enjoy seeing aircraft firing flare countermeasures, this was the display for you – flares from most aircraft on almost every pass. Interestingly, the F-35s fired a small (very small – 1 or 2 per pass from the lead aircraft) number of flares on the Friday show but did not repeat this performance on the Saturday.
The Saturday display however will be the talking point in the F-35s PR mission however, which comes down to a single pass and the poor weather on the day. As their final involvement in the airfield assault, both F-35s conducted a high-speed show of force pass, and the low cloud base and high humidity saw a huge amount of vapour clinging to the aircraft as they passed the crowd. Some great shock cones really added to the spectacle, and it would be difficult to displease even the most skeptical viewer.
The F-35s played but a small part in the Air Power Demonstration, with the majority of the assault conducted by the F-16s. The Demo was very similar to the RAF Role Demonstration of recent years – once the airfield had been suitably pacified by F-16s, the ground package was able to deploy via the pair of Chinooks with support from the Apaches. The ground troops fought their way through a mocked up compound (made mainly from shipping containers!) against a small numbered enemy force. The blank weapons fire really added to the realism of the demonstration – although the Chinook dropping its underslung jeep on its side did slightly hamper the proceedings on the Saturday!
After capturing a high value target attempting to flee in a jeep (coming head to head with an Apache does tend to dampen one’s day!), the C-130 landed and collected the vehicles, before the Chinooks dropped into to take the remaining ground forces away. Aside from the overturned jeep incident, this was an extremely impressive capability demonstration – and well received by the crowd! With a shorter crowd line than RIAT, but probably a similar number of spectators, the crowd line surged to around 30-40 deep near the front during demonstration – a powerful reminder of what all those people were there to see.
The Demonstration ended with flybys of the participants – the most impressive of which was a sole F-35 at the head of a formation of nine F-16s. Although the F-35 is of a very similar size to the F-16, this formation showed the bulk of its design compared to the much sleeker Fighting Falcon.
It should be mentioned that ground assault phase of the demonstration was not carried out on the Friday and instead, once the Chinooks landed, a number of senior defence staff members and VIPs disembarked as a change of command of the Koninklijke Luchtmacht took place. Lieutenant General Dennis Luyt, a former Commander of the Leeuwarden Base, took over from Lieutenant General Alexander Schnitger in a ceremony that took around 30 mins and completed with the same flypast as took place on the Sunday.
This would be the only participation by the RNLAF F-16 fleet in the flying display, as similarly to 2015 the F-16 Demo Team is once again not on the Dutch airshow lineup. However, the Apache makes a welcome return this year and displayed each day after the completion of the Air Power Demo albeit using a different aircraft, which departed from near the crowd line. With the commentary in Dutch, the phrase “mit flares” was a consistently useful planning tool for catching those photos of the Apache firing its countermeasures – which was certainly not a conservative routine in that respect.
The other displays at Leeuwarden came as part of a strong international participation – with two helicopters, four fast jets and six national display teams scheduled to take part in the flying. Unfortunately, one of those displays was sadly removed from the lineup after suffering a mid-air collision on the Thursday practice day. The Patrouille Suisse, comprised of six F-5E Tiger IIs, were completing their scheduled practice when J-3086 and J-3088 collided. J-3088 managed to land with a badly damaged starboard horizontal stabiliser, whilst J-3086 crashed. Happily, the pilot – Commander Aldo Schellenburg – was able to eject and landed with minor injuries.
Although the Swiss were unable to display their F-5s, a type that is becoming increasingly rarer in European skies, the Turkish Stars were on hand to demonstrate their NF-5 Freedom Fighters. Whilst over 200 F-5 and NF-5s were originally purchased, the Turkish Stars are now the sole operator of the type within the Turkish military. Interestingly, the team use a mix of single seat NF-5A and twin seat NF-5B aircraft, although each of the ‘B’ variants has only a single occupant for the display. Perhaps the most interesting pass of the display is a curving topside from a single NF-5, with the pilot visibly waving to the crowd. Whilst commentators usually encourage the crowd to wave because “the pilots can see you”, it was wonderful to see the reciprocation of this gesture from the team.
