Koksijde International Airshow Report

Wednesday 6th July - Thursday 7th July 2011

The Belgian Air Component took a couple of bold steps in the organization of their annual two day international air show this year. Firstly, they held the event over consecutive weekdays - Wednesday 6th and Thursday 7th July. This may seem a little odd but it made perfect sense for a number of reasons. Koksijde clashes every year with the RAF Waddington display and bi-annually with the huge Zeltweg Austrian event and though the Belgian show easily trounces the RAF show for participation, the all consuming vortex that is Airpower seemingly sucks up all the juicy display acts. By going to the week after, the organizers managed to attract many varied aircraft and displays that would otherwise have been scattered across Europe, and as a consequence managed a coup by being the only show to bag the two teams making a first and very rare European tour - namely the Saudi Hawks and the USAF Thunderbirds respectively. An extra dividend of being held on a weekday must be that the participating countries can use the show as a standard operational exercise and so the bean counters don't have to suddenly add in additional weekend expenses for their Armed Forces. This must have been very true of the RAF who provided just about every display item they have. The lovely local coastal area also provides the majority of the show's visiting public, who turn out in their tens of thousands every year for the show and so the week days proved a nice diversion from holidaying.

Geoff Stockle reports for UK Airshow Review. All photography from the author.

The second bold and most welcome step was the late start of the first day of the show that ran from 1pm to 10pm! The sight of the Belgian F-16 closing the show at just before 10 with its reheat and flares glowing brilliantly against the velvet back drop was a sight to behold. Almost as odd was the number of people still walking around the open trade and food stands for a good half an hour after show end when the night had truly taken over from day. So a week day night show - a very welcome occurrence that shows great forethought and out of the box thinking by the Belgians.

The Tuesday main arrivals and rehearsal day was held in almost tropical conditions with temperatures nudging the low 30s. Wednesday however dawned very "European" with low cloud, drizzle and high winds (is it just me or is this year the windiest ever?). This was of little concern to the assembling crowds however, as when the gates were opened at 1pm and the public were paying their 10 Euros (+ 2 Euro parking) entry fee, the clouds were clearing and save a couple of light showers, the weather continued to clear to perfect conditions for the evening show. The Thunderbirds, displaying at 7pm, looked like white diamonds shining in the azure blue and the Turkish Stars also took advantage of the conditions, albeit a man down. It was the Patrouille de France who stopped everyone in their tracks though, with a simply stunning show of aerial perfection in the late evening sun.

Thursday was very warm, which triggered a lot of cloud action resulting in some showers that unfortunately marred the displays by the two teams that were probably the least accustomed to poor weather - the Saudis at around 1pm and the Thunderbirds, who closed the show around 6pm with a very credible flat routine, completed quite literally the instant before the heavens opened.

There were several major anniversaries that the show was celebrating - the 65th anniversary of the Air Force, 40th anniversary of Search and Rescue operations, 35 years of the Sea King and 40 years of the Alouette III. The Thursday show featured a large portion devoted to the Air Force featuring the current display acts - F-16, Agusta 109 and Red Devils team along with older aircraft used such as the Meteor NF11, Dutch Spitfire and Hunter, Harvard pair, Rapide, Magister, Dakota and Stampe. A Pembroke was a notable absentee from the line up. Several "heritage" flypasts were flown as part of these celebrations too; F-16 with Spitfire, SF260 with Stampe and perhaps the most impressive, a DC-3 with C-130H. Other current types included an A330 being escorted by 2 F-16s in a high alpha pass, rarely seen Alpha Jets trailing national coloured smoke and a pleasure flights ERJ135.

The static featured most current types and also three very nicely turned out preserved airframes - a Magister, F-104G and perhaps most accurately - a beautiful Mirage VBA. The SAR anniversary saw a special static park and exhibition with the home team joined by an RAF Sea King as well as a brand new Dutch NH90 and delightful French Navy Dauphin. The static Sea King, RS-05, was still painted in its 10 year old 25th anniversary scheme and I thought it bad form that a lick of paint couldn't have been taken to it to bring it up to date! The preserved and wonderfully looked after S-58 was also on view.

The Alouette anniversary was a little lacking, particularly as one of the based examples was not on static show, although a couple bumbled around on local duties without actually displaying. It was left to the Dutch and Austrians to present static examples and the latter went further by flying one. The rest of the show followed similar Koksijde lines and unfortunately suffered from the fact that the base really isn't the best venue for a big display. The static is confined to a taxiway and small amounts of hardstanding and all suffer from the barrier monsters encasing them like wrapping paper. A real shame as the organizers somehow managed to net some real rare treats - Polish Navy Mil8, Ukrainian AF open skies An30, Italian and German Typhoons, Belgian Tiger and OCU special marked F-16s, Bronco, Pilatus P3 amongst others and the real star - a gorgous Estonian Air Force Antonov An2. I recall 12 people disembarking from it's huge fuselage - a full capacity load that must have endured quite a journey in the searing heat of the Tuesday!

The base itself is made up of large areas of arable crops and so the runway and resulting flying display is some distance from the rather haphazard crowd line. Consequently, a certain amount of intimacy is lost between crowd and participant and even the cheering and applauding of the always appreciative foreign crowds fails to reach the display pilots, taxying about half a mile from them!

As is the norm for big shows these days, display teams were the main course for the flying display and the aforementioned teams were joined by the Red Arrows, Danish Baby Blue, Polish Iskry and civilian "Victors" team of 5 Piper Arrows. Heavy metal was provided by the RAF GR4 pair, Dutch and Belgian F-16s and Swiss F/A-18C, whilst un-reheated noise was provided by the RAF Hawk and anniversary schemed French Alpha Jet. Completing the line up was RAF Tucano, King Air, Lancaster, Dutch Apache, and the stunning GliderFX team; Guy Westgate using the clear, still Wednesday's twilight to great effect with smoke and pyrotechnics.

Cancelations have always been an accepted part of the airshow scene and this show suffered the loss of Danish F-16s, Dutch AB412, Royal Navy Sea King, French Mirage 2000 & EC120, Spanish Aguila team, A400M, Portuguese F-16 and most painfully for this writer - Lithuanian C-27 and Norwegian P-3C. The Czechs maintained their dubious reputation of canceling at the last minute and so withdrew Gripen, ALCA and Hind but presented a very nice W3A Sokol SAR display.

This was my first time at Koksijde for many years, mainly due to the logistical problems mentioned above. However, with such poor, mundane lists for UK shows and some quality gems here, coupled with relatively cheap ferry and hotel costs, I felt obliged to go this year. I am so glad I did, it was a most enjoyable few days and the evening show was superb - it is something that we in Europe really need to think about incorporating more widely.