Royal Danish Air Force F-16 Display Interview
Sunday 10th June & Saturday 7th July 2018
Denmark was one of the original European Participating Air Forces that were the first international customers for the now utterly ubiquitous F-16 Fighting Falcon, better known as the Viper. First delivery from the production line in Belgium was taken in 1980 and nearly forty years on the jet is still going strong for the Royal Danish Air Force. The RDAF, as with most other air forces, has a fast jet display and though less seen in the UK over the years they have attended Yeovilton International Air Day in 2017 and 2018 and is frequently rated among the strongest European jet demos.
spoke to RDAF 727 Squadron pilots Kaptajn Michael "GIM" Kragh at the Danish Air Show, Aalborg and Kaptajn Troels "TEO" Dehli at Yeovilton International Air Day about displaying for the Royal Danish Air Force. Photography by the UKAR Staff team.
Unlike air forces such as the RAF or the Armée de l'Air, the RDAF does not have one single, dedicated display pilot assigned to perform at air shows throughout the year - in fact, it has three, which might seem like a pretty high figure considering they're only looking at six or seven displays in 2018. They are not "full-time" display pilots and their performance duties are alongside their every-day squadron roles so having three pilots lessens the load on the operational side as far as the squadrons are concerned. In a year with a home air show (the Danish Air Show is biannual), everyone is going to want to be the display pilot for that show, and this year the honour fell to GIM.
"It's actually my first display. We have three display pilots and the question was 'who's gonna take the Danish one?'. We all wanted to do that one, being in front of your home crowd, you know people down there and you feel like you want to make it a special show." Not a bad start to a display career, but it's all just alongside the normal, everyday operations of a fighter pilot - Kaptajn Kragh is the Flight Safety Ops officer for 727sqn when he's not displaying. Even the jets themselves, this year adorned with quite striking Danish flag designs on the tails, are "part-time" display aircraft - they're assigned from the normal squadron ops, but not isolated from it at all.
Coming up to the displays, the pilots get the display jets available from the daily training schedule (weather depending), and practise quite a lot in the couple of months towards the display dates. All three pilots perform the display routine "otherwise we might start competing!" For GIM, the fact that the Danish Air Show is only every two years adds something special to the event: "I think it makes the occasion more important, actually. Also, it swaps from one base to another, so if you can't get people to come to one then they might be able to make it to another, especially as Aalborg is near a large city. For the UK, it's my impression that you have the historical background from the Second World War especially which makes it a bit of a different culture when you go to an airshow compared with Denmark. So I think it's a little bit more special to do it here, you have to be a bit more enthusiastic to arrange it here."
For the future, Kaptajn Kragh hopes to display for a few years yet - it's up to the pilots how long they display for, be it one year or ten years. "I haven't displayed abroad [at time of interview], but I'm definitely looking forward to it because you're coming with something you're actually proud of. You want to do a good job and it's also a nice community you're part of with the other display pilots - we all really respect each other and the jobs we're doing. You know everyone else has worked really hard for it, and with only a few people doing it, it's pretty unique. With a Danish crowd, it's pretty special, but being able to present something saying "Hey, here comes Denmark", you want to do that abroad."
The pilot who got to tell us Denmark was here in the UK was Kaptajn "TEO" Dehli, who displayed at Yeovilton International Air Day for the second year in a row (2017 was actually Kaptajn Dehli's first time displaying abroad). Before last year's show it was 2012 that the RDAF solo display last came to the UK but following a five-year gap they chose to return two years on the trot. TEO explained why: "Royal Danish Air Force Command decides which airshows the RDAF will participate in. I was here last year and we received a fine letter from the Royal Navy saying they liked us being here and would like to see us again. I sent that to the Chief of the Air Force and he said 'Of course we'll be coming here next year!' There's a connection now, but before last year there was no special connection with the show - it's random where we attend." The RDAF and Denmark have a close connection with the UK, and 727sqn used to have exchange pilots with the RAF in the past too.
When they travel abroad display pilots are ambassadors of sorts for their nation - their professionalism and skill in the air is a demonstration of their country's military prowess. As such, the pilots are aware that they are representing Denmark abroad: "I think it's quite an honour, and there's some responsibility in that as well. You have to represent the Danish spirit - people know Danes as being outgoing and friendly and we try to show that as much as possible. So we talk to people and get the kids in the jet and take pictures with the crowd, and have a smile and a beer after flying!" At both Yeovilton and RIAT the Danish contingent were always ready to meet people and show off what they were about, so they take this responsibility seriously and as far as the display was concerned it left a very positive impression on those watching.
