Continuing a long-standing tradition, the Belgian Air Force has again provided an F-16 solo fast jet display team to perform on the European airshow circuit for another season. Once every three years, an experienced F-16 pilot is selected to represent the Air Force both at home and internationally. From 2018, Sr. Capt Stefan ‘Vador’ Darte will display a specially painted F-16 MLU aircraft, nicknamed Dark Falcon, at events all over Europe – including numerous shows in the UK. Graham Platt provides a guest report for AeroResource.
Immediately after being appointed as the solo display pilot in late 2017, ‘Vador’ began to focus on preparations for the upcoming season. In addition to creating a dynamic display routine that best shows off the aircraft’s capabilities, the man himself also wanted a paint scheme on the primary display jet that would stand out and reflect the legendary fighter’s name: the Fighting Falcon. With the type’s 40th anniversary fast approaching, a small team of designers created a scheme that would be both unusual and give the aircraft a look far more dynamic than it already has.
The initial design incorporated a black radome, something that had never been done on the Belgian Air Force F-16 fleet before. Hopes of the scheme being approved were slim, but when a spare radome needing repaint was found, the team got lucky. The design was approved, and painting began in earnest. The design chosen uses only black, white and shades of grey for striking simplicity, but the tips of the horizontal tails offset this somewhat. In a bid to underline the international partnerships of the Belgian Air Force, the design team hit on a unique concept: in every country that the aircraft is to perform in, the aircraft will fly with a slightly ‘different’ scheme. The starboard horizontal tail will always carry a stylised Belgian flag, but the port one will sport the flag of the host nation. Visitors to the recent RAF Cosford Airshow will have seen the Union Jack proudly displayed on the port fixture and a similar example will be seen over the show at the Royal International Air Tattoo – in total, nine different flags are due to be carried throughout the season. The extremely photogenic design took around seven weeks to complete in the paint shop. The first week was spent stripping the aircraft’s existing paint off, followed by priming the bare aircraft and then the lengthy process of masking the aircraft up to apply the final design. The large falcon design on each side of the tail required six large custom-cut masks alone to deliver the effect envisaged in the design images. The aircraft was rolled out to a small group of VIPs and invited guests at Florennes AB on April 23, with the first flight following two days later for a number of air-to-air sessions.
Training for the new display started several months ago, initially at 3,000 feet, then stepping down to 1,500 feet, then to 500 feet. The routines last between 9-10 minutes from take-off to landing and highlights the extremes of the aircraft’s handling and manoeuvrability envelopes – from slow-speed, high-Alpha passes to intense 9g turns – whilst keeping spectators and photographers alike entertained and more importantly engaged. For the 2018 season, the aircraft is scheduled to display at 15 airshows across nine countries. Three of these shows are in the UK – having displayed at RAF Cosford on June 10, RNAS Yeovilton is to follow on July 7 and then onto the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford across July 13-15 – the latter two being shows at which the team look very much forward to seeing you.
In addition to generating interest at the displays, the team will also be running competitions to focus the public’s interest in the aircraft – these ‘comps’ will have some unique and very desirable prizes. It’s the first time that the Belgian Air Force have tried this kind of coordinated publicity generation for a display team, and so far it’s delivering a lot of public interest and anticipation for the display. The feedback from the public for the routine’s public debut at RAF Cosford Airshow has been overwhelmingly positive. In addition to the usual merchandise (T-shirts, hats, patches, etc.) a glossy newsletter magazine will be available to give more information about the aircraft, pilot and supporting team. This effort is also backed up by a very slick website – www.f16darkfalcon.com – that will be updated regularly with news, photos and features throughout the display year. In an unusual move for a display team, any profit generated from the season will be donated to a children’s hospital in Namur, near the team’s home base of Florennes.
Sr. Capt. Stefan Darte is a fighter weapons instructor or FWI with 1 Squadron based at Florennes Air Base. He has some 20 years experience as an F-16 pilot and has amassed almost 3,000 hours on the type both at home and on operations. This experience has allowed him to put together dynamic display routines that fully demonstrate the aircraft’s capabilities.
Q&A with Vador
– What inspired you to become a pilot?
