International Sanicole Airshow

Friday 8th - Sunday 10th September 2017

The Sanicole Airshow is one of Europe's most popular aviation events, renowned for the quality of its participants, the pleasantness of its location and for its famous Friday evening night-show. This year's edition was significant for being the show's 40th anniversary, a great achievement for a civilian event, and saw participation from 18 different countries in celebration with a very sizeable proportion of the continent's fast jet display teams present. It was a successful and well-attended event despite the best efforts of the Flemish weather.

Sam Wise gorged on frites for UK Airshow Review. Photography by the author and Aaron Paxton (Aviation in Action).

The show's organisers were able to announce fairly early on in the year the participation of a large number of foreign participants, and it quickly became apparent that Sanicole 2017 was one of the shows to attend this year. With more and more of Europe's display acts being listed for the Belgian show, it was to some surprise that the brand new Scampton Airshow was revealed to be taking place on the same weekend. Most noted that Sanicole had effectively "sucked up" most of the military display acts, and the difference in military participation between the two shows was indeed rather noticeable, especially with the one taking place on the continent being a civilian affair. But with such a famous show celebrating a significant milestone, it's not all that surprising that the international scene was keen to support it. To that end, participation came from far and near - the most exotic attendees taking the form of the Saudi Hawks display team and the US Army's parachute display team The Golden Knights, who rather touchingly flew the Belgian flag in their display. Sadly, a flypast of a Royal Canadian Air Force CF-188 Hornet, which had been on the cards for many months and was sure to be a highlight for many enthusiasts, did not take place, presumably as a result of the cancellation of the Lens Air Show in France at which it was also due to appear.

Unusually, Sanicole Air Show does not take place over a Saturday-Sunday weekend, rather on a Friday evening and Sunday daytime. With the right conditions, this can result in some truly stunning, golden-licked sunset shots; sadly, this Friday did not have the right conditions and, indeed, the show opened to a shower of rain. Things improved, however, and everything that was down to fly took to the air - with the very noticeable absence of the UK acts. Given that a major UK show was taking place over the weekend, it was fair that the RAF would limit their attendance to the Friday only - credit to them for putting themselves down for the show in the first place. The Red Arrows were due to perform at the Friday show, but did not depart their home base due to the weather, fearing potentially being weathered in the next day. Fair enough, with Scampton holding its event that same weekend, that they would not want to be stuck abroad while it was on.

Less justifiable, and extremely embarrassing as a British visitor (more so than being British on the continent is by default these days) was the Typhoon display's excuse for not performing: with Florennes and Beauvechain closed for varying reasons, Kleine-Brogel, from which the fast jets had to operate for the show, technically had no diversion airfield. Kleine-Brogel, which is less than 15km from Sanicole and visible to any aircraft for the entire duration of their display. No matter to every other display act - they got up in the air and put on their shows in spite of this technicality, being as they were mere seconds from KB, but not so the RAF. The box wasn't technically checked, so no budging allowed. Such stark contrast between this dreadful jobsworth attitude and that of the Rafale Solo Display on the Sunday who continued with and performed his full display with only one functioning afterburner. Professionalism at its highest.

Despite the concern about soggy grass preventing many arrivals at Sanicole, the weather held out in the end and the venue dried out sufficiently for heavy items such as the Czech Mi-24V Hind and Dutch CH-47F Chinook to land at the venue. As impressive as the afterburners and flares were in the evening gloom, the real stars of the nightshow came after the sun had set proper - the neon-lit, sparking, firework-popping Twister Aerobatics duo and GliderFX displays. It really is something to see an aircraft with bright neon lights running down the side shooting off fireworks from its wingtips. The "well-lit" highlight would have to be the Leaders Formation - Senior-Captain Aviator Tom "Gizmo" De Moortel in his Blizzard F-16 in formation with a jet each from the Breitling Jet Team, Saudi Hawks, Frecce Tricolori and Patrouille Suisse; not the first time such a formation has flown over Sanicole but it adds to the sense of international community that the event harbours.

Belgium is currently in the final stages of a competition to decide what which fighter will replace its now aging F-16 fleet. The competitors have dropped out over the months, and now just two remain - the Eurofighter Typhoon and the F-35A, both of which were present in the "static park". Of course, these were plastic full scale models, the F-35 done up in hilariously optimistic high-visibility markings, but they proved quite popular with the crowds. But you'd be forgiven for thinking that Dassault, who had dropped out of the competition only the week before the show, were gunning the hardest to win the hearts and minds of the Belgian public, as they quite successfully carpeted the crowd in their now-familiar orange Rafale caps - from gates open on Friday afternoon til the end of the Sunday, they were handing them out non-stop. The Lockheed Martin team brought enough to last an hour. Tellingly appropriate? You decide.

Flying on the Sunday was of a high quality indeed - opened by the absolutely remarkable sight of the "Vol avec les oies": Christian Moullec flying a microlight accompanied by a flock of geese in formation! Slow-paced, for sure, but a genuinely entertaining way to begin an airshow, and one with a purpose too, as it demonstrates a technique used for retraining geese to migrate safely and properly. Also on the civilian scene was a very unlikely display team, albeit quite a well-known one: the Victors, flying their four smoke equipped PA-28s. What they lack in speed, they make up for in tight formation work and elegant flying. A rather surprise item was a SIAI-Marchetti SF260, pilot by the airshow director himself, Geoffrey Buekenberghs, the grandson of the show's original founder! Belgian National Aerobatics Champion Kristof Cloetens in an Extra 330 and Rich Goodwin in his Muscle biplane provided some crowd-pleasing unlimited aerobatics, while more genteel aeroplanes like the Swedish Bleriot XI replica and the GliderFx (performing a debut pairs routine after Friday's singleton, including some rolls still on the towline!) provided some relaxing lower-octane periods.

Star of the home team efforts was undoubtedly the Silver Tigers, a four-ship act of F-16s from 31 Squadron who gave the small airfield a thoroughly good beat-up. It's rare to see front-line types displayed in this way, and it's all the more welcome for being their only display venue. Of the international participants, and there were many, the act that got the most noise and most appreciation from the crowd (of all) were Spain's Patrulla ASPA helicopter display team, and quite deservedly so. Their show is perfect for a venue the size of Sanicole and it felt very close and personal for those in the audience. They are perhaps overlooked on the continent's list of display teams, but the pilots produce a very exciting and very elaborate routine that really makes fantastic use of their aircraft and have consistently been the highlights at any show they've ventured to.

For the British visitor, the high price of food was familiar (although, they were some damn good frites and mayo), but one thing stood out - having to pay for access to the toilets. For the price of €2 you were given a wristband and all-day access to toilet areas - unemptied, smelly and fairly grim, truth be told. For the male visitor, a wooded area behind some trade stalls made for a free and considerably nicer alternative, but for the women at the show it was a decidedly unpleasant and unnecessarily expensive facet of the show. The show saw record attendance at over 40,000 people in the showground, and it certainly felt like it on the day. It was bordering on uncomfortable at times, and it might be worth the show limiting attendance in the future.

That aside, the show was great value-for-money. With some of the best military displays available, rare and unique participants and some wonderful civilian acts from home and abroad, there was little more that the enthusiast could have wanted from a show of this nature, with a very long flying programme for a fairly small-sized show. As is custom, the show will return in another 2 years, with 2018's event being the Belgian Air Force Days at Kleine-Brogel.