That display flying isn't easy, especially with a supersonic jet, and for this reason the requirements for those applying for the position are fairly stringent. Potential RDAF display pilots must have 1200 hours on the type, and most of the pilots are also four-ship flight leads and instructors, but TEO insists that the most important quality is that they have to enjoy what they do and want to put the time in. A lot of that time is preparation. "This year we built a brand new display so, of course, we started in the simulator just trying the different routines and seeing how the fit together because it's easy to take one thing and think, 'That looks really cool, let's put that in the display!' but you have to think about the entire routine and about how it all works together. In fact, we even added a few more things because we found out we had more fuel at the end than we were expecting. There's no point landing with a thousand extra pounds of fuel feeling like you could've done more cool stuff."
"Fortunately the rules across Europe are almost all the same so we don't need to change too much for displaying at different places. Sometimes the speed limits are different... but then again, who's checking? The speed limit here in the UK is 600kts, 0.9M, and of course we abide by that, but back home we can go to the limit."
Dehli is more than aware that there are quite a few different F-16 displays, and he gave particular praise to the Belgian F-16 display pilot "Vador" and their menacingly-schemed jet. But as a result there's added pressure to do something different and stand out from the other routines when developing the display: "The F-16 is a great jet to display with. You try to build a routine that stands out a little bit. We changed the display from last year because we had an element of going very high - which if you're a pilot or aircraft enthusiast that's very cool but for the general public, they don't really understand that it's cool that you can go from 100ft to 27,000ft in forty seconds, make a contrail and come back. For them, you're just away from the audience for 2 or 3 minutes and they think your display is already over, so we took it out. Personally, I prefer lots of angle-of-attack manoeuvres, barrel rolls and tight turns." In fact, the pilots really take on board what the public (and even other display pilots) pick out and praise in the display, which tends to drive the routine they develop.
Naturally he'd love to spruce up the display jet itself: "We'd definitely like to use smokewinders, if we could get them, but we don't have them and of course it's a money issue. We've also only got a special tail - I'd love a fully painted jet, but if you paint up a whole aircraft you have to take it out of use, you can't send a painted jet to war. But the film we use on our tail, you can peel that right off and put it straight in operational service. I like this design though!"
Denmark's F-16s are getting long in the tooth now, unsurprising as one of the original operators of the type. Though they're still capable, still operational and fighting in Afghanistan and the Middle East, they're obviously getting on a bit. Looking to the future, the RDAF has selected the F-35 Lightning II to replace the Fighting Falcon, and is one of the original partner nations for the Joint Strike Fighter much like it was with the F-16 originally. Denmark hasn't taken any deliveries yet - the first should be arriving in 2021, at which point the transition process from the F-16 will begin with the out-of-service date due 2024.
"Starting in 2021 we'll start sending people to the US to train on the F-35, and the F-16s will be gone by 2024 - maybe 25. By then they'll be really old, but they're still very capable and it's still a frontline jet, and with all the avionics, targeting pods and gizmos it's still up there with the best of them, especially for the kind of war we have now where we fly around with air dominance and bomb stuff."
Preparations have already begun for the F-35 though: "We're trying to get as many pilots trained on the F-16 as we can. The requirements for the short conversion course for the F-35 is 500 hours on the F-16 and they must be flight leads so we're getting as many pilots ready for that so they can transfer as easy as possible. Most of our time now is creating pilots. Nothing is perfect, of course, but so far it's going decently. Of course we'll have an F-35 display - you're looking at him! No, but why not - it's not as pretty as the F-16 but with the flight controls I think it'll be able to do some pretty good stuff. It's loud and it's got a lot of alpha!"
But that's a few years away yet, and in the present Denmark is still flying its F-16s very happily and putting them to good use, including entertaining and inspiring airshow crowds at home and abroad. Asked if the pilots enjoyed their time at Yeovilton International Air Day and if they'd be looking to return in the future, TEO simply said, "Obviously. If they'll let us!"
UKAR would like to thank the Danish Air Show press staff for their help in arranging the meeting with GIM at Aalborg.