“I grew up close to a small airfield and as far as I can remember I was looking up at the aircraft. When I was 16, I joined the Belgian Air Cadets and started to fly in gliders. At this stage, it was clear that flying was what I wanted to do. With the cadets, I met fighter pilots who were interacting with us and it consolidated my dream of becoming one of them.
I was around ten years old when Top Gun came out, and this film maybe has something to do with my aspirations!”
– What were the biggest challenges you faced between joining the Air Force and where you are now?
“Fighter pilot life is full of challenges! It started during the selection for the pilot school the first time I applied – I was not selected! I was number seven but they only took six student pilots. My English was my weakest point so I decided to go to the UK and work as a waiter in a restaurant in Bournemouth!
When back in Belgium I applied again and was selected as a student pilot. During the flying training, I started to feel sick on the Alpha Jet. I went to see a flying surgeon and after some analysis and testing, I was diagnosed suffering from motion sickness… that did not sound good for somebody dreaming about fast jets! I had to follow a special training programme, close to the one for astronauts and after three weeks I was back flying. I feel much better now in the cockpit but if I do not fly for a while I feel a bit dizzy the first flight.
During my 15 years in the Squadron, I have faced all kinds of challenges: new courses for new qualifications, challenging flights, very long missions but overall with all those challenges come the same amount of satisfaction.”
– What have been the highlights of your career so far?
“Maintaining the top spot in a top Squadron for so long! It requires a lot of energy and a constant effort to continually be better day after day.
In 2006, I joined the European Fighter Weapon school (FWIT. This is a six month course abroad that trains weapons instructors for the EPAF ( European participation Air Forces). On the course we get to be instructed by the best pilots from Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium and Portugal. It’s a very intense course but at the end you have all the tools to be able to instruct pilots from all levels in your squadron and you receive the chance to come back in following years as an instructor for the school.
Now I can pass on all of my experience while instructing young pilots in the squadron or new pilots flying for the first time in an F-16!”
– What was the selection process to become the solo display pilot?
“You have to be Flight Leader with more than 750-hours on [the] F-16. If you meet those criteria, you can apply and [present] your project in front of a selection board. At the end, the Chief of the Air Force calls the ball.”
– What do you want the impact of your display routine to be, what are you promoting with the display?
“I’d like to keep the attention of the people attending the airshow while I’m presenting the show. I hope that they will like the aircraft paint scheme and thanks to our communication, I hope they will feel close to the F-16 Display team.
I’m really looking forward to meet young, enthusiastic people that would like to achieve their dreams of flying such beautiful aircraft. I hope that I can inspire them to follow the path I took.
I hope [also] that people will see the energy and professionalism my whole team is putting together to present the display and that will show the Belgian Air Force in a positive light.”
– What inspired you to put the routine together the way you have?
“I have believed for a long time that the F-16 is the most beautiful while flying at High Angle-of-Attack and not too fast. The aircraft is relatively small it needs to stay close to the public.
I talked a lot with some of my predecessors and designed my own good weather show, but the ‘flat’ routine will be the same as last year’s as there isn’t much more we can safely do with the jet in those conditions.”
– Can you describe the routine for me please?
“I will stay as close as possible to the public while manoeuvring the F-16 in the three- dimensions. I really like to use the vertical and make loaded rolling manoeuvres in order to create those beautiful vortices you can see on the F-16. This, combined with the smokes and flares will, I hope, present a nice display that will entertain the public for the nine-minutes of the show.”
– How did you develop the routine into its final form from your initial ideas?
“It all started in the Flight Sim in order to check the rhythm and all the sequences, then I proposed the routine to the Safety Board. From that point, I did not change it. I started the flying training at 5,000 feet, then descended to 3,000 feet, 1,500 feet, and finally to 500 feet.”
– What are you most looking forward to for this season?
“I’m looking forward for the entire season to be honest! Meeting enthusiastic people all around Europe and assisting at all those very nice airshows! RIAT will be one of the highlights, as shows above the sea will be too.”
– What do you see as your biggest challenges for the three years as solo display pilot?
“I will have to present a new show every year and keep on surprising the public with new publicity photos and new events that I will organize in Belgium in addition to the European air shows. The airshow season starts in May and ends in October, finding the good balance with my family, Display Pilot engagement and my day-to-day business as an air warfare pilot will be a challenge but I‘m sure everything will go fine!”