Completing the display team line up were the Red Arrows (Friday only, as Saturday saw them committed to the flypast over Buckingham Palace for Her Majesty The Queen’s 90th Birthday), The Patrouille de France, the Frecce Tricolouri and the Belgian Red Devils. There’s not much to say about these teams that we have not previously said, as all displayed to their usual high standards. The Patrouille de France, closing the show on Saturday, arrived earlier during the event and were supported by a rarely seen French Air Force C-130H – normally a role utilized by one of the air arms aging Transall C-160s.
Drawing the crowds to the front were – aside from the Air Power Demonstration – the foreign fast jets (because everyone loves the sound of freedom!). The lineup for 2016 included the commonly seen Belgian Air Force F-16 and the Czech Air Force JAS-39C Gripen, as well as the Slovakian Air Force MiG-29A Fulcrum and Spanish Air Force EF2000 Typhoon. Although the former pair are regular visitors to the major UK shows, the latter have not been seen in the flying display for some years (indeed, it’s been a decade since the Spanish last sent the Typhoon to Fairford for the flying display). In keeping with what seemed to be a Leeuwarden theme, the F-16, Gripen and Fulcrum all used flares during their displays. It was especially interesting to see the comparison between the large NATO standard flares used by the F-16 and Gripen, and the smaller (but more numerous) Russian design used in the Fulcrum – which deployed a full complement during a single pull up following a touch and go.
As with any military show, the modern acts were combined with the historic. Leeuwarden saw participation from the Historic Flight’s B-25 Mitchell and Spitfire, the latter conducting a formation display with one of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Spitfires. Kicking off the flying on the Saturday of the show (the team were also slated to appear on Friday, but did not fly for reasons unknown) were the Fokker Four display team from nearby Lelystad Airport. Flying a four ship of indigenous Fokker 4 trainer aircraft, this team would probably be lost on a display line longer than Leeuwarden’s.
The Blackshape Prime pair – from Air Combat Europe – were highly anticipated because of the beautiful design of the aircraft, invoking the look of a shark with sleek curves. However, as with the Fokker 4s, these would probably be better suited to a smaller venue. This being said, had there not been fast jet display teams at Leeuwarden to compare them against (the limit of the Prime is only plus 4g), they would have appeared to be a much more dynamic offering. An additional example of the type was present in the static display next to a pair of Yak-52s – a more stark contrast in the development of training aircraft could not have been made!
The static display at Leeuwarden was well laid out, with the majority of fighters lined up against a reasonably pleasant background of trees. Highlights included a second example of a Slovakian MiG-29, two Italian Air Force M346 Masters, a Polish Air Force F-16D plus more RNLAF F-16s than you could shake a stick at! Additional hangar displays showed off more F-16s, including ground instructional airframes. Further displays (notably an example each of a Dutch and Belgian NH90) were mixed in amongst the Hardened Aircraft Shelters, although these predominantly were in support of promotional and recruitment activities and not displayed with photography in mind.
Photography at Leeuwarden however was not the easiest task – the shortened crowd line (and what felt like a centerline set very near to the leftmost edge of the crowd) meant that it was difficult to find a space at the front unless you were prepared to be first in the queue to get in. The sunlight degrades during the day, swapping round to being backlit by around 2-3pm. However, this wasn’t really an issue for either day, as low level clag and rain kept the clouds in place for the vast majority of the displays – although typically this cleared up to sunshine each evening. Display distances are probably similar to RIAT, with a 400mm or larger lens needed for the fast jets.
Even if there were any complaints to be made about the show, these would be moot points when you consider that the show is completely free – no payments need to be made, other than for food and drink. As mentioned earlier, the Luchtmachtdagen use a novel method for refreshments, with cash being exchanged for ‘munten’ tokens at central booths, which can then be exchanged for food at any location within the showground. With each munten costing 2 Euros, food was reasonably good value – with drinks costing one munt and burgers/hotdogs two munt. Perhaps UK shows could learn a lesson here!
Overall, Luchtmachtdagen 2016 was a superb event – and despite the poor weather and unfortunate crash from the Swiss, it will be remembered for the debut of the F-35A at a European airshow. Although it’s unlikely that the displays from the F-35 at RIAT and Farnborough this coming July will be quite as dynamic, it does give hope that the Lightning II display will evolve into something akin to most modern fast jets. Certainly everyone at Leeuwarden seemed very impressed with the type, and in that respect, the Koninklijke Luchtmacht acheived their task.